Kishwer Falkner: Where now for the Muslim community?

If we are to tackle extremism in our midst, we need to answer some difficult questions


Since last Thursday, many British Muslims have been united by similar sentiments: the hope that the terrorists are not "ours", and if they are from Muslim backgrounds at all, the hope that they are clearly identified as foreign al-Qa'ida operatives. If the latter, it would not diminish the horror or despair, nor lessen the perception that our religion is being hijacked by madmen - but it would put some distance between us and them.

It does not look as if this solace is available if Lord Stevens, the former Head of the Metropolitan Police, is correct in saying that the terrorists involved are almost certainly British citizens. Since 9/11, many of us have been grappling with how and why British Muslim youth - usually second or third generation - have found extremism, and, in rare cases, terrorism, so compelling.

As a politician who goes around the different Muslim communities in the UK, the answers are complex. Socio-economic issues are part of the problem. The levels of social deprivation of Muslims living in Burnley, Bradford or Leeds tell the story of years of neglect, ignorance, poor upward mobility and segregated communities, hence alienation from the mainstream.

A further outcome of segregation is the inability to "test" values and ideas against competing norms. The experience of racial difference, and most Muslims are not white, sits differently within our skins at different stages of our lives, but is most difficult in youth. When religious and cultural difference is added and reinforced through very tight family structures where integration into the wider British community is rare, then mainstream values do not easily transfer across.

There is also the issue of whether the mainstream Muslim leaders are representative. In the past decade, a plethora of different political groups has sprung up on the fringes of the Muslim establishment, who feel that their leaders either do not speak for them or are impotent to bring about change. For them the internet and travel become the tools of building solidarity and recognising identity. Each man truly becomes an island.

The perception of injustice runs deep. In Muslim seminars or on the doorstep, all too often one hears of condemnation not only for the Iraq war, but of the war against Afghanistan as well. The West is routinely criticised for waging an attack on the Muslim world, not states which are a threat. When pressed for an answer as to what should have been done with a Taliban-run, al-Qa'ida-embracing Afghanistan, one is met with silence at best, or a simple denial that al-Qa'ida was a threat.

As one tries to bring shades of grey into a black-and-white world view, eyes glaze over and the argument is lost. Injustice, real or perceived, provides pain and comfort in equal measure, requiring a level of trust and respect that cannot be built up in one encounter. One moves on.

When extremism culminates in terrorism, the refrain from leaders is that these are not "real" Muslims. While almost all Muslims would not condone terrorism, it is now evident that there are some who conflate justice for the Muslim ummah with justification for murder. These people do not see themselves as outside our faith, indeed they see themselves as representing its unsullied purity. What is more, the boundary between these apologists and the mainstream is not always clearly identifiable.

So where now? The Muslim Council of Britain and theological bodies are reported to be preparing a fatwa against the perpetrators of London's bombs. This religious edict is the closest Islam comes to "excommunication". However, temporal authorities are not universally recognised across the many differing schools of Islam, and are not capable of effective sanction - particularly among those prepared to die for their perceived beliefs.

The Muslim community must move beyond condemnation and fear of victimisation. If we are to tackle extremism in our midst, we need to answer some difficult questions? Should segregation, and its isolation from the mainstream be tolerated under the guise of multiculturalism? How far should the secular state and its bedrock of shared values be stretched to accommodate religious pluralism, when religion is twisted by extremists on all sides? In an open society, where is the fine line between tolerance and cohesion?

Mainstream Britain will also have to engage in this debate. It is its problem too. Ultimately, the real test will be the longer-term ability of both groups to share values, with the outcome inevitably being an asymmetrical equation, where the minority gives more. This will be a painful and lengthy exercise, but one we Muslims defer at our peril.

Baroness Falkner is a Liberal Democrat peer

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