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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A Government approved version of Islam? 
In today's Times, MPs Hazel Blears and Julian Lewis, both members of the Commons Security Committee, placed an editorial which expressed the need to address a number of issues to counter Muslim extremism. In such a medium, the detail necessarily absent, and indeed suggested that the details were yet to be formulated. However there was one glaring suggestion that would not only kill any Muslim support for the initiative from the outset, but which would be likely to be substantially more dangerous than doing nothing at all. They proposed that a single, safe and acceptable version of Islam be promoted.

Ms Blears, if you have again been approached by advocates of some of the mill town Bareilvi mosques with the notion that their version of Islam is the sole purveyor of integrated, inclusive and acceptable Islam, please be warned, nothing could be further from the truth. Three of the four 7/7 bombers came from nice, respectable, Bareilvi-aligned Pakistani families, the other was a convert. Bareilvis do not promote violence, at least not in the UK, and as long as you discount the Bradford book burnings that kicked off the Rushdie affair. But they run the most schismatic and exclusive mosque managements, follow the most impenetrable doctrines, have the most corporal child abusive madressahs, the least communicative (in English) imams, and generally do more than any other subset of British Islam to alienate their own offspring. New converts to Islam approach Bareilvi masjids for help, and leave rapidly, shaking their heads in bewilderment. Nearly all incidents of Muslim violent extremism in or from the UK have involved one or two converts. Most have involved the offspring of Bareilvi families - Tel Aviv, 7/7, High Wycombe.

I should explain the basis on which I make the presumption about Hazel Blears' Bareilvi briefing. Some time ago I was one of a number of carefully selected delegates to a meeting that as we learnt part way through, was orchestrated to set up what became the Sufi Muslim Council. I was invited because my Sufi credentials and possibly also my substantial Bareilvi credentials, appeared to mesh with my counter-extremism credentials and meet the organiser's desire to achieve unified support for his proposed SMC. The organiser was Haras Rafiq, a Rochdale protege of Hazel Blears, and her name was cited by the hosts as well, to lend authority to the proceedings - she was a Blair minister at the time and Rafiq now draws a retainer through Quilliam. I don't actually know why I wasn't invited to the following meeting (I wasn't the only one), but that was the launch of the SMC, and pretty much its wake as well, apart from the website which lingered untouched for a couple of years. I have never, in spite of my extensive research into such matters, been able to identify any mosque that actually affiliated with the SMC, even though I knew many of the two dozen worthy delegates to that first meeting, and I doubt that now Ms Blears and Dr Lewis are advocating a repeat of Haris Rafiq's misguided initiative. Don't be fooled into allowing government policy to be hijacked to become the proxy for Bareilvi factionalists to continue their mid-nineteenth century feud with Deoband and everyone else - they have nothing at all to offer counter-extremism.

But be warned, whichever brand of Islam you pick to be the acceptable face, it will be a poisoned chalice. Nobody wants to be the face of UK Government's acceptable Islam when there is so much to complain about. In fact, such a policy would be the mirror image of the Takfir of the extremists; it plays on the hadith on firqas in just the same way: "My ummah (followers, community) will divide into seventy three sects and all but one will be in the hellfire. The one will be the people of my Sunnah (practice, way of life) and (that of) my Companions." There is hardly a Bareilvi imam in the country who isn't paid by his management committee explicitly to pronounce takfir against Deobandis, Salafis, Shi'as, so-called Wahhabis, even other Sufis that challenge them.

They are not alone in such schismatism, of course, but they are the most vituperative. What is really needed, is what has been advocated over and over in these pages: Accountable mosques with plural congregations, mutual respect for differing firqas, informed and intelligent, multi-party debate, indigenous imams, and the opportunity for those tempted by extremism to have such matters analysed, dissected and countered in an objective, undoctrinal way by people who know what they are talking about. None of these things are currently possible.


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A radical proposal to involve youth in the Masjid 
A radical proposal to involve youth in the Masjid

Much of what I have written on this site and elsewhere has been about opening up the masjid to make it plural across Muslim factions, accountable and transparently managed. While there is wide consensus that there is a pressing need to draw youth into involvement in the masjid and that barriers to this are a recurring complaint, the advice I have offered about plurality, accountability and mutual respect do not actually do anything specific to draw youth back in. So here is an idea:

Set up a youth committee - ok, nothing original there. Make it a complete replica of the positions and responsibilities of the existing committee, warts and all. Make it elected ( - ok that will be a bit of a shock for many masjids), using a broad franchise, not with narrow and exclusive electoral membership.

*** All candidates and voters must be under twenty years old however. ***

Let the surrogate committee run for one year terms and give it a budget for spending over which it can have full control. (It will have its own treasurer and fundraising appointees anyway probably, and should be able to do its own fundraising.)

Let it have its own slot for activities and events in or on behalf of the masjid, and do not place any constraints on what they should be - trust the youth with responsibility to maintain the integrity of the masjid: don't have the conceit to think you, incumbent management, have behaved more responsibly than them, you almost certainly haven't.

Eleven months into the one year term of office, step aside. Give the now well settled-in youth committee one month in which they are in total control of the month's finance, management and running of the masjid, including paying the imam and madrassah teachers, and selecting their own preferred imam to stand in, in place if they wish (give your imam a holiday!). (Obviously theer are not likely to be many options for an imam to be in a paid post for just a month, so let the youth committee work something out for themselves.

At the end of that month, require the entire youth committee to stand down in favour of a new elected youth committee, and be ineligible to stand again until a further year has passed.

Obviously the young people who are willing to get involved in this way, will, for the most part, be fully ensconced in the ways of the masjid already, and you will probably want to spend a lot of time trying to influence them to make sure that the decisions they make are ones that don't discomfort you. But that is no small part of the point - you, incumbent management, will now have to take time to justify and explain your behaviour and choices to teenagers, probably for the first time in your own life!

Also, though the participating youth may be part of the masjid's own establishment, they mix with many who won't be, and they will need to canvass for support. Thuswise they will draw in their peers who are less well established. It probably won't reach right out to the disaffected margins, but it will be a huge improvement on the outreach you are doing, which is probably nothing whatsoever.

Give it a try, anything is better than the way things are now!


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Letter to New Scientist 
I wrote a letter to New Scientist in response to an article published by ICSR's head, Prof Peter Neumann. They were kind enough to publish it, but inevitably edited it down and lost some vital meaning. Here is the full text:

Reference - Spotting the Threat, 5 July 2014, Issue 2976 Page 24

Dear Sir

Peter Neumann (Spotting the Threat, 5 July 2014) is right to qualify the threat posed by jihadis returning from Syria: their motives are quite distinct from those who attempt terrorist activity within the UK. However all such returnees do have one very significant impact on return: their kudos, their credibility among their peers, is massively increased due to their presumed self-sacrifice. The effect of this is two-fold - it encourages like-minded persons to pick the same path unless they can be discouraged as Peter suggested, but more significantly, it induces individuals jealous of their new status, to outdo them in impact. In short, stay-at-home militant rivals become more inclined to commit domestic terrorism due to the catalyst effect of the returnee.

The evidence for this is the strong parallel in what we have seen over the last decade, that almost all UK Muslims involved in domestic terrorist cases include one or two converts to Islam. Not only are some converts overtaken with their own zeal, but they have a distinct raised status among their born-Muslim peers as well. Muslim communities and mosques throughout the UK, totally fail to address the needs of those entering Islam because they are hidebound by the desire to preserve each one's own doctrinal and ethnic exclusivity. This fails to meet converts' needs, nor the needs of their own youth, so both become entangled in marginal and often attractively militant alternatives that persist below the narrow gaze of factional mosque and community leaders. Occasionally one such alternative spawns a terrorist plot, usually right under the noses of their elders. Furthermore, government policy, legislation and populist media's hyperbolic outrage all make it impossible to have reasoned dialogue with returnees or other militant dissenters without dire consequences for participants. So, sadly, Peter's hope that community leaders can rise to the challenge, is misplaced. Just as the UK's Muslim 'establishment' fails to address the needs of disaffected converts, so it will fail to bring returning jihadis back into the fold.

Instead, the vicious circle of exclusive mosque management, intolerance of rival factions, dissenters driven underground, and fear of open debate all conspire to push would-be jihadis and domestic terrorists alike, out of sight. All four spokes of this circle must be broken before the domestic or returnee threat can be countered successfully.


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The murder of Lee Rigby 
Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale both came from respectable, middle class professional families, both from Nigeria and both were converts to Islam, in 2003 and circa 2009 respectively. Much has been and will be written about the dramatic elements of their stories in which they have been associated with militant extremists, but little of value will be learnt from that period. Two things are of enduring importance, one is the means by which they turned from being vocal extremists to being murderous ones, but that is ground that will be thoroughly covered by both clinical analysis by crime professionals and in lugubrious feature articles by journalists with copy to fill.

The second, and in my view, more important element, is in understanding how two new converts to Islam, growing up in London, readily accept a path that takes them swiftly out of the mainstream and places them in a situation where they are hungry for the world-view of the militants, and hungry again to shed blood supposedly for causes which they have no obvious link to.

Michael Adebolajo was born in 1984, to Christian, Nigerian parents, social worker and NHS nurse-manager, living in Romford. He converted to Islam at 19 while at Greenwich University.

"Muslim communities in universities are very fluid affairs, with a continuous turnover of members and officers. University campuses provide an incredibly rich environment for factions to spawn and develop:
• New students are freed from family and peer group constraints.
• They have time to reflect and egos to establish.
• University prayer rooms need new imams nearly every year, naturally selected from the student body, and Islamic Society events need speakers and organisers.
• Differences between ethnicities, their practices and factions are brought into sharp relief by the cosmopolitan mixture of students.
• Activists are compelled to recruit again every year merely to ensure that their faction and their union budget survive.
• The events programme requires a stream of visiting speakers to address meetings on interesting and therefore controversial topics. Most speakers are unknown individuals, friends and fellow factionalists of the organiser.”
(Mehmood Naqshbandi, Shrivenham Paper No. 1, Aug 2006)(pdf)

There is no necessary reason to suppose that Greenwich University Islamic Society per se had any special interest in guiding the new convert - he would have relied on his own circle of friends. His studies were not very productive, and being in London, he would have had ample opportunity to mix with other students, Muslims, converts, from other London colleges or the local community. What he would definitely have experienced, and for me this is the most vital point, is his experience as a Muslim convert. While at college he would have been among the Bohemian and free-thinking milieu of students, many of them playing with ideas that certainly would have embraced militancy, fantasised heroics and world-challenging idealism. As a convert he would have had numbers of fellow converts and returnees, young people at the point in their lives when they feel bound to start committing themselves to something fervently, to make redress for their hitherto dissolute teenage years.

But wherever he went in the ordinary world of local mosques and local Muslim communities he would be an ignored stranger. In his home turf of Romford, there is one well-established masjid, Havering Islamic Cultural Centre on Waterloo Road since 2007. In 2000 the council rejected planning permission to use a former council premises they owned, as a masjid, through very vociferous local opposition and that 'an Islamic cultural centre "could attract vandalism"' (Romford Recorder Hornchurch Upminster, 03.11.00). They continued to hire Century Youth House up to 2007, for Friday salaah, so there was nowhere actually local and mainstream for Michael Adebolajo to go as a Muslim, except perhaps on Friday lunchtime. Such is the law of unintended consequences, that the local, essentially white-racist opposition to their own Muslim neighbours can be considered to have prevented Adebolajo from settling into mainstream Islam and have thus indirectly led to Rigby's murder. However I would not dwell too heavily on that point. Had Adebolajo gone along to Jumu'ah salaah, he would have sat among a few dozen Pakistanis and a few Bangladeshis, to listen to a khutbah (ritual Jumu'ah reading) recited swiftly in parrot-fashion, with probably no non-ritual wyaaz (non-ritual speech or sermon) and if there had been, it would have been in Punjabi-ised Urdu. If he had been befriended by anyone there, it would have been most likely a local shopkeeper or taxi driver.

If he had showed any inclination to enthuse about the religion in that gathering, the predominantly Tablighi Jama'at, Deobandi oriented organisers and activists of the locale, would have tried to take him under their wing and impressed on him the simple, reductionist formulae of their methods - five times daily salaah in the masjid, going out "in the path of Allah", i.e. spending two or three nights in a small group in some other masjid in a Tabligh party picking over odd passages from Maulana Zakariya's Tablighi Nisaab, and knocking on the doors of exclusively Asian, known Muslim families and encouraging them to come to the masjid to listen to one of their party repeat a 10 minute speech that has been unchanged in the hundred years since the Tablighi Jama'at formula was first proposed; thuswise completing the cycle in which anyone thus aroused would be invited themselves to "go out in the path of Allah".

However Adebolajo would never have had the slightest interest in Tablighi Jama'at; there are almost no converts to Islam who do have, in spite of it being the biggest and most active movement in UK masjids. Its extraordinarily limited formula does not equip its followers for tackling the diverse issues that a newcomer to Islam would raise, so it explicitly and often annoyingly ignores converts completely - the often-stated rejoinder to any plea to them to help a new Muslim or to try to persuade an interested non-Muslim towards Islam, is to say, "There's no value in bringing new people into Islam when the body of Muslims is still corrupt," by which they mean not practising in the precise manner that they practise.

The Havering Islamic Cultural Centre wasn't quite the only game in the village. There is also a rather peculiar entity on Lessington Avenue. In one form or another the "Essex Islamic Trust" has been pottering around Romford offering a rather idiosyncratic alternative view of Islam. Its website states, "This is first Mosque in Havering and is totally and completely based on Taqwa (piety, “Fear God as He should be feared” The Holy Quran: Al-i-Imran 3:102) and follows the Shariah’s laws." There is nothing remotely sinister or extreme about this entity, it is merely one individual's attempt to offer up his own individual home-brew of Islam and cultivate a small following of supporters: Islam is a most accessible faith, and with the canonical sources open to all comers to make their own interpretations, there are numerous individuals who dream of carving out a place for themselves. Most other Muslims treat them with healthy scepticism, so the Lessington Avenue entity has little traction. On top of that, its organiser has had more practical problems getting established - run-ins with the Charity Commission and the council over the status of the property he uses, and having to move his activities from place to place around Romford, as well as attacks on the property itself. Romford seems to have a sorry history of local Islamophobia - this itself may have contributed to Adebolajo's sense of victimhood or a sense of championing the militants' cause. However the Essex Islamic Trust itself, even if in 2003 Adebolajo could have found it, would have nothing to offer other than the gripes of a singular individual about his own take on issues vexing Asian versions of Islam.

So, in Romford, there was almost nowhere for Michael Adebolajo to go as a newly converted Muslim, save for an Asian-style Jumu'ah salaah and possibly Asian-style Tablighi Jama'at, or a peculiar individual Asian idiosyncratic version of Islam with very obviously no following to back it up.

There are more fundamental difficulties Adebolajo would have faced. He is a convert, in a religion that at the community level in the UK is overwhelmingly dominated by the Asian sub-communities - Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Gujerati. He is from a Nigerian family. Converts to Islam in Britain attract helpful attention in only a limited way. If they hold a red passport and have economic standing, they have interest as the means of extending the foothold that a family with migratory ambitions have - suggestions of marriage to a cousin's family in Pakistan, the cynical machinations buried in a show of hand-wringing piety. But interest rarely extends any further - Bangladeshis are invariably only interested in their own community, witness the number of masjids with exclusively Bangladeshi management, very often in the same neighbourhood (and in a couple of cases literally next door) as slightly more diverse masjids often with the same religious ethos. Asian racism towards blacks, whether African or American-Caribbean, is notoriously endemic. Adebolajo having reputedly involved himself in local gang activity, would fit their worst stereotypes, as a convert in need of cultivation he would be regarded as an embarrassment to them.

Before his conversion, his family moved to Lincolnshire, an attempt to shed the influence of London street gangs. Had Adebolajo sought any Muslim company in Lincolnshire, he would have found only the same Pakistani and Bangladeshi mono-cultural Islam as Romford, in an even more parochial and alienating form, among people who would have been even more reluctant to draw him into their narrowly traditional practice.

As a Nigerian, he might have tried to find a home among the West African masjids particularly around Southwark, including explicitly Nigerian ones such as Nasrul-lahi-Il-Fathi Society of Nigeria, NASFAT in Bermondsey, or Muslim Association of Nigeria on the Old Kent Road. If he had, he would failed to recognise anything that matched the expectations of Islam that his college Muslim friends would have inculcated in him. These under a dozen masjids, mostly in Southwark and South London, have more in common in their ethos with African revivalist churches than the sobrietous masjids of mainstream Islam. They are happy, welcoming and enthusiastic places for sure, but with his West African Christian upbringing to refer to, he would have seen them as little different to what he had left behind, indeed he would very likely have perceived them as being hugely 'deviated' from the austere and dogmatic Islam of the Muslims he mixed with in college.

As an African, he may have expected to find common ground with the burgeoning Somali communities, and probably did, not in Romford but certainly in Greenwich, or among the Afro-Caribbean Muslims around South London in particular. But just as Asian Muslims would have kept him at arm's length, so he himself would find huge cultural obstacles between him and these. Regardless of Islam, Somalis have had a sorry time in their relations with London's Afro-Caribbean communities who have seen them as intruders, punctuated with numerous attacks and squabbles between them. Within Islam, other than the Brixton masjid at Gresham Road, Afro-Caribbean Muslims themselves are usually a sidelined minority in Asian-dominated and exclusively Asian-run masjids, so Adebolajo would have been a minority of one within another disparaged and distanced minority. In the last ten years the specifically Somali and Eritrean presence has grown so that there are now a couple of dozen masjids founded by these two communities, but these are young institutions, struggling just to get a presence for their own, never mind finding the ways and processes to help others outside ... Nigeria and Somalia are far from juxtaposed geographically; culturally they are worlds apart from each other. It is only our European-centric view that lumps them together in our minds in the vast and diverse continent of Africa.

In short, because of the cultural exclusiveness and parochialness of any of the mainstream masjids and Muslim communities he might have approached, there was never a hope that Michale Adebolajo could have bonded into any kind of mainstream Islam, not even the mainstream of the otherwise often challenging brands of Salafi-ism that he would have been introduced to. On the contrary, his desire as a convert, to make an impression, his zeal and determination to show his commitment, would have fed his frustrations with the complacent, racist and alien mainstream of Islam and driven him like so many other converts before him, to actively seek militancy and embrace it. In this way he would not only satisfy his own desire for status and influence, he would also have a powerful weapon to embarrass and undermine all those in the mainstream who despised and snubbed him. Just like the 11th September attacks, his motive was not only to hurt the non Muslim world, but to hurt Muslims that had made a comfortable settlement with the West, and ultimately in the chaos of the backlash he would cause, to give them reason to leave the West and 'return' to a Muslim world in which people such as he would be revered. To cause fear in people gives you a weapon and status way beyond your actual capacity to cause harm. Whatever the actual extent to which Omar Bakri Muhammad coached him, the keenness with which the latter claimed Adebolajo as one of his, and the way in which Adebolajo embraced the name of Abu Hamza, rather than perhaps the original Hamza himself, the honoured uncle of the Messenger of Allah (S), demonstrates his desire to bask in notoriety, fear and perception of power.

Michael Adebowale is a somewhat different person. His conversion to Islam is relatively recent, he lived in Greenwich rather than being a visitor to it, and he had very specific traumatic experiences prior to entering Islam. There is considerable information that suggests a degree of emotional disturbance, his testimony demonstrates far less clarity or rationality in his actions. Whatever the true state of his mind, and he was of course declared fit to stand trial, it would be rash to try and analyse the influences that drew him to partner Adebolajo's crime without a lot more clarity of his intentions that is currently not available.

Nevertheless both Adebolajo and Adebowale drew heavily on people they fell in with around Greenwich, its masjid in Plumstead, the university there and the neighbouring masjid on Lewisham High Street. Neither of these masids are 'extremist', both are well established, the former for several decades. Both are significant parts of the considerable Salafi influence on London's youth, and both have been at great pains to condemn Lee Rigby's murder and the ideas propagated by the two Michaels. I believe that there is nothing remotely insincere in what these masjids have done, and in the current state of affairs nothing else they could have done to prevent Lee Rigby's murder.

However there is some history here. I first visited Greenwich masjid in 1990, when the UK Salafi movement was still somewhat rarified. At that time the masjid was predominantly mainstream Deobandi, with a noticeable uncomfortable accommodation of a small Ahl-e-Hadith Asian community that drew on support from a mixture of people from various Arab backgrounds who lived in the area. Ahl-e-Hadith is a 19th century movement in India that adopted some of the ideas that were also behind Salafi-ism. Neither are of essence political movements, but both are direct challenges to the traditional sources of authority in orthodox Sunni Islam. Tensions in Greenwich masjid grew as the balance of power shifted in the 1990s, and during the last ten years any Deobandi, Tablighi Jama'at influence has withered away completely. Aside from the upsurge of Salafi-ism per se, inbound members of the Somali diaspora to Greenwich has undermined the stranglehold of the ethnic Asian control of a number of masjids including this one. In the process there has been pressure from below for change, culminating in a Charity Commission review that brought about termination of the trusteeships dating from 2005 and a series of elections with a change of management in 2013. While these machinations are a matter of public record, what they point to for those familiar with the tensions within this masjid, is recognition at grass roots level of the potential to exploit the instability of the masjid as an institution. It quickly becomes a place where a wide range of people seeking to recruit others to their various brands of Islam, involving themselves openly or surreptitiously with whoever they can find to share their stories with. This happens without anyone in charge being able to control or even identify what is happening. When the people in charge are themselves unable to enforce their authority, where that authority itself is not accepted, there is ample scope for extremist recruitment, without anyone being aware of it.

Lewisham masjid is a more recent establishment, and was basically founded as a Salafi institution, its imam having trained in Madinah University in the late 1980s under the heavy influence of Shaikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah bin Baz, the principle driver of the current Salafi movement. As such, Lewisham masjid has been a focal point of much Salafi activism dating back to the period in the 1990s when members of the nascent Salafi movement actively sought confrontation on religious issues with congregations of Deobandi and Bareilvi masjids. That period was turbulent and passed slowly; it left a legacy which still inhabits most masjids, of suspicion, distrust and antagonism between Salafi and other groups. Elements of Salafi theological methods were and still are adopted by extremist thinkers and are used to provide theological justifications for acts of political violence. While the managements of Salafi masjids strive to demonstrate their respectability and civility (with meritorious efforts - most Salafi masjids have far better records of good community relations and positive engagement than most Deobandi or Bareilvi ones), their reputations for antagonism towards the traditional orthodox Sunni practices continue to mark them out as places that are comfortable for other dissenters besides, including militant ones. Furthermore the absence of the ethnic cultural baggage of most Asian-run orthodox masjids and the accessibility of Salafi theology makes them very attractive to converts to Islam - nowadays most converts in the UK adopt Salafi practices. That combination, of a ready audience of converts and of an atmosphere of antipathy towards the mainstream, continues to attract militant activists. The problem masjid managements have is the same one that besets orthodox Deobandi and Bareilvi oriented masjids, the problem that this website continually raises: while all argument about the relative merits of different Muslim theological viewpoints continues to be nothing but polemical monologue, while Muslim preachers and practitioners treat other sects with utter contempt, it is impossible to have a genuine and informed discussion about such matters in which people and their differing beliefs are treated with mutual respect and attention to facts instead of diatribes. In other words, while managements and imams of Salafi masjids such as Lewisham Islamic Centre oversee an atmosphere of contempt towards alternative dissenting or orthodox beliefs and practices, all discussion of any different viewpoint takes place out of sight - that is true whether it is a healthy viewpoint or a militant one.

Thus it is easy for Lewisham Islamic Centre to declare, "At no point however, were these individuals members of our congregation. At no point did these individuals use our services or attend any of our classes. At no point did they have a personal relationship with anyone at the Centre and/or members of the mosque/management." - they will never find out anything different, because all dissent is hidden from them. Only when such places, along with all the other one and a half thousand autocratic, unaccountable, sectarian UK masjids, begin to accept and entertain Muslim religious diversity in a respectful manner will they be able to distinguish those remainder that continue to treat all of us with contempt, men such as Michael Adebolaje and Michael Adebowale. Only then will they recogise such people on their arrival in Islam and either make them secure in the Muslim mainstream, or as safe but opinionated dissenters whose voices moderate with age and wisdom.

If Salafi-oriented masjids receive far more antagonistic attention and unwarranted accusations of harbouring extremists than they deserve, they can look back a decade or two and see how the seeds for that were laid in their own frequently vicious and divisive antagonism towards the orthodox, particularly Deobandi and Bareilvi, masjids and communities. Their refusal to be respectful and tolerant to other Muslims is a legacy that will take huge acts of contrition to set right.

Meanwhile whatever the sect, the failure of the Muslim community to understand transparency and accountability, mutual respect and tolerance of diversity, its deep rooted racism among its own various ethnicities, and its total failure to bring converts into its bosom, means that the whole Muslim community, for all their denials, have to shoulder a significant part of the blame for Lee Rigby's murder, and the dreadful catalogue of other incidents of home-grown violence perpetrated by Muslim converts. Sadly there is no evidence whatsoever that such lessons are being learnt among UK masjids, their imams or their managements.


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