The British Army is making a determined push to recruit Muslims in an attempt to counter the rise in radicalisation which has seen hundreds of young men from this country join violent extremist groups like Isis and al-Shabaab.
Terrorist attacks such as the ones in Paris and the increasing numbers of plots in the UK involving returning jihadis has been one of the key reasons for the the military focusing on alienation among some sections of the Muslim community.
The armed forces have carried out campaigns to attract Blacks and Asians and have won a number of civic awards over the years for promoting equality and tackling discrimination: but the percentage of Muslims joining have been consistently lower than those of other religions.
More than twice as many Muslims have gone to fight for Islamist groups in Syria than are serving in the Army, according to Khalid Mahmood, the Labour MP for Perry Bar, Birmingham.
The estimate he presents, around 1,500 joining the jihad, is considerably higher than that given by Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, who puts the total at 600. But that is still higher than the figure 480 serving soldiers, 0.54 per cent out of the Army strength of 88,500, who are Muslims. The total for all three services stand at 650.
General Sir Nick Carter, the head of the Army, stressed that the quality of the soldier remains the fundamental criteria in recruitment. He continued: “This requires us to draw talents from all of the society we represent. Our recruitment from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities have been improving over the years, but it is nowhere near it needs to be, we have to do more. The values and standards we espouse resonate closely with these communities and there is much common ground that we can build on to broaden our recruitment base.”
Talks have been held with imams and community leaders in inner cities, areas which have proved to be lucrative for Islamists in gaining adherents. Last year the armed forces took part in the Living Islam Festival in which Muslim personnel took part in debates with civilian Muslims. The Army has launched the Armed Forces Muslim Forum and has contributed to events such as the British Muslim Awards and liaised with the League of British Muslims. Similar initiatives have taken place with the Hindu and Sikh communities.
However, at the same time, radical imams at mosques in Britain have condemned those who have joined the military as traitors. In 2007 a group of British Pakistanis were convicted of planning to kidnap and behead a Muslim soldier. Their leader, Parviz Khan, pleaded guilty and received a sentence of life imprisonment. Similar plots have been uncovered in the years since by MI5 and the police.
Senior officers acknowledge that the involvement of British forces in the Iraq and Afghan wars, and reports of abuse, have led to the perception among some Muslims that a crusade is being waged against Islam and that the anger this generated has been exploited by Islamist recruiters.
General Sir David Richards, the former head of the British military and head of Isaf ( International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan, is the life patron of the Armed Forces Muslim Association. He told The Independent: “This is a problem that needs to be addressed. It is important that Muslim and, indeed, other minorities know that those in senior ranks are on their side and stand by them. One can see how Afghanistan and Iraq be presented as a religious wars and it is up to us to present a more balanced picture. We had Muslim service personnel serve with distinction in Afghanistan and I got imams out there to talk to the troops. I also made sure that I met visiting imams from Muslim counties when they came here if I could.
“The barbarity of Isis is actually exposing the lie that they are carrying out a jihad for Islam. The brave Jordanian pilot they burned alive was a Muslim, the vast majority of those they are beheading are Muslims. There has been great revulsion about these savage acts in the Muslim world; we, and others, need to keep pointing this out.”
A British Muslim former soldier described the difficulties involved in struggle for the loyalty of young Muslims. Irfan, who had carried out two tours in Helmand, is involved with a predominantly Muslim youth club in Birmingham.
He said: “They get all this stuff from the Internet and some of them believe it. The fact remains that despite all that the government say they are doing on this, there are still quite a few extremist mullahs who are putting out propaganda. The government has also failed these kids on other things, providing jobs, giving them a future, that again is something that makes them vulnerable to propaganda.
“I am happy to debate matters with anyone including Muslims who have different views to me. I tell them I had no problems with the Afghan war although we f****d up on a few things there. The Iraq war I thought was wrong, but that was the fault of the politicians, of Blair, not the Army. Now I know that happens to be the view of some of my white mates in the Army as well. But if you are a Muslim, then you think about things like these a lot more. You need to work out where you stand.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies