Getting to the root of ‘homegrown terrorism’

For all the talk of hotbeds of radicalism in Britain, these small, isolated sects are shaped by Western politics and self-loathing.

Munira Mirza

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Since 7/7 and more recently 10/8 – when more than 20 Muslims were arrested by police in England on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack on aeroplanes – there has been much debate about what makes some British-born Muslims turn radical. The New Labour government has met with Muslim groups to talk about how to ‘win back’ Muslim youth, while the New Republic magazine in the US has argued that Britain, not Iraq or Iran, poses the biggest threat to American security. This view of Britain as a hotbed of radical Muslims misses what is really going on here: what we are faced with is not old-style political or even religious radicalisation, but rather the fragmentation and alienation fostered by today’s politics of identity.

Religiosity and the politics of identity

The bombings in London on 7 July 2005 marked a turning point in mainstream discussion about radical Islam. In the four years since the 9/11 attacks, there was a persistent belief that Islamic terrorism was ultimately a foreign problem, imported to these shores. Samuel Huntington’s widely cited thesis of the ‘clash of civilisations’ regarded Islam as a powerful, unwavering force in the Middle East that was now challenging the West. More sympathetic observers tended to see terrorism as a desperate political strategy carried out by people in deprived countries. The London attacks undermined this dichotomy between ‘the West and the rest’ by bringing home the fact that the jihad had found some fertile ground in this country, among people who have enjoyed the benefits of living in a modern, secular society.

The American academic Marc Sageman’s study of 172 al-Qaeda operatives around the world indicates the difficulty of developing a sociological or psychological profile of the contemporary jihadist (see Meet the al-Qaeda archetype, by Brendan O’Neill). These individuals come from a wide range of backgrounds. They have different nationalities, religious denominations, levels of education, and socioeconomic status. Sageman is therefore only able to identify three major consistencies, all of which appear counterintuitive: the jihadists are usually radicalised in Western countries; they are likely to have had relatively secular upbringings; and the majority were not recruited ‘top down’ but actively sought out terrorist networks.

Such findings suggest that we cannot isolate the factors that determine the contemporary jihadist to any particular country, lifestyle or religious denomination. Rather, the contemporary jihadist is a product of wider cultural forces, emerging spontaneously in response to his own environment. What is more, these cultural forces operate in the West, as much as anywhere else.

‘Islamicisation’ of identity (1)

There is little evidence to show that Islamic terrorist groups constitute a mass social movement in Western society. In surveys conducted in Britain after the London bombings, the majority of ordinary Muslims fully denounced the attacks and disputed the religious legitimacy of Salafist Jihad groups (2). As the authors Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel point out, today’s Islamism should not be confused with former incarnations of political Islam, which were once popular social movements in the Middle East. Today’s terrorists are marked out by their separation from wider society, as they tend to act in isolation from other familial and communal networks and find succour within their own jihadist clique.

But while the number of potential terrorists remains small, such actions can be construed as an extremely acute expression of a broader shift towards the ‘Islamicisation’ of identity throughout Europe and a growing interest in neo-religious ideas, particularly among a younger generation. Various indicators demonstrate this: increased wearing of headscarves among Muslim women; greater cultural identification with transnational Muslim identity, or the ‘ummah’; the growing membership of Islamic political groups and youth associations; increased awareness of anti-Western and anti-Semitic attitudes; and greater demands for Sharia-compliant education and legal frameworks (3).

These indicators are more or less prevalent in different European countries, but taken together they suggest a cultural shift is taking place in second- and third-generation Muslims. This is particularly important when taking into account the fact that approximately one third of Muslims in Britain are under the age of 16. Unlike their parents, they are more likely to identify with their religion than with an ethnic or national label.

The tensions between old religion and new religiosity are apparent in a place like east London. Religion has a stronger visible presence in places like Tower Hamlets, where over 65,000, or 22.8 per cent of the UK’s Bangladeshi Muslim population, lives. To some extent, this is to be expected – as the population grows richer, it is able to move from the makeshift mosques in private rooms, to larger and more suitable premises. Religious festivals and ceremonies have also developed as a way to preserve cultural identity. At the same time, ties to the old country have weakened in many ways. Approximately half of the local Muslim population was born in Britain. Less money is sent back home – about 20 per cent of earnings, compared with approximately 85 per cent in the Sixties and Seventies. Yet, while many of the younger generation are secularised and live ‘Westernised’ lifestyles, there has also been a growth of Islamist activism. Local Islamist activists accuse local community leaders of being too secular. They have criticised the long-running Bengali New Year celebrations for being a ‘syncretic’ event, incorporating Hindu traditions and promoting ‘unrespectable’ behaviour (4).

It has been argued that the increasing religiosity of Muslims can be explained by the overwhelming influence of Salafist groups operating from abroad and funded by Middle Eastern organisations, particularly in Saudi Arabia (5). Certainly, there is an abundance of information targeting young Muslims through literature, bookshops, the internet, student societies and charitable organisations. But the absorption of ideas cannot be explained simply by their profusion. Why should the medieval pretensions of the Salafist narrative appeal to a modern, secularised Muslim in the West?

We should also recognise that the ‘Islam’ of contemporary Islamism is not a constant and unchanging ideology as some culturalists like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington have tended to portray. The Wahabist doctrine promoted today is itself adapted in order to suit the particular moral and political questions that concern the audience (6). In short, we cannot take for granted the success of any ideology by its mere existence; rather we need to explain why it can take root in certain circumstances and among certain groups of people (7).

The rise of religiosity does not represent the continuation of traditional religious beliefs from abroad, nor is it a rebranding of old anti-colonial struggles. It is also not a homogenous trend; the religiosity we are witnessing today contains a number of contradictory features. Rather, this religiosity is an expression of the new politics of identity, which has transformed the individual’s relationship to society.

Religion as identity

It is the search for identity that drives contemporary ‘religiosity’ (8) and shapes the way in which religion is understood and practised. For instance, many younger Muslims are less concerned with participating in the low-key, communal aspects of their religion, than with a desire to assert publicly their individual identity and have it recognised by others. This is a departure from previous generations, who had largely adapted their habits to accommodate to life in a non-Muslim society. For example, an increasing number of young Muslim girls choose to wear the full hijab today as an expression of their religious faith, although their mothers do not. In interviews, they often explain their choice for wearing it as one of asserting their own personal identity, rather than because of community or family pressure, or even, in fact, identifying with other Muslims. Their religiosity is not really driven by social mores or their belonging in a community, but from a personal commitment or sacrifice that requires public recognition.

The religiosity of younger Muslims also seems much more centred on the self or the clique structure, rather than the wider, established community. One indicator of this is the rejection of the traditional mosque elders in the UK, who are regarded as moribund by younger, more radical Muslims. As Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, head of the Muslim Parliament in Britain, said: ‘[M]ost mosques are not equipped to deal with young people…. Our mosques are largely tribal and controlled by old men on the dole with no understanding of the changing world around them.’ Younger Muslims regard the mosque as being more concerned with local social and community issues, rather than political or spiritual ones. In the case of extremists, their religious identity actually encourages a move away from traditional community ties and social networks. These groups tend to be more individuated and strict in their religious practice. They tend to meet away from larger local mosques and in smaller ‘clique’ structures, such as university organisations or private meeting places like gymnasiums, or even via the internet.

This new religiosity is cut loose from traditional social ties and looks increasingly to more abstract notions of community. Again, the more radical Islamists demonstrate this paradox well. They denounce Muslims in their own country as secularised apostates who have lost the true path, but at the same time, they are keen to identify with an abstract ‘ummah’, which is composed entirely of victimised Muslims abroad, such as in Palestine or in Chechnya, with whom they have had probably little or no actual contact. As Roy points out, despite the anger of young Muslims about the way ‘their people’ are treated in Palestine, they are unable to point to where the country is on a map (9). The identification with victimised people abroad in fact reveals the self-oriented character of contemporary religiosity. The engagement with the plight of others is about the perceived victimisation of the self. The assertion of identity is a strategy to draw attention to this fact.

Multiculturalism and identity

As older forms of political and national identity come under attack, people turn to other ways to search for meaning and belonging. It is clear that people are looking for an explanation of the world and their place in it. However, the self-orientation of today’s Muslim identity also has to be understood in the wider context of multiculturalism, which engages people on the basis of their cultural difference.

The importance of identity has been nurtured by state policies over the past two decades, which privilege the importance of different cultural identities. Muslims are being defined as a ‘community’ requiring special recognition. This has been institutionalised through support for Muslim groups, faith schools, major cultural projects like the Festival of Muslim Cultures initiated in 2004, and most recently, the extension earlier this year of the racial hatred law to cover religious hatred.

High-profile institutions like London’s Metropolitan Police have given Muslim women the option of wearing the hijab (or Muslim men, a turban) instead of a traditional uniform cap, even though this is not common practice for police in most Muslim countries (10). In particular, young people are encouraged to look inwards to their own cultural and religious heritage for their identity. This approach is not just promoted by community leaders or their parents, but perhaps more importantly, by their teachers, the media, cultural institutions and youth services. The proliferation of diversity policies and multicultural programmes has developed an institutional and cultural structure through which identity politics flourishes.

A visitor to the Tower Hamlets community summer fete in 2005 would have assumed that the vast majority of local people were Muslim, so dominated was the event by Islamic stalls, literature, community groups and entertainment. The event organisers had put up signs saying ‘no alcohol allowed’ and indicating a ‘men-only area’. This council-sponsored event was supposed to reflect the diverse communities of the area but was clearly dominated by one particular cultural identity.

There has certainly been much criticism of multiculturalism in recent months. Even the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, challenged the concept and announced Britain was in danger of ‘sleepwalking into segregation’. However, the process of segregation is more easily blamed on the alien values of extremist Muslims, rather than the culture of wider society. For instance, there has been strong criticism of the government’s unwitting support of extremist Islamist groups (see BBC Panorama’s exposé in 2005 of the extremist views of the Muslim Council of Britain), which ends up nurturing the most stridently religious elements in the community. However, these critics have then suggested that the government find more ‘moderate’ Muslims instead. It is rarely considered that the problem is not with the kind of Muslim groups the authorities are courting, but with the idea that foregrounding cultural identity is any way to connect to citizens at all. The solution is not to find ‘nicer’ Muslims with more palatable views, but to challenge the notion that Muslim people can only be engaged with on the basis of their identity. The unwillingness to do this reflects the disavowal of the possibility of developing a meaningful political culture that can allow people to transcend their private, cultural differences.

The political subject is conceived of in terms of demanding recognition of its different and special cultural needs. In turn, it is rewarded for its difference with greater recognition. The dynamic is mutually reinforcing – the more alienated and different you can prove you are, the more you are listened to.

The politics of identity, in this sense, has fuelled a sense of victimhood among younger Muslims, who can only engage in the political sphere on the basis of their claims of difference and alienation. They are less likely than their parents to be victims of racist attacks or severe racial discrimination, but they are more likely to see themselves in terms of victimisation. This is evident in the widespread concern over Islamaphobia. Despite concerns about rising attacks on Muslims after 7/7, there were few major incidents reported to the police. Instead, there was a general sense of feeling under siege – a feeling no doubt exacerbated by Muslim groups who used this as a way to raise their profile with the government. Indeed, the government’s working groups set up after 7/7 to tackle extremism mentioned throughout that more money was needed to fund lobby groups that promote a positive Muslim identity. The religious hatred bill brought in earlier this year was also intended to ‘protect’ Muslims from grievous offence and reassure them they were being listened to.

But by arguing that Muslims need special protection, we might question whether the authorities risk reinforcing their sense of vulnerability in a hostile society. Being told you need a law to safeguard you from others does little for one’s peace of mind. It also alienates Muslims from other sections of society. This year, many newspapers picked up on councils banning Christmas celebrations in case they offend religious (ie, Muslim) groups. The Tate Modern gallery withdrew a work by the artist, John Latham, because it was deemed to be possibly offensive, even though no Muslim had actually complained. Dudley Council banned all images of pigs in their offices after one worker complained about a shipment of pig-shaped stress toys.

The over-anxious attempts by bureaucrats not to offend Muslims provokes resentments. Such over-compensation does little to create a genuinely tolerant and healthy climate. Instead, it oversensitises people to their differences and fuels hostilities.

When is a Muslim not a Muslim?

The government’s working groups after 7/7 suggested that Muslims needed greater recognition of their cultural identity. It suggested media promotion of positive images of Islam, and even teaching Arabic to young women to boost their confidence.

Yet, such recommendations miss an obvious paradox about Muslim identity, which is that as many Muslims identify more with their religion, they are also increasingly secularised. Roy explains this contradiction well, when he says, ‘Islam is experiencing secularisation, but in the name of fundamentalism. It is a bit confusing for everybody.’ (11). Many Muslims no doubt live increasingly secular lives that do not conform strictly to Sharia law. For instance, 70 per cent of Muslim home-owners have a normal mortgage, despite religious restrictions on paying interest (12). Even some Muslims’ adherence to religion is based on what might be called contemporary secular values. The teenage girl growing up in Bethnal Green, London, who decides to wear the hijab is just as likely to justify her choice in the distinctly Western language of Seventies feminism as to say it is God’s will. A number of younger women have seen the hijab as a protest against Western-style sexual exploitation. When the outrage over the Danish cartoons occurred in February this year, the number of protesters gathering in central London was only a few hundred.

The tendency of government to engage with Muslims as a religious group misses the three-dimensional, contradictory character of human beings living through cultural transition. Indeed, it is not known how many Muslims drink, smoke, have pre-marital sex, or do not pray five times a day. They may be ‘culturally’ or ‘ethnically Muslim’, but they may not be particularly observant. It would be difficult to find any religious authority or organisation that can claim to represent this diverse group.

Islamism as anti-Western sentiment

The secularisation of Muslims goes hand in hand with the politicisation of religion. Salafist doctrine appeals primarily because it is a political, not a religious, ideology. But it is important to realise that this political ideology is shaped entirely by the preoccupations of the West itself, namely its self-loathing, romanticism and irrationalism.

Hatred of the West is not exclusive to radical Muslims. The anti-globalisation movement also emotes about America as imperial oppressors. The electoral success of George Galloway’s RESPECT party in the constituency of Bow and Bethnal Green in 2005 fused together a younger religiosity with an anti-globalisation politics. The RESPECT manifesto included concerns ranging from the protection of the environment to the war in Iraq, leaving aside potentially divisive issues such as gay rights or abortion. Bin Laden himself draws on the language and ideas of prominent Western writers, like Robert Fisk, of whom he writes: ‘[He] is one of your compatriots and co-religionists [but] I consider him to be neutral.’ The ambivalence about Western consumer society and its destructive consequences are common to both Islamists and anti-globalisation groups. Both are rooted in a Manichean worldview of the struggle between a neo-conservative cabal in Washington and a vulnerable, victimised world population. There is little complexity in this emotional analysis, in which everything is reduced to the sinister motivations of a profit-seeking elite.

More fundamentally, both Islamists and anti-globalisation groups express a prevailing cultural anxiety about social progress and reason. This has been a long established intellectual trend, since the postwar writings of Horkheimer and Adorno, who debunked the Enlightenment by claiming that the endpoint of modernity was Auschwitz. Today, this pessimistic view is part of common parlance. When the Imperial War Museum in London opened its Holocaust exhibition in 2003, the poster showed the railway lines to Auschwitz with the accompanying slogan, ‘See what man can do when he puts his mind to it’.

It should not be a surprise that an increasing number of Muslims regards Western society as morally decadent, when this is the prevailing view within Western culture itself.


The popularity of the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis can no doubt be explained by its simple reduction of a complex reality. It is easier for commentators in the West to see the reactionary, theological dogma of today’s suicide bombers as a product of a foreign land. But the emerging picture of radical Islam – reinforced by the London attacks last year – is that this is an ideology with homegrown roots.

There is a small minority of terrorists who present a serious concern and require a security strategy. However, it is also necessary to grasp the social and cultural factors that fuel their worldview. This can be explained in relation to political developments in the West, arising out of identity politics, and which have spread globally. At the same time, for most Muslims, the turn to religiosity does not necessarily result in violence or even alienation from the mainstream. Many are grappling with the contradictory demands of identity politics while living normal, everyday lives. Unfortunately, the straitjacket of diversity policies risks intensifying these problems rather than enabling people to resolve them.

Munira Mirza is a writer and researcher and co-founder of the Manifesto Club. This essay was first published on Rising East.

(1) This term is coined by Roy (2004)

(2) According to a survey conducted by YouGov for the Daily Telegraph on July 23rd 2005, 88% fully condemned the London attacks, whilst only 6% believed they were fully justified. A larger number (24%) did sympathise with the motives of the bombers but 70% of those polled said they would notify the police if they saw ‘something in the community that made them feel suspicious’.

(3) See The radicalisation of Muslim youth in Europe: the reality and the scale of the threat, Testimony of Claude Moniquet, Director General European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, April 27 2005, Hearing of the Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Emerging Threats, United States House of Representatives, p 2-3. Also see Muslims in Europe: The State of Research, Frank J. Bujis & Jan Rath, October 2002, Russell Sage Foundation: New York

(4) Garbin, D. (2005) Bangladeshi diaspora in the UK: some observations on socio-cultural dynamics, religious trends and transnational politics, Conference Human Rights and Bangladesh, 17th June 2005, School of African and Oriental Studies (website last accessed on 27th March 2006)

(5) Glees, A. (2005) When Students Turn to Terror: Terrorist and Extremist Activity on British Campuses, London: Social Affairs Unit

(6) Kepel, G. (2004) Jihad: The trial of political Islam, London: I. B. Tauris

(7) Fields, B.J. (1990) ‘Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America’,
New Left Review, I/181, May-June

(8) Roy, O. (2004) Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, New York: Columbia University Press

(9) Roy, O. (2004) Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, New York: Columbia University Press

(10) The Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity, 2005: 61

(11) Roy, O. (2004) Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, New York: Columbia University Press

(12) The Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity, 2005: 102

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