Today the former Labour minister, Peter Hain MP, bemoaned how he and fellow Labour MPs were monitored by Special Branch during their time in Government because of their radical activities in youthful years. Well, Mr Hain, there are at least several thousand people in the UK who are blacklists maintained by the various police special units – as well as several hundred on the Government’s extremism database – most of whom simply want a more just and equal society. Indeed, Mr Hain and his fellow disgruntled MPs should perhaps regard the interest that was paid to them by Special Branch and the Special Demonstrations Squad as a badge of honour! Over the years successive Governments – including the one Mr Hain and his colleagues were part of – contributed to the criminalisation of radical thought and in doing so not only “conflated serious crime with political dissent” (to quote Hain) but unwittingly created a gap in the radical ‘marketplace’ for religious fundamentalists (e.g. ISIS supporters) in which to flourish. This is explained more, below, as also an ‘alternative’ solution to counter such fundamentalism.
To paraphrase Hain, when governments conflate religious extremism with legitimate political dissent, then you know liberty itself is endangered. The current trend in Government is to regard any form of political protest as actual or extremism. This is characterised by a GCHQ that boasts mass surveillance and a police and intelligence community that gathers intelligence on anyone who sticks out.
In today’s doublespeak, Government policy that allows less than one percent of the population to own ninety-nine percent of the wealth is seen as ‘democracy’, while those who wish for a fairer system are designated ‘extremist‘. Yet, again, Orwell’s classic has become not a prediction of what might happen, but a textbook of what is.
For the past five years the UK has suffered from austerity measures that were designed to ensure the poor became even poorer and the rich even richer. The antidote to mass protest has been partly characterised by the anodyne, shallow and mediocre culture that permeates our television screens and the music hit lists – the opposite to the far more vibrant counter-culture that emerged in the late 50s and the 60’s and which continued to influence imaginations for the next two decades. The 60’s and 70’s were the ‘permissive’ times when Hain and some of his colleagues were radicalised. It was the age of the Aldermaston marches, the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, the anti-apartheid sabotage actions, the anti-capitalist actions of the Angry Brigade and the mass strikes of the miners. They were also the decades of cultural protest that many believe were the golden age of rock music and anti-establishment arts (Ken Loach, the ‘Angry Young Men’, etc). Later decades saw the Poll Tax revolt and the massive (but failed) protest against the Iraq War and Britain’s foreign policy in the Middle East.
But it is in the nature of Government to clampdown on any threat to the status quo. Radicals of all types – protesters, trade unionists, dissenters generally – have always been monitored, harassed, arrested and blacklisted. Today, it is the same – except that those in authority have forgotten that if the young are stifled, their ideas and culture denigrated, and are told to conform and identify with corporate culture, then they will either rebel or be defeated. Now, add into all this the vast changes in the cultural – e.g. ethnic – makeup and influences in Britain, together with the disastrous foreign policies over the last 15 years or so, and radicalism takes on a very different guise.
Muslim youth is like any other youth: seeking identity, questioning authority, looking for ideals to follow, fighting for justice and so on. If those yearnings cannot be satisfied through regular radical practices and if their culture feels constantly under threat, then other outlets will be sought. Government erroneously believes it can dissuade Muslim youth from being ‘radicalised’ by mere argument alone, even when with the full cooperation of parents, schools and Muslim organisations. Just as the young, generally, would dismiss such patronising overtures, so, too, Muslim youth. In this regard the ‘elephant in the room’ is that the true antidote to Muslim ‘radical’ tendencies is not well-meaning diatribes but, paradoxically, radicalism itself.
Government can demonstrate amazing – though not surprising – ignorance of human behaviour. As any psychologist knows, if you tell someone – particularly a young person – to do something, they will invariably do the opposite. This is why when the police handed letters to three teenage girls at a London school to warn them of the dangers of travelling to Syria, they responded by making plans to do just that. And this is partly why at least 600 British Muslims, mostly young, have left for Syria, purportedly to join or support ISIS, even though that organisation is brazenly barbaric and immoral. Interventions – including early intervention – will have minimal effect, as shown by the continued haemorrhaging of Muslim youth to join with ISIS. Instead, so-called ‘radicalism’ needs a radical – a truly radical – solution.
This truly radical solution is anathema to government – namely, to step back, to provide space for the young, Muslim or otherwise, to question, to seek change and to seek ways of freeing themselves from the constraints of government, parental and religious dogma. This is a risky strategy, of course, and not one that government is expected to adopt. Therefore it will be up to Muslim youth and the more enlightened and progressive elements within Muslim communities in Britain to step up and take ownership of the ideas agenda. Muslim culture, of course, is as diverse within its ambit as non-Muslim cultures. It embraces fundamentalism strands right through to Sufism (mystical, questioning, iconoclastic, the poetry of Ibn Arabi and Rumi) and even secularism (as seen in Turkey, Syria, Libya and Gaza) and closet atheism.
The ultimate challenge to youth – including Muslim youth – is how to create a better, more just and equal world, despite the efforts of government and religion and other authoritarian institutions to stifle dissent. This is a herculean struggle that speaks to the very heart, if not soul, of who we are and why we exist, transcending political ideologies and all religions. Shutting off oxygen, so that this struggle is suffocated, is the real extremism that confronts us all.