Last week, the BBC invited me to discuss the causes of radicalisation on its politics show, This Week, with Andrew Neil, Alan Johnson and Michael Portillo – three white men who have never faced Islamophobia in their lives.
In the same way that Natalie Bennett put her hands up after her heavily criticised interview on LBC radio, I am not ashamed to concede that I fell apart: my nerves got the better of me and I did not make a strong case. I can only apologise to all the young, disaffected British Muslims I was representing.
Though I take full responsibility for my poor performance, the discussion itself was unproductive and represents everything that is wrong with the British discourse on radicalisation: the tendency is to generalise, filter our nuance and prioritise academic opinion over Muslims’ feelings - the sentiment on the street.
I was hoping to explain that there is no one, as Alan Johnson put it, “fundamental” cause of radicalisation. The Isis narrative has been planted on fertile soil: it is allowed to flourish because of Islamophobia, socio-economic deprivation, intrusive British foreign policy and, of course, the politicisation of Islam by a power-hungry terrorist organisation.
I should know: I have lived on the margins. I have been spat on for being a Muslim; I have lived on one of the poorest council estates in the country and seen my parents struggle to put food on the table; I have mourned for family killed in the illegal Iraq war; and I know what real, non-political Islam looks like – peaceful Friday prayers at Regent’s Park mosque are a million miles away from a militant publicly executing his own mother on the streets of Raqqa. In short, I have struggled in the same way that many radicalised British Muslims have.
But Michael Portillo was quick to dismiss my life experiences as a “so little justified” feeling of “victimhood”. This man spent the “toughest week” of his life on a council estate for a documentary, yet he claimed that the estate I grew up on was “well kept” because it had "cars" and looked “clean”. In other words, my contribution to the discussion was insignificant and disingenuous because I didn’t live in enough squalor, because I lived in touching proximity to a Ford Focus.
Far more important, Portillo and Neil thought, was a study that showed that out of 18 Isis defectors, 13 had gone to university. This, allegedly, was enough to disprove my contention that social immobility contributes to the increase in radicalisation. Of course, Neil forgot to mention that the over 20,000 people have defected to Isis from around Europe, and many of them come from deprived areas in London. And no mention was given to the government’s own report which concluded that Islamophobia and socio-economic disadvantage are “drivers” of radicalisation.
It is galling that Andrew Neil doesn't "know what an intersectional issue is", in his own words, yet cut me off when I tried to explain. Being BME and working-class is different to being white British and working-class. Politicians like Portillo assume that working-class people are a homogenous bloc with the same frustrations and challenges in life.
Similarly, when Portillo speaks of the 'Muslim world' he is endorsing the Isis narrative: like Portillo, Isis conceives of an 'Islamic world' which is in direct competition with the West. Grouping millions of people under the same heading is the Isis dream and the Right's disgusting habit.
Rather than shirking Establishment responsibility, it is time to accept that young, marginalised British Muslims are going to extreme lengths to feel a sense of belonging and identity. Privileged, straight, white, middle-class men like Portillo would do well to remember that.
I may not be an orator like Cicero or a slick politician like David Cameron, but I do know why the caged bird sings.
An African proverb says it all: “If you do not initiate the young men into the village, they will burn it down just to feel the heat”.
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