Countering Religious Extremism

Violence in the name of Islam is on everyone's minds. Imagine you are a Muslim parent, or simply a Muslim citizen, and you discover your son, or a friend, is taking an unhealthy interest in extremist websites. What do you do?

Violence in the name of Islam is on everyone's minds. Imagine you are a Muslim parent, or simply a Muslim citizen, and you discover your son, or a friend, is taking an unhealthy interest in extremist websites. What do you do? They certainly won't listen to you. They would refuse to talk to the Imam at your mosque: "Not a proper Muslim". Perhaps it is just a passing phase. How can you pick up the phone and call the security services? Not your own child or your good friend, it might just be a passing phase.

Many of the questions that arise in countering violent extremism are this practical. Who do you go to instead of pushing the panic button? Who will they heed? The short answer is someone who has gone down the road to extremism and rejected it. They know the moves, the language, the core themes used by recruiters and how to win them round with counter narrative. They can walk the walk and talk the talk. But such individuals are rare and organisations with their expertise and experience are rarer still. The Netherlands, for example, has protocols, advisory links to organisations, that help people find a way to exercise their civic responsibilities in a moral fashion. Sadly this is not common.

Faith in civil institutions is key, built on understanding and a degree of empathy. Police forces will not be trusted unless their policing is local: building up face-to-face relationships, based on cultural respect. There is no substitute for trust if timely warnings are to be forthcoming. Some 60% of extremist plots, experts say, are nipped in the bud by information given locally to police. In the short term, there is simply no other way to detect and divert self-radicalisation via extremist websites. And many law enforcement officers regard looking at extremist websites as the beginning of the problem rather than an indication of immediate criminal intent.

But there are a number of other taxing problems that do not invite practical answers. The first is the variety of pathways into extremism. Evidence from interviews with convicted terrorists illustrates the diversity of backgrounds, local circumstances, family dynamics, and psychological factors at work. This is not the terrain of the celebrity profiler in Hollywood movies. Easy talk about the mind of the "typical terrorist" sounds convincing but that does not help in spotting one going through security at a port of entry or attending the local mosque.

One thing does stand out though: the way in which religious explanations and ideology are used to "religionise" problems that, initially, may have little to do with religion. A feeling of humiliation and alienation, the experience of social deprivation and injustice, no hope for the future, can be channelled into violence by religious symbols and language. A concept of justice lies at the heart of most of the world religions. The perverse art of the recruiter and the extremist website is to reformulate fundamental religious symbols and stories to reboot behaviour - with violent change as the solution to personal, national and global ills and discontents. It demands a systematic distortion of the core content of faith designed to appeal to a simplistic idealism, heroics and desire for belonging. Radicalisation is about re-shaping religious identities.

Thinking about countering violent extremism (CVE) has moved on from seeking root causes - the roots and routes of extremism are too varied for that - into executive action and muscular law enforcement. But this requires community support and trust. So increasingly the importance of education, critical thinking and interfaith action has been recognised. This is partly because CVE is a marathon, not a sprint, and require middle term strategies. Extremists are in this for the long haul so long term strategies are more than relevant.

This means that soft power matters: religious leaders providing interfaith messages in a united front, as well as effective teaching for pluralism in schools and universities. More difficult is the promotion of powerful counter-narratives: for example on Islamic teaching on martyrdom, fidelity, and unbelief. More difficult, as these must be contextualised in specific local situations in all their particularity: for example injustices, corruption, police and army brutality and so on. Without hope and opportunities, a purely religious response to radicalisation will only get so far. There have to be alternatives on offer, realistic expectations that things can be different without violence. Extremism is never only religious in motivation. But people can rarely be simply bribed out of it.

So the argument about whether violent extremism and conflict is, or is not, religious needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history. One leads to, and interacts with, the other. Each can play its part in the diverse circumstances in which violent extremism manifests itself. Changing minds, hearts and circumstances together is a huge challenge. But a start has to be made somewhere. And as a friend recently said: "By far, the greatest source of religious extremism is the hate in our hearts".

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