How the ‘War on Terror’ has radicalised a generation

Disaffected Muslim youths are being failed by the government and they need to feel included in British society, not expelled from it argues Alyas Karmani.

To date there has been little to no reflection on the impact of the ‘war on terror’ and the associated rhetoric surrounding young Muslims who have been growing up in Britain over the last thirteen years.  Even prominent children’s charities in the UK have been completely silent in recognising the traumatising impact the ‘war on terror’ has had. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that most are now fully incorporated into governmental service delivery mechanisms and hence reluctant to challenge official policy.

Just this week in Bradford, the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner funded a local charity to undertake ‘Prevent’ work with 8-year olds. The story carried by the Telegraph and Argus headlined ‘Bradford children as young as eight are to be steered away from radicalisation’, made the claim that ‘radicalisation’ was an acute issue in Bradford schools without making any reference to evidence and facts that substantiate this.

The demonisation and the labelling of young children should concern us, as there are clear frameworks to safeguard young people. Article 36 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly states that:

Children should be protected from any activities that could harm their development and welfare.

It is evident that despite the safeguards public bodies are paying scant regard to young Muslims in the UK and instead they are being problematised and demonised rather than treated a victims in the ‘war on terror’. The recent policy changes in response to the OCC (Office of the Child Commissioner’s) Inquiry and the Jay Report, which concerned sexual exploitation in Rotherham, have fundamentally challenged blaming victims by asserting that children cannot be complicit in their own abuse and victimisation. 

While this has resulted in a radical shift in relation to how public agencies have realigned their services to support children and young people more effectively, the same approach appears to be patently lacking in terms of young Muslims involved in ‘grooming’ by extremists.

The debate on how to treat young British Muslims who have become embroiled with ISIS but wish to return home is a case in point. If we really want to understand the process of radicalisation then we have to strive to understand the lived reality of the ‘War on Terror’ generation. We need to accept the deeply traumatising effect of the last thirteen years: the daily vilification and demonisation of Muslims through a conveyor belt of stories depicting death, destruction, pornographic violence and hopelessness.

Imagine these are your formative years as you grapple with the challenges of being young and growing up in a society where you are having to deal with a daily diet of political and press and media invective against your faith and your identity. Imagine your frustration when you find that no one is listening to you and you have no voice; that your parents don’t understand, the mosque doesn’t understand and the Imam definitely doesn’t understand. Imagine that no matter how hard you try to fit into society you are always ‘Muslimed’ and seen as the other. Imagine a 300% increase in stop-and-searches of people like you; anti-terror laws designed to entrap you; and the resurrection of 300-year old treason laws just to charge people like you. The young Muslims I work with are often deeply troubled by this reality and have to negotiate the challenges of identity, integration and inclusion on their own.

One of the factors that feeds the disaffection preyed on by the IS and Al Qaeda inspired ‘extremist ideologues is a real sense of grievance – that Muslims are treated less favourably than other groups. It is imperative that we guard against this because it has proved to be a potent recruiting sargent to the ISIS cause.

The current Government – against the advice of frontline academics and practitioners – has dismantled independent frontline Prevent initiatives, many of which had been evaluated as being exemplars of best practice in terms of working with young people deemed to be at-risk. This was largely due to the fact they opened up safe spaces, which allowed narratives to be challenged. Neither did these initiatives attempt to sweep concerns around US and UK foreign policy under the carpet.

The ‘war on terror’ paradigm as the principal framework for engaging Muslims in the UK needs to change. By using criminal justice and intelligence responses exclusively and failing to develop a comprehensive, independent multi-layered intervention strategy the government has proved itself to be grossly incompetent in containing extremism. Politicians need to stop trying to score cheap political points and advocate for agencies competent in undertaking frontline anti-extremist work to be appropriately funded. Critical to this strategy is also resourcing initiatives that are able to reach out to young people in both physical and virtual spaces and channelling them away from at risk behaviour.

It seems unpopular to try to humanise the radicalized, but unless we stem the tide of disaffection and disempowerment that IS and Al Qaeda-inspired ideologues prey on, we are pushing young people into their arms.

The whole of the public sector needs to realign its perception and support framework when it comes to young Muslims in the UK, in a way which normalises them rather that exceptionalises and problematises them.

Alyas Karmani is Chair of JUST West Yorkshire and Co-Director of STREET-UK a youth project that reaches out, empower and educate teenagers.       

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