Britain seeks assistance of moderate Imams

Not enough imams challenge extremist narratives that captivate vulnerable youth

August 25, 2014 11:29 pm | Updated April 21, 2016 05:06 am IST - COVENTRY (ENGLAND):

Prayers inside London's central mosque in a 2007 file photo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Prayers inside London's central mosque in a 2007 file photo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The beheading of American journalist James Foley in Iraq, apparently by a British jihadist, has drawn renewed attention to the dangers posed by radicalised young British Muslims.

The government estimates that 500 or more British men and women have gone to fight for militant groups in Iraq and Syria, some of whom have returned.

Moderating beliefs

Britain monitors its citizens on social media sites as part of its counterterrorism strategy. But the government has also turned to anti-extremist imams for help to prevent British Muslims from adopting radical views and to persuade those who have returned from the battlefields to moderate their beliefs.

After Foley’s execution, Qari Asim, the imam of the Makkah mosque in Leeds, urged the Muslims “to work with the intelligence services and the government to make sure that this poison doesn’t reach our borders.” Speaking to the BBC, he said that the risk of British Muslims joining the extremist group known as the Islamic State, was increasing because of Britain’s involvement in Iraq.

Like scores of British Muslims before him, Mohammed Hadi (18) sneaked out of his house in Coventry one morning in March to go fight for a militant group in Syria. His parents were shocked and confused.

“He was normal at home, a moderate Muslim,” his father, Mahir Hadi, said. After three months without a trace, Mohammed began posting messages on Twitter in June. He had taken an Islamic name, Abu Yahya al-Kurdy, and claimed that he had joined Islamic State.

The only clue to his son’s sudden departure, Mr. Hadi said, was the local imam, Mohammed Shoaib, who had taught the young man at his madrasa and, according to a person who knows the family, accompanied him on a trip to Turkey near the border with Syria, without his parents’ knowledge.

Mr. Hadi said he suspected that the imam had radicalised his son, so he confronted him. According to Mr. Hadi, Mr. Shoaib denied the claims. The imam has not been charged with any wrongdoing, and he declined a request for an interview.

Disaffected youth

Only a minority of religious leaders plant the seeds of radicalisation, experts and officials say. The intended audience is disaffected youth, alienated from local mosques and searching for answers about the typical concerns of young people, as well as the conflicts in the Middle East.

Those imams often preach a brand of Islamic supremacy, the experts say. They are careful not to suggest taking up arms, but will talk about the situation in Syria, Iraq or Gaza, and then talk about a Muslim’s duties. Their views are extreme, but rarely illegal.

Part of the problem is that not enough imams challenge extremist narratives that captivate vulnerable youth, said Timothy Winter, dean of Cambridge Muslim College, which trains about 100 imams a year. Most imams avoid preaching on divisive political and social issues, he said, and, “They can’t spend quality time every day with every young angry man.”

The role of the government is limited, he said, because it lacks “the competence of the traditional scholars,” and not all who take part in deradicalisation efforts are linked to the government.

Mr. Hadi, Mohammed’s father, said he was hopeful. “I’m still waiting for my son to come back home,” he said. — New York Times News Service

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