Aaqil Ahmed

The Challenge of Stopping Online Radicalization

Are we doing enough to stop radicalisation? Like many Muslims, I returned home from taraweeh prayers June 3 and was confronted with the images of yet another act of terror. This time it took place at a location I had been to a few days earlier.

Moments like this lead us to ask: Why do they do this and how do we stop them? The media go into overdrive, politicians issue statements and the terrorists’ supporters, I suppose, sit back and enjoy the chaos. On social media the good, the bad and the very ugly come out. Sometimes the incident unites but very often it is used to score points.

People rightly say that something needs to be done but what is that something? Questions are inevitably asked about how much other Muslims or the security services knew. Could this have been stopped on the night? Are we doing enough to stop this radicalisation in Britain’s mosques and online?

We already know that at least one of the killers was confronted by his community and reported to the authorities for his dangerously extreme views. Where and how did this happen? How much radicalisation happens in the average British mosque?

The groups involved are usually physically on the fringes of mainstream society. It is in the online world that instructions for engaging in jihadist madness are published and it is there that a recruit is more likely to be groomed.

When I say groomed I am not talking about an extremist with long-held radical views. Mostly, I am referring to someone who has gone on a very quick online journey from inquisitive and mildly opinionated to locked-in zealot. We have seen this often. Young, talented people drop everything after online flirtation with radicalism and set off to join the death cult of the Islamic State (ISIS).

So, if we are to engage online, how is this to be done? How does one reach the young Muslim who is clearly searching for something but has not signed up to the ideology of hate?

One approach I recently came across was a campaign aimed at people aged 15 to 25 in Morocco and the wider MENA region. This online campaign — called “Where do we start?” — was a reaction to a very particular demographic — disaffected young Arabs living in the aftermath of the “Arab spring” revolts of 2011.

During the uprisings, a generation of young people used non-violent protest to become agents of change but their governments’ failure to deliver concrete economic, social and political reforms deflated the youthful sense of optimism. For some, it began to seem as if the possibilities of all non-violent avenues of change had been exhausted.

In this environment, violent extremist organisations, ranging from ISIS to local groups, extended their operational and communications reach. For some young people, such groups offer the only credible vehicle for change and one in which they can take part. Such groups give the youth a sense of urgency and agency.

“Where do we start?” developed a campaign to offer those people an alternative. It is a positive, practical and meaningful way to enable young Arabs to help change their worlds, both on the micro and macro level. The campaign curated and amplified a network of activists across the MENA region, including Ahmed Naguib, founder of the Egyptian NGO Schools Without Walls, and Shyrine Ziadeh, founder of the Ramallah Ballet Centre.

The campaign helped the output from six online influencers reach 4 million users and achieve more than 1 million views on Facebook and YouTube. About 90% of those who saw the content were in the target age range.

Early results have been encouraging. For many, connecting with inspirational role models led them to create a network of like-minded young people. They were moved to share their thoughts and hopes of success in building civil society.

The networks have the potential to grow and spread further their message of positivity over hate.

At a time when many claim that the only voices chosen to represent young Muslims are negative, this was a clear example of the alternative narrative. Sometimes, countering Islamist extremism is not just about faith and scripture. The online influencer does not take away the need to challenge perversions of theology or for the authorities to monitor online grooming and hate. However, it does offer something concrete and hopeful to the young seeker, something that can divert him from the path of death and destruction.

This campaign may not have swayed the killers in Manchester and London, for they were too far gone with their hatred, but an extremist is not born that way. He embarks on a journey that could have many entry and exit points, many different twists and turns.

Some young people respond well to a simple message of hope, one that says violence is not the only way to change the world and that, most importantly, you are not alone.

Can Football Players Help Break Stereotypes About Islam?

Paul Pogba is the world’s most expensive footballer and now possibly the sport’s most famous Muslim. He shared pictures of his umrah from Mecca with millions of people around the world, even tweeting “Ramadan Kareem.”

His social media offerings highlighted the role that sports personalities, particularly footballers, can play in breaking down barriers and helping deliver religious literacy at a time when it is needed most.

Across the football leagues of Europe, hundreds of Muslim players ply their trade, exciting fans of all faiths. Their involvement in the English Premier League has arguably changed it forever as the influx of players mixed with worldwide commercial growth means a fan of Chelsea is as likely to come from Lahore as he or she is to be from London.

Premier teams such as Arsenal send out messages wishing their fans “Eid Mubarak” and its Muslim star players such as Mesut Ozil start each game with a Muslim prayer. Fans are even joining in.

When Newcastle United signed striker Demba Ba, he couldn’t score a goal for love or money and his fasting during Ramadan became an issue. He then went on a fantastic run, eventually scoring 16 goals. There’s not a huge Muslim population in Newcastle but the fans of the team soon had a terrace chant in Ba’s honour. To the tune of Depeche Mode’s 1980s-era pop classic “Just Can’t Get Enough,” they shoehorned Ramadan and fasting into an homage to their star striker.

Ba would go into the sajda prayer position after scoring a goal, something many Muslim players do. Gary Lineker, the former England player and commentator, on seeing two other players do this, commented that they were “eating grass.” He apologised for not knowing what they were actually doing but such is the effect of Muslim players on the sport that most commentators and fans know that the act is religious and Muslim.

This is also seen in sports such as athletics. Mo Farrah, arguably the best athlete in the world, is famous not just for his Mobot pose but also for prostrating in the sajda position after each race. Boxer Amir Khan regularly thanks God in his post-match interviews and who can forget the iconic image of sabre fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad becoming the first hijab-wearing athlete to compete for the United States in the Olympics and the first female American Muslim to win an Olympic medal.

These sports personalities are important in breaking down stereotypes and normalising Muslims to fans, commentators and their colleagues.

It’s in the relationship with their teammates and club colleagues, however, that they show the rest of us we can learn from sport, particularly football, about how religious literacy can change how we think and help us better understand the “other” in our midst.

After several Muslim English Premier League players declined to accept their “Man of the Match” champagne bottles, the sponsors decided to replace champagne with a trophy so each player was equally rewarded.

This awareness also permeates throughout many of the clubs with Muslims on their books. From prayer spaces, halal food and faith awareness classes, clubs have embraced the needs of the growing number of Muslims players. As former England Manager Sam Allardyce said, it’s important that everyone is integrated in the club.

This understanding of creating a respectful and integrated workplace is key to delivering better results on the pitch as a happy player will be a more productive one but it’s more than that.

If you embark on this journey of understanding and tweaking your environment and practices to embrace difference, then it permeates throughout and before long becomes second nature.

Zafar Iqbal, the club doctor at Crystal Palace, was formerly in the same role at Liverpool football club. When the team won the English football league trophy at Wembley Stadium, the players approached the practising Muslim with a question. They told him that they would be celebrating the win in the dressing room and asked whether spraying champagne around would make him uncomfortable. He was told it would be over in 20 minutes.

He returned to the changing room after the champagne celebrations to find his suit, shoes and bag hanging outside the room so that they wouldn’t be covered in champagne.

What better example of religious literacy and social cohesion is there than this? Football players with enough knowledge to know that alcohol would be an issue for their Muslim colleague and enough common sense to come to an amicable solution that allows an age-old celebratory tradition to continue and their colleague to feel respected.

It’s a strange thought but, yes, we can look to football to learn how we can live together and understand each other a bit better to make our societies more religiously literate and by nature more tolerant.


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