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Islamic radicalism: a discussion

Mark Damazer

On a bitterly cold evening, a crowded JCR heard Owen Bennett-Jones, a top echelon BBC presenter and correspondent, talk about the roots of Islamic radicalisation in Britain.

Although he is now primarily a presenter for the BBC World Service’s Newshour, Owen has spent most of his professional life reporting and analysing events in Pakistan and the Middle East (including Syria).

He outlined some of the dominant explanations for the phenomenon: that it was largely theological, in some way inherent in Islam; that it was a function of ill-conceived contemporary Western foreign policy; or that it was driven by poverty and economic desperation. Owen thought none of these analytical tools really cut it. Many of those who went to Syria, for instance, were far from theologically knowledgeable (some had apparently been found to have ‘Islam for Dummies’ in their baggage), most of the victims of Islamist violence were not Western at all, and many most actively engaged in violence are from rather well-off backgrounds.

Owen Bennett-Jones

Rather, he thought that identity politics was the key and that a significant enough number of Muslims found dealing with the cross currents of cultures and multiple identities very difficult. But he also felt that the tensions experienced by a lot of countries deeply affected by radical Islamist violence – Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, etc. - had somewhat different roots and should not be so readily lumped together. Some massive ethnic, tribal or political issues were country-specific and discrete.

A vivid discussion followed. How much weight should be given to at least one aspect of theology when trying to explain what is going on – the tension between Sunni and Shia Muslims? Owen thought - quite a bit. The rise of Shia in recent decades has had huge repercussions and Owen spoke of massacres of Shia Muslims he had seen. To what extent was David Cameron’s speech the previous day about Muslim women and language proficiency likely to be useful? What was it reasonable to expect condemnations from particular representatives of British Muslims on public platforms after bloody attacks?

There was some debate about whether a minority of Muslims in particular found cultural complexity particularly difficult, and there was a fair amount of talk about faith schools. I did not detect in this particular audience much enthusiasm for them – and not simply as regard Muslim schools. It is an area of public policy rather little discussed. 

He was asked where a solution could be found. The answer: integration. He gave an anecdote. Some Pakistani Britons had got stuck after a car breakdown outside his house on a hot day; he had provided orange juice. The next day he got a thank you note, which indicated that this particular group of people had never experienced anything like this in the UK.  

I asked him what it was like interviewing someone from IS or Al Qaeda. Although massively experienced and large in both physical stature and charm, it was obvious that it had been a dislocating and deeply frightening business, with talk of violence. He kept matters brief with his interviewee, and so we were able to see him here last night, much to our advantage.

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