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New Statesman: The absurd hunt for “Muslim toddler terrorists” exposes the extent of anti-Muslim prejudice

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Muslim children are being watched closely for signs of radicalisation. Anything from not celebrating Christmas to shunning art and drama is now grounds for suspicion, and reason enough to invade the “private space” of British Muslims. Nurseries are duty-bound to inform on toddlers they suspect of being at risk of becoming “terrorists”, in a sick reworking of genetic justifications for black criminality that somehow presuppose an inherent dispositions towards terrorism in Muslim kids. Just this month, primary schools – key centres of trust and care in the community – were turned into centres of racial profiling in which nine- and ten-year-old children were asked to complete a questionnaire devised “to identify the initial seeds of radicalisation with children of primary school age” (the BRIT project, which was behind the questionnaire, has since removed any references to radicalisation and violent extremism from its website).

It is hard to comprehend how calls for children to be racially profiled, for mass and intrusive surveillance and a criminalisation of some of the most basic elements of religious practice – such as a “sudden negative attitudes towards alcohol” – could seemingly come to pass with so little uproar.

As a parent I spoke to from Buxton School, one of the institutions targeted by the recent questionnaire scandal, put it: “If these children were adults going for a job, this sort of information about their ethnicity, religious identity and views, etc, would not be disclosed and would be protected – why is such data now being collected about young children who might not even know what they’re saying and yet, who may now be profiled based on information collected when they were in primary school? Who is monitoring how this information is being used?” (Buxton School has since disassociated itself from the scheme.)

Even universities, traditionally bastions of free speech, are now expected to refer students “at risk”, with notions of what constitutes “risk” expanding to include “non-violent extremism”, a term so nebulous universities themselves have voiced concern over what exactly it is they are supposed to be monitoring.

The conclusion many Muslims are reaching is that the perception of a tacit complicity of the Muslim community in terrorist activity has gained such traction that the sorts of measures that might see Orwell turn in his grave – formal as well as more tacit restrictions on the basic freedoms of over 2.71 million Muslim citizens – now pass largely unobstructed. Dehumanisation has reached such depths that society is increasing willing to accept a two-tier system in which Muslims simply do not benefit from the same levels of freedom as everyone else.

In a leaked document in March, the Home Office made clear its focus is no longer violence, but has now expanded to include viewpoints – in other words mere ideas – it considers unacceptable.

As the space for dissent shrinks, the arts take on a critical role in vocalising increasingly unacceptable ideas and challenging the status quo, a vital space to humanise those overwhelmingly depicted in terms of a societal threat – Trojan horse, fifth column, potential radicals. Even the language employed to describe vulnerable young people ensnared by violent cults betrays a sense of complicity in their own exploitation – the use of the term “Jihadi brides” in reference to young women groomed for a life of sexual slavery, a term about as sensitive as referring to the victims of the recent child sex grooming scandals, as “loose women”.

A recent double play in particular, Hurling Rubble at the Sun/Hurling Rubble at the Moon by the British Pakistani poet and playwright Avaes Mohammad, explores the far right and Muslim extremism, laying out the complex and intertwined ingredients which come together to produce violent ebullition. More than anything, Mohammad’s play allows the audience to explore the motivations for violence, without dehumanising its perpetrators, and in so doing, the space to acknowledge the centrality of psychological and human factors, so often ignored. It also highlights the absurdity of a hunt for “Muslim toddler terrorists”, recentering factors common to all those vulnerable to messages of violent empowerment, be it through gangs, cults or religious supremacy.

Given the seemingly inescapable lens of “Muslim terrorism”, which Muslim artists themselves struggle to escape, the simple fact of producing a story about Muslim experience which isn’t about terrorism appears a form of resistance in Ambreen Razia’s debut drama, The Diary of a Hounslow Girl at the Ovalhouse Theatre.

Razia’s play isn’t about extremism. Nor should a young Muslim playwright have to explain why young girls join extremist groups, as Razia was called upon to do in a recent BBC interview. What Razia’s monologue does present, however, are the limitations of life through the eyes of a 16-year-old girl.

Her character, Shaheda, doesn’t end up heading for Syria. Instead, after being filled with no less evocative lies, she ends up pregnant and stuck in her Hounslow bedroom. Her vulnerability to the suave ways of a local reprobate is less about the strictures of her heritage and more about her inability to understand what her expectations of love can or should be. In other words, in transcending the particularities of her Muslim-ness, the audience finds universally recognisable challenges faced by young people today. Like Shaheda, long before they’re “jihadi brides”, these girls are lost schoolgirls, desperate for affirmation, love and recognition.

And so while Razia’s play isn’t about young girls drawn to IS fighters, it does offer insight into the kind of apathy which may lead young, ambitious girls to be drawn in by narratives of cosmic love. Whether running away with the local bad boy or the IS pin up, thwarted aspirations, counter-cultural teenage notions of love and heroism and a desire for more than the limited paths perceived ahead are powerful human motivations, often lost in stale political debates.

As the spectre of terrorism is increasingly used to narrow the space for dissenting voices, be they opposition to foreign policy or anti-systemic views more broadly, art feels – as it has so often been – like the last, shrinking space in which increasingly unacceptable ideas can be truly be aired and possibly heard.

You can read the original piece here, on the NS site.

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Written by Myriam Francois

June 11, 2015 at 09:50

BBC Daily Politics show: Soap Box “extremism vs social conservativism”

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You can watch me on the Daily Politics show with Andrew Neil and Jo Coburn with Conservative MP Priti Patel and Shadow Wales Secretary Owen Smith, to discuss social conservativism and extremism and whether the two are being confused in the fight against terrorism, here

Written by Myriam Francois

June 25, 2014 at 16:41

HuffPost: British Jihadis – Turning Mothers Into Informants Is No Solution

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You can read the piece on the HuffPost site here

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In the government’s latest Orwellian measure, mothers and wives of “would-be jihadists” are ‎being urged to report on their loved ones, avowedly to “prevent tragedies”. It won’t escape notice ‎however, that despite protestations to the contrary, a message emanating from the police carries ‎criminalising potential. ‎

This latest strategy to deter Britons from heading to fight in Syria comes despite evidence ‎suggesting most families are oblivious to their relatives’ decision. Abdul Waheed Majeed, who died ‎in Syria in February this year is one of a number of Brits who told his family he was going on a ‎humanitarian mission. Other parents, like those of Abdullah Deghayes were unaware their son had ‎even left the country until it was too late. Ensuring any extremist views acquired by fighters abroad ‎are neutralised when arriving back on British shores is as critical for Muslims as it is anyone else, but ‎relying on Muslim women to undertake the work of the security services is not only likely to be ‎ineffective, it also risks further undermining women in highly patriarchal settings as possible ‎‎’agents’, not to be trusted. ‎

Research in December from the King’s College-based ICSR estimated 1,900 people from western ‎Europe have travelled to Syria to fight, including 366 from the UK. In terms of the threat posed by ‎their return, Shiraz Maher from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political ‎Violence suggests around 1 in 9 returning fighters represent cause for concern. And yet this latest ‎advice suggests all Muslims contemplating travelling to Syria are a possible threat and goes on to ‎place the onus for our national security in the hands of the Muslim community, turning mothers ‎into informants. The call can be situated within an increasingly intrusive state of surveillance and ‎securitisation of the British Muslim community.‎

The Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse plot’ is just the latest indication that when it comes to Muslims, the ‎counter-terrorism lens is applied even before the facts of the case are established. In every facet ‎of life, from teachers and lecturers asked to spy on students, to healthcare workers on their ‎patients, youth groups whose access to public funding has been made conditional on sharing data ‎with law enforcement agencies, to university Islamic societies under pressure to divulge ‎membership lists – Muslims are well aware they’re being closely watched. Who knew even mums ‎would now be roped in! ‎

According to research by ICSR, the profile of foreign fighters is typically male, in their twenties of ‎South-Asian ethnic origin and with recent connections to higher education. Interestingly, this is also ‎the profile which overlaps significantly with those most likely to be unemployed – unemployment ‎among Muslims under the age of 30 is 23 per cent (compared to a UK average for young people of ‎‎17 per cent), stopped and searched, detained at airports , to struggle with poor educational ‎achievements, to be over -represented in our prisons. It is certainly telling that another British fighter, ‎‎23 year old Mohammed el-Araj from Notting Hill, had spent 18 months in prison before he was ‎killed in Syria in November last year. ‎

If you want to know the real reason the prospect of death can seem more appealing than life, then ‎look at the quality of life these young (predominantly) men are facing. Young men of that ‎demographic have a bleak future ahead – hit harder than most by austerity, they can anticipate ‎joblessness, discrimination, police harassment, possible incarceration. To many young men the ‎jihad may seem appealing because it provides ultimate meaning to a life which might otherwise ‎seem hopeless. ‎

The UK today has some of the most draconian “anti-terror” legislation in the developed world and ‎these disproportionately negatively affect Muslim Britons. Harassed and coerced into becoming ‎informants, what kind of a relationship do you expect young Muslims to have with a police force ‎which bulldozes its demands through dawn raids and indefinite detentions, yet seemingly fails to ‎tackle rising anti-Muslim hate crimes? What trust can you expect them to have in a system which ‎has demonstrated clear double standards in the extradition of Muslim British citizens and stripped ‎‎37 UK nationals – many of them Muslims, of their citizenship? Despite polls showing that British ‎Muslims strongly identify with the UK, you could hardly excuse a luke warm commitment to ‎Britishness from citizens who could essentially be stripped of that very identity!‎

Ifthekar Jaman, 23, a customer service rep, whose parents run a takeaway restaurant and who was ‎also killed in Syria described his feeling of disconnect from a society he felt rejected from in one of ‎his final posts on Twitter, he said: “It is better for the authorities to allow these Muslims who want ‎to migrate & do jihad. This way, we’re out of your way.”‎

Young people, Muslim or not, need a stake in the system. They need to feel that legal, mainstream ‎routes to success are open to them and ultimately they need to find a means of asserting their ‎self-worth. When such avenues are closed, other paths to criminality or extremism can begin to ‎seem more attractive. The UN’s counter-radicalisation programme advises “a package of social, ‎political, legal, educational and economic programmes specifically designed to deter disaffected ‎‎(and possibly already radicalised) individuals from crossing the line and becoming terrorists”. ‎Where are these initiatives?‎

In 2010, the communities and local government committee warned the Prevent programme was ‎backfiring and advised that the Department for Communities should devote itself instead “to ‎dealing with the underlying causes of all forms of extremism and division”. Instead of providing ‎young Muslims with new opportunities, the government has formulated a revamped PREVENT ‎strategy which Civil liberties group CAGE has described as “cradle-to-grave” levels of surveillance ‎and discrimination. ‎
In the Muslim community, we don’t need studies to tell us that PREVENT has been counter-‎productive in alienating, rather than engaging people. PREVENT is our bête noire. Muslims may not ‎agree on much, but the failure of PREVENT rouses surprising unanimity.

‎ According to Dr. Alex P. Schmid, Director of the Terrorism Research Initiative (TRI), “where (young) ‎people have alternative forms of expressing grievances and dissent, where they have other and ‎better occupational options than joining an armed, underground organisation, the appeal of ‎terrorism is likely to be smaller. ” The problem is the government would rather invest money in ‎counterproductive policies virtually designed to alienate the Muslim community than address the ‎need for better schools (clue: not through removing state regulation), jobs, opportunities and ‎more broadly a stake in the system. ‎

Polls indicate that Muslims are even more concerned than the broader public by the risk of extremism, ‎but the current breakdown in trust between the police and the Muslim community means ‎assurances about helping, not criminalising young Muslims are unlikely to be audible. If someone ‎you love is in jeopardy, you stage an intervention, you don’t add to their sense of alienation by ‎convincing them even their family members can’t be trusted. In other words, you rely on proven ‎methods of social work used for people in crisis. Not criminalisation. The asinine nature of this ‎latest ‘surveillance strategy’ is evidence of the problematic lens through which Muslims continue ‎to be filtered. In order to confront extremism, the police needs to forge trust with the very ‎communities they consistently casts blanket suspicion over, and ultimately we as a society need to ‎create sufficient stakes for young Muslim men to believe they have a viable future here in the UK.

Written by Myriam Francois

April 26, 2014 at 13:57

Muslimah LTD conference: Muslim youth, Muslim students: The reality, the responsibility

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A short speech I delivered at the Muslimah Ltd conference in London on November 30th 2011.

Muslim Youth, Muslim Students – The Reality, The Responsibility

I’m here to talk to you about my experience of working with students on campuses across the UK. There are over 100 000 muslim students going through university at the moment – I’ve been in what I consider the privileged position of both being part of an active isoc for the first three years of my PhD at Oxford, but also a ‘public speaker’ who gets to visit campuses up and down the country speaking to students about the issues of concern to them. In my short time, I’ll aim to convey a snapshot of some of the issues, positive and negative which I’ve encountered on British university campuses.

Student Islamic societies have been getting a fairly bad rep in the press lately. From allegations of fostering extremism, to hotbeds of radicalisation, through to controversial speakers – many Muslim students are actually wary of joining their Islamic society (isoc) due to some of the fear mongering which we’ve heard. And in my view, that is a real shame. Over the last 5 years, which is in effect a very short amount of time, I’ve seen pretty significant improvements in British isocs – or certainly those I’ve visited. And it is worth making the point that those who know me and my views may not choose to invite me to the isocs where such perspectives are not welcome – i’m aware such places do exist.
I love working with students and I say working because public speaking for me is at its best an interactive process in which I can hope to convey the tiny knowledge I have to impart, and the students can share concerns and queries which we seek to tackle together. Young people are great – they’re vibrant, enthusiastic, energetic and brimming with ideas – they’re also young, inexperienced, and often naïve. As goes with youth – and mine being not that long ago I do still recall – they can also be intransigent, overly self-assured and convinced they know it all. With a decade on most of them, they greet my predication that the reality they currently often perceive in black in white, will with time morph into varying shades of grey – with raised eyebrows. So I hope in their assessment we can bear in mind that isocs are, like all student organisations, run by tired, stressed teenagers on essay deadlines, and their errors are more often than not the product of shambolic organisation rather than malevolent intent.

Today we’re looking at “integration, identity, social unrest and division” – those who know me know I’m allergic to the word integration as applied to individuals born and raised in this country, so let’s talk about civic responsibility instead – how do isocs fare in terms of inculcating a sense of citizenship and its attendant responsibility?

POLITICAL PARTICIPATION

The topic of voting and whether it is permissible from an Islamic perspective was a fairly hotly debated topic not that long ago in the Muslim community and yet this to me is one example of significant progress, whereby many isocs host MPs or media figures who encourage political participation in all guises. This isn’t to say the issue is resolved – but it seems a far more marginal view nowadays that voting is proscribed and enthusiasm, interest and participating in politics, from the NUS through to campus political associations seems to be much more significant. This is partly fuelled by a feeling that Muslims must address what they view as unjust wars or occupations through the means available to them and in this, I see broad coalitions across campuses with isocs joining forces with anti war groups and human rights organisations to raise awareness of such issues. But it is also the product of efforts by isocs and fosis and various speakers to encourage political participation and it is working! Osman Ali is now the first Muslim vice-president of the NUS and he started in his isoc. Furqan Naeem, a pharmacy student from Bradford university, is now the chair of Manchester Young labour. Rehana ali is the Vice president of Student Education and Welfare at LSE Student union.
Most isocs also run a charity week in which they raise funds throughout the week for charitable causes, in some cases, running in the 10 000s of pounds, a huge achievement for a student organisation! Many run soup trains for the homeless and mentoring schemes and the focus is on giving back to the community and fostering a sense of service.
They also all run Islam awareness weeks in which they seek to inform fellow students about their religion, dispel misconceptions and provide a forum for discussion. One university had a stand entitled “ask us anything” which encouraged fellow students to share their views and concerns. Another had a try a hijab stall – and during Ramadan many host joint fasting events with other students who wish to try fasting or are doing so alongside Muslim students to raise money for charity.
I’ve also seen positive developments in the realm of interfaith at Oxford , a Muslim-Jewish organisation “MuJew” was created as a shared platform for cooperation. Nottingham isoc is currently looking in talks with the Jewish-Israeli society.
Some have had such a positive impact on their university campus, like Manchester uni isoc, that they’ve been awarded the best society across the whole university – a prize which recognises the immense dedication and contribution of Muslim students to their campus.

CONTROVERSIAL SPEAKERS

Are there conservative Muslim speakers espousing views that many of us may find distasteful – sure – there are – but as Muslim students broaden their horizons, they tend to come to that same conclusion. The other issue to bear in mind is that students are often contrarian by nature – they are rebelling, against society, against norms, against boundaries and my experience here again is that by their third year they’ve mellowed out a bit. They’re less drawn to the controversy, most desirous of forging links, cooperating, building.
Some of the issues are undeniably due to budget. Which speakers can afford to work for free? Typically those working for organisations which fund their public speaking – and where the funding comes from is usually indicative of the outlook they’ll be propagating… and the main issue is the outlook they disseminate is not always inclusive, can be discriminatory and exclusivist, perhaps even supremacist and often misogynistic. So much so, that I sometimes get asked if I mind addressing a mixed crowd during my lectures…
There have also been significant efforts by Fosis in particular to address the radicalisation issue, specifically through hosting an event which encouraged policy makers, the police and students to come together to discuss issues of concern. They also encourage communication with university authorities, such as regular meetings with the Chancellors.
This will not eliminate the presence of radical students on campuses – but to some extent, universities are places where radical thoughts are explored and as long as the law is not infringed, one would hope to see freedom of speech upheld. This of course runs counter to what was outlined in the Prevent agenda, namely the government’s position that there are certain religious or theological beliefs which are incompatible with the values on which this country depends; and this is true even if they are compatible with the law. But it seems to me absurd to suggest that everyone in Britain apart from the “non-integrated” Muslim Radical are committed to women’s rights or democracy – as far as I’m aware the Daily Mail is still running and anarchists have yet to be deported!
And my experience again tells me that students are keen to explore sensitive issues and get answers – many talks are intended for a mixed muslim, non-muslim audience and seek to appease fears over islam’s relationship to violence or its stance on women’s rights. In this, they seek reassurance from speakers who can help alleviate both theirs and other people’s concerns.

WOMEN

Women’s participation in isocs have been a delicate issue but is another area where I see vast improvements. Most isocs have two vice-presidents, one of whom is a woman. Salford university’s isoc president was a woman. UE isoc also had a female isoc president. Which of course is not to say there aren’t problems. Some isocs don’t offer an atmosphere conducive to female participation – a strict stance on keeping men and women separate at all times can make communication difficult. The best isocs strike a balance between cooperation on isoc related themes and doing their best to avoid becoming a dating agency. Remember, it is hormonal teenagers away from home, most for the first time, we are talking about here. The reality is that efforts to avoid young people developing too close bonds can lead to the isolation of female muslim students in these isocs, and this should be addressed.
There is still to my mind, a significant lack of female speakers – some isocs only invite female speakers to speak on “women’s issues” – but in my experience, once I point this out – they tend to ask for referrals of other female speakers (a rare breed) who could speak on a diversity of topics. So I do think openness to this issue has significantly improved in a fairly short space of time. There are still significant issues, particularly as concerns a narrow vision of women’s role and place in society, the idea that a woman is either a mother or a wife and a sense her place is ideally within the home. Young women themselves sometimes seem confused about whether they should be vocal or active, confusing the notion of “haya”, modesty, with a mandatory shyness which impedes them from speaking up. I’ve been asked by a young woman studying law whether she would be allowed to work after she was married…another asked if she could leave the house without her husband’s permission. And there is a sense of entitlement amongst many young men as regards what they think women owe them (their laundry, 3 square meals, cleaning, not to mention ‘obedience’) which certainly needs to be talked head on. There is a real thirst for female role models and reassurances that women in the public sphere are not an exotic aberration but a real reflection of Islamic principles.

ARTS

A recent development has been a greater interest in the arts, which I think shows a significant interest in contributing to our national tapestry – I’m aware that our Isoc at Oxford is for example planning a play which was written by the muslim students featuring both male and female muslim students. Fosis held an art competition last year which received over 200 entries! And I can’t recall how many muslim students have mentioned an interest in film… to me this is another very positive development, opening onto different mediums and a desire to express a positive aspect of their person rather than defensive posturing which it seems a lot of politics can be about. These students want to highlight the beauty of their religion and religious outlook and focus on the positive and to me this is very heartening.
I think you’ve gathered by now that overall I’m very positive about what I see on British campuses – is it perfect? Certainly not. Do I get frustrated when I hear about some of the antics – of course, but I’m reassured by the knowledge that broadly speaking, most people mellow out with age ( which is actually a variable in criminology). A recent report by Demos found that “Overall British Muslims are more likely to be both patriotic and optimistic about Britain than are the white British community,” and this is born out by my experience and time on British campuses.

Thanks for listening!

Written by Myriam Francois

December 1, 2011 at 14:06