'Homegrown Jihadi brides feel they have no stake in British society'

What could attract high-achieving, ambitious teenage girls from London to become ‘‘jihadi brides’’? What provokes teenage boys, who enjoy football, pop music and modern clothes, to leave comfortable homes for the hardships of life with Islamic State? And how could any parents risk the safety and happiness of their four young children to travel to war-torn Syria - possibly to an IS stronghold - as Asif Malik and Sara Kiran reportedly have done?

Recent events have left many of us baffled – and some angry or frightened - by the seeming sudden rise in the prominence and influence of Islam in the UK.

Now a new book, Just Your Average Muslim, by Zia Chaudhry, a criminal law barrister from Liverpool, attempts to answer these points – by exploring what ‘‘ordinary’’ British Muslims feel about their role in UK society.

‘‘I have no idea what possesses a teenage girl to want to become a “jihadi bride” but what seems clear is that girls like these feel no loyalty towards, or stake in, British society,’’ says Chaudhury. ‘‘This becomes a dangerous cocktail when added to teenage rebellion, impulsiveness and a ‘cause’.’’

What many non-Muslims fail to understand is how loyalty to a society in which they have prospered dissipates in the first place.

Chaudhry, 46, who lives with his wife Nabela, a finance director for a charity, and their three children Mikaal, nine, Zaynadin, six, and Hanaa, four, is engaging and earnest, looking very much part of the Establishment dressed in his barrister's robes when we meet at The Queen Elizabeth II Law Courts in Liverpool. And there's no mistaking the air of courtroom glamour that accompanies him either; he pleads the case for mutual tolerance with the conviction, charm, and confidence of many tough trials behind him.

Many ‘‘average’’ Muslims, he says, have felt pushed into the position of outsiders in the past few years. While he was growing up, he says he’d get abused for his colour, or his ancestry, but his religion wasn’t a problem for anyone.

‘‘Obviously, I was conscious I was brown,’’ he says. ‘‘And back then you had the National Front and Paki-bashing. But I never felt under the spotlight because of my faith. It is different now. My son has already heard negative comments about his faith at school because we’re Muslims.’’

The fracture along faith lines began, he theorises, in the Eighties. The game changer? The furore over publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1988. ‘‘It was like the ground had shifted below us,” he explains. ‘‘Suddenly as a community we were being pointed at and accused of being ‘different’. Young Muslims who had felt ambivalent about the book, or even the issue, felt forced to take sides. Douglas Hurd [then the Home Secretary] actually lectured at mosques telling us how to behave. I mean, we hadn’t done anything. The riots of the 80s had come and gone, and Muslims had been the ones with their heads down, working, not causing trouble.’’

He argues that it was then that the community started feeling forced into a position of exclusion. ‘‘My father’s generation might think, ‘well, we weren’t born here, we’d better put up with it’. But I was born here. My friends were. We are British in every sense. We have every right to protest about things we don’t like.’’

After the fall of Communism ‘‘Margaret Thatcher warned that militant Islam was going to be the enemy now. There seemed to be a need for an enemy; this time it was us.’’

Then came the first Gulf war, and when the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, Zia recalls saying to a close friend, a committed Christian: ‘‘That’s it; there’s no such thing as a ‘good Muslim’ anymore.

‘‘It seemed to me one could either bury one’s head in the sand or try and take responsibility to counter these impressions of Muslims.’’

So Chaudhry began interfaith work and started talking to community groups and schools about Islam.

‘‘I felt an opportunity to do something good out of something bad. That’s the point of my book - I can’t change the world but hopefully people see me and think I’m OK, I’m not a threat, and that’s a good starting point.’’

How difficult is it to be a British Muslim at the moment then? ‘‘Don’t ask me,’’ he says wryly. ‘‘I’m the guy in the barrister’s robes, living in a nice house. Ask the guy who runs the late night shop. Ask the woman in the hijab.’’

My mother and mother-in-law went to Widnes the other day dressed in their hijabs and came home upset. Mum said they had been abused in the street.’’

So why do so many women now wear hijabs – don’t they get a choice?

‘‘Well, the niqab – covering the full face - I don’t get that,’’ he says. ‘‘I think it is younger girls rebelling, like some dye their hair green. More generally, though, there is a choice. The Quran doesn’t insist. Yet why not let them wear the clothes they choose to wear? Muslim women are educated and they can speak for themselves. Perhaps they should set the record straight.’’

Shouldn’t women have spoken out in Rotherham, where a group of Asian men preyed on vulnerable young women?

‘‘This was a bunch of criminals with a specific ethnic background; they had access and opportunity to do this, but I don’t see that it can be blamed on religion. All the Muslims I know were horrified, sickened and appalled.’’

Indeed, he resents the idea all Muslims should be lumped into an amorphous group: ‘‘Every time there’s a new IS atrocity, we look at each other and say ‘what have they got in common with us?’ I’ve yet to meet anyone in favour of IS.’’

The recent Charlie Hebdo shootings also repelled him. ‘‘I don’t like the idea Muslims take offence about everything. We’re not going around saying ‘oh, I’m offended by this and that.’ But double standards are applied – the right to unfettered free speech is only rolled out when it suits.

‘‘If we want a cohesive, happy society, then we all – not just Muslims - have to compromise.’’