Terrorism really kicks in during the days and weeks following an attack.

As their name suggests, terrorists want to create terror. In addition to the death and destruction caused by their attacks, terrorists want us all to go about our daily lives with a nagging sense that it is dangerous to do so. Those of us who were in London during the weeks after the 7/7 attacks will remember this feeling well.

One of its ugliest manifestations was the palpable uptick in tension when people with certain physical characteristics boarded public transport. There were even reports of Muslims being shoved out of Underground carriages. That, of course, is another instance of “job done” for the terrorists. They want non-Muslims to be afraid of Muslims and Muslims to be afraid of non-Muslims. Mindful of this, various commentators will spend much of the next few weeks tying themselves in knots trying to deny any connection between Islamist terror attacks and the mainstream Muslim community.

Speaking as a governor of a predominantly Muslim school, I can tell such commentators that, in addition to being patronising and woolly-minded, this approach is actively counterproductive. In my experience, British Muslims know that they, and other European Muslims, face a serious problem. They do not want help denying it; they want help tackling it.

I am not Muslim myself and do not claim to speak for any part of Muslim society – but I can draw on my conversations with British Muslim parents and with their representatives. One thing comes across loud and clear: British Muslims are in engaged in a no-holds barred battle for the hearts and minds of their children. British Muslim parents know that Isil’s propaganda is dangerously effective. They know that many young people in their community are tempted by it and they know that it could be only a matter of time before their son or daughter books a one-way ticket to Syria. They also know that the danger does not only come from Isis but from Isil’s advocates in Britain (who may very well live next door). For British Muslims, with their children’s futures at stake, the fight against Isil is both serious and personal. And they are getting stuck in.

Part of this is about mixing British and Muslim traditions. For instance, some majority Muslim British schools insist upon traditional British nativity plays; but also insist that any food served afterwards is halal. Muslim parents attend in their droves and those whose children are playing Joseph, Mary or the Archangel Gabriel are as pleased as punch. Remembrance Day is another good example. Again, the context is clearly British but much mention is also made of the many Muslims who volunteered to fight alongside British comrades in the First and Second World Wars. Muslim parents have supported this approach. There are more practical steps too. Schools are finding that parents are increasingly interested in how they can control what websites their children are accessing and on how they can spot the early warning signs that their children might be falling prey to extremist ideas.

An important part of the response has been to face up to the fact that many young British Muslims are experiencing an identity crisis. They do not feel particularly close to the lands from which their parents or grandparents came but, for many, their sense of Britishness is at best weak and a worst non-existent. Part of this stems from a belief that many Britons are mistrustful of Muslims. That sense of alienation can be an easy “way in” for terrorist recruiting sergeants. Another reason for the relatively weak sense of Britishness amongst young British Muslims is that little is being done to champion a positive version of what it means to be British. While this is now changing, it has too often been the case that schools and other organisations have been wary of seeming too vocal in their promotion of British values for fear of alienating the very people to whom they most need to appeal. Young people have little chance of developing a sense of British identity idea if they have little idea what Britishness means. Their parents recognise that this needs to change.

Working with a Tower Hamlets headteacher I have set up the Tomorrow’s Britain website, which offers some thoughts and suggestions on how we might promote a stronger sense of British identity. Its emphasis is on making sure that every British child knows (i) that this country wants them to make a positive success of life in Great Britain (ii) that there are numerous ways in which they can do so and (iii) that their schools and communities are standing beside them, ready to help. It encourages schools to a focus on British successes by, for instance, getting their pupils to prepare their own versions of the Honours Lists. Such an exercise would help children think about who they admire (or should admire) and why. It would also help them identify positive role models. Nationhood, after all, is ultimately about team spirit. The more we can encourage young people to take pride in what Britons are achieving today, the more we can expect them to see Britain as team that they want to support. We hope that schools and parents will find these ideas helpful.

It is, of course, important not to get carried away. There is still a mountain to climb. It cannot be denied that there are some British Muslims who are already fully signed up to Isil and its agenda. Most, however, want to see that agenda swiftly and totally defeated. They are leading a fightback, and although a powerful and positive British Muslim identity will not appear overnight, we may be sure that the foundations are being laid today.

Our thoughts and prayers this week will rightly be with the people of Belgium. We owe it to them and to ourselves to do all we can to counter the poisonous nonsense of extremism ideology. That means confronting the problem head on – and giving all the support we can to British Muslim parents.


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