A big influx of young worshippers is making it increasingly difficult for mosques to combat extremism, Muslim leaders say.
As ministers scramble to stem the flow of Britons leaving for the battlefronts in Iraq and Syria, with about 500 estimated to have joined jihadist groups, imams are increasingly worried by the influence of extremist preachers.
Mosques are facing a demographic boom, with almost a tenth of children under five being Muslim. There are fears that imams who could steer the young away from extremism fail to engage with them in their own language — English.
Harun Khan, deputy secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, warned that some mosques did not have the resources to face down militant Salafism. Asked what more imams could do to prevent young British Muslims from being radicalised, he said: “To be honest, many of the smaller ones are not really geared up for it. Imams need to deal with so much these days. Mosques operate as charity organisations. They have to deal with a huge number of issues in terms of pastoral care, the social issues, family issues . . .”
Qari Asim, the imam of the Makkah Mosque in Leeds, who played a leading role last week in an open letter calling on Muslims not to join the fighting in Syria, said that many mosques were too short-staffed to contend effectively with jihadist ideologues.
He said: “we need to work on building capacity. Traditionally, mosques didn’t have to deal with the media or some of the other issues that they are focused on now. That requires investment, that requires manpower and all those resources are not at their beck and call.”
The number of Muslims in Britain has increased greatly over the past two decades, from 1.6 million in the 2001 census to 2.7 million, or one Briton in 20, by 2011.
Haras Rafiq, from the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremist think-tank, said the argument that mosques did not have the capacity to root out jihadists was “rubbish”. The real problem was the large number of foreign imams leading mosques who were not able to engage with younger Muslims who grew up in Britain and spoke English as their first language.
“In many mosques they are still preaching in languages other than English,” he said. “They’re missing my generation. They’re missing my 23-year-old son’s generation. The kids are just switching off.
“How do imams [help] when somebody comes to them with a personal crisis, if they’ve not been born here, if they haven’t got a version of Islam that allows for engaging with that society?”
Mr Rafiq welcomed the open letter, published on Friday with the signatures of more than 100 imams but said that more needed to be done. He claimed that some imams were not equipped to “de-radicalise” young men once they had fallen into the clutches of jihadist ideologues. “Now the real hard work starts: how do they get to their people, how do they get to individuals who are at risk of being radicalized?”
Mr Asim agreed that imams from outside the UK were often unable to help young men at risk. He said: “I’ve been contending with the same for quite some time. If you look at the recent imam in the Cardiff case [Mohammed al-Arifi, a Saudi cleric accused of radicalising three young Britons who joined Isis in Iraq], he was a guy from abroad who was preaching there. The context is not there and they struggle to relate to young people and as a result things do get lost in translation and mosques have now been doing quite rigorous checks to make sure that imams who are recruited are from this country and can connect with [the youth].”
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My thinking is rather simple: the UK’s problem is the sheer numbers. Assume that it is a given that some percent, call it x, of the Muslim population will be attracted to violence. So the more Muslims you have, the more potential terrorists you have.
I have zero confidence that anyone, no matter how well-intentioned, can stop those who are attracted to violence. And it gets worse. Some fraction, say y, of the native population will be both attracted to Islam and attracted because they too enjoy violence.
Think realistically: we know people who are violent exist everywhere.
It seems reasonable to assume that as the number of Muslims rise, and the natives become more familiar with it, the percentage y will rise too.
And the final kicker: high birth rates for Muslims. I posted a map yesterday showing the percentage of the each country that is under 14 (a rough proxy for birth rate, not perfect due early childhood deaths in the poorer countries).
Nor can we assume that the birth rates will remain the same for immigrants to the UK. Yet the statistics in this article, 10% of the children under five are Muslim, as opposed to 5% for the general population, suggests that whatever the birth rate is, it is considerably higher than for native inhabitants of the UK.