British Muslims are losing the war against ISIL

Men pray at the Baitul Futuh Mosque in Morden, south London.
Men pray at the Baitul Futuh Mosque in Morden, south London.
Image: Reuters/Luke MacGregor
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In Feb. 2015, the tearful relatives of three missing British teenage girls publicly pleaded with them not to go to Syria and “do anything stupid,” like join ISIL, as was widely feared. “There was no sign to suspect her at all [of joining an extremist group],” said father Abase Hussen of his missing daughter Amira. It later emerged that two of the teenage girls had picked out and married men approved by ISIL authorities.

A few months later, in June, a similar plea was made by two husbands in fear that their wives, a sister and nine children had also fled to Syria to join ISIL. In July a different family posted a message online to say that all 12 had gone to Syria to join the world’s most prominent terrorist group. Last week, a mother of four was arrested when entering Britain after fears she had earlier gone to Syria with her children.

Stories of British Muslims running off to Syria have now become almost routine, and show no sign of abating. What’s more worrying is that this is happening despite a loud chorus of British Muslim outrage against the terror group. They have marched against it, declared jihad on it, published fatwas against it, written articles slamming it, expressed their contempt, signed letters and delivered sermons against it.

But despite all their outrage, British Muslims are losing the war against ISIL. Badly. It looks like ISIL is more attractive to Muslims than al-Qaeda ever was.

The UK government’s de-radicalization program had 467 people referred to it by 2010; this had jumped to 1,281 by last year. The internet counter-terrorism unit now works to remove around 1,000 pieces of “terrorist propaganda” every week. Since July 2014, 43 women and girls have reportedly gone missing and suspected to have eloped to Syria, according to London’s Metropolitan Police Service.

More importantly, between 600 and 700 British Muslims are estimated to have left for Syria according to the London based think-tank ICSR, a jump from the 200 to 300 they estimated last year. In contrast, the FBI says around 200 American Muslims have tried to go to Syria or Iraq over the conflict in total, including many who didn’t succeed, went to provide aid, or didn’t join ISIL. Since there are approximately half a million more Muslims in the US than the UK (3.3 million vs 2.8 million), the contrast is even starker.

So what does the difference in the numbers of American and British Muslims going to Syria tell us about the fight against ISIL?

Given the globalized nature of its propaganda, the number of recruits ISIL gets per country cannot just be about exposure to extremist views. Instead, the culture and the networks that have developed per country have a bigger impact. In other words, it’s likely that as many American Muslims have been exposed to ISIL’s propaganda as British Muslims have, but the latter are more likely to act on it.

Before exploring this further, it needs to be said that British Muslims should not be held responsible for the actions of a few extremists, and neither should they be forced to police their own neighbors and friends. And yet, to defeat ISIL requires starving them of new recruits and British Muslims themselves can play an active role in that. After all, it is their own families most at risk of being torn apart and fellow Muslims who are the biggest victims of ISIL’s murderous rampage.

So why are British Muslims losing the war against ISIL? Here are a few reasons:

The caliphate and jihad

A key part of the problem that British Muslim history is littered with groups and activists who have advocated going abroad to fight and defend fellow Muslims, and/or striving for a caliphate (“khilafah”).

The extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) was famous for advocating a global caliphate that would be free of corruption, infighting, foreign invasion, or poverty. This vision was so seductive that it would command up to 10,000 Muslims to its conferences not long ago. That aspiration for a perfect Muslim land has not gone away as Arab dictatorships continue to persist and disappoint.

Neither is it rare to hear the call to go abroad and fight. At a HuT rally in 2006, activist Asim Qureshi told the crowd: “When we see the example of our brothers and sisters fighting, in Chechnya, Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, then we know where the example lies … it is incumbent upon all of us to support the jihad of our brothers and sisters in these countries when they are facing the oppression of the West.” His call was greeted by the crowd, and similar pleas have been made countless times since at rallies or on YouTube videos. Qureshi now runs CAGE, an organization popular with British Muslims for defending Guantánamo Bay detainees.

That potent mix of two ideas: that Muslims are obliged to strive for a Caliphate, and they should go abroad to defend the Ummah, has a long history of advocacy in the UK. It’s no wonder ISIS have found it relatively easier to recruit by exploiting both of them.

These examples illustrate a broader difference between the two continents. Maybe it is because Europeans are closer to the Middle East, or that US Muslims are better off and more culturally integrated, or that America isn’t averse to religion in public life like Europe is. Either way, British Muslims seem to look abroad for political involvement and direct action far more American Muslims do, suggesting they feel more politically disconnected back at home.

Little space for secular or liberal voices

Challenging the narratives of extremists requires leadership and it requires a diversity of voices. But many British Muslims who try and do this frequently find themselves running into a torrent of hostility and abuse, mostly from other Muslims.

“What I find particularly frustrating is that the debate in trying to … deconstruct the [ISIL] argument is frequently closed down by Muslim communities themselves,” says Sara Khan, founder of the Muslim women’s group Inspire. “I know far too many Muslim anti-extremism campaigners who regularly experience abuse, denigration—who are wanting to tackle the theology but experience this backlash from sections of Muslim communities in [Britain].”

She isn’t alone in saying this. Zubeda Limbada is co-director at ConnectJustice, a social enterprise, and says she has been called a “sellout,” among other derogatory names, or had false accusations thrown at her for working with government counterterrorism programs from Muslims who call themselves the the authentic voice of the community.

“We continue to engage with government and unrepresentative community leaders—both still dominated by men—and where women are only given a platform when campaigns fit into a gender discourse. Secular and liberal voices are often drowned out, and only those either against or for Prevent [part of the UK’s counterterrorism strategy] are mistakenly seen as more legitimate voices of Muslims.”

Earlier this year Nazir Afzal, OBE, among Britain’s most high-profile public prosecutors, offered a scathing indictment of community leaders: “Muslims are mostly under 25, female and from low-income backgrounds, but the ‘leaders’ are much older, male and middle class—they don’t speak for typical Muslims because they aren’t typical Muslims.” He says there is too much focus by self-appointed leaders on “victimhood” and not enough on leading properly.

But American Muslims are used to diverse voices, says Shahed Amanullah, a former senior adviser at the US department of state: “The American Muslim demographic is a product of diverse backgrounds—African-Americans, immigrants from South Asia and the Middle East, and a growing number of white and Latino converts, none of which make up a majority. This diversity, along with the geographic spread of Muslim populations, has forced the larger community to accommodate diverse opinions and backgrounds.”

There is an annual controversy over the White House’s Ramadan reception of course, but the debate is far more vitriolic in the UK, allowing more radical narratives to flourish more easily.

A British Muslim identity

This leads us to what is by far the Islamic State’s biggest attraction: offering an attractive and comforting identity.

“Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory,” the anthropologist Scott Atran told the UN earlier this year. His research showed that most people from Europe who join al-Qaeda or ISIS did so through friends, family or fellow travelers, “in search of a meaningful path in life.”

While American Muslims seem somewhat comfortable in their hybrid identities, British Muslims sound less so. Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says a major part of the reason is that western Europe is more hostile to religion in the public sphere. “In contrast, religious expression in the US is more ‘normal,’ with the presence of evangelicals and Orthodox Jews. Even if these religious groups are ‘illiberal,’ no one questions their American-ness, and no one should. In this sense, American Muslims aren’t compelled to choose. They can be religious, outwardly Muslim, anti-secular, whatever, but they can be all of those things and still embrace being or becoming American.”

Though the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Britain see themselves as “British,” it doesn’t mean they have taken ownership of that hybrid identity and developed it. And there is little sense of pride in that identity either. When Sara Khan’s Inspire launched a “United Against IS” campaign last year in a national newspaper, with a picture of a woman in a hijab made of the British flag, she was criticized by Muslims for being patronizing.

It’s easy for some to blame western policy for the rise of ISIL, but less straightforward to explain why so British Muslims are going to join it. But perhaps we shouldn’t be that surprised: it turned out that Abase Hussen, who blamed police for not stopping his daughter Amira from joining ISIL, had attended a rally by the extremist preacher Anjem Choudary himself in the past. Another 16 year-old girl who had tried to join ISIL was found living in a house full of its propaganda.

ISIL is particularly potent because it offers Muslims a tangible sense of belonging, wrapped up in glorified Islamic history. This makes it a far more formidable foe for governments trying to stop its citizens being seduced by its call compared to groups such as al-Qaeda.

But for the vast majority of Muslims who disdain its ideology, the challenge that ISIL presents to them is deadlier and far more difficult because they are caught in a pincer movement: with public and government suspicion on one side, and a seductive and supposedly empowering ideology on the other.

When British Muslims who challenge extremism are being shouted down, when secularism is dismissed and joining a caliphate is praised, and when fighting abroad is glorified, it’s not difficult to see why British Muslims are still losing the war against ISIL.