Why I’m recruiting British Muslim women to fight extremism

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Writing in The Telegraph on July 9 2015, Sara Khan explains how and why Inspire’s fight against extremism has become more important than ever. 

On Saturday the Mannan family from Luton confirmed what many had suspected. They had willingly left what they described as “totalitarian” Britain, where “so called freedom and democracy was forced down our throat in an attempt to brainwash Muslims” and instead chose to live in Isil territory where “a Muslim doesn’t feel oppression when practising their religion.”

Last week another smaller but significant story was being reported on BBC South Today where an investigation revealed how a Muslim woman, Ibtihal Bsis had toured at least nine cities across the UK ‘educating’ Muslim women on what the Counter Terrorism Security Act means for them. Bsis, a barrister, is most well known for being a Deputy Media Representative for the Islamist organisation Hizb-ut Tahrir (HT) and more recently for speaking at nationwide CAGE events.

Bsis spent some three hours delivering a diatribe against “the West” and advocated that Muslims living in the UK are suppressed. Islam she suggested is being criminalised in the UK. People are scared of you because you’re Muslim. UK authorities, she went on, had deliberately ensured the EDL becomes stronger to intimidate Muslims. And to cement her audience’s paranoia she also stated that their phones, Facebook accounts and texts are being monitored. This toxic atmosphere would have left some with feelings of fear and resentment against the UK.

In what can only be described as Isil apologia, she continued to tell Muslim women that the authorities are lying about Isil. Isil is not a large brutal group but a small battalion and “the West” has fabricated the image of this murderous cult.

Fighting the ‘classic Islamist narrative’

Why I am highlighting what Bsis spoke of? Because the arguments put forward in the Mannan family statement has roots in what Bsis and other Islamists and non-violent extremists say. The picture painted is that the West is at war with Islam but equally Islam is at war with the West and Muslims have no choice but to pick a side. Powerful religious arguments of the obligation to establish a caliphate and to implement a totalitarian interpretation of Sharia will remedy the oppression of Muslims. It is the classic Islamist narrative.

This ideology existed long before Isil were on the scene and has been proselytised for decades in British Muslim communities. Masquerading as representing “traditional” Islam rather than the modern 19th/20th century Islamist and puritanical ideologies which they in fact represent, they have helped normalise some of these very concepts among some British Muslims as evidenced in the Mannan family statement.

These fundamentalist views were obvious to Nabeelah Jaffer when she spoke to women who had joined Isil or who planned to join it. She discovered how each and every one of the women she interviewed held narrow, insular and rigid interpretations of Islam and that Islam “lay in whatever appeared to be as anti-Western as possible.”

You can’t ignore the benefit of living in a Western nation

Undoubtedly part of the push factors leading people to join Isil include strong anti-Western sentiment. But they also do so because of a lack of belonging, feelings of marginalisation and isolation from British society. There is little doubt the impact 9/11 had on Muslim youth but these Islamist grievance based narratives are dangerous because they exploit marginalisation and anti-Western rhetoric by legitimising such feelings.

Ignoring the benefits of living in a Western nation, including the freedom, opportunity and legal protections available to Muslim women in the UK, Bsis and Islamists instead promote anti-Western narratives – which are similar to the violent extremists. This pusheswomen and girls on a path towards radicalisation, making them more likely to be susceptible to Isil propaganda. The reality is that many people who join Isil, like the Mannan family, quote the same religious-political arguments as non-violent extremists do; ideology is the common thread between both.

Bsis’ fiery passionate speeches, imbibed with victimhood status and proclamation of God’s name, would impress any vulnerable 14 year old girl. A Muslim woman who used to be part of HT in her teenage years contacted me after watching the BBC South Today programme and recalled how this was the same poisonous narrative that was being preached 15 years ago when she was in HT. She went on to tell me how it took her a long time to stop feeling paranoid and to break her indoctrinated thinking that the West was out to destroy Muslims. “It’s severe brainwashing” she told me. Another told me that when she was heavily involved with such groups, if Isil back then had declared such a caliphate, she too would have gone without a second hesitation thanks to the ideology of these organisations based here.

I am ready for a long battle

The likes of Bsis’ engage in a politics of fear to drum up support for their Islamist agenda. In contrast my organisation’s #makingastandcampaign centres around the politics of hope, empowering British Muslims to challenge extremism in their homes and communities. Highlighting how they belong to Britain and Britain belongs to them. We visited eight cities across England and Wales engaging with hundreds of Muslim women, providing them with a safe space to talk about extremism. The campaign was well received because the importance of women’s voices and activism is acknowledged when it came to challenging extremism. And through my experience, when you empower women, it is women who are far more likely to speak out against extremism. Like the mothers who came together to confront the imam who was preaching derogatory comments about non-Muslim women to their children. Or the women who said they’d publicly rebut Muslim preachers who often spoke to large audiences promoting hatred of others. They were tired of such figures being given free reign to promote what they perceived to be bigotry, misogyny and extremism. They want to make a stand because they feel their children deserve better. But they like I, know that this is a long battle and despite the backlash they inevitably will receive, especially as they are women, these women believe it is a price worth paying.

Over 700 British Muslims have left to join Isil, and some of these include families like the Mannan’s who incidentally didn’t mention one word about foreign policy in their statement. And while we all have a responsibility in defeating extremism, it is for Muslims to challenge extremist views that are cloaked in theology and which claim to be the only true interpretation of Islam. We have seen in recent weeks British families suffer in different ways because of terrorism and radicalisation. The narrative of Bsis and organisations like CAGE are seeking to prevent our crucial counter radicalisation work. However, their message will not stop the Muslim women, families, Imams, local authorities and teachers I know who are all hell-bent on working together to protect young people and their loved ones from radicalisation. We won’t be silenced or stopped.

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