Canary Wharf is a symbol of the divide between the rich and poor in Britain. The financial towers stand tall surrounding small blocks of compressed flats and houses. Surrounding the towers is nothing but poverty, destitution and grim hardship accompanying many Muslim families. Wealth is concentrated like an oasis of richness in a bare desert.
In this part of Tower Hamlets, wealth is cocooned carefully away from the borough’s impoverished inhabitants. It is an area that is dense in minorities struggling for life security and aspiration, deprived of the opportunities that can make giant ripples in their lifestyles. For many of them, living on minimum wages, zero-hour contracts, reliant on tax credits and child benefits, the lives they lead are bleak and a daily grind of struggle for survival. It is within this environment that many young Muslims are growing up.
Often when the road towards extremism is discussed, it’s forgotten that there are many different roads. Some are born directly from ignored grievances over foreign policy while others have resulted from frustration and fears over Islamophobia that leave many young Muslims with uncertain identities in a society becoming more divided and hostile. Other times it’s purely a theological subscription to what is laid out by groups like ISIS.
It’s too easy to pin causes of extremism exclusively on one issue or the other. Often they are a messy tangle of the other with one deserving more emphasis than the other depending on the situation. But hugely understated, by both sides of the debate, is the role of socioeconomic conditions facing Muslims and the identity crisis many of the Muslim youth seem to have.
Almost half of the Muslim community live in the bottom 10% of council districts, in places essentially resembling Tower Hamlets. Just over a quarter of the Muslim population are on social housing and 13% are actually in prison. This is not exactly figures that speak of a blossoming community nor is it a very recent problem. In 2005 the Trade Union Congress reported the alarming unemployment statistics greeting many families of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origins, who compromise a huge number of British Muslims.
In a time when public services are being stripped away under the mass enlargement of the private sector, when workers rights are being stripped away and more employment rights are shifted to employers, when social security is brutally slashed whilst the super-rich enjoy extraordinary amounts of wealth, the social conditions of Muslims have never been more critical or important for assessment.
Anyone who is working-class these days tends to be disenfranchised, ridden with fear and vulnerable to radically dangerous ideas. They are looking for something that provides them with the security the current status quo fails to provide. Many of the English working-class lost the sense of community, social status and identity that used to be bestowed upon them in the post-war period when Thatcher came in and launched a brutal assault on the public sector, the industrial wipeout seeing millions of jobs lost and lives permanently shaped for the worse. In the new post-industrial era, where work was gravitated around the service sector, workers no longer enjoyed the employment security or dignified wages of before. The Labour Party, once the organised wing of political labour and a challenge to the capitalist elite, shifted right and embraced the neoliberal consensus. Working families had no-one who communicated with their daily fears and hopes in a language that they understood. Immigrant workers came in and to many it was as though everything Thatcher had taken away from them had gone to foreigners.
That anger and fear was never articulated and for years ignored until groups like the EDL and Britain First emerged to act as a platform for the angers of the white working class becoming increasingly right-wing. Just as that has happened, on a much worse scale it is affecting young Muslims. Many grow up in families where there is a prestige in having a degree but the introduction of tuition fees at £9k with the abolition of EMAs and now the maintenance grants will have been a huge attack on their aspirations. Many of these young Muslims will grow up and die in the poverty-gripped towns they live in, flitting between low-skilled, low-pay and insecure jobs without having the security in life that they need. Many grow up in towns that offer nothing. It feels like to many of them society offers nothing. Young people like this are more suggestible to radical ideas, especially when they are a minority affected by racism.
The attacks on Muslims have become an everyday occurrence. Bigotry towards Muslims exists in newspapers, on TVs, in schools and universities and on the streets. Muslims are regularly flagged as the enemy, treated with suspicion by all. Young Muslims notice this; none of this exactly bypasses most of them. For many, it creates an identity crisis where there is a need to belong somewhere, with something that accepts them. Hatred towards Muslims makes them define themselves by that part of their identity even if they are not zealously religious. When this happens some young Muslims who join groups like ISIS are not necessarily subscribing to their political vision (although there is some of that) but more so to the idea of a society that shares their identity and openly encourages it. For young working-class Muslims, there is the appeal to belong somewhere and the need for adventure in lives dominated by prejudice, discrimination, fear, lack of aspiration and economic hardship.
This of course is not confined to simply working-class Muslims. In the aftermath of 7/7 where Muslims were forced to explain their faith and the relevance of it in the context of where they fit in British society, many felt weary and sought to relocate themselves. It’s not a surprise that many Muslims seek to live abroad to escape the bigotry and constant suspicion that greets them. They do not want that for their children. And current polls that indicate unfavourable views towards Muslims by most of the country suggests that Islamophobia is only being inflamed, not cooling down.
Ultimately, it is pointless trying to fight extremism with bombs or insults towards Muslims without understanding the lives of those who join – and actually those who do not.