This past week violent extremism has reared its ugly head. Two senseless attackers violently murdered Drummer Rigby in an act which has been rightfully condemned by every corner of society (our FOSIS PR here). Rightly so, the prime minister stated that this was indeed a "betrayal of Islam and the Muslim communities who give so much to our country."
Sadly the Woolwich atrocity has been followed up by a wave of anti-Muslim violent extremism - a mosque that was petrol bombed last night is just one of many violent attacks on mosques, Muslims and their property in Britain.
Clearly this behaviour has no place in any 21st Century society or indeed in our country. Thus, somewhat not so unexpectedly, the government has launched an extremism taskforce to reassess the government's anti-terrorism strategy, predominantly spear-headed by the Prevent agenda. Whilst we all unequivocally stand against any form of violent extremism, the government now needs to have a mature and balanced approach to formulating ways in which to protect our nation without infringing on the democratic freedoms of society.
Prevent: counter-productive not counter-terrorism
The Prevent strategy has come under fire from experts and academics alike for many years as something which has failed and wasted millions of pounds of tax payers' money. It has largely alienated the vast majority of the mainstream British Muslim community. This has created an environment of mistrust and inadvertently created the suspect Muslim community whilst giving little attention to the rising violent and bigoted far-right. The demonisation of representative Muslim bodies and the blurred lines between counter-terrorism and community engagement have been a concoction which has fuelled the fear of 'the other'. Upon renewal in 2011, the coalition government built upon this and disregarded vital advice given by a select committee report and from organisations like iCoCo. Overall Prevent has been worryingly counter-productive. Rather than engaging and empowering the majority of the peaceful Muslim community it demonised them and consequently opened a door to the darker fringes of society.
Campus radicalisation fuelling violent extremism?
In the wake of the Woolwich attack much of the spotlight has sensationally been cast on to university campuses - but is this a warranted response? One of the attackers attended the University of Greenwich almost a decade ago which has stoked campus radicalisation narratives.
However, having been in contact with the Islamic society we can confirm that there is no record him ever being a member. Regardless of this, the universities minister has previously stated that just because someone who commits an act of terror went to university, it doesn't make it a causal link. Nicola Dandrige, chief executive of Universities UK, who attended our landmark event at the House of Lords on this very topic, has on numerous occasions stated that there is no evidence to link Muslim "student radicals" with violent extremism or that university campuses are any more susceptible to extremism than any other sector of society - a view emphasised by the Home Affairs select committee report on the "The Roots of Violent Radicalisation". As I stated in an interview I did on Channel 4 news, there is no Islamic society or Muslim student body on any campus that would encourage or promote the type of violent extremism we saw in Woolwich.
It has been a concern to see abstract discussions being drawn in to this debate in a knee-jerk fashion. Boris Johnson today proposed to put a ban on societies who offer separate gender seating. This is akin to the aggressive laïcité French approach which infringes on the rights of freedom of religious expression, a right which we in Britain should value immensely. Separate seating which accommodates males and females (the use of segregation recalls unrelated and emotive images of apartheid South Africa) is a religious act which many democratically elected societies choose to implement in pursuit of upholding fundamental values and etiquettes. It is a spiritual practise that has been established for multiple millennia and is one that is still actively implemented today by many churches, synagogues, mosques, their religious organisations and communities and indeed, in a number of other religious establishments in various degrees and forms. To speak of this and of terrorism in the same conversation seems to be nothing short of a red-herring and this isn't the only example.
In analysis, one wouldn't be far off in agreeing with the NUS's vice president Pete Mercer who has described some of these narratives against Muslim students as part of a "witch hunt". Thus, as a mature, enlightened, civic society we must resist these new narratives that lay siege on Muslim students and ensure the upholding of nuance over convenient generalisation; reason over sensationalism; and maturity over reactionism.
The biggest barrier to violent extremism
At FOSIS we have always approached the discussion around extremism seriously by engaging with academics, experts and leaders of societies. Our organisation represents 115,000 Muslim students on campuses across the UK and Ireland, all of whom want violent extremists to have no part in our society. I am confident in stating that the biggest barrier to any form of twisted extremism 'in the name of Islam' is to empower Muslim students through mainstream Islamic activism. This is something that Islamic societies and FOSIS do every day of the year - a strategy echoed by faith community experts like Professor Gwen Griffith-Dickson. Despite the policy and media pressures, FOSIS, Islamic societies and Muslim students have remained resilient and have continued on with the great work they do from; clothing the homeless; giving gifts to unwell children; raising millions of pounds in charity; engaging in positive interfaith work and holding mature and informed discussions on the discourse around extremism and the portrayal of Muslim students.
What the government and counter-terrorism commentators need to realise is that the work of mosques, Islamic schools and Muslim student bodies are the barrier to extremism. Policies which demonise and create suspicion of the Muslim community need to be dropped and a real engagement of the Muslim majority must be factored in to the government's reassessment.