The Times and the Whitehall dossier

The Times has a sobering story about the number of potential Al-Qaeda sympathisers that might be found among British Muslims or other Muslims who now live permanently in Great Britain. This ties into our discussions of "moderate" Islam, radical forms of Islam and the double-edged sword of assimilation in the West. Here is the challenge to the press. One one side, journalists can demonize Muslims as some kind of unified threat. On the other side, journalists can made a leap of faith and assume that the "moderate" or even "reform" elements within Islam now represent the majority point of view. This approach leads to waves of stories quoting Islamic leaders repeating the "religion of peace" mantra and very little coverage of the complex, and often disturbing, points of view found elsewhere.

Time after time, I have heard journalists say -- accurately -- that Islam is not a monolith. The problem is that they then turn around and argue that it will only fan flames of prejudice if American newsrooms dare to do in-depth coverage of radical Islamic influences within local communities. Islam is complex and contains a multitude of voices, but we can only cover one set of voices? That is progress?

In this context, the Times report by Robert Winnett and David Leppard can be seen as somewhat brave. Some will, surely, call it "conservative," whatever that means in this context. Here is the lead:

Al-Qaeda is secretly recruiting affluent, middle-class Muslims in British universities and colleges to carry out terrorist attacks in this country, leaked Whitehall documents reveal. A network of "extremist recruiters" is circulating on campuses targeting people with "technical and professional qualifications", particularly engineering and IT degrees.

The key in this Whitehall document -- the ghost even -- is contained in its description of the environments that are yielding radical Islamists who might be willing to take part in terror campaigns.

The bottom line: This is not a matter of finding angry young men on the bad, or even oppressed, side of town.

So how big is this dangerous minority within British Islam? The document

. . . (Paints) a chilling picture of the scale of the task in tackling terrorism. Drawing on information from MI5, it concludes: "Intelligence indicates that the number of British Muslims actively engaged in terrorist activity, whether at home or abroad or supporting such activity, is extremely small and estimated at less than 1%." This equates to fewer than 16,000 potential terrorists and supporters out of a Muslim population of almost 1.6m.

The dossier also estimates that 10,000 have attended extremist conferences. The security services believe that the number who are prepared to commit terrorist attacks may run into hundreds. Most of the Al-Qaeda recruits tend to be loners "attracted to university clubs based on ethnicity or religion" because of "disillusionment with their current existence". British-based terrorists are made up of different ethnic groups, according to the documents.

"They range from foreign nationals now naturalised and resident in the UK, arriving mainly from north Africa and the Middle East, to second and third generation British citizens whose forebears mainly originate from Pakistan or Kashmir. In addition . . . a significant number come from liberal, non-religious Muslim backgrounds or (are) only converted to Islam in adulthood. These converts include white British nationals and those of West Indian extraction."

Are similar recruiting patterns forming in the United States? What is happening out it, let's say, Dallas, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Orlando and elsewhere? If reporters argued in favor of investigating these issues in the American heartland, would they be accused of bias? Of promoting hate and prejudice?

The goal is to find and accurately quote a wide variety of Muslim voices, trying to find out (a) who represents the majority point of view and (b) who is quietly recruiting Muslims to a more radical point of view. Is this journalistic task possible?

We need to watch the Times for follow-up stories.

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