The Times and the Whitehall dossier

The Times has a sobering story about the number of potential Al-Qaeda sympathisers that might be found among British Muslims or other Muslims who now live permanently in Great Britain. This ties into our discussions of “moderate” Islam, radical forms of Islam and the double-edged sword of assimilation in the West.

Here is the challenge to the press. One one side, journalists can demonize Muslims as some kind of unified threat. On the other side, journalists can made a leap of faith and assume that the “moderate” or even “reform” elements within Islam now represent the majority point of view. This approach leads to waves of stories quoting Islamic leaders repeating the “religion of peace” mantra and very little coverage of the complex, and often disturbing, points of view found elsewhere.

Time after time, I have heard journalists say — accurately — that Islam is not a monolith. The problem is that they then turn around and argue that it will only fan flames of prejudice if American newsrooms dare to do in-depth coverage of radical Islamic influences within local communities. Islam is complex and contains a multitude of voices, but we can only cover one set of voices? That is progress?

In this context, the Times report by Robert Winnett and David Leppard can be seen as somewhat brave. Some will, surely, call it “conservative,” whatever that means in this context. Here is the lead:

Al-Qaeda is secretly recruiting affluent, middle-class Muslims in British universities and colleges to carry out terrorist attacks in this country, leaked Whitehall documents reveal. A network of “extremist recruiters” is circulating on campuses targeting people with “technical and professional qualifications”, particularly engineering and IT degrees.

The key in this Whitehall document — the ghost even — is contained in its description of the environments that are yielding radical Islamists who might be willing to take part in terror campaigns.

The bottom line: This is not a matter of finding angry young men on the bad, or even oppressed, side of town.

So how big is this dangerous minority within British Islam? The document

. . . (Paints) a chilling picture of the scale of the task in tackling terrorism. Drawing on information from MI5, it concludes: “Intelligence indicates that the number of British Muslims actively engaged in terrorist activity, whether at home or abroad or supporting such activity, is extremely small and estimated at less than 1%.” This equates to fewer than 16,000 potential terrorists and supporters out of a Muslim population of almost 1.6m.

The dossier also estimates that 10,000 have attended extremist conferences. The security services believe that the number who are prepared to commit terrorist attacks may run into hundreds. Most of the Al-Qaeda recruits tend to be loners “attracted to university clubs based on ethnicity or religion” because of “disillusionment with their current existence”. British-based terrorists are made up of different ethnic groups, according to the documents.

“They range from foreign nationals now naturalised and resident in the UK, arriving mainly from north Africa and the Middle East, to second and third generation British citizens whose forebears mainly originate from Pakistan or Kashmir. In addition . . . a significant number come from liberal, non-religious Muslim backgrounds or (are) only converted to Islam in adulthood. These converts include white British nationals and those of West Indian extraction.”

Are similar recruiting patterns forming in the United States? What is happening out it, let’s say, Dallas, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Orlando and elsewhere? If reporters argued in favor of investigating these issues in the American heartland, would they be accused of bias? Of promoting hate and prejudice?

The goal is to find and accurately quote a wide variety of Muslim voices, trying to find out (a) who represents the majority point of view and (b) who is quietly recruiting Muslims to a more radical point of view. Is this journalistic task possible?

We need to watch the Times for follow-up stories.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Maryam

    I’d say engineering has a lot to answer for.

  • Ian

    It’s even worse than that. I know a formerly liberal, easy-going Arab guy who went into college and ROTC, and within months become a militant Muslim, dump his Hindu girlfriend, and go so far as to not even look directly at women, including friends from high school. When he graduated he wouldn’t fight in Iraq because he said he wouldn’t fight against Muslims. His parents – liberal Muslims – were horrified by all of this. He got it all from similar “recruiters” in ROTC and in college. Muslim Student Organizations… :(

    And to top it off, I should mention he went to a CATHOLIC college. How ironic can it get?!

  • bdure

    I think you’re asking tough, legitimate questions here, but at the same time, I think you’re getting a little too wound up about it. It seems implausible that tens of thousands of U.S. Muslims are forming terrorist organizations while the U.S. media ignore the story — indeed, this Foreign Affairs story points to reasons why such recruiting is less likely to happen here:

    And the U.S. media were fascinated with the “American Taliban” kid. That wasn’t so long ago.

    The number of people bent on jihad seems relatively constant to me, in part because there’s simply no reasoning with them. What we need to focus on is the number of enablers, the people who aren’t willing to stand up to the jihadists-in-training in their midst. After 9/11, we had the goodwill of the overwhelming majority of people in the world on our side. That’s nice beyond the simple good feeling of being on the moral high ground — it means we have people who are willing to help root out terrorists. (Remember Libya’s actions circa 2002?) As we’ve lost that goodwill, we’ve lost some of that cooperation. That makes things more dangerous.

    Slightly different point — in journalism, we tend to focus on the exceptions. Lead a quiet, ordinary life, and you won’t be in the paper that much. That’s the nature of the business, but it can lead to a misleading mirror of the world. Growing up, the only images of Muslims I saw in the media were those of terrorists. That’s not healthy for anyone.

  • Bec

    There was a similar thought presented on a Thursday evening Frontline piece looking at the London bombings, quoting a scholar who looked at those who get caught up in the militant Islamist movement. With few exceptions they were wealthy students sent to study abroad, with more secular leanings, who wandered into or were lured into the wrong mosques as a kind of cultural connection…then it grows from there.

    It was, for me, one of the first times I encountered that thought so openly.

  • C. Wingate

    It’s a very old tradition in the USA too. My wife told me of a time walking thorugh Adams-Morgan in DC with one of our foreign service friends. He pointed to one Ethiopian restaurant and said, “that’s the headquarters of the Eritrean resistance” and of another, “and that’s the headquarters of the *Tigrean* resistance.”

    I think the big difference, as noted in the CFR article, is that the “being swamped by the Islamic horde” feelings are not particularly important in the USA. Moslems are about as numerous as Episcopalians in the US.

    One aspect, though, that I don’t think the media are on top of is the toleration (or lack thereof) of radicalized Islam by the community as a whole.

  • Maryam

    Mmmm, I wonder how much of the toleration stems from feelings of not wanting to criticise fellow Muslims (who wants to air dirty laundry / it makes Muslims look bad and we are already under a harsh spotlight), and also because those militants/extremists who assert a very obvious Islamic religious identity might be perceived as being Islamic as opposed to cultic in mentality (and therefore seriously warped in their theology and attitudes).

    Islam (Sunnism in particular) has no hierarchy that can excommunicate fellow Muslims, and excommunication is considered absolutely forbidden anyway based on a tradition of the Prophet which says if one Muslim makes ‘takfir’ (calls another Muslim, a disbeliever) on another, one will be proven correct. (If the other person was indeed a Muslim, then you yourself become a disbeliever).

    Historically in Islam, if you *claim* to be a Muslim, you are accepted as such. I think this is partly why the generality of Muslims and their leaders have had such a hard time dealing with the likes of Usama bin Ladin et. al.

    I think the tide is changing, however. The quick responses by Muslims the world-over to the London bombings, denouncing them as evil, abhorant, unIslamic etc. by even Hamas (?!?!) shows a certain intolerance for the activities of the extremist fringe who are seriously harming the reputation of all Muslims and the religion they follow.

    As for recruiting – I can’t speak for the US as I’m in Australia, but I do think feelings of alienation and powerlessness which feed into despair and rage have affected *some* youth who may be lured into the extremist/militant groups. Nothing like making a young man feel he is completely powerless, the subject of constant racism and prejudice, his race and religion affecting his possibilities of employment, to attract him to a fundamentalist group who will give him a sense of esteem that he is joining God’s holy cause.

  • Terry Tee

    This whole discussion is given extra edge by the news today in London, that the four bombers were suicide bombers, all British born and of Pakistani descent. Thus underscoring my point (see the preceding blog) about young Muslim men between two cultures and two worlds.