More UK Muslim women needed to combat extremism, say activists

Not enough Muslim women are involved in counter-extremism operations in the UK, say activists, a problem which could be leading to more women and teenage girls deciding to travel to Syria to join extremist groups.

This week a UK family, comprising three sisters and nine children from Bradford, crossed the border into Syria without their husbands' knowledge, the latest in a string of women who have travelled to join extremist groups such as Isis as non-combatant supporters, often marrying fighters.

Activists say that there are not enough women working to counter extremism in the Muslim community, while social media accounts of female Isis supporters work to recruit disaffected women in the UK and around Europe.

Fiyaz Mughal, founder and director of Faith Matters, a not for profit organisation which works to counter extremism, estimates that there is just one Muslim woman working as part of the government's anti-extremism Prevent programme at the Home Office at a senior operational level, out of an overall staff of around 30-40, although Newsweek was unable to confirm this figure. The Home Office said they do not discuss the identities of people involved in the programme. "Beyond that, at a civil society level, women working in this arena are grossly under-represented," says Mughal.

Kalsoom Bashir, the co-director of Inspire, an organisation which works with Muslim women to tackle extremism, says that the idea of grown women taking their children into war zones is "shocking" but that there is "no doubt" that more Muslim women and teenage girls will attempt to make the journey, due to growing grassroots sympathy for extremist ideologies.

She adds that counter-extremism operations would be improved if more Muslim women were involved, but admits the work she does is very difficult. She says that both she and her colleagues have been branded as being "native informants" and "Quilliam whores" by representatives from local mosques - despite Inspire having no formal ties to the counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation.

Mughal highlights the challenge for the government programme: "The reality is that many Muslim women may feel frightened about the impact of working with Prevent, seeing as it is disliked and distrusted in many Muslim communities," he says. "Even if they were interested in working in counter-extremism, they might be scared they would lose friends, or frightened they would be shunned by their communities."

Today, Prime Minister David Cameron highlighted the role families and communities must play in countering radicalisation while speaking at a security conference in Slovakia. He warned of the dangers posed by those who "quietly condone" the extremist ideology of groups like Islamic State.

Bashir broadly agrees, and says that part of the problem is community imams. "They're not radicalising young people, but the fertile breeding ground is there, because they are disseminating a very intolerant interpretation of faith that does not emphasise being a part of this country," she argues.

In response to Cameron's speech today the Muslim Council of Britain released a statement from its secretary general Dr Shuja Shafi, in which he said that it's wrong to place the responsibility for extremism entirely on the Muslim population of Britain.

"We are in no doubt that there are many shortcomings in Muslim civil society, which like wider society, is struggling to challenge the terrorist narrative that is potent outside the mosque and in the margins of the internet," he wrote. "But to suggest that Muslim communities have led young people to extremism or gives credence to extremist ideology is erroneous, wrong and counterproductive."