TOPICS > World > England - January 2015

For Muslims in U.K., not feeling ‘British’ can lead some to extremism

January 26, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
Nearly a third of the 15,000 foreign fighters for Islamic State are Muslims from Western Europe, seeking an alternative to the alienation some feel here at home. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports from London on how cultural isolation and discrimination can help drive young Western recruits to embrace radicalism.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  The Paris attacks a few weeks ago brought Europe’s growing Islamic extremist threat into sharp focus.

Our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner visited another European country, the United Kingdom, to see what’s driving young Muslims there to extremism and what’s being done about it.

Tonight, we bring you the first of her two reports.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s a gruesome scene  become too familiar since august.

Kneeling hostages, NewsHour policy is not to show these videos, and a masked killer from the Islamic State — speaking in English.

The British voices shocked people here — awakening them to the fact that close to one third of the estimated 15,000 foreign fighters for Islamic state or ISIS. Are Muslims from Western Europe seeking an alternative to their sense of alienation at home?

PETER NEUMANN: The solution to this is that Muslims unite, rediscover their Muslim identity, completely divorce themselves from any form of western identity and start defending their identity if necessary by violent means.

Peter Neumann whose center for the study of radicalization at King’s College, London monitors nearly 700 foreign fighters through social media says Islamic State has crafted a powerful appeal.

PETER NEUMANN: Some of the rhetoric that comes out of ISIS about the caliphate, it basically tells young western recruits you can be part of an enormous historical project and people in a thousand years will be talking about those brave young westerners who came over and rebuilt the caliphate with us.

MARGARET WARNER: Across the internet, photos and videos of some of the estimated six hundred to a thousand young British Muslims thought to have traveled to Syria and Iraq and calling on fellow countrymen to join them.

MAAJID NAWAZ:  There is no one route in and no one route out of radicalization.

MARGARET WARNER: Former Islamism revolutionary Maajid Nawaz, who now heads the counter-extremist Quilliam foundation, says there are three preliminary steps before responding the call of the caliphate.

MAAJID NAWAZ: They are a sense of perceived sense of grievance, the second is what I call an identity crisis, and the third and into that mix comes a charismatic recruiter who is able to capitalize on those grievances and who is able to fill the void.

MARGARET WARNER: One accused of playing that role, Anjem Choudary, a British-born lawyer of Pakistani descent who rails against European and Western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan as “the west’s war on Islam” and repeatedly calls for establishing Sharia Law in Britain.

He denies recruiting for Islamic State, or inciting violence. But among his followers are two Muslim converts convicted of hacking an off-duty British soldier to death in 2013 to avenge the killing of Afghans by the British military.

Choudary says what appeals to foreign recruits is Islamic State’s self-governed caliphate, declared last June.

ANJEM CHOUDARY: This is a country bigger than in fact Britain. So people are going there to experience the Sharia, to look at life you know of the divine law, to bring up their children where they don’t face the vices of gambling, prostitution, you know alcohol etc. And in fact have a proper Islamic upbringing.

MARGARET WARNER: Choudary preaches to other native-born UK Muslims that there’s nothing special about being British.

ANJEM CHOUDARY: People believe being British can be liking the queen, fish and chips, standing in queues. I believe that having a passport is a travel document. If you are born somewhere it does not mean that you have to have allegiance to that particular place. My allegiance is to what I believe.

MARGARET WARNER: That sort of thinking upsets Bernice Drew, who owns the Turner Old Star Pub in the classic British district of Wapping.

She finds the Muslim communities here — most of South Asian descent — other waves of immigrants assimilated from other former British colonies, including India.

BERNICE DREW: They’re totally different than anybody we’ve had come here before. They are very, very strong in their religion. And they don’t tend to integrate as others have before them. So you have a kind of divide which is not a good thing. So they come here and keep 100% to their way, their original ways. Don’t assimilate into our way at all. Their women aren’t allowed to go out.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think they are a threat to the British way of life?

BERNICE DREW: In some ways, yes, I do. I think people I general feel that way. We feel in certain areas of London that we’re losing our culture and it’s being replaced with theirs.

MARGARET WARNER: The sense of distance seems to be shared by many of Britain’s nearly three million Muslims too. Though many mix with the general population, a great many others choose to live and work in self-segregated communities around the country.

At his merchant stall in Whitechapel in London’s East End, Pakistani immigrant Javed Ikbal denounced the Paris attack — but also criticized European culture for allowing disrespect to the prophet Mohammed.

JAVED IKBAL: There should be a limit. You cannot just keep provoking. I mean we don’t use the word “n” for some people because it’s insulting and they are only human beings.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you feel more Muslim than British?

JAVED IKBAL: Every Muslim feels the same way, we are proud to be Muslim first and then whatever country we belong to.

MARGARET WARNER: British-born sisters Sarah and Sabrina Lalouche say they feel hostility from their non-Muslim fellow Brits.

Do you believe that Muslims in the UK are discriminated against?

SABRINA LALOUCHE: Yes, most of us are. We get the awkward stares, occasional whispers People moving from you on the bus.

MARGARET WARNER: A software developer at a major British newspaper, Sarah has had off-putting moments.

SARAH LALOUCHE: I’ve heard a few snide remarks at work, actually I’ve heard people having their own group conversations forgetting that I work there are well. Since the Paris bombings, I’ve had 3 friends attacked for wearing the hijab on public transport. We aren’t the people committing these atrocities, it’s other people who are using our religion as representative, which isn’t fair.

MARGARET WARNER: What worries European governments is that some of the foreign fighters will return bent to launch terrorist attacks on the homelands they have come to hate.

PAUL NEUMANN: They are a danger in the next 5, 10, 15 years not just the next month. We know of course that returning fighters have networks, they have had military training. Likely to be more deadly, more effective, more viable so I think in the long term those returning foreign fighters will be the core of new international network.

MARGARET WARNER: To try to shrink the pool of potential recruits, British government wrote the imams of Britain’s nearly 1000 mosques after the Paris attacks, urging them to root out extremist views in their midst —  and use their positions with young Muslims to “explain and demonstrate how faith in Islam can be part of British identity.”

Some imams took offense at the implication that jihadism is the mosques’ responsibility

But Majid Nawaz says imams and other Muslim leaders need to do more.

MAJID NAWAZ: It’s usually the case they say, why should we apologize for something we don’t agree with, and I think that is disingenuous.

We’re dealing with the rise of an ideology that has global appeal and has become a brand andhas its own symbols and leaders it has its own narratives. What we need to do it match it with a competing brand so that we can arrive at a day when the Islam ideology becomes as unattractive and as unappealing as Soviet communism has become today. And that’s a really long term struggle.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m Margaret Warner for PBS NewsHour in London.