An Asian youth worker believes that the war on terrorism has helped Islamicise young British Muslims.
Since 11 September, says Ahtsham Ali, vice-president of the Islamic Society of Great Britain, British Muslim youth have been taking US president George W Bush’s with-us-or-against-us rhetoric to heart.
‘They say you are either with bin Laden or you are with America’, says Ali – and they have little doubt about which side they would choose. ‘If you go to Bradford or Oldham, the average youth identifies – well, sympathises – with bin Laden.’
Touring Islamic societies and youth clubs around the UK, Ali has noticed a changed mood in recent months. ‘The number of activated Muslims in the UK is increasing. The number of frustrated youth is increasing. Islamic societies are packed out – the largest university societies are Islamic societies.’
Ali wants to show Muslim youth that ‘there is an alternative’ to Islamic fundamentalism, by taking them through true ‘Islamic principles’. He clearly has his own beliefs and prejudices – but he raises questions about the allegiances of Muslim youth that deserve more attention than they have received so far.
These changes in the British Muslim community began long before 11 September. ‘Prior to 11 September, there was an increase of identity-searching among British Asians’, says Ali. Many young Muslims have been asking: ‘”Who are we in Britain – are we this or that?”‘ There were also feelings of impotence and frustration – a sense of distance from Western institutions. If you disagree with something, says Ali, ‘all you can do is march, or go to your MP’ – but when ‘there is no legal release for the frustrations’ of Muslim youth they tend to spill over, and frustrations can lead people ‘beyond the boundaries of sanity’.
11 September has ‘speeded up’ the search for an identity and the feelings of frustration. According to Ali, the war in Afghanistan ‘showed the average British Muslim the hypocrisy of the situation’. Bush was preaching humanitarian values while bombing Afghanistan even further back to the Stone Age. The war on terrorism became a focus for cynicism and anti-American sentiments – and hardened the conviction that Western governments cannot be trusted. ‘They see this as “America, Britain – they’re all the same”’, says Ali. ‘Once they have this view, they feel impotent. They can’t understand how it is possible that in today’s world of equality people can get away with violence and mayhem.’
The recent Israeli incursions into Palestinian territories, as America apparently stood by, compounded the way some young Muslims view the West. There is a sense that ‘America will always back Israel’, says Ali. And such experiences have clarified people’s feelings of alienation from Britain and the West in general: ‘Many who were on the fence were pushed over into the Islamicisation of their identity.’
Ali believes that ‘this feeling of impotence might generate some to take some kind of drastic action’. More Muslim youth might ‘go abroad to do their bit for the war’. There may be problems now, says Ali, but things will get worse: ‘In the future there will be much more.’
Ali exaggerates the prospect of a coming storm. But he raises useful questions. Since 11 September, the war on terror and fundamentalism has been seen as an issue of ‘over there’ – of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Afghan mountains. Western elites have been less keen to face up to the problem of alienation at home – the question of what makes some Western Muslim youth sympathise with bin Laden more than with the political leaders here.
11 September and the war on terrorism raised the question of allegiance to Western governments: ‘are you with us or against us?’ For many, it seems that the answer remains unclear.
Ahtsham Ali is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.
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