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The Battle for British Islam; a review

Friday 23 September 2016

Sara Khan’s provocative title is more than just an attention grabber. She has spent years fighting extremist Islam in Britain, most recently as the director of Inspire, an organisation that tackles extremism through empowering women.

Her thoughtful and detailed book draws lessons from the front through Sara’s countless interactions with British Muslims and through the urgent lens of Prevent, the Home Office’s deployment of counter-terrorism strategy. This book is the perfect introduction to those who engage with British Islam, extremist or not, and who want a map for the road. It is also a must read before passing judgement on home-grown extremism and counter-radicalisation.

Sara is #makingastand. As a Muslim woman, she argues passionately that being British and being Muslim together is possible. Necessary. However, rather than explaining why this is, her book methodically reviews how the public face of British Muslim people has been hijacked by very vocal extremists. She recounts how two unlikely currents of Islam joined forces in the aftermath of 9/11 in order to avoid being ‘no platformed’ and to gain more influence together than they could aspire to have alone. Once fierce, sometimes violent, rivals for recruits and influence among young Muslims, Islamist groups (such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and Anjem Choudhary’s Al Muhajiroun) and Salafist groups (whose ideology was closer to al Qaeda’s jihadism) became partners, a trend accelerated by the 7/7 bombings in 2005 and its aftermath as British Islam came under unprecedented scrutiny.

Khan shows how these movements are connected by equally puritanical and revivalist visions of Islam and explores the media attention that they have commanded in the past. Importantly, she also demonstrates how they and other extremist Islamic voices have systematically attacked the Government’s Prevent programme and how their denigrations have been uncritically parroted by the media in search of sensationalism. Big Brother’s return through Prevent is indeed easier to explore than scrutinising levels of surveillance which people accept for ‘the prevention of crime’. But Khan does not allow her reader to be complacent about the threats posed to Britain by Salafi-Islamist violent or non-violent extremism. She confronts the reader with successful interventions through Prevent and the Channel mentoring system. Khan skilfully places these stories side by side with biographies of Islamist influencers in Britain and lets the reader pick their camp.

Khan exposes those parts of the establishment, for example The Law Society, which have accepted the voice of these groups, such as CAGE, to be representative of British Muslim demands and needs. While she defends an Islam which is aligned with human rights, she does not fall into the trap of describing exactly what Islam that might be, but hints at theological workshops held as counter narrative tool-kits and run by her organisation. She touches on the factors which may lead to the radicalisation of young people, and explains how identity politics and globalisation have led numerous young Muslims to reject the Islam inherited from their parents, in order to turn to a globalised, Manichean and totalitarian Salafi-Islamist view.

This book is part of her call for non-extremist Muslims to speak out and reclaim the stage. She demands that the government and other powerful institutions make sure that they lend their support to the right voices.

Khan’s book gives the uninitiated a good handle on who’s who and on which organisations spearhead which views. Two things felt like they were missing: first, a clear structure at the start of the book would have been helpful as its overall intent only becomes clear quite far in. The persistent reader, however, is rewarded with the sense of grasping how the land lies in contemporary British Islam. Second, the book does not tackle the question of what contemporary Islam’s place could or even should be in British society. The reader is left hungry for more now that they hold a map in hand. This is overall a courageous book which gives the reader the tools to identify competing voices for the British Muslim identity. Sara Khan reviews the landscape and then calls all to action.  


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