Eric Pickles has written to mosques in England urging them to do more to root out extremists and prevent young people being radicalised - despite evidence that many would-be jihadists are predominantly being radicalised online.
In the letter sent to more than 1,000 Islamic leaders, the Communities Secretary insisted Whitehall alone could not combat the threat. While stressing that he was "proud" of the way Muslims in Britain had responded to the Paris attacks, Pickles said there was "more work to do".
"You, as faith leaders, are in a unique position in our society. You have a precious opportunity, and an important responsibility: in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity," he said.
"We believe together we have an opportunity to demonstrate the true nature of British Islam today. There is a need to lay out more clearly than ever before what being a British Muslim means today: proud of your faith and proud of your country. We know that acts of extremism are not representative of Islam; but we need to show what is."
But the letter, also signed by communities minister Lord Ahmad, quickly drew criticism from the Muslim Council of Britain. Deputy secretary general Harun Khan said: "We will be writing to Mr Eric Pickles to ask that he clarifies his request to Muslims to 'explain and demonstrate how faith in Islam can be part of British identity'. Is Mr Pickles seriously suggesting, as do members of the far right, that Muslims and Islam are inherently apart from British society?"
Some experts have previously questioned the strategy of focusing on outreach by Islamic leaders, Shiraz Maher, senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London, wrote in a piece for the Daily Mail: "In the past, certain hard-line mosques — like Abu Hamza’s notorious complex at Finsbury Park in North London — played the central role in driving impressionable young men towards extremism. But today the mosques and hate preachers are less significant. Now, the internet and social media are the key recruiting tools for the jihadists."
Fiyaz Mughal, who works on radicalisation prevention with his organisation Faith Matters, told HuffPost in an article in August there was little in practice that mosques could do. "If the imam says, 'don't go', they'll do it. They'll just rebel against any forms of authorities," he said. "They don't know much about religion, or about anything, frankly. They won't listen to their imam, or their parents, or to me."
The recruitment of Brits to fight for various jihadist groups in the Middle East has been described as the first "YouTube" war, with much of the narrative centering around combating radicalisation online, rather than in communities. However, research by the Quilliam Foundation in May 2014, and by the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, suggest the "majority of radicalised individuals come into contact with extremist ideology through offline socialisation prior to being further indoctrinated online."
The news emerged as the Metropolitan Police announced it had increased security around its buildings and bolstered numbers of firearms officers available.
Home Secretary Theresa May also promised to up the government's efforts to tackle the terrorist threat and a "chilling" rise in anti-Semitism.
The letter added: "We must show our young people, who may be targeted, that extremists have nothing to offer them. We must show them that there are other ways to express disagreement: that their right to do so is dependent on the very freedoms that extremists seek to destroy.
"We must show them the multitude of statements of condemnation from British Muslims; show them these men of hate have no place in our mosques or any place of worship, and that they do not speak for Muslims in Britain or anywhere in the world.
"Let us assure you that the Government will do all we can to defeat the voices of division, but ultimately the challenges of integration and radicalisation cannot be solved from Whitehall alone. Strong community-based leadership at a local level is needed."
The ministers said "British values are Muslim values", and the country would be "diminished" without Islam and its "message of peace and unity".
"Every day, mosques and other faith institutions across the country are providing help for those in need, and acting as a centre for our communities," the letter said. "It is these positive contributions that are the true messages of faith and it is these contributions that need to be promoted."Suggest a correction