Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and a former parliamentary candidate in the City of Durham.
9/11 and 7/7 seem a long time ago. The riots last summer appear all but forgotten. Yet two new books have just been published which remind us, in a deeply personal and profoundly important way, of two distinct but equally significant challenges our country continues to face but has still not yet fully grasped: radical Islamism and social breakdown.
For those of us who live in leafy surburbia or the countryside, grew up in comfortable, loving middle-class families, were educated in good schools and universities, read literature, go to the theatre, appreciate a variety of forms of music, travel abroad for work or holidays, the world described by Harriet Sergeant in Among the Hoods: My Years with a Teenage Gang and, for different but equally challenging reasons, by Maajid Nawaz in Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to A Democratic Awakening appears completely foreign. Yet the people and issues described in these two books may only be a few miles away.
These two books are among the most important books I have read in a long time, and are essential reading for anyone with a mind, a heart, a soul and a brain. They present, in stark, shocking and moving ways, the twin challenges of radical Islamism and social breakdown in a way which must surely wake us from our slumber. Gripping, heart-breaking, inspiring, they tell the story of two very different individuals – Sergeant and Nawaz – who have travelled an extraordinary journey of discovery and are now sounding the alarm. They could almost be described as prophets in our time.
Although dealing with different issues, these two books present some common themes. Maajid Nawaz was attracted to radical Islamism because he found it gave him strength to confront far-right racist bullies in Essex. The teenagers Harriet Sergeant befriends have entered a life of crime because it gave them confidence and strength.
Gang culture is at the heart of both books – Nawaz finding comradeship among fellow Islamists in Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the teenagers in south London finding a family in their gang because they had no real family of their own. “I get more from these two than I ever did from my family,” Tuggy Tug, the central gang leader in Sergeant’s book, says of his companions. “Young teenagers join gangs, they explained, because they are afraid. There is nobody else to protect them, certainly no responsible adult,” writes Sergeant. Nawaz found that the police and others in authority could not protect him from racism, and so, afraid, he joined the Islamist “gang”.
These twin challenges are interwoven. Several of the young gang members in Sergeant’s book converted to Islam in prison, and she notes that “apart from terrorism, nothing frightens people more than youth violence and the inability of our institutions to deal with it.” On campus at Newham College in east London, Nawaz finds himself in an Islamist gang that stares down other gangs. He narrowly avoids direct involvement in a murder.
A common theme of both books is the failure by policy-makers, government and society to offer a way forward. Nawaz describes what he calls “a shift from ethnic communalism, where only a brown person is assumed to be able to represent brown people and so on, to religious communalism, where only a Muslim is assumed to be able to represent other Muslims.” Such “entrenched communalism and its advocates” have abused the original intentions of multiculturalism, and brought “nothing but division and the balkanisation of Western, and other, societies”.
This “balkanisation” is found, in a different form, in Sergeant’s book. As a result of extreme political correctness, our system – social care, welfare, schools, local authorities – have consigned a whole generation of young people to an underworld with no future. The educational establishment has followed a theory which says that teachers must not impose ideas on students. One teacher from an inner-city school told Sergeant: “I have really gifted black boys who can’t communicate. You see them struggling. It is quite often the reason that they get really upset and frustrated.” Yet, he believed it would be “patronising” to try to correct them. Sergeant writes:
“I realised then what our failing education system had done to these boys. A good education is about values; about fostering self-motivation, discipline and aspiration. Boys like Tuggy Tug either get that from school or not at all … They had never learnt self-discipline or how to concentrate. It had maimed them as surely as if someone had seized an axe and chopped off a limb.”
Tuggy Tug’s former foster mother Daphne tells Sergeant that he was the fourth of five children, all of whom had been taken into care. She asks “Why was he not removed straight away and adopted?” Sergeant writes:
“We both knew why. Social services believe only black couples should adopt black children, but black couples are in short supply. We allowed ourselves to daydream. What if Tuggy Tug had been adopted as a baby by a couple – whatever their race or colour? He would have had the chance of a loving and secure upbringing, a decent education and would, by now, be on his way to achieving that dream of a good job and a house in the suburbs. Social services believe this would have caused racial confusion. It might well have done. Given the choice, he might have decided that racial confusion was a preferable alternative to a prison cell at eighteen.”
Nawaz ended up in jail in Egypt because of his Islamist activities. Languishing in an Egyptian prison in terrifying conditions, he began to rethink his ideas. But it was concern for him expressed by those who would have nothing to do with his ideology but recognised his basic humanity and human rights that began to shift his thinking. Letters from one Amnesty International supporter in particular influenced him.
In the same way, although not yet with as definitive an impact, the young teenagers in south London whom Sergeant befriended responded to the love and care she showed them. “I was touched by how one meal and a little interest had opened them up,” she writes. “They had thought long and hard about the things we take for granted. Family, love and a future were not a given in their lives.” Sergeant, a white middle-class journalist and writer working for a centre-right think-tank, finds herself immersed in the lives of these teenagers, no longer as a researcher but as a mother-figure and friend. She takes them on outings to museums and parks, showing them places they had never dreamed of. For them, travelling a few tube stops across the river, from Brixton to Victoria, was a new experience and a new world. Her story is compelling, extremely brave but also very human.
The failures of the State and bureaucracy are painfully evident in both books. As one community worker told Sergeant, even though millions of pounds are invested in youth services, there is no impact. “He complained that any good initiative they started, the council took over. ‘Everything has to be controlled so they can be seen to be doing their job and look effective. No real work is done on the ground. But when these young men get in trouble on the streets because they have nothing to do, those officials are not going to the funerals. They are not doing the grieving’.”
Sergeant takes her young friends on a desperate search for a job, but the frustrations become overwhelming. “Job centre staff are under no pressure to find work for anyone,” she writes. “They can spend the day chatting on the phone, handing out forms, messing up lives, and no one knows or cares.”
When she met civil servants to talk about the issues, she suggested they visit a job centre with one of her young friends, or she could bring Tuggy Tug or other gang members to give evidence. “They looked embarrassed … I never heard from them.”
Eventually, she discovers the Skills Academy, and finds a potential breakthrough. “The moment the sums made sense, the moment they could make something clear of benefits, they were onto it. But I discovered the Skills Academy too late. Before the boys could take up the jobs, it was abolished after the 2010 election. The result was predictable. A month after we heard the news about the Skills Academy, Tuggy Tug was arrested.”
Both books should prompt ministers and policy-makers to do some very serious thinking over the summer recess. Just as with David Cameron’s happiness index, these two challenges facing society today are about more than just money. As Sergeant notes, we spent £100 billion a year on welfare “but are unable to feed, house or educate large numbers of adolescents on our inner-city streets – until, that is, they go to prison”.
The key is to find ways of instilling self-discipline and application, encouraged by personal attention and love, in young people. “They do not require government spending, an extra tier of professionals or spanking-new facilities. What they do require is an education establishment convinced of their importance. Failure of schools to teach them is condemning teenage boys from poor backgrounds to a lifetime of wasted opportunities.”
In the same way, the challenge of radical Islamism must be met not by political correctness that, in a bizarre misuse of ‘tolerance’ panders to intolerance, but instead, as Nawaaz argues, by “a respect for human rights, pluralism, individual freedoms, faith and democracy” and a “counter-narrative” that reconciles these values with Islam “not in the ivory towers of academics, but out there in the hearts of the masses”.
This must be done in a way that engages ordinary Muslims with respect and dignity, without “paternalistically” lumping all Muslims together as “the so-called Muslim vote”. Muslims, Nawaaz argues, should be represented by their Member of Parliament, “like everyone else”, rather than by some “exclusively Muslim political umbrella”. Too many well-intentioned people offer “the arrogant assumption that Islamism was a true expression of our authenticity”, he adds:
“In a form of reverse-racism, liberal values were expected of the civilised white person, but the brown Muslim could not be held to those same standards, and should be judged by his or her own ‘authentic’ culture. This was a colonial ‘poverty of expectation', which inevitably leads to segregation, low aspirations, patronising expectations, and cultural glass-ceilings.”
Sound familiar? Those words could just as easily have appeared in Sergeant’s book about teenage gangs.
Just as we must fight Islamism, however, we must also fight its twin sister, Islamaphobia. Nawaaz writes:
“It’s deeply ironic that Islamist and anti-Islam extremist groups have a symbiotic relationship with each other, feeding off each other’s paranoia and propaganda: far-right extremism, Islamism, more far-right extremism, more Islamism and so on … Islamaphobes and Islamists have this much in common: both groups insist that Islam is a totalitarian political ideology at odds with liberal democracy … One extreme calls for the Qur’an to be banned, the other calls to ban everything but the Qur’an. Together, they form the negative and the positive of a bomb fuse.”
Sergeant and Nawaaz, in their different ways, tell of a section of our population who clearly “reject our society”. If our society is to be “big”, as the Prime Minister and others desire, these two key challenges must be addressed seriously. I hope that every minister, every MP, every candidate, every special adviser, councillor, party activist and politically-aware person in the country takes these two books with them on their summer holiday, and comes back in the autumn ready to engage with Sergeant and Nawaaz, the people and issues they have introduced us to through their books, and the solutions they offer. They will find these books hard to put down – and the cause imperative to take up.