• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Muslim alienation in the UK? Blame the Israelis!

British government officials claim that Israel’s recent actions in Gaza are likely to encourage a ‘process of radicalisation’ amongst British Muslims. The security and counter-terrorism minister, Lord West of Spithead, says the New Labour government’s attempts to contain the radicalisation of British Muslims will have been undermined by Israel’s military venture.

So in Lord West’s view, there is a direct, causal relationship between Israel’s foreign policy and an increased risk of terrorism or anger in Britain. He clarified his outlook on the matter by slamming Tony Blair’s dismissal of any such causal relationship. ‘Well, that was clearly bollocks’, said Lord West (1). West’s linking of the tragic events in Gaza with the growth of radicalisation in the UK echoes warnings made by Jonathan Evans, head of MI5, last month; he, too, is of the opinion that Israel’s actions might help to boost the ideological appeal of radical Islamic sentiments in Britain.

Just as it is wrong to dismiss the idea that foreign policy can, indeed, lead to domestic conflict, so it is overly simplistic to claim that wars and other troubling events abroad cause sudden shifts in people’s outlook. History shows us that, sometimes, brutal colonial wars – Algeria, Malaya and Kenya, for example – had little impact on domestic public opinion. On other occasions, however – Vietnam, Iraq in 2003, and now Gaza – wars abroad have become the focus for mobilisation and protest.

Many associate the radicalisation of the 1960s generation with the impact of the Vietnam War on public opinion. But radical protest in the Sixties was the outcome of various, complex political and social influences, of which the Vietnam War was only one. Usually, the emergence of protest movements is underpinned by changing attitudes and dispositions, as influenced by people’s everyday experience of society. And so it is today.

Many young people have, over the past month, adopted Gaza as the focus of their protest. Yet the alienation and anger of young Muslims predates this war, and even the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Even before the start of the war on terrorism in October 2001, there had been expressions of community anger in the riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in summer 2001. And if there was one defining foreign event that boosted the politicisation of British Muslims, it was Western governments’ campaign against the Serbs in Bosnia and later Kosovo.

The fact is that what security officials characterise as ‘radicalisation’ is better described as ‘alienation’ and ‘estrangement’. It has been evident for some time that significant sections of young British Muslims feel estranged from British society, and even reject it. Sometimes, this estrangement is expressed in the form of politicised protest. Most of the time, however, it works as a variant of the contemporary politics of identity.

Much of the language that Muslims use to express their frustration with how they are treated is shaped by Western identity politics. The term ‘Islamophobia’, for example, was not invented by activists in the Middle East. In some, fortunately rare situations, the politicisation of Islamic identity can foster a disposition towards violence. However, such a response should not be described as ‘radical’. Traditionally, the term ‘radical’ referred to more than simply a rejection of society. It conveyed the idea of ‘uprooting’, transforming, putting forward alternative ideas and arguments. Recent protests against Israel, however, have been conventional rather than radical.

The protestors were angry – very angry, sometimes – but their protest was similar to the well-tried humanitarian campaigning of organisations such as Make Poverty History and Oxfam. The protesters’ propaganda drew attention to the plight of ‘the victims’, and particularly children. Even Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an otherwise articulate Islamist group, carried placards with the message: ‘Who will defend the children of Gaza?’ So, paradoxically, even a movement which is deeply hostile to the society that it inhabits embraces the cult of the victim and the language of mainstream British protest.

The response of British Muslims to Gaza points, not to the rise of a powerful new radical ideology, but to an interesting process in which protesters selectively reject the British ‘way of life’ while pragmatically utilising some of its cultural resources. So while many young Muslims resent the moral authority that the Holocaust endows on the suffering of Jewish people, they are more than happy to manipulate the symbolic significance of the Holocaust for their own purposes; they describe events in Gaza as the ‘Palestinian Holocaust’ and compare the Gaza Strip to the Warsaw Ghetto.

Officialdom’s misdiagnosis of ‘radicalisation’ amongst British Muslims, when in fact it is more accurately described as alienation, is symptomatic of the nervousness of security officials like Lord West today. Blaming the war in Gaza for the politicisation of British Muslims is a way to avoid asking some very difficult questions about the problem of youthful Muslim alienation. No doubt, it is tempting for British officials to point the finger of blame at Israel for their own inability to win the hearts and minds of young Muslims – but at the end of the day, they cannot avoid the fact that the problem is rooted at home.

Insofar as there is any hint of a strategy in relation to tackling radicalisation, it always has a fantasy-like character. Often, the official discourse on radicalisation has much in common with attitudes that underpin the child protection industry. It warns that ‘vulnerable’ and ‘impressionable’ young people may be targeted on websites, campuses and at social venues, and ‘groomed’ by cynical operators. In November 2007, it was reported that the UK government’s Research, Information and Communication Unit would draw up ‘counter-narratives’ to the anti-Western messages on websites ‘designed to influence vulnerable and impressionable audiences here [in the UK]’ (2). In November 2006, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, said ‘it is the youth who are being actively targeted, groomed, radicalised and set on a path that frighteningly quickly could end in their involvement in mass murder of their fellow UK citizens’ (3).

Unfortunately, this dramatic framing of the threat as ‘sudden radicalisation’ means that extremism is seen as a kind of psychological virus afflicting the vulnerable and those suffering from a psychological deficit. This depiction of radicalisation as a symptom of vulnerability overlooks the fact that, frequently, ‘Muslim anger’ expresses confidence and self-belief. Indeed, as numerous studies have pointed out, what is quite striking is the activism and idealism of these so-called brainwashed individuals. Moreover, the people who are actively hostile to Britain are rarely brainwashed by manipulative operatives – often they have sought out jihadist websites and online networks. In other words, they may have made a self-conscious and active choice (4).

Instead of psychologising about vulnerable young people, or blaming events in Gaza for what is happening in Britain, officials should ask themselves why have they lost touch with a significant minority of their own citizens. A precondition for answering this question is to recognise, openly and publicly, the very real cultural divisions that afflict British communities today.

(1) Minister for terror: Gaza will fuel UK extremism, Guardian, 28 January 2009

(2) Counter-terrorism officials rethink stance on Muslims, Guardian, 20 November 2007

(3) MI5: 30 terror plots being planned in UK, Guardian, 10 November 2006

(4) This point is confirmed by research into the motivation and character of suicide bombers. See for example The Moral Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Scott Atran, The Washington Quarterly, Spring 2006

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