Imagine yourself as a Muslim child growing up in the east end of London. Your immigrant parents are hard working and your home is warm. Everything in your life is normal and safe except for one strange thing. Each day your dad tells you that the western world is conspiring against Islam. That America and Britain are attempting to destroy your religion, your community, your identity. He then tells you that Islam is a peaceful religion.
Your childhood is happy. You do well at school. By the time you reach your teens, you are expected to go to university and achieve far more than your parents ever could. Again, each day, your dad tells you that the west wants to destroy Islam. It’s hurtful to know that the white people around you pretend to be friendly but in fact are duplicitous.
At the age of 15 you discover ISIS videos on the internet. They also tell you that the west wants to destroy Islam, but they tell you that your father is wrong. Islam knows how to fight back. You are inspired. You steal your brothers passport and credit card and you go to Syria with the intention of joining them. When your parents discover this, they are furious that the police did nothing to stop it. They blame the local mosque for radicalising their child.
But was it some outside source that radicalised this child, or was it this child’s own family? If we want to end terrorist violence, it’s the kitchen table extremism that we must deal with.
The west is blamed for problems in the Arab world to a level which is irrational. In August 2013 Bashar al-Assad bombed Damascus with nerve gas causing outrage around the world, but here in Tower Hamlets, British Muslims responded by being angry at the west. A Bangladeshi friend of mine claimed that Israel had dropped the gas, and when I confronted him with the evidence, he responded that he wants to see Israel wiped out and the Jews with it. This is a member of the Labour party who works as a housing officer. An apparent socialist. He wasn’t alone in this view. Far from it.
There has been much comment about the influence of Saudi Arabia on the Muslim community in Britain and elsewhere. The Saudis themselves have been particularly stung by the idea that ISIS reflect their aims and values. It’s worth exploring how this influence can manifest itself.
The cultural difference between Saudi Arabia and Europe is shaped by history. The Saudis are a desert people. If a desert has a population of one hundred people, but only enough water for fifty people, then it is natural to split into two tribes and attack each other. In this environment it is laudable to hate other tribes. Their very survival is predicated on creating hatred and enmity of other communities, as there is only enough water to provide life for one community.
European culture is shaped by the war and genocide of the 20th century. For us it is abhorrent to make scapegoats out of other communities or countries for fear of another holocaust.
I went to a round table meeting in Brick Lane the other day, at the Policy Perception Studies UK. The event was to discuss the threat and ideology of ISIS, and we had a couple of Imams from local mosques there. I put forward these ideas with a little nervousness for fear of offending, but the ideas were warmly greeted by those present including the Imams and the chair. We urged the Imams to spread this message through their work.
Extremism is currently defined by whether a person encourages violence. I’m arguing that encouraging hostility by creating fictional enemies of Islam is extremism also, and that it is the most dangerous, because this is what gets passed on from father to son, from mother to daughter, and the younger generation are the ones who are likely to believe themselves noble by taking up arms rather than accepting it as just rhetoric.
As the world gets smaller, it becomes ever more vital that we learn to live with each other in peace. This applies equally to society in Saudi Arabia as it does to the Bangladeshi community of east London. Ending the kitchen table extremism will be one significant step in pursuit of that peace.