How does it feel to be a problem?

This is a reflexion inspired by some thinking we’ve been doing on my PGCE course about the Prevent agenda. I have already reflected on the content of the discussion we had and the thinking we formed. This post is more about what comes next in our understanding of extremism. Largely influenced by Kenan Malik speaking about European Jihadis, a summary of his speech at the University of Michigan’s Islamic Studies Program is the starting point of this reflexion.

Kenan Malik argues that the dominant narrative of religious radicalism and terrorist violence looks at radicalisation from the wrong end. The dominant narrative sees the politics and religious views present at the end of process and assumes these were present at the start. Whilst politics and Islam form “indispensible threads” to their stories, most European jihadis often start out searching for identity, meaning and belonging (Malik, 2015). This is an “existential” form of alienation, not a concrete one such as poverty or lack of English language skills (Malik, 2015).

Stemming from “atomised societies” and “social disintegration” in contemporary Western culture, European jihadis are often “disengaged from mainstream political and social institutions” (Malik, 2015). The sense of ambiguity of morality and values, coupled with social disengagement, causes the search for an alternative. It is perhaps no coincidence that many European jihadis are either converts or Muslims who have rediscovered their faith. Evidence suggests that overwhelmingly they don’t come from particularly religious families.

Identity politics over the last three decades has become key in Western cultures. With the decline of the traditional left-right political divide, along with trade unionism and collectivism, ethnicity, culture and faith have become more important. We are now asking “who are we?” rather than “in what kind of society do I want to live?” (Malik, 2015). Who we are is increasingly defined not by what kind of society we want to create, but by our heritage and history. This creates problems in terms of belonging to a society or culture wider than our ethnicity or faith.

Comparing two models of Western society’s response to ethnic and religious diversity, Malik criticises both French secularism and the British government’s interpretation of multiculturalism. To Malik, France has explicitly defined French values against Islamic values and in the process has “othered” Islam and therefore French Muslims. Malik describes the sense of “constantly being sent back to our Muslim identity” and that this “identity of Muslim is created by wider society and appropriated by those defined as Muslim as a means of asserting their own agency” (Malik, 2015). For Malik, it is no wonder Muslims struggle to feel accepted and belonging in French society.

Malik also sees the UK’s approach to multiculturalism as problematic. The idea of a “community of communities” meant putting people in boxes and successive British governments have “subcontracted” engagement through community leaders (Malik, 2015). Previously Islam would have been one strand of a Muslim’s individual identity, but this approach has created an “almost tribal” sense of identity (Malik, 2015). The British state has engaged with individuals on the basis of their ethnic or faith identity, rather than as citizens. This coupled with the disruption of working class communities and social structures has pushed a narrow sense of belonging based on ethnicity and faith, and has unintentionally estranged Muslim communities from British society (Malik, 2015).

Following on from these ideas about belonging, existential alienation and identity, this reflexion starts from a different place to most discussions about Prevent. Listening to Kenan Malik and thinking about my own ideas around the Prevent agenda’s potential to further alienate the alienated, I identified with elements of what he describes in my own experiences. This led me to remember some of the thinking I really identified with during my degree.  

“How does it feel to be a problem?” asked the influential black thinker W.E.B. Du Bois (Du Bois, 1994: 1). I love Du Bois’ question. It pinpoints for me the effect on individuals when the media and government problematize categories of people. For centuries (probably for all of time) the apparatus of the state have colluded to create in-groups and out-groups, enemies abroad and foreign foes to fight. Enemies within have always existed too. From witches to Jewish people to communists to the trade unions to the urban poor, in each age a group of people with some kind of defining characteristic (real or imagined) has been targeted to draw our ire and our fear and our wrath.

And crucially, the state is always protecting “us” against “them” thankfully! Of course, those who are either marginalised and/or somehow different in their identities or some form of social categorisation are easy targets whom the ruling elites (and the majority of the population) can safely assure themselves they won’t ever be a part of. The excellent work by the sociologist Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, examines the creation of new folk devils in the form of Mods and Rockers after a bit of an upset one bank holiday at a seaside resort. Cohen’s work deconstructs the creation of folk devils and how they are used as an instrument of control by the state, backed up by an artificially created moral panic in the media (Cohen, 2011).

My own experience of folk devils and moral panic is acute and shaped me more than I sometimes like to admit. Born in the 1980s to long term unemployed parents on a council estate in a dying seaside town, the underclass tag was inevitable. The dominant rhetoric and language of politics and the media introduced a wedge between us and those who worked. Unemployment had previously been seen as a failing of the state and the economy during the post-war consensus; now it was seen as a failing of the individual. To further enhance my status as middle England’s “folk devil” I became part of a single parent family in the early 1990s. Apparently it was children like me who were becoming drug addicts and juvenile delinquents and unemployed and a drain on society. All in all, my future looked pretty bleak!

Of course I became none of those things and I even went to a very prestigious university, have never been unemployed and I am relatively successful. The turning point for me was 1997 when a new language did away with the negative stereotypes of single parents and welfare claimants. I suddenly felt liberated. I began to feel like anything was actually possible. And attitudes changed in people around me too. I was, in short, no longer a problem.

No longer feeling like an outsider in my own community/society was a key part of this, developing a sense of belonging based on being included for what felt like the first time. What concerns me about the Prevent agenda, coupled with what has become daily media stories and government pronouncements on dealing with the Muslims, is that it simply reinforces the false idea that Muslims cannot be a part of British society. How the self-esteem of Muslim children is expected to survive this battery of relentless negativity and other-making of their faith and aspects of their heritage is beyond me. How can anyone feel they belong to a culture or a country that continually gives them the cold shoulder?

At the essence of the disaffection that leads to extremism, is the desire to belong. To belong is to overcome the alienation individuals feel as traditional structures of community, family and faith are disrupted and sometimes lost in the modern world. It answers the existential questions. For me, those questions were answered largely by what type of world I wanted to live in. Who am I? was a harder question, as I tried to shake off the internalised stereotypes of the early 1990s media and politicians. As teachers we can contest the tyranny of folk devils and moral panic by opening up spaces for discussion and critical thinking, bringing absent identities into the classroom and affirming those that are present to be present as themselves, and hopefully belong.


Cohen, S. (2011). Folk devils and moral panics. London: Routledge.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1994). The souls of black folks. New York: Dover Books.

Malik, K. [Islamic Studies Program]. (2015, Oct 21). The making of European Jihadis . Retrieved from  


One thought on “How does it feel to be a problem?

  1. How does it feel to be a problem is a great reflexive piece of work. It flows really well and considers the wider picture of society and the impact it has on you as a teacher. I’ll confess that the idea of the state finding new enemies has never been truer; Orwell’s satirical take on this in ‘1984’ with the ‘two minute hate ritual’ is looking more and more prescient. I’ve never heard the phrase ‘Folk devils’ before but it is a fascinating concept. I worry that every generation has belonged to a ‘problem’ group (mine was the Criminal Justice Bill, created to stop raves as the ‘state’ genuinely believed this generation would not work or earn, pay pension contributions etc). I will seek the author out and have a good read, thank you.


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