Why was Islamist extremism accepted up until the late 2000s?

I remember the year and it was 2009 and I was sitting next to a group of Muslim activists and the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Rt. Hon. Hazel Blears MP.

She was explaining how the Preventing Violent Extremism social policy initiative that was being rolled out, was meant to challenge violent Islamist extremism.

The former minister spent much of her time, doing what she did best; talking to and engaging with communities across the country and having some very difficult discussions.

It was also a fact that the Preventing Violent extremism policy was also wholly and singularly focused on Muslim communities, which by itself was problematic.

However, at the time, some Muslim groups were engaging with the agenda, partly because of the shock that 7/7 had caused when young people from the community decided to murder dozens of people and partly because the funding allowed them to carry out community development work.

Yet, I remember that most of the people around the table with the former Minister were men over the age of 60 and many simply were listening, though with little intent to do something.

At the end of the sessions some even came over to me and said that that 7/7 and 9/11 were a ‘Zionist’ plot and that Mossad had paid the killers and were trying to cause a war against Islam.

Granted, these voices were not the majority of people, but the numbers were not insignificant across the meetings I attended.

Israel was the cause behind the world’s problems according to some of these influencers at the time, as though a nation of 6 million people was controlling the world, a classic antisemitic trope if ever there was one.

The views that ‘Islam was under threat’ were not helped by the Bush era of ‘crusades’, a term which he himself used when looking to take the fight against Al-Qaeda into Afghanistan.

The invasion of Iraq further re-enforced the view in the minds of many Muslims, that Islam was really under threat, so it was not insurmountable for people to make that fragile, yet obtuse connection.

The invasion of Iraq re-enforced some of the strongest Islamist narratives and subsequent actions in Iraq, layered on another set of grievances. I

raq was a recruitment and rallying point for extremist groups, just as many had said to Bush and his entourage, but these salient points were ignored at the time.

So the individuals across the ministerial table were voicing much of the geo-politics of the time and when there was no counter-narrative against the voice of Islamist groups, who were highly active at the time.

A decade later, these beliefs of Islam being under threat and of the Government trying to change Islam, are still perpetuated.

They can be found easily, but mainly within closed circles and where the enemy is still America and the West. They are also, interestingly, prevalent within men over 40 years of age, shaped by the turbulence of the 90’s, the ‘War on Terror’, Iraq and other international conflicts.

However, the shoots of change are becoming visible and what is happening is that a younger generation are not accepting the beliefs and norms of the past and ‘the West’ and ‘America’ are not the main issue in their lives.

They are searching for jobs, a life of dignity and equality and they are celebrating friendships with people of other faiths and cultures.

Snapchat pictures show young Muslim Hijab wearing women standing with and holding young women in bikinis and the smiles genuinely exude care and affection.

The world is changing and with it, the beliefs, wants and desires of young Muslims and the shoots are ones that give me and many other Muslims hope.

For in these smiles, I see a confidence within Muslim women that is unbridled and not held back by custom, male pride, ‘cultural barriers’ and misogyny.

You see, we may well be nearing the end of the two decade narrative that the world’s ills emanate from the West and the United States.

At least this belief is corroding in Muslim communities in the UK and time enough that it did. Whilst there is much that the West is responsible for, it is also a fact that much from the West has been adopted within Muslim majority countries and Islam’s engagement with the West has also been shaped over millennia.

Many Muslims will deny the fact that Islam itself was shaped by Christianity at its earliest roots, but Islam’s engagement with Christianity has been occurring from the very time of the revelation of Prophethood onto Muhammed, which Muslims believe in.

Additionally, Islam’s influence on Christianity has not been peripheral. Science, practical ideas and theological reflection have all been shaped by the West’s engagement with Islam and Muslim communities. Thoughts and beliefs do not therefore live in isolation and are constantly changing.

I for one, welcome the Millennial outlook on social norms which is distinctly different to generations before. Boundaries are there to be pushed, ideas promoted and people engaged with .

A new set of ideas and initiatives are developing and which need to be nurtured. The time has come for the next generation to stand up and be counted.

About the Author
Fiyaz is the Founder and Director of Faith Matters, which works on countering extremism, community integration and monitoring hate crime work. He is also the Founder of the national Islamophobia Monitoring Group, Tell MAMA, and was it's Director from 2011-2016. He has worked on supporting better Muslim and Jewish relations for over 17 years.
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