The Times: Out-of-touch imams can't halt terrorism, says advisor 
On 25th August I responded to an inquiry about UK Muslims and ISIS, from Laura Pitel, Political Correspondent at The Times. This resulted in a news article yesterday, 8th September, which used some of the material, but lacked any detail required to put in context of practical action. While what was published suggested I recommended a very liberal approach; my argument isn't liberalism for its own sake but for the sake of containment of the problems in a visible, identifiable space, at the same time forcing Muslim institutions to recognise their responsibilities and own up to their failings.

Laura Pitel, The Times: Can we talk about the police and government response to Britons going to join Isis? ISIS is of course a very topical subject, and one for which the landscape is evolving rapidly. It is clear to me that the current haemorrhage of militants and their protégés from the UK into Syria and Iraq demonstrates a substantial failure of the last ten years of PREVENT, legislation, and indeed Muslim community actions, to curb Muslim militants.

ISIS is exactly what armchair militants have been rooting for, ever since Shi'as seized the initiative and woke Sunnis up with Khomeini's revolution in 1979: it is in the right place - a threat to Israel (perfectly timed, with the gut-wrenching bloodshed of the latter's onslaught against Gaza), to 'decadent' Europe's [and NATO’s] borders, to the 'upstart' Shi'as, and (probably most overlooked because of analysts' presumption of so-called "Wahhabi" backing) an existential threat to Saudi Arabia itself. (I rather suspect many armchair militants are secretly hoping ISIS will evaporate before their own bluffs are called and their protégés press them to put their feet where their rhetoric is.) Whether the proper government response should be more proscription, legislation and harsher penalties, or something more liberal and indulgent is beside the point. There is a movement stirring that will continue to draw militant Muslims from the UK even if it is eventually destroyed in Syria and Iraq, and it won't be simply destroyed there, because it consists of many people from the region who see it as a deliverance, as the Taliban were seen at an early stage, to be a deliverance from the internecine war between mujahideen fighters after the fall of Najibullah and the Soviets.

The suggested responses currently being mooted by politicians are unlikely to have any de-motivating effect on those motivated to go: threat of loss of UK citizenship is of trivial significance to anyone embracing the apocalyptic vision of the return of the Khilafa and the opportunity to punch back at the perceived global enemies of what they see as a revitalised, muscular and purified Islam. Likewise few who depart under such circumstances would give much thought to the tribulations of the UK's criminal justice system were they ever to return. Kashmir, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnia spawned numbers of peripatetic militants, and whatever happens to ISIS, there will now be significantly greater numbers drifting around. [Since this was written, Peter Neumann’s ISCR has identified numbers of disillusioned people from the UK seeking a return. ISCR rightly states that they provide a potential rich resource of credible counter-radicalisation advocates.]

Calls for proscription of militant organisations in the UK presuppose that such entities are structured and organised - they are not, they are as amorphous and anarchic as any bunch of young men with aggrandised egos and autodidactic, Millenarianist theology can make them. Broadening the scope of proscription to include organisations such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir UK, is injudicious because HT, in particular, provides an irreplaceable lightning rod for idealist, intellectual Muslims to work out all the complexities of what it really takes to institute a workable political system, in public forums and on the public street, in plain view of plain-clothes Plod - the perfect antidote to any supposed conveyor belt into militancy. (Where would the rest of us be now without our own opportunities to thrash out Marx and Kropotkin in the Students Union?) [HT in particular have maintained a long-running intellectual campaign around the return of the Khilafa, and ISIS provides precisely what is required for HT to be forced to refine their doctrines to demonstrate how they would avoid such an abomination. Banning also feeds the temptation of ‘forbidden fruit’ and bolsters the militant credentials of otherwise-not-actually-very-militant bands. It also legitimises an otherwise absent grievance about Government criminalising Muslims oppressively, denying freedom of speech and freedom of association partially and injudiciously.]

Calls for curtailing extremist preachers face even tougher challenges - they are and always have been almost impossible to find in the UK's timorous and deferential mosques and its barely articulate (in English) imams who are employed by mosque management committees to make sure they don't step outside of a line drawn around the village politics of the clan in Mirpur, Jhelum, Sylhet or Surat from which their employers are, typically, exclusively drawn from. The few speakers and imams that make the headlines and exposés, were there, such as Abu Hamza, because the management committee [in that instance, of Finsbury Park Mosque] ran out of village imams to bring over, or they epitomise the worst of gratuitous, juvenile, anti-Semitic racism or of corporal child abuse, that exists endemic and unchallenged in the first and second generations of Asian Muslims. The latter are the very same ones who will stress how their particular mosque is a bastion against the 'extremism' that turns out to be nothing more than the doctrinal difference they have with their rival neighbouring mosque, Bareilvi briefing against Deobandi, Deobandi briefing against Bareilvi, and both camps utterly perplexed when it turns out that it is their own children who have turned to violent militancy.

On-line curbs face the inevitable obfuscation that faces any attempt at circumscribing publication in the media - once it has been recorded and made available in public, the more heavily it is suppressed, the more it gains traction through Samizdat routes or simply through myth-enhancing notoriety while remaining unread.

One immediate consequence of lock-down policies is that the already poorly informed religious scholars and community debaters are denied access to the very things and people they need to rehearse their arguments against. Fear of the authorities and media hounds, fear of sanctions against the community itself, simmering Islamophobic racism all push the topic of militant extremism right off the small list of safe topics imams and others are prepared to discuss, and the problem stays deep underground from Muslim institutions in the UK.

The problem is that the pattern of dysfunctionality among UK Muslims was cast three, four and five decades ago. While mosque building has continued apace, investment in capable imams and representatives, and capacity building among them, is almost non-existent. Even the relatively highly organised Deobandi seminaries place very few of their graduates in influential positions in mosques, because most mosques can't afford to pay a UK-standard living wage and instead recruit, nepotistically, someone who is inextricably tied into their own clan, willing to sleep in a makeshift room in the ramshackle two-up-two-down, grandly titled Bogglethwaite Central Mosque, and work for a small fortune only as measured in rupees. Such imams, typical of UK mosques, know nothing much of ISIS, would struggle to find Syria on a map, communicate to the community's youth in mother tongue or cringingly bad English, and are equipped only to argue out the Bareilvi versus Deobandi squabble of the mid-nineteenth century.

Muslim youth for their part, and the steady trickle of Muslim converts, equally significantly, are left entirely to their own devices when their euphoric religious awakening hits them, at the age when they are striving for an identity of their own. The most practical path for them to follow is that of the new Salafi movements. If they are fortunate enough to live in a neighbourhood where sufficient of the community have broken away from traditional allegiances to set up their own Salafi-inclined mosque and staff it (about a hundred such in the UK), or to enroll in a university with an active Salafi presence on campus - most universities - they will gain access to eloquently written and well produced descriptions of a version of orthodox Islam that is coherent, accessible and, most importantly for rebellious youth, anathema to the old school rival orthodoxies of Deoband and Bareilli madressahs. [I am far from being an advocate for Salafi interpretations of Islam, but am keen to impress the message that Salaf-ism is not of itself militant and is often the most engaged strand of Islam in UK society – it is vehemently opposed to the strands of Islam I espouse.] If they are unlucky, they may get a half-baked version of Salafism that gives them the supposed authority to conjure up their own interpretations and bibliomancy 'proofs' from Islamic scriptures. With no local Salafi institution to turn to, the more outspoken and egotistical among them will meld such homegrown philosophising with snippets of on-line web-board debate and emotive newsreel clips, with which to cultivate a determination to become the next great reviver of Islam. Youthful imaginations use such stuff to place themselves at the heart of an imagined world-changing secret conspiracy. This is the nature of self-radicalisation and it is desperately normal. For most, a comfy chair, the awe of their less well read friends, and a wireless internet connection are all they actually want. For some, put on the spot by their own egos, or their mates, or by rivals to the claim of most outspoken dissident in the community, or for the convert, driven by the aphoristic zeal of the convert, there is an awakening of the desire to act. Such is not the kind of stuff governments can legislate against or punish pre-emptively, or even predict, since they occur outside of established institutions and often in secret defiance of them. ISIS beckons.

My pen-sketch makes play on specific entities, Salafi, Deobandi, Bareilvi mosques, but these are not the source of any kind of radicalisation. The problem is, these are the very last places where extremism is debated, indeed where any kind of dissent is debated. They are the only institutions of any consequence that UK Muslims possess, so instead, perhaps counter-intuitively, these are the places where extremism should be debated and examined. But there are some fundamental problems to solve first. Firstly, mosques managed by one doctrinal faction or ethnic division, have good reason to be wary of dissenters whose ambition is to supplant management with a rival faction. Instead, tolerance, mutual respect and mutual understanding of alternative factions are all required, so that diversionary arguments that are currently widespread, can be put aside. (Bareilvis habitually claim that Salafi or Deobandi doctrines are the root of extremism; Salafis claim that Deobandis and Bareilvis have corrupted the sources of Islam; and Deobandis describe Bareilvis as polytheists and Salafis as without authority. All three post takfir against each other, against Shi'a and against pretty much any other form of 'deviancy'. Such a mutually poisonous atmosphere prevents meaningful debate about different doctrines from taking place.)

Secondly, mosques require completely open and transparent access to competent, stable and accountable managements - the secrecy and self-referential management that mosque managements currently use to protect themselves against rival takeover bids, prevents them from addressing dissenters' criticisms and allowing open and informed discussions. More importantly, it also therefore prevents them from identifying and engaging with dissenters who are being attracted, from whichever quarter, by militant rhetoric. And even more importantly, they cannot distinguish perfectly respectable dissenters and dissenters toying with extreme ideas, from those who are actively planning political violence, since any form of dissent is pushed out of sight of mosque imams, managements and responsible authorities.

Thirdly, none of the needed openness can happen in an atmosphere of fear of government, police, the press and the mob, and fear for the consequences for family members who are implicated in extremism. Criminality must of course be countered properly through judicial process, but it is horribly clear that politicians, police, the press and the mob cannot distinguish between behaviour that is a throwback to the Islam of migrants' home villages, activity that is the drama of furtive, exploring, young intemperates, and calculated attempts to threaten society with political violence. Bundling all these motivations together instead, has the consequence that disaffected Muslims on the margins of the Muslim community are further disengaged (potentially hanged for a sheep while snaring a rabbit) and pose a greater threat that is harder to identify. It has the consequence also of steadily increasing the prison population with a growing network of people who have been explicitly removed and who are therefore even more of a potent threat with less to lose, on their eventual release, indelibly labelled as 'terrorists'. And it gives those who choose to migrate to the new khalifa of Shams, a strong 'push' motive to reinforce their ideological 'pull'. When Osama bin Laden set in motion the 9/11 attacks, one of his core aims, in common with all asymmetric warfare strategies, was to undermine the comfortable settlement of Muslims in the West, of unleashing consequences that would drive capable and sophisticated Muslims back to an Islamic homeland that militants would rule over. Whatever differences exist between al Qaida and ISIS, that retrograde process is well underway.

The government must recognise that Muslim community institutions are very largely dysfunctional, but that there is no top-down solution to make them work - they are all local, self-governing and jealously independent of each other. Help is needed to make them functional, and only then will they be able to begin to address radicalisation among their own families. Help has very little to do with money and nothing to do with legislation, it is about inculcating tolerance and mutual respect among Muslims with differing flavours of the faith, about accountability for access to community resources, about cultivating rhetorical skills in English, and especially about gaining authoritative Islamic knowledge of the nature and substance of militant movements and arguments and then most of all, using that knowledge in open, multi-sided forum to draw would-be militants into challengeable debate, so that their potential followers can be challenged and can be given the tools to resist what are currently very tempting arguments. Right now the Muslim community has numerous leaders, but none of them has any following. Whatever any of them may say to discourage would-be ISIS recruits, no one is actually listening.

Laura Pitel, The Times: What, in your view is the way to address the issue you set out about the management of mosques? Minab - which was ostensibly set up for that purpose - has fallen out with the coalition and now has almost no contact with government. They had been pressured to cut ties with certain (unspecified) groups and were not comfortable about doing so. Do you have a view on Minab? MINAB is a typically top-down, enthusiast-led and therefore largely self-referential entity with negligible influence over the affairs of any mosque - even its affiliation requirements are the lightest possible touch, along the lines of "aspires to adhere to at least one of the (five) principles that MINAB espouses". It has no means of cajoling any mosque to progress, and does not even whisper about the cultural, ethnic and doctrinal sectarianism that sets mosques against each other and mosque managements against significant slices of their congregations. Nevertheless it is right that it should not cut links with any entity that is providing mosque-like facilities in the UK; pressure to do so comes from people who have not troubled to recognise that the problematic issues they associate with some groups, such as the dozen Ikhwaan-backed mosques associated with the Muslim Association of Britain, are not confined to explicit groups but are diffused throughout the Muslim community.

I have stressed already that remedial action cannot be top-down or under duress, it has to come from the grass roots and must not threaten the stability of mosque management even though mosque managements are at the heart of the problem. (When mosque managements get destabilised or become unviable, they immediately become vulnerable to eclectic and extremist groups, exactly as happened at Finsbury Park; as threatened to happen in Brixton at a similar point in time, and in a very few other cases). I have suggested in some detail the kind of steps that can be taken on my website, at
but they require mosque managements to recognise their deficiencies, for a concerted campaign in the mosque and its neighbourhood to promote mutual tolerance of rival factions, co-opting influential alims (scholars) where necessary, a controlled programme to open up the mosque's resources to plural doctrines, refreshing the mosque's management with capable organisers who are committed to transparency and plurality, access for imams and other interested people to authoritative Islamic and political analysis of controversial and extremist doctrines, introduction of open debate in local forums to address such issues, co-option of disengaged and marginalised dissenters into mosque activities, co-option of key figures from the authorities into the now opened up environment and exposure to them and the Muslim participants of the kind of debate that is currently the exclusive and one-sided preserve of militants. In a nutshell what is required is the normalisation of dissent and pluralism, so that extremist narratives can be challenged and counter-narratives can be exercised. Government, legislation and the police cannot do that.

Laura Pitel, The Times: Secondly (and forgive me if this question sounds rude), but how would you position yourself in the context of Muslim groups in Britain? Innes [Bowen, in her recent book “Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent”] discusses the difficulties for policy makers and the media of understanding how legitimate and representative one group or individual maybe versus another. On what experiences/connections do you base your opinions and how much weight do you believe you carry among different Muslim groups? I and the website are vigorously independent of any Muslim community entities; I am a lone operator, I make no claim whatsoever to be a representative or community leader. There are many mosque committees who are unpleased by the analyses I present and by the systematic way in which I identify their mosques' doctrinal and ethnic allegiances. On the other hand there are thousands of Muslims who visit my website for the very same directory information, returning frequently. During Ramadhaan and Eid-ul-Adha, these numbers peak at around 165,000 unique visitors per month, a substantial portion of the UK Muslim community. In short I carry negligible weight among Muslim groups and have no ambition to be otherwise, and have substantial weight among ordinary Muslims as well as considerable respect among researchers and investigators.

Laura Pitel, The Times: Can you tell me, what is your current role with regards to the police and/or the government? My participation in counter-radicalisation discussion and my website are activities I have pursued in my own time, and which have attracted the interest of some government officials and police forces through mutual associates and by reputation. They are not connected with my professional circumstances.


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