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Sadek Hamid

The Islamic State in Britain: Why young Muslims join and leave the extremist group

Anti-IS protests take place in London [Getty]

Date of publication: 10 March, 2021

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Book Club: Michael Kenney's The Islamic State in Britain: Radicalization and Resilience in an Activist Network uses a social science approach to explain why young Muslims become radicalised.
For over two decades Muslim religious extremism in the UK was most often associated with the notorious Al-Muhajiroun group. Founded by Omar Bakri Mohammed, the former leader of the radical transnational Islamist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) in the UK, until he resigned in 1996.

Al-Muhajiroun was a shortened version of Jamaat al-Muhajiroun, a front name for HT created by Bakri in 1983 while living in Saudi Arabia.  

Al-Muhajiroun became infamous for its goal of wanting to establish a caliphate in the UK, high profile confrontational protests and support for violent jihadist movements abroad.

Most British Muslims were vexed by the amount of media attention it received and ability of its leaders to evade prosecution for most of its history – a fact which prompted many to question its relationship with the state security services.

Despite the departure of its leader in 2005 and various setbacks, the group continued to operate and expand its network and even established cells in some European cities.

Members and supporters of organisation was associated with various bomb plots and the decision to give allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014, encouraged the emigration of some of its activists to emigrate to Islamic State (IS) controlled territory in Iraq and Syria and cement the group's violent extremist credentials and the prospect of returnees from IS's failed caliphate and potential regrouping after the release of its current leader remains a concern for state authorities.

Michael Kenney's book The Islamic State in Britain: Radicalization and Resilience in an Activist Network, builds upon a similar examination of the group – Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West by Quintan Wiktorowicz.

Kenney also uses a social science approach, combining ethnographic and network analysis to explain why some young Muslims joined the group, how they become radicalised, why most eventually left, and how it operated for so long.

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The first chapter offers a "thin" network analysis with "thick" ethnographic description that draws on news reports, interviews, and participant observation.

This section of the book is the most theoretical and is illustrated with various statistical tables and graphs which try to account for the group's development from a centralised "scale-free-like" network focused around the leadership Bakri, to a shrunken, more decentralised, "small-world-like" network and survive a hostile law enforcement environment for so many years.

Chapter two provides insights into the reasons people join and why they are predominately young men. The author argues that various factors such as ideological sympathy, friendship formed from its close knit, invitation-only "study circles," charismatic leaders, and youthful inexperience account draws people in. These observations are examined in light of frameworks from social movements and religious cults.

The third chapter, details the behavioural changes that are expected with becoming a member and uses the concept of "communities of practice" to explain how new recruits acquire the skills and knowledge they need to become committed insiders.

This process of modelling and indoctrination into group ideology, building friendships with other activists deepens commitment to the network and is developed further by watching more experienced activists perform outreach its application of the Islamic notion of "commanding the good and forbid evil."

This process of deep enculturation also explains the remarkable resilience of the organisation and its tactical adaptations in the response to legal proscription which forced it to change its name to various iterations such as "The Saved Sect", "Islam4UK" and "Muslims Against Crusade."

Bakri's successor Anjum Choudhury is credited for steering the network through these challenges, developing an equally controversial public profile and confounding critical outsiders.

Despite functioning at various capacities for nearly twenty five years – the organisation has little to show for its efforts and remains a highly marginalised within the Muslim communities it claims to work with.

Having unsuccessfully morphed several times using various front names, it is no longer able to organise public demonstrations and operates clandestinely.  

The group has a high membership turnover and the fifth and final chapters, discuss the various reasons why people leave the group.

Many members "age out" of the network as they grew older, pursue higher education, start families and live more normal lives. Others leave because they become burned out from the relentless pace of activism or grew tired of rehearsing the same lessons in their weekly classes with the same speakers. Some were ejected for listening to the preaching of non-Al-Muhajiroun speakers, while others disagreed with the group's direction and leadership.

The network's relentless demands on member time and resources left a significant number with damaged family relations and individuals who came to realise the futility of its incendiary rhetoric that caused more harm than good to the wider Muslim community.  

For other members, the dead end activism of the organisation forced them to exit to and join less radical groups and a handful even went on to publicly refute the organisation.

This book overall is an insightful scholarly addition to the study of Islamic activism in the UK, and updates the work of Wiktorowicz and should be read alongside another recent examination of the group.

It challenges received assumptions about Islamic radicalism, avoids superficial assessments found elsewhere and demonstrates the group's peripheral significance among British Muslim communities.

The author's description of Al-Muhajiroun as Salafi in its theological orientation and methodology is however, less convincing as he does not appear to realise the spuriousness of this claim and the nuances in theological affiliation.

Mainstream British Salafis trends vigorously denied this characterisation and considered the group as part of the jihadi-takfiri fringe that resembled the extremist Khawarij sect from early Muslim history.

The (in)significance of the organisation would also have been better contextualised, if other competing extremist trends and figures such as Abu Qatada, Abdullah Faisal, and Abu Hamza were discussed in more detail. Neither is there substantive referencing of the wider social ecology of British Muslim communities during the period under study and the activism of other moderate revivalist groups who were competing for the same youthful demographic. This text is a necessary read for anyone seeking to understand this subject area.

Dr Sadek Hamid is an academic who has written widely about British Muslims. He is the author of 'Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism' and is co-author of 'British Muslims: New Directions in Islamic Thought, Creativity and Activism'.

Follow him on Twitter: @sadekhamid


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