Heaven knows I’m an Islamist now

The nihilistic posturing of some radical Muslim youth echoes the teenage angst of British popular culture, from Quadrophenia to The Smiths.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

At a cross-examination meeting by the House of Commons liaison committee, UK prime minister Tony Blair stated that Muslims ‘must do more’ to root out Islamic extremism within their community. He said too many Muslim leaders gave the impression that they understood and sympathised with terrorist grievances, an attitude that ensured the extremists would never be defeated. Blair’s message was that ‘the government can’t do this alone’. Twelve months on since the London bombings, it seems Blair is no nearer to understanding what’s going wrong in British society – and it has little to do with off-beam interpretations of Islam.

First of all, Blair’s ‘frustrated’ outburst reeks of populist grandstanding. For years, newspaper columnists and others have suggested that moderate Muslims are secretly in cahoots with extremists, and that they’re hell bent on ‘Islamifying’ the UK – a claim made most recently by Melanie Phillips in her sensationalist book Londonistan. The real danger here is to point the finger at the wrong problem, and thus come up with the wrong solutions. The British suicide bombers might have left garbled messages citing the Koran, but it doesn’t automatically follow that Islam ‘made them do it’. After all, when the serial killer Peter Sutcliffe said God told him to kill prostitutes, nobody would seriously consider calling on the church to ‘root out’ misogynist extremists. Besides, extreme political Islam and its terrorist tactics are not exactly welcome within mainstream Islam, either in Britain or abroad. They have never been as isolated from the wider Muslim community as they are now.

It also seems that Blair has a short memory. His own government’s official report on the 7 July bombings concluded that the bombers acted alone, without any known support from al-Qaeda operatives or radical Muslim clerics. There are still claims that Mohammad Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer met with militants in Pakistan, but this has not been fully established yet. And if Khan’s parents couldn’t detect outward signs of Islamic extremism, it’s hard to see how Muslim leaders could have done so. As it is, known Muslim extremists more often than not don’t have links with the moderate Muslim community that is supposedly harbouring them.

What’s alarming about Blair’s call for Muslims ‘to do more’ is the abdication of governmental responsibility and an evasion of the deep-seated problems facing British society. Ironically enough, the fact that Blair is seeking governmental assistance from unelected Muslim leaders is a sure sign of the state’s increasing impotency. Who needs Islamic terrorists undermining Western institutions when Blair himself appears to have little faith in them? As such, Blair’s passing-the-buck approach fares badly with other Western leaders who have attempted to bridge bitter social divisions.

In race-torn America during the mid-Sixties, President Lyndon Johnson aimed to overcome racial divisions through the creation of the ‘Great Society’. Speaking to students at the University of Michigan, his dream of the Great Society was where there was ‘abundance and liberty for all’. For Johnson, the combination of material advancement for its citizens and freedom from state intrusion would be the best solution to America’s ‘divided union’. No doubt his words were very much rhetorical, but at least they established a political centre for people to gravitate towards.

Is it possible to say that Blair and his government promote a similar ‘common good’? Not really. In fact, New Labour is peculiarly hostile to a political centre based on social aspiration. Indeed, the ‘abundance and liberty for all’ that Johnson had in mind are now shouted down as problems to be dealt with. The constant bemoaning of people’s eating and drinking habits, the hammering of civil liberties, and the non-stop rise of regulatory intrusions into our private and public lives are a world away from the ‘Great Society’. So much so that New Labour is loathe to address the mass, mainstream of society. After all, the leader of the Labour Party much prefers to spend time with obscurantist religious leaders than he does with, for example, trade unionists.

For Muslim leaders themselves, post-7/7 they have often peddled a familiar line to Blair: that Britain’s military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have ‘radicalised’ Muslim youth. From my experience as an Further Education lecturer in inner London, what enrages some Muslim youth is a lot closer to home. A fair few of my Muslim (as well as non-Muslim) students perceive pubs and binge-drinking with a mixture of fear and loathing. It’s the same with casual sex, too. Yet there’s nothing new about such anxieties – they’re actually the typical response of awkward adolescents from sheltered backgrounds. Adopting a high-minded moral tone has often been a cover for such social insecurities.

Twenty years ago, adolescents who listened to The Smiths found a pop cultural justification for putting off adulthood. For today’s Muslim youth, Islam plays a similar role. Indeed, first-generation Muslims have often expressed surprise that their sons and daughters have become so religiously minded. But this has little to do with the influence of Islam – radical or otherwise; rather it has become a kind of conduit for the I-hate-the-world frustrations of adolescents. The nihilistic posturing of Muslim youth has a lot in common with expressions of the same in British popular culture, whether it’s Jimmy the Mod’s suicide scooter leap in Quadrophenia or Billy Fisher’s fantasies of machine-gunning people down in Billy Liar.

Yet the question remains, how is it that whereas Morrissey sang ‘burn down the disco’, the Muslim men arrested a few months ago allegedly discussed actually doing it? The difference today is that Blair and the government promote a similar fear and loathing to grown-up society as adolescents do. The constant bemoaning and belittling of pubs, football crowds, supermarkets and shopping malls has all the nihilistic hallmarks of the leave-me-alone teenager. A political centre based on the common good could (and did) pull young people out of their nihilistic phase and into society. A political culture based on hating and berating the masses is unlikely to do the same.

Twelve months on since the 7/7 bombings, if Blair wants to unite a divided society he should look less towards local imams and a lot closer to home.

Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London.

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