Given that I specialise in non-Muslim Britons who convert to Islam, I was particularly interested in chapter 10, verse 159 of the Revised Prevent Strategy which states that ‘people who convert [to Islam] may initially be less well-informed about their faith, they may be vulnerable to overtures from radicalisers who seek to impress a distorted version of theology upon them.’ (p. 87). This perspective is informed by but also reinforces several stereotypical discourses that exist about conversion to Islam which I am keen to challenge based on my extensive research of Muslim converts:
Myth 1: People who convert to Islam are naive and passive, unable to think for themselves and brainwashed by others. My own research – as well as other research – has noted the frequent appearance of this misconception. In fact, people who convert to Islam are overwhelmingly articulate in explaining their passion for Islam and the benefits they find in it. Moreover, they are well informed about various approaches to Islamic theology and can debate extensively against interpretations of Islam that they disagree with. It is patronising to talk about them as if they are unable to resist extremist views using their own intellect and reason.
Myth 2: People are converting to Islam as a result of Al Qaeda recruiting them. If we assume that Al Qaeda has a presence in Britain, there is no evidence to demonstrate that any Muslim converts have chosen to become Muslim because of Al Qaeda propaganda. It is more likely for people to convert to Islam after having a friendship or relationship with a Muslim, or pursuing an interest in Islam after hearing about it so much in the news. People are overwhelmingly converting to Islam because they are curious about its teaching, read up about it and find its teachings resonate with them. It is much more likely for spiritual and social issues to play a role in encouraging a person to convert to Islam, than political issues.
Myth 3: Those who convert to Islam are traitors who are abandoning Britain and declaring Britons as their enemies. Barry from the Chris Morris film Four Lions is the personification of the typical Muslim convert. My research has emphatically shown that people who convert to Islam are comfortable identifying as British Muslims, are protective of their Britishness, want to participate and improve British society, and even feel that their conversion to Islam has intensified their desire to be better citizens. Anxieties about Muslim converts as potential “enemies within” find little basis in reality. The tiny proportion of Muslim converts who have engaged in terrorism have often been found to have individual problems and are in no way representative of other British Muslim converts. I have found, as other research about Muslims in general has found, that Muslim converts are characteristically model citizens who epitomise respectable values, participate in society, work hard, care for their families, and contribute to their local communities.
As a current university student who has participated in my university’s Islamic Society and the Federation of Student of Islamic Societies (FOSIS), I also must challenge the Government’s insistence that Muslim university students are particularly prone to being radicalised into extremist views and eventually into committing acts of terrorism. Islamic Societies are preoccupied with establishing worship facilities in university campuses that have limited space, providing social events for Muslim students seeking to avoid the alcohol-led student culture, arranging charity events in accordance with a central pillar of Islam, and participating in interfaith meetings to strengthen bonds with people of other faiths. Adding to this that the average Muslim student is – like most other students – not only politically apathetic, but more interested in music, fashion, computer games and relationships, the Government’s unsubstantiated claim that Muslim university students are on the road to terrorism only stigmatises Muslim students who are seeking to fulfil their aspirations by attaining university degrees. In this way the manufacturers of the new Prevent strategy not only seem to ignore the wider climate of Islamophobia whereby Muslims are often demonised and considered as different, inferior, and a threat, but actually reinforce it through their approach to countering terrorism. The framing of this policy licenses the continuing cast of suspicion over Islam and Muslims by association with terrorism and implicitly implies that some aspects of Islam need to be purged or adjusted. The consequences of this will be felt by ordinary Muslims as they go about their everyday lives in ways that the likes of Lord Carlile and Theresa May will never feel.
Overall, the new Prevent strategy is particularly problematic in its vagueness. It leaves an unclear sense of what is considered as extremism and what is not. It leaves Britons suspicious of other Britons, weary of who is unacceptably harbouring extreme opinions, and will even lead to individuals being suspicious of themselves, interrogating and doubting their own thoughts, unsure whether they have or risk crossing the ill-defined line of becoming an extremist. This raised level of suspicion has added consequences for Muslim converts. They were already required by others to demonstrate their sincerity in converting to Islam, after it emerged that Government agencies have used fake Muslim converts to act as agent provocateurs. Now they must also demonstrate that they are not too extreme, adding another layer of difficulty in seeking membership within a Muslim community, and ironically making them more likely to turn to fringe groups for support.
If the Government wanted to be efficient in preventing terrorism, they would tackle the root causes of terrorism by looking at what motivates terrorists to commit terrorism. It has been said that no State has ever been attacked by terrorists but that it aggressed somewhere. Indeed, everyone knows that Britain will continue to be a target for terrorist attacks until its leaders adjust foreign policies that are widely perceived as unjust and oppressive, whether supporting despotic regimes, dismissing civilian deaths as collateral damage or exploiting other people and their resources in the name of ‘national interests’.
It is worth challenging – if it is still legal to do so – whether Al Qaeda terrorism should be the main area of concern, especially given that the Europol EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2011 found that from a total of 249 terrorist attacks in the EU in 2010, only 3 were attributed to ‘Islamist terrorist groups’, the rest coming from violent separatist, nationalist, or anarchist groups. The rise of the Far Right in recent years is disturbing. Muslims in Britain have already been killed, paralysed and injured due to Islamophobic attacks, Muslim graves have been desecrated, and mosques have been vandalised. Far Right terrorist attacks have been foiled but any day, there could be a Far Right terrorist attack against Muslims. This should not only worry and disturb Muslims. But one should challenge further, whether terrorism altogether should be our major concern. I believe the most pressing issues harming Britons’ lives actually centre around poverty, unemployment, inadequate education, limited health care, alcohol and drug addiction, and crime. We do need a Prevent Strategy: one that will prevent politicians from scaremongering and scapegoating in a bid to distract voters from their inability to tackle the real issues which most urgently, directly, and debilitatingly affect us as one society.
Leon Moosavi is a PhD student in the Sociology Department of Lancaster University. His thesis examines the experiences of Muslim converts in Britain in relation to Islamophobia, belonging and ‘race’. His thesis is scheduled for completion in September 2011. Some of his preliminary findings have recently been published as a book chapter in The Sociology of Islam: Secularism, Economy and Politics (Ithaca Press, 2011).