Muslim Britain: a community viewed through prisms of security and paranoia

Analysis: Woolwich atrocity has exposed isolation of British Muslims

The murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich has left indelible impressions, few stronger than the sight of a black man, bloody machete in hand, speaking with a strong London accent about the land of his birth as if it was a foreign enemy.

Calling for war on the streets of Britain, Michael Olumide Adebolajo, born in East London to Nigerian parents, told a passer-by: “We apologise that women had to see this today but in our lands our women have to see the same.”

For many, the contradictions inherent in his actions are incomprehensible, but for others it is but concrete proof that a distinctive extremist and, most importantly, global Muslim community has been created over the last 30 years, one fuelled now by the internet.

“This new identity is based on separatist ideas such as “us” and “them” or “Muslim” and “Kuffar” [infidels], and has become increasingly powerful among second and third generation Muslims who were born and bred in Western societies,” said the Quilliam Foundation.

“Religion has been used as a new mechanism to create a new religious identity and transform religion into nationality,” said the London-based counter-terrorism think tank, which has long argued that Muslims must do more to tackle the extremism in their midst.

For some younger Muslim men, poorly educated and poorly integrated into British society, extremism offers an identity, a gang culture by another name, where the Koran, rather than drugs or sex, is the glue that binds members together.

The Muslim Council of Britain and the Islamic Council condemned the Woolwich killing – without the equivocations and caution that have marked past statements from such bodies.

Like the Irish in Britain in the 1970s, who suffered because of the IRA's bombing campaign, most Muslims have learned to keep quiet, fearful of standing up to the extremists in their community or suffering divided opinions about the morality of terrorist actions.

However, Woolwich has led to change: Farooq Murad of the Muslim Council of Britain said the attack was “an insult” to Islam, a sin against the faith and the Muslim community and “a horrible criminal activity”.

He went on: “We can have a difference of opinion, a difference of views, and we can express that: there are many campaigns against drone attacks, against war, the whole movement against the war. We live in a democratic country. And I would say the best way is we encourage people to participate in discussion and debate. Islam does not under any pretext give this licence to anyone to kill innocent on our streets, anywhere in the world.”

Such words, while they will be welcomed, will not be heeded by hot-headed younger extremists in their communities, which leads to questions about what Muslims will have to do next. In the past, the Muslim community – which has condemned attacks on soldiers and on civilians in Britain, whatever the opinions of its members about Iraq and Afghanistan – has tried to solve its problems in its own ways.

Fearful then that some local extremists were planning to travel to Pakistan for terrorist training, leaders in one Birmingham community attempted to put an end to it, though they did not report the individuals to the police, who later foiled an inept terrorist attack.

The beheading of a British soldier on British soil has long been an ambition of Muslim extremists: one attempt in 2007 was by Parviz Khan, who wanted to video a soldier being killed “like a pig”, copying earlier examples from Iraq.

Integration is a real problem, one far greater than those who favour multi-ethnic societies are prepared to admit. In some cases, Muslim families live “impermanent” lives in Britain, returning frequently to the land of their birth, or their parents’ birth. In one case, a North African doctor taught his children at home to ensure they would not learn English or mix with British society. Such examples may be in a minority but they exist in considerable numbers.

'A sense of security'
Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that more recent Muslim immigrants, those who have come in the last decade, are more likely to be poor and likely to face discrimination than longer-established Muslims.

Like every immigrant before them, Irish or otherwise, Muslim immigrants have tended to live in enclaves deriving “a sense of security from the presence of people sharing their religion, ethnicity or country of origin”. Since 9-11, the British authorities have looked on Muslim communities through the prism of security – an understandable reaction on many levels but one that has, perhaps, sometimes fuelled the paranoia and disaffection that lies at the heart of many extremists.

The authorities’ mental perspective is mirrored more widely by British society, where the white community in towns such as Luton in Bedfordshire, an extreme example, feel threatened by a community that remains distant and separate.

Unemployment, particularly among younger Muslims, is higher than the UK average for the age group, which is itself so high that it has led to concerns about a lost generation, while women, many of the older ones unable to speak English, are even more disconnected.

If too many young Muslims think in terms of “us and them”, the same can be said of the wider British community, which for all its tolerance – one of the country’s finest features – often looks upon Muslims differently to other population groups.

“Muslims are still viewed by many in the West as immigrants even when referring to second or third generations who themselves were born in the West,” said the Quilliam Foundation, adding that extremists’ actions reinforce such opinions – as they did about the Irish during the IRA’s campaign. However, the picture of Muslim identity in the Britain of 2013 is not a simple one, but rather is filled with a hundred subtleties often not reflected in commentary upon and media coverage of atrocities.

Illustrating this, research last year from the University of Essex argued that Pakistani-British and those with a Middle Eastern heritage, contrary to every public image of them, see themselves as British to a greater degree than white British do.

There are no answers yet but the Britain of 2013 and the Muslims who live in it face challenges over identity, heritage and religion that must be answered lest Woolwich prove not to be a one-off atrocity but a harbinger of horror.