Stop fretting over religious sensitivities. We must push hard against Islamists First published: Sunday 11 June 2017
In this time of political uncertainty, we can be certain about one issue. The battle against Islamist extremism is one we are losing. News of 23,000 jihadis living in Britain, each considered to pose at least a “residual risk”, indicates the breathtaking scale of the challenge facing us. The horse, as they say, has well and truly bolted.
We need to learn lessons from previous mistakes, including our comatose response to growing religious fundamentalism. Yet the truth is we remain blind to the facts. With our liberal blessings, extremist preachers are free to promote their hatred, virtually unchallenged. Anjem Choudary radicalised hundreds, if not thousands of Muslims freely over 20 years. As a result, he influenced more than 100 Britons to carry out or attempt to carry out terrorist attacks at home and abroad.
We defended the right of extremists to free speech in the belief that the most effective way of undermining them was for us to counter their speech. This was nice in theory; there was, however, one rather large problem. Apart from a handful of people, no one did counter them. And those who did were promptly labelled “Islamophobes.”
Fully exploiting the uncontested space we provided them, extremists promoted their supremacist, hate-filled ideology to thousands of Muslims on satellite channels, through social media, on campuses and community events, day in, day out. In the battle of ideas, deconstructing their ideological world view was then and remains now one of our greatest failures. And fail we did – collectively, as Muslim institutions, human rights organisations, anti-racist groups and governments.
While the Muslim Council of Britain perfected the art of issuing press statements, it did nothing to push back on such poisonous teachings. For 10 years, my organisation Inspire, in an attempt to build resilience to extremism in Muslim families, taught theological counter-narratives to extremist ideology. The response I heard from hundreds of Muslim mothers was the same. No one has taught us this before and no one has taught our children it either. What was apparent is that the weak “community” defence system would not be able to hold back the tidal wave of extremist propaganda.
First Published: Tuesday 6 June 2017
Our tolerance to intolerance is a familiar story. The book-burning rallies during the 1989 Rushdie affair should have been a wake-up call to religious fundamentalism. Instead we became paranoid about causing offence and tried to appease regressive community leaders who dishonestly claimed to be speaking on behalf of the “Muslim community”. We lacked the confidence to challenge them or extremists, and as a result they have thrived.
It is clear we have learned little about the diversity of Muslims. We have not only been prepared to legitimise Islamist preachers and groups, we continue to hold the misguided belief that we are serving the interests of the so-called “Muslim community”. We unhelpfully lump Muslims under the banner of a singular “community”.
This myopic perception of Muslims is part of the problem. How many times do we hear politicians and others tell us Muslim terrorists are not “true Muslims”, that they “don’t represent the Muslim community”?
Yet this outdated language conceals the problem. We fail to understand the battle taking place among Britain’s Muslims between those who advocate for a pluralistic humanistic interpretation of Islam against those who subscribe to a supremacist, intolerant and anti-Western Islam.
There are Muslims in our country who support this hostile Islam; they represent the far-Right of British Muslims, and the unfortunate truth is that they are pretty popular.
They preach on campuses, at community events, and have a large online following, some in their hundreds of thousands. Promoting conspiracy theories, calling for the establishment of a caliphate, pouring suspicion on any engagement with state agencies, endorsing anti-Semitism, and intolerance to other Muslims who don’t share their Islamist world view… they then employ the language of multiculturalism and human rights to win supporters while duplicitously playing the victimhood card.
I have seen this for a long time, yet naïve politicians with their singular myopic lens about the “Muslim community” are so eager to stand up against anti-Muslim hatred they end up legitimising the very people who provide the climate for extremism, and attack progressive Muslims who seek to counter Islamist extremism.
This tolerance to extremism was demonstrated by Citizens UK when it invited chief imam of Lewisham Islamic Centre Shakeel Begg to speak at a demonstration on child refugees outside Parliament last year. Only six weeks earlier a High Court judge had ruled that Begg was an “extremist Islamic speaker” who had “promoted and encouraged religious violence” and had glorified key 20th-century jihadist ideologues.
Citizens UK’s defence was that the event it asked Begg to speak at was about the issue of child refugees. One wonders if the charity would extend such a warm invitation to far-Right extremists who have advocated violence to come along and speak about child refugees. I doubt it.
Our tolerance to extremism is also demonstrated by anti-racist groups unwilling to challenge Islamists. Hope Not Hate is one of the very few; it has dipped its toe in the water to find itself — rather typically— of being accused of racism and Islamophobia. Yet so-called anti-racist groups like Stand up to Racism and the NUS invite groups like Cage and Mend to speak at their events, while last year the NUS “no-platformed” Hope Not Hate’s Nick Lowles for “being Islamophobic”. In other words, challenging Islamist extremism is seen as bigotry.
As a Muslim, I find this to be nothing but outright hypocrisy by anti-racist groups who, consumed by identity politics, are unable to see the wood for the trees. Although they are prepared to challenge traditional far Right extremists, they are not prepared to call out far-Right Islamist extremists in the erroneous belief that to do so is Islamophobic. This is the dismal out of touch state of our anti-racist movement today.
Which is why two days before the election, it is imperative that we ask our prospective candidates what their position on how they would challenge Islamic extremism. Find if they even have any understanding of the issue.
A few days ago I received an email from a councillor. For two years, he told me he had been pressing his council to deal with the alarming rising risks from Islamism, which he saw taking root among Muslims in his and neighbouring towns. With increasing segregation, it was clear policies were needed to reverse segregation. He came across resistance from others councillors “who rely heavily on the Muslim vote” but also “officers who seem to live in a parallel multicultural universe”. His story is unbearably familiar to me.
Almost 30 years on from the Rushdie affair, we remain stuck in a vortex of outdated multicultural, multi-faith policies and our ignorance about Islamist extremism remains unchallenged. Muslims need to acknowledge this without getting defensive and redouble their efforts in countering Islamist ideology. We are not doing enough. However, what is also needed is a broad coalition that seeks to defend our shared values and counters all divisive hate beliefs based on our common humanity. No such movement, fit for purpose in the 21st century, exists. It’s high time it did.
Sara Khan is author of The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism, and director of the counter-extremism organisation Inspire. Follow Inspire on Twitter @wewillinspire
Sara Khan is the British Muslim activist behind the campaign group Inspire on a mission to counter Islamist extremism here in Britain, which she believes seeks to deny women their rights, freedom and agency. Her own upbringing as the daughter of a Pakistani immigrant and her work in Muslim communities has given Khan an insight into the extremist mentality. The bomber responsible for the Manchester terror attack earlier this week - 22-year-old Salman Abedi - killed 22 people, including children, when he detonated an improvised bomb at the Manchester Arena as crowds exited after an Ariana Grande concert. Here, Khan speaks about the Manchester attack, how we need to pull together as a country and why we all need to do more. “We can’t afford to be politically correct or culturally sensitive about this issue any longer.” First published: Friday 26th May 2017
I was in tears all day after hearing about the attack. As a mother of two young girls and an activist who works in this space, it impacted me even more. What happened is heartbreaking and distressing. At the same time, I feel a lot of frustration, because the whole reason I co-founded my organisation, Inspire, was because I knew that the threat of Islamist extremism was real. And yet again we’ve seen an act by another young British Muslim with devastating consequences. People have lost their children.
What most concerns me about the Manchester terror attack is that explosives have been used. Some of the more recent attacks we have witnessed here and in France have used knives or cars as weapons, there is no great amount of planning required in these attacks. The Manchester terror attack is quite different because there must have been a network who helped assist Abedi plan the attack and make the bomb. This is going to cause the security services a huge amount of concern. The sad reality of terrorism is that you always have new and emerging trends.
Since the attack, I’ve noticed many Muslims display real anger at what happened, with many saying Muslim communities need to do more. On the one hand, there is this positive trend where British Muslims are contributing positively to society and are incredibly integrated – like London mayor Sadiq Khan – but at the same time there is a negative trend emerging that justifies such violence, which doesn’t subscribe to human rights and vehemently opposes democracy, and we have to address that.
There is no easy answer when or how we can work better together; it’s a multi-pronged approach. We need to continue engaging with the police and support them in their attempts to protect us all. We need to work with the government and with counter-radicalisation schemes like Prevent. Faith institutions and religious leaders have a role to play too; amplifying theological counter-narratives to extremist ideology is so important. When you have young people who buy into the Isis propaganda and think they are fulfilling some sort of religious mandate, it is really important to have people who can challenge that. And families too; they are really the first line of resistance because if anyone is going to notice changes in their children’s behavior it will be them. It is about recognising those signs and educating parents on where they can seek support and the steps they can take.
As a country, we shouldn’t feel nervous speaking about Islamist extremism. I think a lot of the time we fear that if we talk about it we may feed anti-Muslim prejudice attacks and abuse, but I think that sentiment has actually hindered our work in countering Islamist extremism. We have to recognise what Islamist extremism is: it is a far-right ideology that mirrors far-right ideological beliefs. We have to recogonise that this is a serious problem; we can’t always be culturally sensitive about this issue. Things have to change.
Public debate has become toxic and polarised: on one side are the people who call all Muslims terrorists and extremists, and on the other are the people who cry 'Islamophobia' the moment anyone opens a discussion about Islamist extremism in Britain First published: Wednesday 5 April 2017
Islamist extremism in Britain isn’t new. Back in the 1980s and 90s, the proselytisation for violent jihad by prominent ideologues at Muslim events was an open secret. Non-violent Islamist extreme groups like Hizb Ut Tahrir attracted thousands of young Muslims to their conferences, decrying western democracy, secularism and human rights, and calling instead for the establishment of a caliphate.
As a child of the Eighties, I remember this period well and ever since I was a teenager I have witnessed how such extremism first and foremost destroyed the lives of Muslims – their sense of identity and belonging, their prospects and even their families. It undoubtedly helped feed anti-Muslim prejudice and encouraged sectarianism amongst Muslims.
Unfortunately, since that time, the struggle against Islamist extremism has become even more potent. In 2000, MI5 discovered Britain’s first Islamist bomb factory; in the last three years they have managed to foil no less than 13 terror plots.
The rise and appeal of global terror groups are acutely felt here; approximately 1,000 people have travelled to Syria and Iraq, many seeking to join violent jihadist groups. Between 1998 and 2015 there have been 269 convictions for Islamist-related offences. Intolerance and extremism has erupted in violence as we saw last year with the brutal killing of Ahmadiyyah Muslim Asad Shah by Tanveer Ahmed. And Muhammad Syeedy, a 21-year-old Isis supporter from Rochdale, murdered 71-year-old imam Jalal Uddin.
First published May 26, 2017
Following the horrendous terror attacks at Manchester Arena, Sara was invited to take part in a BBC Question Time special in Salford. You can watch the entire programme here. If you are outside of the UK click here.
Here is a short clip of what Sara said.
Sara also shared her view on a video for the Sunday Daily Politics that following the attack, it cannot be business as usual. She also took part in a discussion with Douglas Murray agreeing on the threat of Islamist extremism but disagreeing on how we respond to this threat. You can watch the video and whole discussion here.
Sara wrote a short report for Hope Not Hate’s State of Hate report published in February 2017. Providing an overview of some of they key players, Sara highlights the activism and hate propagated by British Islamist, Salafist and Barelvi extremists. You can read the report from page 44 onwards.
“Thank you!” from Sara Khan- Inspire Co-Founder and Director
With regular requests and demands for Inspire’s services from across all sections of society, it’s been another busy year for us. Our work challenging extremism, defending human rights and promoting equality, has never been more important particularly as we saw a rise in hate crimes after the EU referendum. The challenge of extremism, both far right and Salafi-Islamist, continue to post a threat to our values and country. Through our work we have seen first-hand how young people in particular are falling prey to the coordinated activism of both far right and Islamist extremists respectively, whether operating online or in our communities. Undoubtedly this will continue to pose a significant challenge as we head towards 2017.
Globally, 2016 has also seen a rise in populist movements, the active promotion of the politics of fear, of “us verses them” and calls for the ‘closed’ society; in contrast to an open, inclusive and pluralist society which champions freedom, human dignity and equality. Inspire also believe in an ‘open’ Islam which champions such values. It is not surprising therefore that British Salafi-Islamist groups and websites who advocate for a closed, narrow and supremacist interpretation of Islam, continue to spread lies about our work and denigrate us. We will however, not be deterred or intimidated by such tactics and will continue to speak out against hate, discrimination and violence.
On a more personal note, I am pleased to say I co-authored and published a book “The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism” (September 2016, Saqi Books – available on Amazon and all good bookstores.) The book has received excellent reviews including from the Sunday Times. Fundamentally it explains why the work of Inspire matters in the battle against extremism and in defending our shared values but also highlights in groundbreaking detail the influence, reach and widespread activism of British Salafi-Islamists in Muslim communities and within wider British society.
Below is a snapshot of some of Inspire’s work over the last year. Looking forward, Inspire will be undergoing some changes. Firstly, co-director Kalsoom Bashir will be moving on from the organisation. Kalsoom attended our very first conference in East London back in January 2009. She was appointed project manager of our pioneering conference “Speaking in God’s Name: Re-examining Gender in Islam,” and later became co-director of Inspire. Since that time, she has played a pivotal role in helping Inspire to achieve its objectives. We would like to thank her for her hard work and support over the years and wish her the very best for the future.
Secondly, Inspire will be restructuring and expanding in the coming year. This is an exciting time for our organisation and we will keep you updated. So watch this space!
Finally we would like to thank all our supporters, donors and friends who once again helped Inspire achieve so much this year. We would not be able to do what we do without your support and are grateful for your encouragement and aid.
We would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a merry Christmas and a happy new year.
(Director and co-founder)
Safeguarding Against Extremism
Since our Spring update which details our training activities for the first half of the year, Inspire has maintained its work with schools on safeguarding pupils from extremism. We have now delivered training to approximately 5000 teachers and senior leaders across the country.
We have continued to produce counter-Isis videos. A video we released following news of the death of Khadiza Sultana- one of the schoolgirls from Bethnal Green girls who left for Syria in 2015, was viewed over 100,000 times in 48 hours.
2016 saw Inspire travel the breadth of the country, training and speaking at schools, Further Education and Higher Education establishments in the South West, Midlands, Hampshire, East Midlands, Cambridgeshire, the North West, Yorkshire, the South East, Central and Greater London. Inspire has worked hard to respond to all invitations and requests for our expertise and help, although this has not been possible with the increase in demand, combined with limited resources. We are ever grateful to our funders and donors who by supporting Inspire, have enabled us to respond to many of the demands received from numerous schools, colleges and universities.
A particular highlight for Sara was being asked to be the guest of honour at the awards evening of JCOSS, a Jewish school in Barnet, and being presented with a “peace plant.”
The latter half of the year has seen Inspire focus more on what appears to be the increasing polarisation and divisions within our society. This led to Inspire delivering sessions to hundreds of pupils following the EU referendum on the topic of extremism, inclusivity and overcoming the politics of fear. This message was further echoed during Sara Khan’s talk for Virgin Disruptors where she addressed 600 people on how the politics of fear is contributing to closed societies, the rise of extremism and the responsibility on all of us to defend the political middle ground whether as individuals, businesses, civil society and within our schools.
At Inspire, we recognise that safeguarding children from radicalisation is a joint effort between schools and parents. In 2016, our work to empower parents and in particular mothers to safeguard their children against radicalisation was further emphasised by our live webchat and Q&A with Mumsnet and address at Mumsnet’s Blogfest held in London in November 2016.
Muslim Women and Girls: Raising Aspirations, Challenging Misogyny
Of continued importance and priority for Inspire is the work we do directly with Muslim women and girls. During 2016, Inspire held writing workshops with Muslim students at secondary schools on faith, women and power, designed specifically to empower pupils, address low self-esteem, raise aspirations and help build resilience to extremism.
Inspire also conducted a series of workshops in partnership with Avon and Somerset Constabulary aimed at Muslim women to help raise awareness of the dangers of radicalisation and of travel to Syria in July 2016. Inspire also hosted consultations and workshops at the Bristol Big Sister’s Conference on “Barriers to Employment” and “Radicalisation and Islamophobia” in October 2016.
We continued speaking out against misogyny, appearing on a panel at the Old Vic in October 2016 alongside Stella Creasy MP and activist Nimko Ali, chaired by BBC’s Emilie Maitlis on challenging misogyny. Sara also delivered an inspirational keynote speech on leadership to the Leeds Female Leaders Network.
Inspire continues to inform policy in relation to Muslim women’s rights, counter extremism and radicalisation.
In addition to the meetings set out in our interim report, we have also provided evidence to the Joint Committee of Human Right and to the Liberal Democrats Liberty and Security working group alongside Lord Carlile, the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. Sara is also currently contributing to the Department for Education’s Counter-Extremism Expert Reference Group. Inspire also attended and spoke at a Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) event about the review of CONTEST (the Government’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy.)
In November, Inspire was invited to deliver a keynote speech at the Youth Justice Board Annual Convention on safeguarding young people from extremism. We also spoke on a panel at TrustWomen, on de-radicalisation and prevention.
Inspire actively harness the media to amplify our voices in challenging extremism and in providing analysis on live issues. With weekly, if not monthly media appearances and contributions via mainstream national press and TV outlets, the demand from the media takes up a great deal of our time.
In addition to our work earlier in the year, including Sara Khan’s appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, there have been further interviews with BBC hardtalk, BBC Radio 2, BBC radio 5live, Sky News, BBC Radio 4 and Channel 4 News.
Following the EU referendum vote and the spike in hate crime, Kalsoom published a piece in Bristol’s local press about how becoming united will we be able to weaken hatred and heal the divisions in our country.
On the same theme, following the murder of a French priest and the attack in Nice by Islamist extremists, as well as the mass shooting in Munich by a far right extremist, Sara wrote an op-ed for ” The Evening Standard titled “We must all unite to defeat politics of hate from IS and the Right” . Inspire also added our voice to the campaign against the burkini ban in France in both the Telegraph and Left Foot Forward.
We published our response to the Women and Equalities Committee’s report on Employment Opportunities for Muslims in the UK, released on the 11th of August 2016 which was quoted in the Guardian.
The tragic news of Khadiza Sultana’s death was addressed in “The Herald” along with in depth commentary on how to prevent such future tragedies and what we can do to protect our sons and daughters from radicalisation.
In light of Isis’s welcome decline, The Big Issue and The Arab Weekly covered Inspire’s view on the threat of extremism here at home and reminded us, as published in Newsweek that “Not all Muslims are against the prevent counter terrorism strategy”.
On social media, Inspire used its Twitter and Facebook accounts to rebut regressive views expressed by some other Muslim organisations including challenging the view promoted by Bradford Council of Mosques who suggested that the Government should reintroduce blasphemy law in the UK. Inspire was also one of the first British Muslim organisations to condemn the glorification of Mumtaz Qadri, a Pakistani man who murdered the Punjab governor Salman Taseer. Inspire did this because a number of British mosques and imams glorified his actions in defense of blasphemy.
Awards and Recognition
2016 has been hugely successful and high profile for Inspire. Our work with the education sector, communities, policy makers and media during this funding year resulted in number of awards and recognition for Inspire and co-director Sara Khan. Alongside being named BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour Top 10 Power List of influencers in 2015, Sara was again named in Debrett’s list of Britain’s 500 most influential people. She also won the Social and Humanitarian award at this year’s Asian Woman of Achievements Awards, and was named as Marie Claire’s Future Shapers award for Groundbreaking Activist (October 2016). Sara was also featured in the Sunday Times , as well in Standpoint Magazine (November 2016) and Good Housekeeping ( December 2016 )
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Louise Casey’s Integration report suggests that as a society we are more divided and segregated than ever, driven in part by high levels of inequality resulting in social isolation. Her figures show that 41%-51% of Black, Pakistani, Chinese and Bangladeshi families are on relative low income compared to the 19% of White households. People from the formerly mentioned group are three times as likely to be unemployed; the figures for young black men for example are 35% compared to 15% for young white men.
With a particular focus on Muslims, the key findings of the report make it clear that women in isolated communities are the most severely disadvantaged and negatively impacted especially in relation to their human rights, opportunities and economic wellbeing. This has come as a result of the failure to tackle social and economic inequalities but also harmful cultural and religious practices that exist due to the misogyny and patriarchy identified in isolated communities. Part of the failure to tackle inequality and regressive practices has been because of the fear of statutory agencies and individuals being labelled racist, or culturally insensitive.
This comes as no surprise to Inspire given our work over the last nine years. We have been at the forefront of highlighting some of the issues raised in this report. Some of these findings were also noted recently in August in the Women and Equalities Committee report into employment opportunities and also in the census figures behind David Cameron’s English language policy announced in January 2016. While this report reconfirms some of these barriers to integration, it has been evident that both successive and current governments have not done enough to address integration and social cohesion. The Prime Minister herself on the steps of Downing Street made it clear that she would make Britain a country that works for everyone, and not just for the privileged few. As of yet, there has been no official statement from the Government about what it intends to do in light of Louise Casey’s findings.
Louise Casey has clearly identified the need for urgent action and a new integration strategy – one that is entirely separate from Government counter terrorism and counter extremism policies. For real change, an integration strategy must be one that is holistic and permeates through all aspects of government policy, for example housing, education, welfare, culture etc.
We are concerned that if we do not urgently address the barriers to integration, the isolation, separation and inequalities that currently exist, some communities will become more isolated, and divided helping to breed resentment. This would provide fertile recruitment ground for both Islamist and Far Right extremists, neither of whom care about creating a unified and stronger Britain. Together we need to create an inclusive country based on a common set of values, nurture a genuine culture of belonging and ensure that all our citizens believe they have an equal stake in our society. We hope the Government will lead in delivering a Britain that does indeed work for everyone.
Yasmin Weaver- Project Manager, Inspire
Sara was honoured to be asked by the organisers to speak to 600 people at this year’s Virgin Disruptors event in London. She spoke about how the politics of fear is contributing to closed societies, the rise of extremism and the responsibility on all of us to defend the political middle ground whether as individuals, businesses, civil society and within our schools.
To read more about what Sara spoke about please read more here.
To watch Sara’s speech click here.