Young British Muslims alienated by ‘us versus them’ rhetoric of counter-terrorism

The government’s “Prevent” counter-terrorism strategy is proving counter-productive, engulfing British Muslims further in the political rhetoric of the global “war on terror”. It has contributed to a growing moral panic between a British “us” and a Muslim “other”.

A hostile attitude towards Islam and Muslims and a tendency to associate Islam with intolerance and extremism, effectively asks British Muslims to decide whether they are Muslim or British by constructing these two facets of identity as incompatible.

Teenagers I’ve talked to for my research have told me they feel they’re not considered “British” because of cultural and religious differences and the colour of their skin. Yet they’re dismissed by Bangladeshis as “tourists”, “Londonis” and “British” and view their parents’ or grandparents’ country as a place of “holiday” and not “home”. They feel they don’t fit in to British society, yet experience cultural and language barriers with their closest relatives at home.

Their stories are stories of identity crisis, dislocation, alienation, exclusion and upheaval. There are struggles with poverty, deprivation, disengagement, disconnection from language and culture, racism, Islamophobia, the complexity of “home” and the question of “Britishness”.

At the same time, I’ve seen them create a new British-Islamic identity – a new Islam for a new generation. With its emphasis on banking, fashion, entertainment, travel, education – this new trendy and chic British-Islamic identity is highly modern, “western” and “British” in its outlook. The only difference is that many of these young people have a higher degree of spirituality and faith – and perhaps have more facial hair or wear the headscarf.

But they are living inside a moral panic that has been constructed by the government and the tabloid press that depicts British Muslims as the un-British, violent, irrational and terrorist “other”. I’d argue that instead, British Islam is actually a peaceful, spiritual and very “British” community.

Schools are one of the key sites of these tensions, particularly with the onus now on teachers to ensure they are teaching children “British values”. The coalition government introduced the Prevent strategy as part of counter-terrorism measures in 2011, but new legislation that came into force on July 1 formalised the strategy and gave the policy much greater prominence in English and Welsh schools.

Prevent remains problematic. Although the guidelines speak about tackling radicalisation and extremism in all communities, in practice there has been a disproportionately negative gaze and focus on the many Muslim communities across Britain – the vast majority of whom are hard-working, honest and law-abiding citizens.

This has been picked up by the National Union of Students whose “Students not Suspects” campaign is calling for a boycott of the government’s counter-radicalisation strategy. It argues that the policy will have a “chilling effect” on academic freedom, debate and free speech and also contribute further to a rise in Islamophobia and racial profiling of Muslim students.

The vast majority of people attracted to the ideology of terror, violence and murder suffer from deep social alienation and are psychologically disconnected from mainstream society. A study from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University suggests that among other complex motivations, righting perceived wrongs is a major terrorist motivation.