You’d hope that the Security Editor of a national newspaper would be able to tell the difference between doctrinaire religious views and terrorism – but not so The Times’s Sean O’Neill, it seems, who has an amusing puff piece this morning on the Queen’s Road mosque in Walthamstow (a couple of hundred yards from where your intrepid blogger lives, flack jacket close at hand):
Long before the Walthamstow mosque came under Tablighi influence, it hosted “study circles” led by Bakri Mohammed’s followers. I attended one of those meetings as a reporter in August 1989 and heard young men decry the evils of drink, discos and “free intermingling of the sexes”.
Young Muslims unsure about drink, discos and free intermingling of the sexes? Hold the front page!! Someone get MI5 on the phone!! Code red!!! What else has he found?
Afzal Akram, the local councillor whose brief includes “community cohesion”, insisted that Queen’s Road mosque itself was not part of the problem. “It’s got nothing to do with the imams or the mosque — some of my friends and family pray there, I’ve been there myself,” he said. “None of the mosques here have been used to preach extremism. Individuals may have met at particular mosques and individuals may live within a stone’s throw of the mosque. But I wouldn’t put two and two together.” Mr Akram says that extremism locally is little more than youngsters “mouthing off” and “spouting conspiracy theories”. But the Government is spending £90,000 in the borough to teach “leadership” to young Muslims.
There it is! The proof for everyone except those that refuse to see it!! Ninety thousand pounds!!! If that doesn’t prove that Waltham Forest is right at the top of the government’s watch list, what does??!? And there’s more!!
That the airline bomb plot was based in Walthamstow has shocked residents of this northeast London suburb. The area prides itself on having a mixed and well-integrated community and, unlike in many areas of East London, there are no ghettos. But the plot has revealed that Islamist extremism is deeply rooted in elements of the large Muslim population.
“Elements”? What, all three of them?
Update: the Associated Press’s David Stringer has tweeted that I’m being a little unfair, and perhaps he’s right. But there’s a serious point at play: things are a little tense at the moment what with one thing and another, and that makes this a good moment for journalists to take great care to avoid inflaming things.
In that context, it’s especially important to be clear that doctrinaire religious views and terrorism are not the same thing (remember Tony Blair falling into this trap after 7/7?). Yes, there’s a serious debate to be had about what happens when competing universalist philosophies live cheek by jowl. But it doesn’t seem that sensible or helpful to me to link that debate to what to do about a handful of nutters that even MI5, of all people, describe as religious novices:
Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices. Very few have been brought up in strongly religious households, and there is a higher than average proportion of converts. Some are involved in drug-taking, drinking alcohol and visiting prostitutes. There is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.
Getting all Melanie Phillips about things, on the other hand, mixes these two debates up, fans some people’s very deep-seated fears, and nudges us towards US-style town-hall culture wars – rather than the careful, evidence-based debate we need.