RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
All this week we've been hearing about the status of Muslim women in Europe. One thing we've heard is that some daughters of South Asian immigrants in Britain are turning to a political form of Islam. They've been motivated by the September 11th attacks and by the London suicide bombings back in 2005. And now British authorities warn that a militant form of Islamist feminism is emerging.
As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, authorities worry that some Muslim women could begin to pose a security threat. And a warning to listeners, this report contains graphic material that may be upsetting.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: In October, Britain's Channel 4 TV network broadcast a thriller about a brother and sister, British-born Muslims pulled in opposite directions. In this scene, Nasima, the sister, a secular political activist, distributes leaflets outside a mosque when she's confronted by the imam.
(Soundbite of TV show)
Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As Nasima) Mobilize for the local elections. Campaign against the police state. Fight the demonization of Islam worldwide.
Unidentified Man (Actor): (As Imam) This is no place for a woman.
POGGIOLI: Unexpectedly, it's the woman in the story who breaks with the system and becomes radicalized by anti-terrorism laws many Muslims consider draconian. She embraces the cause of jihad and becomes a suicide bomber. But that was just fiction.
A few days later, this is what Britons heard on the news.
(Soundbite of news broadcast)
Unidentified Woman #2 (Anchor): A former in Heathrow Airport who called herself the lyrical terrorist has become the first woman in the country to be convicted under new terrorism laws. Twenty-three-year-old Samina Malik was found guilty of possessing records likely to be used in an act of terrorism.
POGGIOLI: The materials included an al-Qaida manual, a booklet on mujahedeen poisons, and bomb-making instructions. But it was Malik's poems that shocked the British public. Here's a reading of some of her verses.
Unidentified Woman #3: How to behead. It's not as messy or as hard as some may think. It's all about the flow of the wrist. Sharpen the knife to its maximum. And before you begin to cut the flesh, tilt the fool's head to its left. Saw the knife back and forth.
POGGIOLI: As a shop assistant at Heathrow Airport, Malik was familiar with sensitive security procedures. She spent much of her time at work writing about her desire for martyrdom. The judge gave her a nine-month suspended sentence but told her, In many respects you are a complete enigma to me.
Britain is being confronted with a wave of enigmas - the increasing number of British Muslim women who have taken to wearing not just the headscarf, but the full face veil known as the niqab.
This Islamic reawakening comes at a time when the British government is trying to enlist Muslim women in an effort to combat extremism. It has created the National Muslim Women's Advisory Group to give Muslim women a greater voice in British society.
But writer and researcher Munira Mirza says many young Muslim women are starting to embrace radical ideals and even support al-Qaida.
Ms. MUNIRA MIRZA (Writer): There is a misconception, I think, that - amongst politicians in Britain - that if you involve Muslim women in the dialogue process, then somehow that will soften the men, which is obviously a complete misperception because, you know, why should women be any less angry? Why should they be any less radicalized? It actually is a quite sexist idea that women are just softer.
POGGIOLI: Recent polls have shown that as many as four in 10 British Muslims want Sharia, or Islamic law, applied in Muslim-populated areas of Britain. Sharia, which is practiced in many parts of the Islamic world, is a religious code of living, but also specifies stoning and amputations as normal punishment for some crimes.
Combating radicalism and alienation have become priorities also for moderate Muslims, and women are being enlisted in the most extensive effort by moderates to combat disaffection and extremism among Muslim youth.
The Mosque and Imams National Advisory Board has drafted new guidelines that would give Muslim women a greater role within mosques, Islamic centers, and faith schools. The guidelines include condemnation of domestic violence and forced marriage. But radical groups have reacted negatively.
Hizb u-Tahrir, one of the most controversial groups in Britain, has railed against the new guidelines as selling out Muslim principles and an attempt at government control over Islam.
Hizb u-Tahrir is banned in Germany and most of the Middle East for its stated aim to establish a global Islamic state. It also calls for the destruction of Israel. The group claims to be nonviolent, but former members have described it as a conveyor belt to terrorism, and it's been very active in recruiting women with a form Islamic feminism.
Investigative journalist Shiv Malik says Hizb u-Tahrir has been very successful in creating a support network for young women who would like to defy their patriarchal family and seek an education or assert the right to choose their own husbands.
Mr. SHIV MALIK (Journalist): They have that conflict, and of course who is going to help them through that? It's the radical groups who say, well, look, if your family is now saying get out of the house, we'll support you, we'll take you in, we'll give you friends, we'll give you a firm network. But yet you can go get an education.
POGGIOLI: Hizb u-Tahrir's goal is to promote a global Islam, cleansed of all ethnic or cultural traditions. And women are an essential tool. Journalist Shiv Malik says the group has set up two schools in Britain for primary age children.
Mr. MALIK: And if you look at the curriculum, all these radical ideas are there. So they are educating children from five years up to 11 years as primary school, and it's women who are doing this, not men.
POGGIOLI: Anthony Glees, professor of Intelligence and Security Studies at Brunel University, says a form of religious apartheid already exists on many British campuses. And he points out that rising religious radicalism among British Muslim youth is having broader effects.
Professor ANTHONY GLEES (Brunel University): One meets an increasing number of British Muslim students who are becoming devout, and one meets an increasing number of British Muslim mothers and fathers and grandparents who are being, in a sense, radicalized by their children and grandchildren, who are saying to them, look, you know, you've come to Britain but you should go back to the veil, you should go back to our traditional ways.
POGGIOLI: Glees says extremist Islamist groups appear to have shifted tactics away from terrorist attacks and now appear to be using women to pursue what he calls a long-term subversive strategy of self-ghettoization.
Prof. GLEES: This demand for separatism, it's not about terrorism, but it is about a separate Islamic or Islamist identity. And what you will have will be the establishment of Islamic or Islamist enclaves within British mainstream society.
POGGIOLI: Glees and other security analysts stress that the extremists are a minority. But they warn that the movement toward separatism is gaining ground and could seriously undermine Western values and the cohesion of British society.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: Tomorrow we go to one of Europe's most rigidly secular societies, France. Religion is relegated to the sidelines in France, but Muslim women feel right at home in many parts of that country's society.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.