Importing imams

by Aftab Ahmad Malik
29 April 2008
Bristol, England - While it is commendable and encouraging that the British government is making a concerted effort to work with Muslims to combat the scourge of radicalisation, its recent proposal to draft moderate imams from Pakistan indicates that there is still much to learn.

Far from being breeding centres of radicalisation, mosques have failed to cater to British Muslims precisely by employing imams from "back home". The consequence of such actions has been the continued alienation of young Muslims, who increasingly cannot speak or understand their mother tongue, which is generally the first language of most imams.

Undeniably, while there are exceptions, the fact remains that despite their knowledge of Islam, many "imported" imams tend to have a limited understanding of the complexities of modern secular life and the challenges faced by young Muslims. Very rarely do they attempt to make sense of the political climate or equip themselves to do so; they prefer instead to focus on matters of piety and faith.

The young radicals I have spoken to over the past six years typically have become more and more alienated by this general attitude in mosques and so have looked elsewhere to acquire Islamic "values".

For example, Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group whose goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate, proved to be immensely popular in Britain during the 1990s not only because it addressed very serious issues (often leading to radical solutions) but also because its members were both linguistically and culturally conversant with British Muslims. They spoke fluent English, which proved to be a compelling and fresh alternative from imams and preachers who spoke English only as their second or third language.

While the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Britain are of Pakistani origin, few actually look to Pakistan for religious guidance. Even the youth living in Pakistan don't relate to what is being preached there. The trouble is that many young Pakistanis in the heartland have grown tired of the way Islam is being presented and taught, with many limiting their participation to attending the communal Friday prayer as a result.

Indeed, if you were to ask young Muslims here in Britain to cite some of the scholars they relate to and respect, most will list converts as exemplars and role models. The same is true in Pakistan, where bootleg recordings of lectures of Western converts to Islam are readily available.

In short, young Muslims are increasingly looking West not East to make sense of the world and the challenges they've inherited in a post-9/11 world.

Despite controversy among Muslims in Britain, it is clear that the government proposes to tackle radicalisation through challenging the paucity of both the theological and legal knowledge of these young radicals. But this is only half of the battle.

To assert that radicalisation among young Muslims has little to do with British foreign policy is to deny one of the very root causes of radicalisation, rendering any genuine attempt to eliminate it impotent. While two of the 7/7 suicide bombers left recorded messages blaming British policy in Iraq for their actions, a Home Office and Foreign Office dossier ordered by Tony Blair in 2004 confirmed that Iraq was a "recruiting sergeant" for extremism.

While Muslims are increasingly waking up to and challenging the internal threat of extremism, our politicians need to realise that denying any linkage between an unethical foreign policy and radicalisation will further infuriate critical partners and serve to bolster the armoury of grievances and double standards cited to prove to others that this is a war against Islam.

Whatever one believes to be the root cause or causes of the radicalisation of young Muslims, we all need to work together as this disease is indiscriminate: it attacks both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Blaming the "other" for all the ills in the world is easy, but taking a long, hard, introspective look in the mirror now that's the way of the prophets.


* Aftab Ahmad Malik is a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Culture at the University of Birmingham and editor of The State We Are In: Identity, Terror and the Law of Jihad (Amal Press). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and originally appeared in The Birmingham Post.

Source: Common Ground News Service, 29 April 2008,
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Other articles in this edition

Iran is not the enemy by Ellen Francis
Redefining the US-Pakistan partnership by Arif Rafiq
What is a vote worth in Iran? by Ahmad Sadri
From Dubai to Doha by John Defterios