The gruesome murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in the Woolwich section of London a week ago by a small band of radical Islamist individuals (apparently acting on their own initiative) has once again drawn attention to the issue of the integration of foreigners, and especially Muslims, into European societies. Most disturbing was the video which emerged subsequent to the murder of suspect Michael Adebolajo, a Nigerian immigrant and convert to Islam, carrying what appeared to be a knife and cleaver in his blood-soaked hands. His rant, which attempted to justify the killing as retribution for British participation in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, enraged Brits and shocked the international community at large. Since the killing, UK police have arrested ten suspects, with some of them, such as Adebolajo, previously known to British intelligence.
Rigby’s murder has mobilized far right-wing elements of British society as well. Over 1000 members of the English Defence League, a group dedicated to opposing what they view as an increasing Muslim presence and influence in British society, turned out last week in demonstration outside Downing Street, which led to 13 arrests and sparked a counter-protest by “anti-fascist” groups. Since the killing, there have been close to 200 Islamophobic incidents in the UK, including attacks on ten mosques.
The killing has also triggered alarms throughout the British political establishment over the possibility that radicalism is spreading among the UK’s Muslim population. For example, British Home Secretary Theresa May has announced a fresh crackdown on extremist groups, including the possibility of reviving the communications data bill, which would give security services the ability to track email, phone, and internet use. She also suggested the possibility of lowering the limit for imposing banning orders on organizations operating in the UK.
The British public, as in other countries in Europe, has long viewed the nation’s Muslim population with a degree of hostility and trepidation. According to a report released by the University of Essex published in 2012, 47% of Britons see Muslims as a threat and 45% believe there are too many Muslims in Britain. Likewise, only 25% of Britons believe Muslims want to integrate into British society. What is interesting about the report, and has been replicated in studies of other European countries, is that overall, Muslims view themselves as being well-integrated into their host societies and tend to strongly identify with their host countries. The same report noted that 83% of British Muslims are proud to be a British citizen compared to 79% of the general public. Likewise, 77% strongly identify with Britain as compared to only 50% of the wider population and 86% of Muslims feel they belong in Britain.
The problem with those trying to understand the phenomenon of radicalization is that the problem is confined to relatively small numbers of a given population. Unfortunately, in the 21st Century, a small number of individuals can create havoc and destruction disproportionate to their numbers. This is because the technology and expertise for creating destructive weapons is relatively inexpensive and widely available. Counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization programs which utilize broad surveillance of entire communities rather than targeted intelligence against specific groups and individuals risk alienating the very people whose support they are trying to win in the fight against radical violence. They also likely contribute to societal tensions between Muslims and their non-Muslim compatriots not only in the UK, but throughout Europe.