by Dr Imran Awan, Associate Professor in Criminology at Birmingham City University

The horrific events on Saturday in London have again put a sharp focus on the Muslim community in Britain.  As the events on Saturday unfolded, and I switched on my television, there was a sense of dread, fear and anger.

The Prime Minister, yesterday stated that:

“While we have made significant progress in recent years, there is to be frank far too much tolerance of extremism in our country. So we need to become far more robust in identifying it and stamping it out across the public sector and across society. That will require some difficult and often embarrassing conversations. But the whole of our country needs to come together to take on this extremism and we need to live our lives not in a series of separate segregated communities, but as one truly United Kingdom.”

It was a strong and defiant statement that argued that communities should come together to combat extremism.  However, there was a number of loaded suggestions based on British values and again finger-pointing at the Muslim community.  So far, what we know is that one of the suspects had been referred to the police by a friend who was worried about his extremist views. This former friend claimed that one of the suspects had been radicalised whilst watching YouTube videos and said he had contacted the authorities ­after becoming concerned over his friend’s extremist views.  In the Manchester terror attack, we also know that that the bomber Salman Abedi was banned from a mosque and had also been reported to authorities for his extremist views.  Can the Muslim community do more? Of course, it can.  But then in the same token we can all do more as a society.

The recent terror attacks show that we need to have an honest and open discussion with young British Muslims.  To date very little academic research has been conducted with young British Muslims on what they really think about extremism and what the government should do to tackle it.  In one of the few academic studies with young British Muslims on Syria I went up and down the country to interview and speak to young British Muslims and get their views and opinions.

The interviewees referred to several push and pull factors for why young Muslims might become radicalised, ranging from boredom to issues with lack of identity and concerns over foreign policy.  The majority also thought that social media and the internet played a key role in radicalisation.  One of the interviewees told me that: “all they do is go online and some preacher then tells them to come and fight for Islam”.

Let’s not forget that when Isis declared their ‘caliphate’ they have continuously used social media sites such as Twitter to share their extreme videos and messaging. Another interview stated that: “If people are watching these videos online then they are going to be radicalised because Isis are using the internet to shout out to them that we [Muslims] are being oppressed.”  Another interview warned: “A lot of my friends are on Facebook and a lot of them are watching stuff online that are extreme.”

Others suggested young Muslims may travel to fight in Syria simply because they are bored or looking for an adrenaline rush.  One interview stated: “They want some excitement in their lives and are pushing those boundaries,” while another suggested “what we are seeing really is just some young frustrated teenagers who are looking for an escape”.  Others spoke about the pull factors such as seeking an identity and a sense of belonging.

So how do we counter extremism?

The Prevent policy which is part of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy has traditionally caused anger and resentment among many Muslim communities. Its impact upon British Muslims and the view that they have become the ‘new suspect’ community should not be underestimated. The examination of its problems given above suggests that the government clearly needs to develop a better understanding of how to prevent people from following a path of extremism that does not tarnish a community. This requires a stronger robust research evidence base that can help improve understanding of the causes of extremism.

Any counter-terrorism strategy must start with the process of challenging and understanding what makes someone become an extremist, and begin a process of engagement that can help remove the ‘suspect’ community label that has been associated with the Muslim community.  This involves an honest discussion and a safe space for young British Muslims.   More legislation does not necessarily make us any safe.  Better ideas can help.  We must ensure that the golden thread that runs back to the principle of the Magna Carta which is based on justice, due process, and the principle of habeas corpus is not broken by measures which ultimately do not help.

Dr Imran Awan is co-editor of Extremism, Counter-Terrorism and Policing and Policing Cyber Hate, Cyber Threats and Cyber Terrorism published by Ashgate.

Read more about his study with young British Muslims here.

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