The Files: Islam in the UK - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Files: Islam in the UK

The Files: Islam in the UK

By Sanjena Sathian



Because it’s no secret that an extreme response to extremism does no one any good at all.

By Sanjena Sathian

The beheading of freelance journalist James Foley shocked and horrified people all around the world, not least because his killers published a video of the act online. (Foley’s family has asked people not to watch.) Many in the West were surprised to learn that the killer was likely British, and not from a Middle Eastern country. Before you turn to Homeland  as your explanation for modern terrorist sleeper cells, take a look at the OZY Syllabus on Islam in the U.K.

The News: Foley, Cameron and ‘the Beatles’

“It is an act of murder,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron of Foley’s killing. “It looks increasingly likely that [the killer] is a British citizen. … We know that far too many British citizens have traveled to Iraq and traveled to Syria to take part in extremism and violence.” 

Read more about the Islamic State and the caliphate:

• The former deputy director of the CIA on OZY: The Islamic State is a bigger threat than al-Qaida was before 9/11


• OZY D.C. correspondent Emily Cadei: What you need to now about the caliphate — a medieval form of governance

It seems Foley’s beheader was one of a number of British-born militants, darkly nicknamed “the Beatles” — because they’re British — who were in charge of the Islamic State’s prisoners.



  • Some recent history to keep in mind: London hasn’t forgotten the 2005 train bombings, which killed 52 people. All four bombers were British citizens. 

  • How do foreign fighters get plugged into extremist networks anyway? A full 2014 report on these tactics, including a look at a U.S.-based preacher who seems to be inspiring Syrian fighters, can be found at the U.K.-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation. Researcher Stefano Bonino works on the issue of radical Islam in the U.K. at Durham University. He points out that it’s not all Muslim-born people radicalizing: “British people who are not Muslim … [who] might be disenfranchised from society for all sorts of other (economic, social, political, etc.) reasons … [may] join the group that has been mostly stigmatized in the past decade” — meaning all kinds of disenfranchised British people are finding radical Islam as an outlet for their varied furies.

  • All (Muslim) politics is local, and as Charles Tripp, a professor of politics at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, wrote, the United Kingdom is no exception. His argument? That the politics of Muslims in the West don’t reflect some overarching religious conception; British Islamic militants are responding to deeply local problems — like discrimination.

… most of the conflicts involving Muslim immigrants in, for example, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom owed more to the policies pursued by these states’ governments than to the Islamic identities or even Islamist proclivities of the protagonists. …

These approaches have roots in the Netherlands’ and the United Kingdom’s imperial pasts … [In] the United Kingdom today, policies shaped by these traditions have prompted the authorities to be hands-off when it comes to their Muslim communities — at least until state security is threatened, at which point the state takes clumsy measures that many Muslims interpret as discrimination.

– Foreign Affairs, “All (Muslim) Politics Is Local,”  September/October 2009

Further Reading:

  • Conservative Oxford-educated journalist Melanie Phillips’ Londonistan (2007) continues to inflect debates in the U.S. Terms to knowThroughout the 2000s, the language of multiculturalism was much heralded on the left, much criticized on the right. You can read Phillips on the topic in 2013

  • Zadie Smith’s award-winning debut novel White Teeth (2000) follows — and satirizes — a group of new immigrants to the U.K. In one poignant moment, a teenager named Millat is recruited to an Islamic group on a playground … by a teen barely older than himself.  

  • Ed Husain wrote a memoir, The Islamist: Why I Became an Islamic Fundamentalist, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left. As a young man in Britain, Husain found himself influenced by politically radical Islamic groups. Then he found religion’s spiritual side. Now 39, he is a popular public voice on extremism.

  • Find out what MI5 has to say about the creation of terrorists within United Kingdom borders. In 2008, The Guardian got a look at a leaked research document from within the British security agency. As the article notes, many of the extremists “could actually be regarded as religious novices.”

  • Hanif Kureishi’s 1994 prescient short story My Son the Fanatic, published in The New Yorker, tells of a London-dwelling taxi driver named Parvez who witnesses his son’s move toward a more orthodox relationship with Islam. Check out the trailer for the 1997 film:

Tell us what you think

Is there an article, book, movie, researcher, politician, thinker or anything else that’s helping you understand Islam, fundamentalism in the U.K. or hate crimes? Let us know in the comment section. 


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