Sheikh Dr. Usama Hasan, Senior Researcher (Islamic Studies), Quilliam Foundation
The horrific murder of Drummer Rigby in Woolwich last week should be a wake-up call for politicians, UK armed forces and Muslim leaders regarding the disconnect between some young Muslims and their owned armed forces and other respected institutions of this country.
In 2007, a plot to kidnap and behead a British Muslim soldier was thwarted. In the same year, Channel 4’s Undercover Mosque filmed a radical preacher addressing a congregation of a Birmingham mosque and saying that British Muslim soldiers who serve in Afghanistan should be beheaded. The English Defence League was, of course, set up after the distasteful protests against British troops returning from tours in Afghanistan and Iraq; the extremist Muslim group behind this protest later abandoned a plan to protest at Wootton Bassett. We need to recognise the symbiotic relationship between Muslim extremists and far-right extremists, and work to defeat both.
A number of UK Muslim leaders and imams have actually visited British troops in Afghanistan, as part of the FCO’s “Projecting British Muslims” initiative, and helped in dialogue with local Afghan mullahs and tribal leaders. In August 2010, I spent a week in Helmand during such a visit, at the Lashkar Gah base as well as the Nad-e-Ali Forward Operating Base. Facilitators of this visit included Asim Hafiz, official Imam of the UK Armed Forces, and Capt. Afzal Amin, a fluent Arabic-speaker and devout Muslim, who has recently retired from the army and been selected as the Conservative parliamentary candidate in the Midlands. During our visit, we visited the base’s Anglican chaplain and attended a moving service for Lance Cpl Jordan Bancroft, who was killed in a gunfight with insurgents during our visit. In the same year, a courageous group of Muslim women, some of them veiled, laid a floral tribute to the sacrifices of our armed forces at the National Arboretum war-memorial. In one of the annual meetings of the Armed Forces Muslim Association, a met an experienced British Army midwife who had helped thousands of pregnant Afghan women and new mothers caught in the crossfire of war with essential maternal healthcare. These stories, and other such examples, need to be popularised and celebrated.
The 2011 Census results show that about 4% of the UK population has the Muslim faith. In the UK armed forces, the proportion is only about 0.3%: Muslims and BME communities are severely under-represented. One of the reasons for this is likely to be the fact that the British army, like the police, have been admitted to be institutionally racist in the past. This urgently needs to be addressed, and the Armed Forces must recruitment more Muslims and BME communities.
The problem of racism and discrimination against Muslims and BME people in wider British society also needs to be addressed: black and Asian people are far more likely to experience unemployment and be stopped by police. The resulting sense of exclusion can drive many towards radical Islam, and this may have been a factor in the radicalisation of the two suspected Woolwich killers, both of whom are of African origin.
There should be no question of serving soldiers, or practising Muslims, being afraid to wear their identity on the streets of Britain. Let us strive to heal the divisions in our society so that we can continue to benefit from the benefits of a healthy democracy and free society.