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On February 3, 2020, Sudesh Amman, who had just been released from prison in England after serving half his prison term, stabbed two people in Streatham, south London, before he was shot dead at the scene by police. Amman was one of the top five terrorist risk people in the country and was known still to possess extremist views, yet the parole board did not assess him before setting him free. Pictured: Police officers at the scene of Amman’s terror attack. (Photo by Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)

In the first part of this analysis, “Can Terrorists be Deradicalized? Part I,” of the ongoing threat of Islamic radicalism in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, it seems to have proven difficult to take convicted terrorists and turn them into pious Muslims who repudiate violence.

The great irony, as some reports have shown, is that the very fact of being imprisoned or, in some instances, being trained in deradicalization courses can actually result in further radicalization. So far, not enough work has been done to identify and act on this problem, but it has been recognized by experts such as Ian Acheson. And the UK government has published important findings on the subject.

The truth is that many modern Western states seem to have trapped themselves in a range of social attitudes — such as the well-intended wish to show empathy or sound hospitable, or a fear of offending, or laws condemning “hate speech”, or simple self-censorship — that can unfortunately ignore or even sustain radical Islamic belief systems. This is not to say that the UK, France, or other countries actively promote the sort of radicalization that so often leads to acts of terror; but our failure to act, our insistence on political correctness, combined with a need to appear innocent of anything that might conceivably be considered anti-Muslim “hate crimes”, often leads to such results.

Often this tolerance of the intolerant comes about through the best of motives — and those good motives need respect. Precisely because Western countries are well-functioning democracies, it is essential that our laws and behaviors express that by treating all citizens fairly, granting them rights to have freedom of expression and the right to worship (or choose not to worship), so long as those citizens do not infringe upon the laws of the republic. Fair and respectful treatment applies as much to Muslims as it does to Jews, Hindus, Christians, or anyone else. The United States is the outstanding example of freedom for religion and the right to free speech, with Britain and others not far behind.

This is where our problem begins. Democracies can impose restrictions on religious observance and preaching (as France does regarding some items of religious dress, such as the burka), but in the main, democracies legislate to protect religious people from intolerance, and minorities from “the tyranny of the majority.” The recently introduced Australian religious discrimination bill, for instance, provides religions with rights that often override secular values. One would be where a Catholic doctor would be allowed to refuse contraception to all his or her patients or where a pharmacist could provide the contraceptive pill. Religious hospitals or care providers could discriminate against staff on a religious basis. And much more in other fields including education.

We are aware that Muslims in our countries in the West may be subjected to what is incorrectly termed “Islamophobia”[1], but is it possible that this aversion might be the result of simple xenophobia on the part of the very far right? The murder of 50 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019, for example, was carried out by Brenton Tarrant, an Australian racist “Identitarian” with links to European extremists.

For the most part, democratic governments and institutions seem more interested in integrating Muslims than in discriminating against them. France apart, Western societies do not impose rules on how men or women may dress in public.

The problem seems to be that this reluctance to treat Muslims differently has frequently led to failures to investigate or condemn signs of radicalism within Muslim communities. Fear of trampling on Muslim sensitivities (which tend to be the sensitivities of the more fundamentalist organizations) has meant that children in Muslim schools can be exposed to radical ideas without government interference, and allowed to grow up ready to embrace dangerous attitudes.

In 2007, for instance, I wrote a lengthy report, “Music, Chess and other Sins,” on Muslim schools in the UK for the think tank Civitas. The report was published online without detailed lists of the individual schools involved, but a full record was kept and handed to the schools inspectorate, Ofsted. The astonishing fact is that despite having inspected many of the schools, they had never identified the often very visible signs of extremism in about 60 percent of the institutions I had examined, which were all the active academies in the country from primary to secondary levels.[2] The schools have cleaned up their online links and statements, but it is not at all clear that fundamentalist institutions have abandoned their hard-line religious convictions.

In June 2019, in fact, Ofsted inspectors discovered extremist material in the library of the Jamia Islamia school in Birmingham.

Schooling aside, not enough is being done to identify and challenge radicalization within families. Children and teenagers, as they grow up, are often persuaded to become radicals and terrorists by their parents or other family members. Many of these youths have travelled abroad to join Islamic State or return to European countries with their mothers, who themselves had gone to Iraq and Syria. Many of these mothers and youngsters may have attended and were indoctrinated in Islamic State schools.

In February 2019, Britain’s Henry Jackson Society (HJS) published a detailed report — “Radicalising Our Children: An Analysis of Family Court Cases of British Children at Risk of Radicalisation, 2013-2018,” by Nikita Malik, the director of the HJS’s Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism. The report identifies, in fine detail, issues that inhibit courts in dealing with children and families who are at risk of radicalization or already radicalized. In the foreword, Lord Carlile of Berriew writes:

“Since 2013, judges in the Family division of the high Court have presided over cases involving at least 156 children at risk of radicalisation. Whilst the Court and the authorities often are aware that they are dealing with the children of parents who are radicalised, possibly terrorists or with extremist mind-sets, it is also apparent that the family court is not always able to take the appropriate steps to protect their children.”

There can be no doubt that most Western governments, courts, counter-terrorism authorities and police, are well aware of Islamic terrorism and the threat it poses to our communities. For many, however, that is seen as a problem very like criminality of other kinds. This impression often seems to lead to the curious and incorrect assumption that Islamist terrorism has nothing to do with Islam.

That notion has been strongly urged by Michigan State University Professor of Religious Studies and Director of Muslim Studies Muhammad Hassan Khalil. It has equally been promulgated by Saudi-sponsored a non-Muslim professor at Georgetown University, John Esposito, described by David Bukay as “one of the foremost apologists of radical Islam in American academia”.

There are many problems with this approach. As I have previously argued:

“The use of force, mainly through jihad, is a basic doctrine in the Qur’an, the Prophetic sayings (ahadith), and in all manuals of Islamic law. It is on these sources that fighters from Islamic State, al-Qa’ida, al-Shabaab, and hundreds of other groupings base their preaching and their actions. To say that such people have “nothing to do with Islam” could not be more wrong.”

Another link between the Islamic religion and modern extremist interpretations of it rests in the conviction that shari’a law should remain a basic form of legislation in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and elsewhere. It is also of great importance note that, however purely religious Islam was in its earliest phase, after Muhammad came to rule in the city of Medina and during the successive caliphates that followed his death in 632, it became a dogma that the state must be ruled by Islam, its beliefs, and its laws. Today’s radicals, whether in Iran or as newcomers in Western societies, apparently consider this a view worth fighting to uphold.

I say “radicals” here to emphasize that far from all Muslims practise their faith in an extremist manner. This is not speculation: in 2013, the research center, Pew, published a major international survey of Muslim attitudes to Islamic terrorist groupings:

“More than two years after the death of Osama bin Laden, concern about Islamic extremism remains widespread among Muslims from South Asia to the Middle East to sub-Saharan Africa. Across 11 Muslim publics surveyed by the Pew Research Center, a median of 67% say they are somewhat or very concerned about Islamic extremism. In five countries – Pakistan, Jordan, Tunisia, Turkey and Indonesia – Muslim worries about extremism have increased in the past year.”

The statistics Pew provides are a cause for optimism. A large sector of the world’s more than two billion Muslims hold groups such as al-Qa’ida, Hizbullah, Hamas or the Taliban in contempt and are themselves concerned about their impact.

But that is far from the whole story. Pew’s statistics also indicate that rejection or support for terrorists varies from country to country. In the world’s most populated Muslim state, Indonesia, for example, only 48% expressed concern, leaving 52% unconcerned. In Turkey, a mere 38% were concerned.

Lack of concern does not necessarily mean complete rejection of extremism. Given the numbers involved, even small percentages who may support the radicals add up to worrying figures. One percent of two billion, after all, means 200 million individuals.

Pew carried out a similar survey in 2015, regarding support for Islamic State and concluded that views of the extremist grouping were “overwhelmingly negative”. Lebanon, for example, was deemed 100% against ISIS — in January of 2020, however, its government was officially taken over by the terrorist group Hizbullah. In Pakistan, a mere 28% held that view, while 9% were in favor.

A broader range of surveys carried out by six different research organizations and covering twenty Muslim countries found that support for ISIS was chiefly low:

“In the Muslim world, support for ISIS is low across the board. In 15 of the 20 countries shown, support for ISIS is in the single digits. And with the exception of Syria, in no country is it greater than 15%.”

The Pew statistics have led at least one source to conclude that “All told, 60 million Muslims in the Middle East support ISIS, while more than 250 million remain undecided”.

This seems a rash conclusion. Such a high level of support would surely have led to a much larger influx of ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless, the rapid rise of Islamic State did serve to show how many young Muslims, both in Europe and Islamic countries, were inspired to abandon home and family, suffer serious injury or give up their lives for religious concept.

As far as Western countries are concerned, radicalization appears to rest on three things: education in many Muslim schools, upbringing in unintegrated Muslim families, and the intensity of close-knit Muslim communities.

An extensive 2007 report, “Living Apart Together,” by one of Britain’s leading think tanks, Policy Exchange, revealed many positive aspects to Muslim life in Britain, but showed how a combination of a stress on multiculturalism on one side and adherence to Islamic values on the other have created a lack of integration:

“The emergence of a strong Muslim identity in Britain is, in part, a result of multicultural policies implemented since the 1980s, which have emphasised difference at the expense of shared national identity and divided people along ethnic, religious and cultural lines. Islamist groups have gained influence at local and national level by playing the politics of identity and demanding for Muslims the ‘right to be different’. The authorities and some Muslim groups have exaggerated the problem of Islamophobia, which has fuelled a sense of victimhood amongst some Muslims.”

Table One on page 47 of the report reveals one disturbing matter: that younger Muslims in the 16-24 age range are more radical in their thinking than their parents and grandparents. They scored over 50% for issues such as the veiling of women, polygamy, the death penalty for Muslims who convert to another faith, and (71%) that homosexuality should be illegal.

In 2016, nine years after that report was issued, Dame Louise Casey issued a government review of social opportunity and integration. Among much else, she discovered that:

“Compared to other minority faith groups, Muslims tend to live in higher residential concentrations at ward level. In 2011: Blackburn, Birmingham, Burnley and Bradford included wards with between 70% and 85% Muslim populations.”

She also found that:

“Polling in 2015 also showed that more than 55% of the general public agreed that there was a fundamental clash between Islam and the values of British society, while 46% of British Muslims felt that being a Muslim in Britain was difficult due to prejudice against Islam. We found a growing sense of grievance among sections of the Muslim population, and a stronger sense of identification with the plight of the ‘Ummah’, or global Muslim community.”

Significantly, her research revealed that there was “a notably younger age profile among Muslims”, with a median age of 25. She found, as well, that:

“Further analysis of the raw polling data illustrated that there was a relationship – though not necessarily a causal connection – between sympathy for extremist or radical actions, and other views that diverged from those of the general population: British Muslims who said they wanted to live a largely Islamic life rather than integrate, were more likely to express sympathy towards extremist actions; those who said they were sympathetic to extremism were more likely to say that religious harassment is a problem in their area; those with the greatest sympathy for extremist and violent actions were more likely to think that girls and boys should be taught separately and to support the introduction of Sharia law; analysis of the polling results also indicated that socio-demographic factors which had an association with sympathy towards extremist actions included where the person lived and their social class.”

Overall, Casey found that Muslims were the least well-integrated minority group in the UK, even while she had many positive things to say about the majority of those of the Islamic faith. The rest of her review deserves to be read in detail.

The question we have been asking in this article is how far deradicalization of Muslim extremists and convicted terrorists is possible. As we saw in “Part I,” often the British judiciary and prison authorities are not up to the job, leaving a man such as Umran Khan to continue his radical pursuits. In “Part II”, we have looked at the ways in which individuals are radicalized and the social contexts in which released or returned terrorists are brought back. Regrettably, the prospects of deradicalization and integration for all such offenders still seem poor.

Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson said after the London Bridge attack that the “grim reality” is that “some people can’t be rehabilitated” in prison. According to the BBC:

“The PM called for longer sentences and an end to automatic release after convicted terrorist Usman Khan killed two people on London Bridge on Friday.”

In response to this assessment and to the London Bridge attack, on January 21, 2020, Britain’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, announced a major shift in anti-terrorist legislation. A bill is to be presented to parliament by mid-March. This will call for a clampdown on sentencing and the extent of imprisonment for terrorist offenders:

“Automatic early release from prison will be scrapped for terror offenders while a minimum jail term of 14 years for serious crimes will be introduced.”

Despite this initiative, serious questions remain. Leading British lawyer, Jonathan Hall QC, the government’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, has called on the House of Lords to reject the policy of longer sentences for terrorists. His reasoning is that spending more time in prison will likely lead to further radicalization from other jihadi inmates — a corollary we know has already taken place.

The government also called for “a sweeping independent review of the way different agencies, including police, the probation service, and the security services investigate, monitor and manage terrorist offenders – called Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA). This will be led by Jonathan Hall QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation”.

In addition, more money is to be spent on counter-terrorism policing and surveillance, specialist probation staff, and specialist psychologists and imams from the Muslim community.

When implemented, these measures will certainly increase the likelihood of long-term deradicalization. But more still needs to be done to prevent the spread and acceptance of radical views in the first place.

Denis MacEoin PhD has studied, taught, and written about Islamic subjects since 1979.


[1] On the phenomenon, but rejecting the term, see essays in Emma Webb (ed.), Islamophobia: An Anthology of Concerns, Civitas, London, 2019

[2] For a useful US-based summary of the report, go here.

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