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A radical theory: Does isolation lead to extremism?

Eve Dugdale

Published: Updated:

How do people become radicalized? We are not born with an innate desire to harm our fellow man on a mission to prove our point. So when does it happen?

One theory has been that the internet, and people getting access to extremist propaganda, is to blame for the increase in people becoming radicalized.

But a man, described as one of Britain’s leading experts on radicalization, believes it is geography rather than access to the world wide web that can lead people down dark routes.

Maajid Nawaz, the founding chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank, believes “Muslim ghettos” are to blame for Islamic extremism within the UK. He rebuked calls that young Muslims were being radicalized online in their bedrooms as a “myth” and said that was “side-stepping the problem.”

Instead, Nawaz claimed a “lack of integration” within communities was making it easier for terrorist organizations to recruit young Muslims. According to a new study, a tenth of all Britain’s Islamist militants come from just five areas of Birmingham.

The 1,000-page analysis, obtained by British newspaper The Sunday Times, showed segregated Muslim neighborhoods were more likely to have a higher number of terror-related convictions. It revealed offences had doubled in the past five years, with the number of those convicted but previously unknown to the authorities rising sharply.

But the idea that where a person lives could be to blame for them becoming radicalized is something the General Manager of the British Muslim Heritage Centre, Shafiq Siddiq completely disagrees with.

Influence of the internet

Shafiq and his team are hosting a lecture about the dangers of extremism next week. He says people shouldn’t underestimate the influence of the internet on young minds.

“I disagree with Maajid Nawaz,” he says. “The reason being that thousands and thousands of Muslims have lived in so called ‘Muslim ghettos’ as he calls them for the last 30 or 40 years without being radicalized. The major factor therefore is not where they live but rather easy access to extremist propaganda material that is readily available online nowadays.

“There is a battle for hearts and minds that is taking place today on the Internet and social media. This plays more of a factor in these extremists reaching out to youngsters who do not have much knowledge about Islam to combat or refute the deviant message of the extremists who distort Islamic teachings in order to gain followers and sympathizers.”

People weren’t radicalized 40 years ago because there weren’t terrorist organizations around for them to join though. That’s the opinion of retired British police officer Ben Harrison. He believes Maajid Nawaz has a point that young men in deprived areas who may feel disappointed or bored with their lives may seek new avenues for stimulation.

He says: “We’ve always had people who are angry at the government but years ago there wasn’t very much they could do about it. Now there are terrorist organizations that everybody knows about so people have an avenue for their frustration.

“I can totally believe that young men in deprived areas - or ghettos as they’ve been described – may feel that they want to attack the system that has let them down. I think that’s an entirely credible theory.”

The ‘Muslim ghetto’

Abu Laith Bouhtouri works with young people from deprived areas in the UK and disagrees with Nawaz. He also questions what a “Muslim ghetto” is.

“What exactly is a Muslim ghetto? Where are they? How do you define one? Nevertheless, could isolation and lack of integration be a factor in supporting an environment of extremism to flourish? Probably yes but that would also apply to right wing extremism wouldn’t it? These things are nuanced and need, in my opinion, to be viewed in a holistic way.”

Speaking on his LBC radio show recently, Maajid Nawaz called on Muslim communities to “take responsibility” for integrating better within British society. He said a “vast majority of terrorists are linked to networks within our communities. “This failure to integrate means the community itself suffers.

“Those areas where there is a concentrated Muslim ghetto that isn’t mixing with the rest of the country, those insulated communities end up producing people that do not understand the values of our country. And it is, therefore, easier to recruit them to terrorist organizations.”

Pondering whether he would be classed as coming from a “Muslim ghetto” as he grew up in a deprived, mainly Asian community, British businessman Usman Malik says he has met many deeply religious people in his neighborhood but has never encountered anybody tempted to go down the terrorism path. He says it’s really not as simple as Nawaz makes out.

He says: “I really don’t think it matters where you live. If you think that way, you would go out and find people who think the same as you. It really isn’t something you hear working class Muslims from bad areas talking about at all.”