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26 July 2013

Conference discusses the flight of black British youths to radical Islam

Conference discusses the flight of black British youths to radical Islam

Representatives of Britain's African and Caribbean Christian Communities met in London on 17 July to consider why a significant number of young black Britons are abandoning Christianity in favour of Islam; why some converts are being radicalised; and what Christian churches can do in response.

The conference was set up following the gruesome killing of army drummer Lee Rigby, who was murdered in daylight on a London street last month. The two young men charged with Rigby's murder, Muslim converts Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, are of Nigerian Christian heritage; and church leaders are concerned about an apparent trend towards radicalisation of  former Christians.

Dr Eric Brown, presiding bishop  of the New Testament Church of God said, "We need to understand how to help steer young people away from destructive, radicalised lifestyles; as well as to uncover what churches need to do better in areas where we may have failed young people in the past."

"In the first place, we are interested to find out why a number of young people brought up in our churches are converting to Islam, and what is the nature of the journey some make towards radicalisation, violence and terror," said Bishop Simon Iheanacho, chair of Minority Ethnic Christian Affairs (MECA).

During the event speaker Richard Reddie, author of Black Muslims in Britain, explained that the journey from Christianity to Islam among black Britons date back to the 1960s. He maintained that it continues to be an expression of black people's search for identity and certitude, which converts say they do not find in Eurocentric Christianity; including black churches.  The fact that converts tend to be more zealous and the number is growing is a further challenge to churches.  "Time is not on the Church's side," said Reddie.

Contributors suggested that adverse social conditions such as racism, bad experiences in the criminal justice system and deprivation can contribute to alienation from society and from churches associated with its value system.

Israel Olofinjana, leader of a Lewisham church shared his reflections of the day.

The seminar heard that a key recruiting ground for radicalisation is in prisons where black men are overrepresented.  Dr R David Muir, director of Faith in Britain described what he called 'the mass incarceration' of black people in the UK and described it as a "blasphemy against the image of God in black people".  Quoting Equality and Human Rights Commission How Fair is Britain (2010), Muir said that, on average, five times more black people than white people are in prison. "My hope and prayer is that the government will listen and do something about the disproportionate amount of black people in prison. We need to be aware of the crisis, take concerted action but also to make sure they don't get there in the first place and we support their families. We have the responsibility and the opportunity to do something about it," he added.

Taalib Alexander, a teacher and director of Alhambra Educational Initiative in North London, a former Roman Catholic and now a convert to Islam, spoke of radical groups that meet in homes, outside the main networks of the Mosque. Alexander highlighted family, social class, race and ethnicity as potential contributories, and spoke of how a particular experience, friendship or trauma can be a 'trigger' for radicalisation – which is then often fed by videos and online material.

So how can the Church respond? Rev Ade Omooba, co-chair of National Church Leaders Forum - A Black Christian Voice, together with colleague Fred Williams spoke of church congregations, and community employment / enterprise projects in South London founded on the gospel which did not see young black people as good or bad, Christian or Muslim, but primarily as human beings. The place to start, Omooba said, was "seeing God in everyone".

Jennifer Crook, diversity and inclusion advisor for the Methodist Church, encouraged "zero tolerance of the 'blasphemy' of racism in British society which alienates black British young people and renders them vulnerable to alienation and therefore radicalisation."  Crook also encouraged churches to aspire to lead on the quest for a just society.

Positive and practical responses include; projects promoting mutual respect, courses about identity and aspiration, teaching programs for young people, affirming masculinity and enabling empowerment, countering propaganda, teaching tolerance and helping young people understand and embrace their cultural and spiritual identity.

The conference concluded that it is important to view conversion to Islam as a challenge not a disaster, to train Christian ministers and lay people to be better able to explain their faith and to ensure iconography affirms black identity and inter-faith dialogue and respect at all levels is encouraged.

"We must look at how we, as Christians, can work with Muslims and other communities to ensure there is greater cohesion and a better understanding of each others concerns and aspirations." added Richard Reddie