Observer Op-Ed: British Muslim girls and extremism: what I learned on my journey across the UK

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As news emerges that 8 teenagers all from Bethnal Green Academy either joined or want to join ISIS, I have spent the last four weeks visiting eight cities across the UK as part of Inspire’s “Making A Stand” roadshow.   I engaged with hundreds of British Muslim women from Sunni, Shia, and Ahmadiyya denominations.  Women from Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Somali, Arab, English, Welsh and Kurdish backgrounds.  Young women, mothers and grandmothers.  From Leeds to London, from Bristol to Birmingham, from Cardiff to Luton, women told me how extremism was a concern to them and what they felt were the driving factors.

“I will be #makingastand by challenging extremist ideology within the college.”

“I will be #makingastand by confronting the men who are promoting extreme views at the Islam stall in the town centre.”

After attending Inspire’s ‘Making A Stand’ workshops, these are some of the ways Muslim women told me how they will personally endeavour to make a stand against extremism.

Part of our campaign set out to equip mothers with theological counter-narratives to extremist ideology so they could feel confident in challenging their children’s views at home.

We also sought to help women recognise possible early signs of radicalisation using real life case scenarios and signposting them to agencies if they require support.  Our aspiration was also to mobilise women to challenge extremism and champion this work in their local areas.

We deliberated whether local Muslim communities were doing enough to challenge extremism.  Examples of good projects were identified but women acknowledged not enough was being done and that families needed to take greater responsibility.  Some genuinely didn’t realise how serious the problem of extremism was, others had a lack of awareness of the risk of radicalisation whether online or in communities.

Women discussed the barriers they believed prevented them from challenging extremism.  Three common themes emerged from all eight cities; barriers within families, barriers within Muslim communities, and a lack of engagement with agencies who could help them.

The barriers within families included language barriers, where for some mothers their first language was not the same as their children’s.  This was evident when group facilitators were translating some workshops from English to  Arabic, Urdu and Punjabi.   Raising teenage children is hard enough; different first languages widened this intergenerational divide.  Cultural, religious and gender expectations of parents often differed to their children’s.

The lack of religious knowledge among families was recognised as a weakness; when children asked searching questions about extremism and religion, parents often closed down the debate due to an inability on their part to answer questions.

Inevitably some of these children would go online to find answers where extremist websites await questioning children.  Many teenagers felt their parents were not credible authorities on religion and they did not want to speak to them on such issues.   Women told us there were unaware of what educational resources existed for parents to challenge extremist ideology.  There was a wider concern around parenting and how parents from deeply cultural communities on the one hand struggled to bridge the intergenerational and cultural gap that often exists with their children.  And on the other hand, grapple with the identity crisis of the 9/11 generation, children who have grown up under a spotlight of suspicion, impacting on their sense of belonging.

The barriers identified with Muslim communities included weak leadership.

While the work of some mosques were seen as good practice and a realisation that radicalisation was not necessarily taking place in mosques, many women felt was that some mosques were ill-equipped to confidently teach counter narratives.  One mother relayed to me how at a meeting between members of a local Muslim community and her mosque, when parents asked the mosque what they were doing to counter the ISIS narrative, the mosque said this was the responsibility of parents.

One woman described how when she attended a madrassa in the 1980s, she was raised on what she described as a peaceful and tolerant interpretation of Islam; an understanding of Islam which fully embraced British society rather than rejecting it.  It was this theological understanding which she believed made her resilient to the Islamist narrative of organisations like Hizb ul-Tahrir during her time at university during the 1990s.  While many women highlighted good examples of madrassas in their areas, they were equally aware of other madrassas which promoted a narrow and intolerant understanding of Islam.  Some wished for self-regulation but were pessimistic this would happen and some believed state regulation may be necessary.

Part of the reason for this, is a void in strong credible Muslim leadership, both civil leaders and theologians.  In recent years we have seen preachers who promote extremist views whilst pretending to be speaking on behalf of “normative” Islam.  Thirty something Youtube sensations adorn religious clothing and have little qualifications or authority to speak about Islamic law.  With their pop star status, they dispense advice to thousands of followers on social media.  There has been some pushback however.  This week a group of Imams and scholars met in London to announce the publication of an online magazine, Haqiqah which would counter ISIS’ online magazine and the narrative it emits.

Another key barrier identified for women in particular, and not often appreciated is fear.  Fear of challenging extremists and the repercussion this would have on them.  Having witnessed the insults other Muslim women have been subjected to in challenging extremism, many feared the mudslinging, intimidation and abuse they too would experience.   Often instigated by men in an attempt to silence women’s voices, I saw this first hand when attempts were made to scupper the workshops we were organising by publicly smearing me and other women who simply wanted to safeguard their children.  These women know that challenging extremism also means standing up against patriarchy and traditional gender roles which for too long have stifled the contribution of women in both home and public life.

Not all women felt confident to engage with police and agencies that are there to help them partly because of lack of trust, engagement and dialogue.  It is imperative that all partners work closely so that mothers feel confident to speak to their local authority and police if they have concerns.

Speaking to numerous Muslim women in recent weeks has reaffirmed that the factors that lead to extremism are numerous, complex and multi-layered.  Focussing on the academic achievements of A grade schoolgirls who join ISIS fails to look at the wider picture.   Religious illiteracy, exposure to extremist influences and the lack of strong credible religious leadership all play a part.   But so does a limited life experience, a sense of belonging and weak parental relationships, where the emotional, language and cultural gap between parent and child presents a vulnerability which is often exploited by extremists.

Our campaign inspired women to take the lead in challenging extremism.  One woman in Urdu passionately told me about wanting to do more to counter extremism.   Others enthusiastically agreed to set up a monthly group as next steps.

“I will be #makingastand because I want to make this world a safer place for my children to grow up in,” one woman said.  “I will be making a stand to unite against extremism, to ignore our differences and come together as one.  Love for all, hatred for none will eliminate extremism and radicalisation” another wrote.  Empower women to counter extremism and it is they who will be willing to take on this battle.  As a country, let us support them in this difficult challenge.

This is amended version of an op-ed for the Observer published on the 29th March 2015.  The original version can be read here.

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