As a Muslim convert, I set up a project to counter radicalisation among young urban men. But our funding was cut by the government and now there’s a vacuum
‘As a former chairman of Brixton mosque (above) in south London, I saw the challenges facing new converts to Islam.’ Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian
At this stage we cannot know the mindset of those behind the Woolwich attack, but as a south Londoner and Muslim convert, I feel it necessary to explain the social and religious dynamics at play with many British Muslim converts from an urban background.
Since 2005, there have been 148 teenage murders in London; 100 are knife related and 27 have been gun related. In 2011, the boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark recorded the highest number of knife crimes in London. Add to this dynamic, youths who try to escape this lifestyle – not through education or employment (due to these avenues either failing or rejecting them) – but through religion; Islam in particular, due to its ability to transfer their focus towards personal and spiritual empowerment, no matter what adverse circumstances they face. The young urban Muslim convert feels this sense of empowerment reducing the sense of helplessness, frustration and anger towards the marginalisation he has faced throughout his young life. However, he is at a “founding” idealistic stage of his new faith and, particularly if he had a propensity for violence and criminality before he converted, his vulnerability is clearly evident for all to see – especially extremist propagandists seeking “foot soldiers”.
My formative years as a teenager and young adult were during the Brixton, Toxteth and Tottenham riots of the early 80s. I was subjected to the stop and search, or “sus” laws of that era, arrested and thrown in local police station jails for hours at a time only to be released without charge on each occasion; the reason – I was a young black man and, therefore, must have been up to no good.
This was a way of life to which I and many youths of that generation became accustomed. The riots of that era cannot be justified; however, the root causes should be understood.
Had I converted to Islam around the time of these events, would I have gravitated to a more militant, violent interpretation of Islam? I would argue that, although psychological and social mosaics like mine are clearly influencing factors to how we initially develop as new Muslims, there are defining catalysts that propel an individual from being radical or non-violent to violent. “Cycle of violence” theories refer to a “tipping point” – when an individual reaches a point of no return due to an incident or event which pushes them across the threshold to commit a violent or terrorist act. Richard Reid – the shoe bomber’s – tipping point was when the “war on terror” was launched against the Taliban in Afghanistan shortly after the events of 9/11.
As former chairman of Brixton mosque, in south London, I saw the challenges facing new converts to Islam. The mosque was able to provide the spiritual and familial support often required at the most formative “founding” stage of their lives. The over-zealousness that usually accompanied this stage led converts on a quest to learn more about the religion from various sources. In a few cases, such as shoebomber Richard Reid, they became attracted to a more distorted and violent radicalised version of Islam propagated by known extremists. Once these individuals gravitated away from the mosque, where did they congregate? Was there an alternative venue or “safe space” in which to engage or challenge what they were learning elsewhere? Unfortunately, along with a few other community leaders, I became aware of the extent of these individuals’ violent radicalisation when it was too late.
For this reason, youth intervention programmes such as Street UK (Strategy to Reach Empower and Educate Teenagers) were established. Street, set up in 2006, provided an alternative venue where young men could socialise, seek counselling and advice in a secure environment without fear of reprisal from rival gangs or unwanted police scrutiny. Within this setting, radical, extreme or even criminal views that were expressed would be challenged head on and countered with robust, alternative narratives that provided a contextualised understanding of the issues raised. The confidentiality afforded to participants who shared these views rapidly gained their trust despite their knowledge that the organisation received government funding. Statutory objectives of engaging with and addressing issues of susceptibility to extremism among participants were being fulfilled, while on the other hand empowering and equipping them to progress and succeed societally was also being achieved.
More than 4,500 young men participated in Street activities in 2010, the penultimate year before funding was withdrawn by the coalition government. We still operate voluntarily, but at a much reduced capacity. So there is a vacuum. Young men are no longer actively engaged or challenged ideologically by those most qualified, both socially and religiously, to do so; extremist narratives proliferate unchallenged and are no longer deconstructed to susceptible converts at the grassroots where such messages are most potent. In light of this, there is an uncomfortable realisation that those behind the Woolwich attack are unlikely to be the last to be violently radicalised.
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