Abu Muqawama retains its autonomy and the views and beliefs expressed within the blog do not reflect those of CNAS. Abu Muqawama retains the right to delete comments that include words that incite violence; are predatory, hateful, or intended to intimidate or harass; or degrade people on the basis of gender, race, class, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability. In summary, don't be a jerk.
Londonstani spent most of the summer on a housing estate clinging to the outskirts of Bristol. The job in hand was to investigate racism for a documentary by living as an immigrant in the kind of area many recent arrivals are housed in by local councils. But the experience also shed light on how the process of radicalisation plays out on the streets of modern Britain. Considering the recent debate about Prevent in the UK, Londonstani thinks it'll be useful to share his observations.
British readers will have little difficulty guessing Londonstani's identity from this post, but he would very much appreciate they keep it to themselves as full disclosure will threaten continued posting from Pakistan.
(preemptive apologies to Ma Exum and Lady Muqawama for some of the language in this post)
I'm used to hearing people in the Muslim world talk about life in Britain as a utopian fantasy. In Pakistan, on a daily basis, i hear rich and poor people talk about Britain's civilised society, it's impartial justice system and the humanitarian founding principles of a health system that provides care for all. Sometimes, I try to inject a little realism into the discussion by pointing out our social problems and the frequent complaints about the deteriorating quality of the country's social services. But I can almost see the words bounce off people's glazed expressions. This is not restricted to Pakistan. Even people in more stable countries like Egypt allow themselves to think of life in a developed economy as a heaven-like dream.
This summer, I saw reality hit home for those few who make it to Britain. I was sitting at a bus stop on the edge of Bristol's Southmead Estate. Beside me was a Sudanese man with his young daughter, who seemed about six years old. We sat on the same bench as he asked her about school and her homework. He had no reason to think I understood his northern Sudanese Arabic dialect, and I felt guilty being an unintended party to a private conversation between a father who looked like he'd just finished a long shift as a security guard at a supermarket and a child, who was plainly excited to be out with her father.
I reached into the paint-splattered overalls that were meant to make me look like a Pakistani immigrant doing odd jobs to survive in his new home and pulled out a cigarette, hoping that leaning against the bus stop away from the Sudanese family would let me tune out of their conversation. On the other side of the road was another bus stop. A group of local girls, none older than 15, were talking to each other loudly. Amongst all the squealing, the only words I could make out were "fuck", "bastard" and "cunt". Occasionally one of the girls would pull her skirt up at a passing car of boys and the others would cheer and hand her a bottle of brightly coloured liquor to swig from. Every now and again, one of the cars would stop and another girl might stand in front of the passenger window and pull down her top. The boys would try and persuade them to get in. Eventually, two of the girls got into a crowded little car with wide tyres and lowered suspension.
I had been absent mindedly watching the events in front of us. After the car drove away, the Sudanese father turned to his daughter and said; "That's what English girls are like. Never talk to people like that."
A few days later at the same bus stop, two Indian low-grade computer technicians were discussing their new home. They probably assumed I understood their Hindi, but they didn't seem to care. They spoke of near daily verbal abuse and friends who had been attacked by teenage thugs. England, they decided, wasn't what they thought it was. Just before they got on their bus, a group of teenagers outside the chip shop behind us proved the technicians' point by rounding on a passing elderly local.
"Look out, he's a perv," shouted one boy. Before another pushed the girl standing next to him in front of the old man and said, "I bet you wish you could fuck her". They all then burst into laughter.
Southmead is the Britain that most people do not see. This is perhaps understandable if you live abroad. But judging from comments after the broadcast of the documentary, people in Britain's more affluent areas are unaware of what happens in neighbourhoods literally on their doorsteps. The little attention places like Southmead merit on the public's radar, is inversely proportional to their physical presence. Places like Southmead exist on the borders of every British city and inside the largest ones. A very large proportion of Britain's immigrants live in places like Southmead and a sizeable chunk of the white population has grown up in similar surroundings.
I saw these surroundings at close quarters. Hundreds of cans of high-strength cider littered the streets every Saturday and Sunday. I saw unemployed drunken youths accost shoppers in the mornings. The green spaces that looked inviting from afar were littered with used condoms, pregnancy test kits and the excrement of pitbull dogs that were popular pets amongst residents. In the daytime, teenage mothers pushed young children around the estate. I saw the partner of one young mother call a toddler a "fucking little shit" before smacking him hard enough on the back of the head to make the child drop to his knees and cover his head in the expectation of further violence. In the early evenings, young teenagers would sit at benches swigging from bottles of cheap alcohol. On one occasion, I became their target.
As an immigrant in Southmead, segregating yourself and your family was an act of self preservation. Two young British-born Pakistani boys I talked to told me earnestly that they were good because "we aint got no white friends". There were many helpful and kind local people living on the estate. But the few I bumped into were often quick to distance themselves from their environment. A retired man who used to try to talk to me every morning at another bus stop would freeze when tatooed men with aggressive dogs walked by. Young mothers who used the same stop would talk about needing to move out "for the sake of the kids".
The impulse to segregate was compounded by the messages that seemed to reinforce the idea that the treatment in Southmead reflected the mood and views of the rest of Britain. "Hundreds of thousands of migrants here for handouts, says senior judge". "Britain paying migrants £1,700 to return home BEFORE they've even got here" "The violent new breed of migrants who will let nothing stop them coming to Britain" These headlines were just three of many that were printed in the Mail, a right-wing daily during my time in Southmead. I don't usually take much notice of the headlines in the Sun and the Mail unless they are truly shocking, but in Southmead the headlines seemed to have an impact on the treatment we received. The level of low-level hostility from adults seemed to be directly linked to the content of the headlines. More outright hostility from younger adults and children followed a day or so later.
Walking around the estate, I often thought of British Pakistani and Somali boys growing up thinking their experiences were an accurate portrayal of what Britain was about. I imagined growing up with such a view of Britain would make the idea of fighting UK forces in Muslim lands seem righteous. On the battlefields of Iraq and/or Afghanistan, the young soldiers they would face would likely include the white youngsters who joined up hoping the army was their way out of Southmead.
But the army wasn't the only way out. There was also religion. If you decide that the dysfunctional reality of Southmead is a product of a permissive society, austere religion is a logical answer.
I met one man from Southmead who had made that decision. A local man had embraced a strict form of Islam. He told me that the problems of the area resulted from weak family values and a moral laxity that allowed the misuse of drugs and alcohol. Islam had provided him a way out and a template for a better life than the one he had seen growing up. Although we talked for literally minutes, it was easy to tell I was talking to a mature adult who made a considered decision that had helped him live as a productive and responsible member of society.
I heard of at least another local man who had embraced Islam. I didn't meet him but I read about him in the newspapers while he was on trial for trying to bomb a shopping centre in the city. When police raided his flat they found a suicide vest and explosives hidden in a biscuit tin.
Andrew Ibrahim is the son of middle class parents, who news reports said were Egyptian Christians. During the trial, a picture emerged of a young man with serious emotional and drug abuse problems. It was a picture I had come across before when looking at a new emerging breed of extremists who came from criminal backgrounds and actively sought out extremist Islam as a way of depicting their activities as more than mere criminality and a route to a new identity as warriors in a cosmic battle.
News reports said Ibrahim described the UK as a "dirty toilet". How much of his view was influenced by the surroundings of his upbringing?
The judge presiding over the trial, which ended with Ibrahim getting a life term, summed up the prosecution's portrayal of Ibrahim as one of a young man who suffered a disturbed adolescence and went on to become lonely, angry and alienated from society. The description could fit any number of young men in Southmead and other places like it. Not all will turn to extremism, but they will likely be drawn to other forms of angry destructive behaviour.
The ingredients that make a British terrorist are numerous, interact with each other in different ways and are changing constantly. Just looking at "Britishness" or identity fails to take into account the growing numbers of extremists that are emerging from non-Muslim backgrounds. But what affects one person doesn't necessarily affect another. Ibrahim's brother Peter was reported to be a Oxbridge educated lawyer. But whatever the ingredients are, it was clear from my time in Southmead that it's easier to find them in places that suffer social deprivation. And the UK has many of them.
The discussion about Muslim immigrants turning to extremism often centres around them not wanting to integrate into British life. But it never addresses the fact that many come with high hopes of a new life, and find reality bitterly dispiriting. They come to take advantage of social mobility and a law-abiding society to build a better life for their families. They end up feeling they need to protect their families from the very society they had idolised. Why don't they go home? Many people I met from more stable parts of the world talked about it "after saving enough". But like others before them, chances are that they will stay. People who had come with a fantasy of Britain ended just seeing it as an opportunity to earn and a contagion to avoid.
Government policy seeks to target resources to fix problems in the most cost effective manner. However, the problem of extremism now involves society as a whole. Pre 9/11 it was limited to a section of a section of the population. That has grown with the advent of the Iraq war and the emergence of an image of Muslim militants as righteous men ready to stand against a superpower and the ability to make the established powers of the world look impotent. It's an image that appeals to people of diverse backgrounds who are disillusioned with their societies. People who aren't necessarily observant Muslims, or even Muslims at all. But at the same time, the increasingly obvious bloodlust of the men and women drawn to the cause has alienated most Muslims.
What does that mean for initiatives like Operation Contest's Prevent aspect? (thanks davidpfbo) On the one hand, allies and partners are easier to identify, but the work that needs to be done has to reach out to more people and address wider issues in our society. Despite the protests of individual voices lobbying for the adoption of their own outlook, work on identity, engagement with more authentic Islamic voices and community work (including seemingly unconnected activities like sports) all have a roll to play. The undertaking is huge and constant fine tuning is vital. It also involves sums that the British government will struggle to find.