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Islamist radicalization in Britain

March 25, 2017

The recent attack on the British parliament by a British-born Muslim convert has once again highlighted the issue of radicalization in the country. DW asks if the authorities are taking radicalization seriously.

Großbritannien Terroranschlag in London | Presse
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Hooper

This week's terror attack in London by a single attacker which killed four people, was definitely not as well coordinated and deadly as the July 7, 2005 bombings that killed 52 people and injured over 700 in the British capital, but it stirred up the same sense of unease among British citizens as the 7/7 violence.

In the past decade, Britain has witnessed a rise in Islamic extremism; hence it was understandable that many people expressed concern about another possible wave of Islamist attacks in the UK. A spate of attacks in Belgium, France and German has added to that fear.

British authorities identified the London attacker as Khalid Masood, a 52-year-old British-born Muslim convert born in the south east, English county of Kent. Masood had recently lived in Birmingham, which commentators and researchers say has become a breeding ground for Muslim extremists. Masood had also spent time in Saudi Arabia between 2005 and 2015 but was not on the radar of the country's security agencies, according to the Saudi embassy in London.

Rights organizations in the UK have repeatedly pointed to a growing radicalization, yet it appears that authorities have not taken strong measures against it. British intelligence agencies have thwarted many terror attacks in the past, and have worked  to keep global jihadist groups at bay, but experts suggest the terrorist threat has become more home-grown than external. The March 22 attack on the British parliament was further proof of the trend.

UK | Polizisten patroulllieren am Parliament Square
The attack on British parliament was widely condemnedImage: Reuters/N. Hall

Islamism, in various forms, has existed in the UK since 1970s, but it started gaining strength after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US. The 7/7 London attacks in 2005 were a watershed moment when radical Islam received wider global attention. Three of the attackers were British-born, sons of Pakistani immigrants.

'Alarming radicalization'

"Islamic radicalization without any doubt is a major challenge for the UK and the rest of Europe," Siegfried O. Wolf, a South Asia expert at the University of Heidelberg, told DW. "It is most severe in the UK with an entrenched Islamist culture due to the presence of a large Muslim population and local and international jihadist organizations in the country," Wolf added.

The German expert said he sees striking similarities between the radicalization processes in the UK and Germany. "Of course, there are also differences, but we have seen in the past few years the emergence of so-called 'parallel societies,' the feeling that former multicultural policy approaches either failed or are in need of a reassessment," Wolf underlined. "Radical preachers operate freely in both countries. But unlike Britain, Germany has taken a firm stand on this issue."

Arif Jamal, a US-based expert and author of several books on Islamism, claimed that not only domestic radicalization posed a challenge in the UK, but that Islamists in the country were also responsible for exporting terrorism to the rest of the world. "Radical group Hizb ut-Tahrir made its way to Pakistan and other Muslim-majority countries through Britain. One of the biggest terrorist plans foiled by US agencies in early 2000s, known as the Virginia Jihad Network, can be traced to the UK," Jamal told DW.

A reaction to Western intervention

Farooq Sulehria, a London-based researcher, believes the rise of Islamization in Muslim countries is a main factor behind the radicalization of the Muslim youth in the West. "This is not only the case with the Muslims," he told DW. "When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in India, the Indian youth living in the West also exhibited fundamentalist traits."

Sulehria also accuses Western governments for the rise of fundamentalist Islam in their countries. "The French governments in the 1980s, in particular, encouraged the Islamists to operate freely in France, so that the communist influence among the Muslim migrants could be decreased," he alleged.

Sulehria also suggested that an increasing number of radicalized Muslims living in the UK were receiving training in the countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. "In the past, Swedish nationals were accused of traveling to Pakistan to receive militant training. There have been countless such examples from Britain," Sulehria said.

Reaktionen auf den Anschlag in London
Many people in Britain condemn Islamophobia and linking terrorism with Islam and MuslimsImage: Getty Images/J. Taylor

Narratives of identity

But Adeel Khan, a researcher at the University of Cambridge and specialist in Islamic education, warned against the over-simplification of the radicalization phenomenon.

"There are a couple of factors that need to be analyzed to understand the assertion of Islamic identities in the public sphere of Europe," Khan told DW. "One is the search for a universal identity based on their parents' religion and customs that can stand its ground in the predominantly secular public space of Europe."

Second, according to Khan, is the young generation's conflict with the older generation. The Muslim youth in the West believes their elders are stuck in local customs and have no clue about the golden age of Islamic dominance in science, religion and humanities in the medieval period. "Then they have this reactionary desire to assert their identity in a society which considers them and their past backward and unsuitable for a modern Europe," he said.

Jamal suggests that many British Muslims refuse to integrate into society. "Most Muslim families don't assimilate easily, and they don't even want to. They view the Western culture in contradiction with Islam and their values. That is when the radicalization process begins," Jamal told DW.

Analyst Wolf says it is also worrying that Moderate Muslims in the UK are not condemning and acting against radical Islamists unequivocally. "Some of them are only condemning it selectively. There is no powerful counter narrative to Islamism in Britain," Wolf said.

Symbolbild - Muslime in England
'The pluralistic model of integration is in deep crisis,' says analyst WolfImage: Getty Images/D. Kitwood

Alternative models

Islamism expert Jamal suggests that British politicians do not want to alienate Muslim voters by taking action against Islamists. "They don't want to be called 'Islamophobes,'" he argued.

Speaking to DW on condition of anonymity, a US citizen and former student of an elite London school, said that she had reported an extremist teacher to the school's management, but as a result it was she who was reprimanded.

"The lecturer was also a member of a proscribed Islamic group that is illegal in Bangladesh and Germany for distributing anti-Semitic materials, so I wrote against him. In my piece, I stated that it was a discussion around inequality, not Islamophobia. Subsequently, the lecturer complained about me to the university and I was investigated and my article was taken down. This kind of silencing felt antithetical to debate and the exchange of ideas that higher education is meant to inspire," the former student said.

Wolf believes that the European authorities want to continue with their pluralistic model, and for that reason they haven't really tried to curb Islamism through force.

"The pluralistic model of integration and the state-sponsorship of 'cultural diversity' are in deep crisis. It seems that any decisive actions against radicalization will be perceived as a confirmation of the failure of their policies. This, in my view, is even blocking any meaningful debate regarding alternative models for successful integration in the UK as well as in some other European countries like France," Wolf said.

Children react to the London attack