Combating Terror in the UK: British Muslim Women to Be Frontline Against Extremism

By Sebastian Borger in London

Gordon Brown's government is to invest in education and training for young British Muslim women. The idea is to improve integration and fight extremism in Muslim communities.

A veiled woman at the Whitechapel market in east London.
AFP

A veiled woman at the Whitechapel market in east London.

The representatives of Britiain's 1.6 million Muslims are quick to complain that their community is treated shabbily. There was the case of Aishah Azmi, for example, a 24-year-old teaching assistant at a primary school who was suspended in 2006 after she refused to remove a black veil that left only her eyes visible. School authorities in the northern English city of Dewsbury in Yorkshire found that a teacher dressed in this manner could not teach English to children. Azmi's lawyers are now taking the case to the European Court of Justice.

Then there was the case of Samina Malik, the "lyrical terrorist" on the Internet, who dreamt up poems about martyrs and beheadings. In November 2007 a London court found Malik guilty of owning terrorist pamphlets, after police found extremist literature in her bedroom and jihadist videos on her computer. She was subsequently sentenced to a nine-month suspended sentence.

Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, criticized the ruling. "Many young people download objectionable material from the internet, but it seems that if you are a Muslim then this could lead to terrorist charges."

The government now wants to send a positive signal to Muslims, and in particular it wants to win over Muslim women. Communities and Local Government Secretary Hazel Blears is due to announce a new €100 million (70 million pounds sterling) program for the better integration of religious minorities, and part of that money will be used to form women's groups. Young Muslim women will also be sent on management training courses and encouraged to pursue educational and career opportunities. "Muslim women have told us that they want to play a greater role in civic life and their communities," a government spokesman said this weekend.

The Labour Government is increasingly using a stick-and-carrot approach to improve integration of Muslims in a bid to fight extremism. Blears' plans are the flip side of tougher announcements from interior minister, Jacqui Smith, who wants to make it more difficult for people from former British colonies to join their families in the UK.

Imported Brides and Social Ghettos

That will affect families from Pakistan and Bangladesh in particular, where the majority of British Muslim families originate. Their communities in Britain are often isolated, even in the capital London, home to around one million Muslims. It has long been a feature of these societies to import young uneducated women without any English from the home country as brides. And many of their children, sometimes third- and fourth-generation British Muslims, have grown up in social isolation.

But there are also many examples of the successful integration of Muslim women. The lawyer Sayeeda Warsi, a member of the Conservative party, was made a peer in the House of Lords this year and is now a member of David Cameron's shadow cabinet. In April, the Labour Party in the London district of Tower Hamlets selected Rushanara Ali, associate director of the Young Foundation, a London-based think tank, to run as a parliamentary candidate. Then there is politics professor Haleh Afshar, founder and chair of the Muslim Women's Network, who was appointed to the House of Lords in the autumn.

The Brown government understands the power of these positive role models. In November he told parliament that an advisory group was being set up to increase the "access of women to mosques and their management committees." However, Inayat Bunglawala, Assistant Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britian, lashed out at the new women's initiatives, saying "The government first wanted our imams to act as spies on young British Muslims, and now they seem to want Muslim women to do the same."

Shaista Gohir, chief executive of the Muslim Women's Network, rejected this criticism: "It's not about women becoming investigators, it's about giving them a greater role in public life."

And this includes overcoming language barriers and improving their qualifications. Unemployment among Muslims is three times as high as in the rest of the population. More than half of all adult Muslims in the UK are unemployed, and the proportion of Muslim women who are unemployed is even higher.

Prime Minister Brown and his cabinet continually emphasize the importance of religious groups for the cohesion of society and praise the majority of British Muslims for their peaceful way of life. But there are also increasing pressures to do more to improve integration. According to Brown, the aim is to "isolate Islamist extremists" who seek to "manipulate and divide our society."

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