I am the same age as Salman Abedi, the Manchester suicide bomber, and almost the same age as the recently named London Bridge terrorists; I also profess to be of the same faith. Thankfully, these are the only two things we have in common. As well as studying medicine at university, I currently serve as the president of the UK Ahmadiyya Muslim Students Association. I spend a lot of my time working to organise interfaith dialogues and peace conferences. So how exactly did we turn out so different? And could knowing the answer to this help reduce the numbers of young people being brainwashed into extremism?
The primary answer to this is education. Even in childhood, I always asked questions about my religion – and as I grew up, I had access to imams and elders ready to answer them. I was free to challenge them, to ask the toughest and most sensitive questions about the most “controversial” aspects of Islam.
Through this process I learnt that Islam teaches there is no compulsion in religion, that taking even a single life is equivalent to killing the whole of mankind, and that saving a life is equivalent to saving the whole of humanity. I learnt that the concept of jihad is not about spreading religion through force, but about struggling against one’s own evil desires in order to reform oneself and become a pure-hearted, decent individual.
I learnt that the Prophet Mohammed taught that loyalty to one’s nation of residence is part of one’s faith, reinforced by the fact that at least once a year at our religious functions we publicly make the pledge to serve our country whenever required. I learnt about the role of charity in Islam, and what the Qur’an calls the “steep ascent” – the true means of attaining nearness to God: “It is the freeing of a slave, or feeding in a day of hunger, an orphan near of kin, or a poor man lying in the dust.”
I learnt that Islam is not a completely pacifistic religion, and there do exist verses about warfare – however, this is always strictly defensive. The Prophet Mohammed was faced with persecution from his own people for over a decade and yet only engaged in battle after he had migrated, for the purpose of protecting not only Islam, but the freedom of conscience for those of all faiths, which was being threatened at time.
More generally, I learnt through the responses I got that everything in my faith was in harmony with human nature, and that nothing was dogmatic or unreasonable or a threat to society. I learnt that a strong grounding in Islamic knowledge is in fact protective from radicalisation.
Defeating extremist ideology therefore lies to a large degree in the hands of Muslim imams and scholars. If they are able to educate their congregations from an early age about the true peaceful nature of Islam, then there is no threat that these individuals will become radicalised in their later life.
Though this is an ideological battle, our Government can help with this too. A study conducted by an Islamic Studies expert at Newcastle University in 2007 found that around a quarter of UK mosques were found to have malignant and hateful literature. That literature’s publication and distribution was all linked to the Saudi Arabian government, and many of the mosques were Saudi-run. Wahhabism, the type of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, is an extremely severe form of Islam which is often cited by Isis as an inspiration.
We must stop allowing Wahhabi mosques to be built in the UK, and do more to root out extremist preachers already here. One way of doing this, as mentioned by a prominent Muslim leader, is to monitor mosques, particularly Friday sermons, to weed out potential threats. The most efficient way of preventing radicalisation is by removing from our nation hateful clerics who have influence over young minds.
Over the coming days and weeks, I and my Ahmadi Muslim friends will be attending vigils and commemorations for the recent attacks wearing T-shirts and holding banners with messages of peace and love. Perhaps I will talk to others there and shed a tear with them for the victims. Perhaps amidst our grieving hearts and hurt souls, I will be able to exchange words of hope with people on witnessing the unity and pluralism that these atrocities brought out in our society.
Perhaps I will encounter people whose views on Islam are forged by the terrorists, and perhaps they will look at me and my friends, British Muslims of a similar age to the extremists, and ask: “How did you turn out so different?” And with a smile we will tell them.
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