Journalist, Producer & Researcher

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Government's Extremism Taskforce Must Address Foreign Policy for It to Have Any Chance of Success

Reyhana Patel dares to raise the possibility that UK foreign policy may be the real issue that’s ignored when tackling extremism in the UK

Following the Woolwich attack, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced the establishment of a new 'extremism taskforce' to investigate and implement new procedures to combat radicalisation in Muslim communities across Britain.

Proscribing organisations, closing unregulated Muslim schools and a crackdown on mosques are set to be the latest wave of measures targeted at Muslim communities to help the 2,000 Muslims in the UK who are at risk of radicalisation, according to the home secretary.

This is all set for failure if the government continues to ignore some of the issues Muslim communities say need addressing. And one subject that has been left off the agenda in this taskforce is that of foreign policy, in particular, Britain's involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Radicalisation and foreign policy
Immediately after the revelation that the victim was a member of the armed forces, the need to address foreign policy in the government's counter-terrorism strategy headlined the political debates that followed, with many individuals and groups advocating that "getting rid of all troops in foreign lands was the solution in preventing radicalisation."

While many will argue that such a suggestion is counter-productive, what is clear is that foreign policy can be a driving force to draw an individual into committing violent acts just as we saw in Woolwich, the 7/7 bombings in London and a number of other failed and successful terror plots over the years. Like the vast majority, I believe that opposition to foreign policy alone cannot lead to radicalisation; it stems from a range of factors and one other factor which can contribute to the radicalisation of young British Muslims is the fear of speaking out against mainstream political views on foreign policy.

Fear of opposing the war in Afghanistan
When it comes to speaking out against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is widespread fear and anxiety amongst British Muslims of being stereotyped and labelled as an 'extremist.'

I have always opposed Britain's involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq and before discovering avenues such as the anti-war movement, activist groups and journalism; I couldn't dare utter the view that the war in Afghanistan was counter-productive in mainstream British society without being looked at with disgust and shock. After expressing such views during a conversation at one on my previous jobs, I was called an 'extremist' and warned by management that such views shouldn't be expressed in British society.

I'm not alone in this. Plenty of institutions, Muslim groups, individuals and mosques across the country are silenced from opposing foreign policy. As one Imam in the Midlands told me:

"People ask us all the time to discuss and have debates on Afghanistan and terrorism but we refuse because we want to avoid anything controversial that will lead to government officials knocking on our doors, accusing us of preaching extremist views"

As a result, hundreds of Muslim youths are switching on their televisions where they are seeing mainstream British media headlining with soldiers being killed and then switching the channel and seeing alternative sources of media showing children being killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Where can they turn to for answers after this? Communities cannot address such issues; mainstream British society doesn't allow it, what is left?

And it is just not Muslims. Non-Muslims who oppose the war have come under severe scrutiny and are subject to abuse both in government and in the public for airing such views. Take for example, ex-soldier Joe Glenton who refused to return to Afghanistan and fought a 12-month battle for simply airing his concerns on what he saw while serving in the country.

I'm not suggesting that the government funds an anti-war movement for those opposing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we need an open discussion on foreign policy where no one should be silenced for disagreeing or agreeing with mainstream political views. Will Afghans be better off when the troops withdraw? Was going into Iraq a mistake? Who is being held accountable for the killing of civilians? The majority of Muslims want answers to these questions. They want to know what is happening on the ground, who is being held accountable for civilians deaths and most importantly, why is there still large-scale suffering.

We need to start putting forward these questions and opening up the debate on these answers. Open discussions could be key from preventing Muslims who want answers to go looking elsewhere.

Taskforce needs to consult with real British Muslims 

Since the 7/7 London attacks, over £200million have been spent on policies, programmes and projects aimed at combating home-grown terrorism. And while we have seen some successes in some areas, what is clear is there is a lot more work that needs to be done. This is the perfect opportunity for this government to learn the lessons of the previous Prevent policy.

I urge this new taskforce to avoid making the same mistakes as the Blair government by rushing to produce initiatives targeted at Muslim communities without thorough consultation with all sections of the community. I urge this new taskforce to engage and seek advice from those who represent Muslim communities, who know Muslim youth, who engage with them and not think tanks who have no credibility within Muslim communities. Don't silence British Muslims. Don't emphasise the need for British Muslims to integrate. Engage and listen to them and follow this up with programmes addressing the issues put forward. It is only then we can see real progress on preventing future home-grown terrorists.

Featured in HUffingtonPost UK and Birmingham Press
Copyright Reyhana Patel. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.
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Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Segregation on Campus: Is it discrimination or inclusiveness?

The segregation by gender of Muslim students has been in the news this week, after a pressure group claimed the practice was widespread. Reyhana Patel, herself a Muslim, believes that gender segregation can actually be empowering for her and her sisters

A report published this week by the group Student Rights argued that student Islamic societies (ISOCs) are promoting discrimination by encouraging segregated seating at university events. The study showed that 46 segregated events were promoted at 21 university campuses across the country between March 2012 and March 2013.

Segregated seating is a practice that is encouraged in several faiths, and at ISOC events across the country this ritual remains voluntary with many of those attending opting to sit with their gender counterparts.

Does voluntary segregation promote gender discrimination, as argued by Student Rights, or does it provide a more inclusive society as counter-argued by many Muslim women? And should institutions have the right to force mixed seating?

When looking at audience separation, three factors need to be considered.

Firstly, Islam, in general, is against the gratuitous mixing of men and women without good reason. As a result, most Islamic student societies accommodate voluntary segregated seating because for many of those attending such events it is a customary practice and would expect the option of separate male and female seating.

The second point to note is that even on the rare occasions where an ISOC may insist upon separation, we should remember that those responsible for implementing the policy would have been democratically elected by their peers to run the society and its practices, including, presumably, issues around segregation.

Perhaps Student Rights wants not only to counter these democratically expressed membership preferences - but also to force participants to sit in mixed assemblies against their will?

And, thirdly, for me as a Muslim woman, having the choice to sit amongst my sisters is all about my own space and empowerment. All women, Muslim and otherwise, regularly feel the pressure of living in an over-sexualised society that demands continual performance from women. Cue the obesity, anorexia, and general panic among a lot of young women I know. Muslim women love being able to withdraw into their separate space or modest clothing and, thereby, opt out of this perpetual rat race and commoditisation of their bodies and looks.

Voluntary segregation
Voluntary segregation promotes inclusiveness and contributes greatly towards Muslim women participation in British Society - by allowing Muslim women to participate in campus activities without compromising their religious beliefs. As one undergraduate student at Oxford University told me:

“I avoid mixed events if I can as it makes me feel uncomfortable as a Muslim woman. Having the option of segregated events allows me to participate more in university activities. What is undemocratic about giving everyone a choice of where to sit and with whom?”

It appears that Student Rights is now using gender as the new cloaked dagger to bash the Muslim community in an increasingly intolerant attempt to prove that Islam is incompatible with western society.

What the group also failed to highlight in their so-called ‘expose’ was that at the heart of ISOCs across the country, females are the driving force to the operational success of these groups with many at the fore of empowering other Muslim students. Take for example, a recent women-only empowerment workshop, organised by FOSIS and the NUS, which provided training to equip female students with the skills needed to establish real change in their university and wider community.
The sad fact is that the more groups like Student Rights continue to complain about Muslims doing things ‘differently’ and being ‘the other’ – they only serve to convince others of their own intolerance and illiberal ways.

The down side of all the above, of course, is that segregation and the ‘disappearance of women’ actually got a lot worse in Muslim societies during the period of European colonisation – when the colonial master (having defeated the armies) demanded access to the most intimate parts of their conquered society – the family and the women.

How ironic that that the trendy lot in Student Rights should be carrying on with this noble colonial impulse. I’ll leave Raheem Kassam and his fellow colleagues to ponder on this.

 Published by The Independent on May 17th 2013, read it here

Copyright Reyhana Patel. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.
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