How we can rid Britain of violent extremism

Terrorism does not exist in a vacuum. What must be addressed is the political ideology of Islamism t

Following the Glasgow attacks last month, I was filled with dread about how Muslim leaders might respond. Over the past two years there has been a general tendency to condemn terrorist attacks and follow with an almost mandatory caveat linking them to British foreign policy - "If Tony Blair hadn't . . .", "If we weren't in Iraq . . ." The community response was refreshingly different this time. The vast majority of Muslim groups overwhelmingly condemned the attempted atrocities outright. No ifs, no buts.

This shift is encouraging, but does not go far enough. Since leaving radical Islam behind two years ago, I've had time to reflect on exactly what is causing the kind of anger that motivates young men - often highly intelligent and successful - to become hardened terrorists. It's a reality that came thundering home for me when I discovered that the principal suspects behind the bombing plot at the end of June were among my closest friends when I studied at Cambridge University.

Islamist terrorism does not exist in a vacuum. Like other social phenomena, it operates within a wider infrastructure, designed to achieve specific ends. In this case, that is the political ideology of Islamism, an idea distinct and different from Islam the religion. I'm convinced that if we're serious about eradicating the dangerous subculture of extremism in some parts of the Muslim community, we need to address this.

By focusing almost exclusively on violent extremism, the government has got it wrong. It has failed to appreciate how the general culture of extreme Islamist dissent can, and often does, give rise to terrorism itself.

Islamist groups thrive on preaching a separatist message of Islamic supremacy, which concerns itself with reversing the temporal decline of Islam and challenging the ascendancy of the west by reviving a puritanical caliphate. Muslims in Britain who subscribe to this belief are in effect leading separate lives. They believe Islam and the west are irreconcilable, that democracy is heresy and that the biggest threat to British Muslims is integration.

One of the principal proponents of this view in Britain is Hizb ut-Tahrir, of which I was a member and regional officer for north-east England. It was through my membership of the group that I first met Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed, the two men suspected of driving an explosive-laden jeep into Glasgow Airport.

During that year we became close friends, and met frequently to discuss politics. The at mosphere was always highly charged when we considered the decline of political Islam. We felt humiliated by it. We all believed in championing the supremacy of Islam, wanting to see a future Islamic empire dominate the world and, of course, to establish a puritanical Islamic state.

It is within this ideological framework that Islamism operates - whether violent or not. And, contrary to conventional wisdom, terrorism is not about simple retaliation for perceived grievances. Islamist violence in the west is invariably linked with a desire to see the realisation of a world-view. This is where the campaign against violent extremism must now focus: on the ideology that inspires it.

Although groups like Hizb insist that their acti vities are merely intellectual, the movement is no paper tiger. It is an active revolutionary organisation with tentacles spread across the world. And its culpability in inspiring terrorists cannot be denied. Hizb has consistently raised the temperature of Islamist anger across Britain by issuing inflammatory leaflets aimed to agitate and provoke. One leaflet distributed at British mosques urged: "O Muslims! Hizb ut-Tahrir calls upon you to mobilise your forces to help and support it in its work to establish the [caliphate] state, by which you will restore your glory . . . and destroy your enemy . . . the enemies of Allah and His Messenger, namely America, Britain, the Jews and their allies."

Throughout the 1990s, when Islamist groups such as Hizb were able to operate with impunity, the movement succeeded in recruiting young Muslims from the Indian subcontinent to its ranks. Many of these recruits, such as Hizb's current leader in Britain, Dr Abdul Wahid, later repatriated themselves to places like Pakistan to help proliferate the movement's cells there. Hizb members are now actively working to undermine Musharraf's government.

As Islam becomes increasingly deterritorialised, we cannot afford to consider our security in isolation, nor can we make false distinctions between extremism and violent extremism. They are interdependent and inextricably intertwined.

It may be going too far to suggest that the actual plans for the London and Glasgow attacks were being laid during the academic year 2004-2005 when I knew Bilal and Kafeel. What is certain, however, is that the ideological seeds of anti-western sentiment and separatism were being sown, or at least reinforced, back then. The subsequent gap to be bridged when they eventually decided to bomb Britain was that much smaller.

But I remain optimistic. In the two years since I left radical Islamism behind, I've seen some positive change. The Muslim community is beginning to accept that the problem of extremist sentiment is principally born out of theological bifurcation, not foreign policy.

If we are serious about ridding ourselves of violent extremism, we need to be similarly unequivocal in challenging the ideological infrastructure that underlies it all - no ifs, no buts.

Shiraz Maher's film about political Islam will be broadcast on Newsnight (BBC2) next week

Shiraz Maher is a New Statesman contributing writer and the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. 

This article appears in the 16 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Chavez: from hero to tyrant