What we need to learn from Reading – and what we’ve ignored from past acts of terror
Here’s a rather different way to start your day. Once a group of people with an interest in raising the aspirations of young British Muslims went early one morning to a north London house where a project called Muslim Youth Helpline operated from. We were each given a real-life help request from the ones they had received the day before. Mine was from a 15 year old girl who was considering suicide. I asked why and the reply she had supplied was that it was because her father had raped her, which she considered her fault and that she had brought shame on the family. How do you start to deal with that?
Whether it’s the Reading attacker Khairi Saadallah, the killers of Lee Rigby or the east London girls who went to Syria to support Isis, the one thing they have in common aside from their religion is that they suffered from depression and anxiety. Whilst there are numerous programmes researching and detecting causes of radicalisation and terror, it’s very rare for mental health and well-being to be given more than a cursory nod. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s report “The Inner Lives of Troubled Young Muslims” is the first methodical analysis of sections of a community who have in large parts been demonised by the actions of a tiny but dangerous few. Compound these with inner city poverty, lack of connection either with their parents’ cultural heritage and lack of acceptance, perceived or otherwise, from mainstream society and it becomes clear that we have got things largely wrong to date.
Based on research from Oxford and LSE educated academics and with input from people experienced in the machinations of young Muslims’ minds, the report (which will be publicly launched later in the year by British Muslims for Secular Democracy where you can request a copy) makes for troubled reading but with practical ways to build more inclusive and positive thinking communities. Laced with quotes from many interviews with young people, we gain valuable insights from the inside looking out rather than as is usually done from the outside looking in.
Alibhai-Brown quotes Musa, a university student she taught: “People move away from us on the bus. Outside the mosque I see white women who run away from us. They think we all have bombs….It is not fair. I think I am British. They will not let me be British.” That’s deeply worrying. Her proposition is that we should look at Muslim issues not through security lenses but instead from the realm of well-being. “That paradigm,” she says, “changes everything, establishes trust between ‘them’ and the state. Such societal and policy changes raises important challenges and, we believe, real opportunities for transformations.”
Muslim communities need to own the problem more as well, she says. The lack of understanding of wellbeing, the brushing under the carpet of depression and alienation, the stigma around shame all need to be addressed openly with the right support and care structures. Take Sharmeena Begum, the first of the four Whitechapel girls who joined Isis. As a child she had become greatly depressed when she lost her mother to cancer. Her father admitted in a newspaper interview that he didn’t know what was going on in her head, which made her so susceptible to being radicalised.
Institutional responses to these issues need to be recalibrated to yield better results for safer communities. Michael Adebowale, the lead killer of Lee Rigby, was, it transpired, known to counter-terror police officers for his severe mental health issues but they chose to play this down because they didn’t wish to stigmatise others who suffered from poor mental health.
It’s all a bit of a mess, but a fixable mess. The NHS and the care system need to develop much stronger links with communities across the country to better understand young Muslims and provide new, effective channels not just to break triple disadvantage (a mistrusted faith, inner city deprivation and racial inequality) in order to break the allure of extremism to the vulnerable, but also to create more inclusive communities where new levels of trust are to the benefit of all. To become fully bought in members of society, the opposite of what is currently happening, needs fresh thinking of this sort.
Businesses are increasingly talking the language of mental wellbeing in their workforce and have a role to play in this process and I hope that when the issues raised in this report get aired, that we too get a seat at the table. Everyone stands to gain.
Iqbal Wahhab OBE
Member at Government Economic Recovery Taskforce
The full article can be found here:
The BMSD Inner Lives of Troubled Young Muslims Report is to be launched on September 2020.