"I am a soldier of Islam" Michael Adebolajo calmly stated in the dock at the trial of Lee Rigby's murder where both he and his accomplice Michael Adebowale were found guilty of Rigby's murder. These very words have been reiterated by other extremists including by 7/7 ringleader Mohammad Sidique Khan who stated in his suicide video "we are at war and I am a solider."
Challenging extremism and the causes of extremism is a collective responsibility and foreign policy as a radicalising factor cannot be dismissed. But equally we cannot continue to ignore the political ideology, clothed in extreme religious language which is spouted and justified by extremists themselves. Adebolajo for example articulated the standard extremist narrative, "we are forced by the Qur'an in verses like Surah Tawbah and many many other ayahs (verses) which state we must fight them as they fight us."
When I was growing up I was exposed to a moderate British Islam which talked about integration, active citizenship, love for one's neighbours and it was this theological grounding that played a significant role in making many young Muslims that I knew resilient to the extremist narrative. In the last few decades however that has been a substantial increase in intolerant and militant interpretations of Islam in Britain and globally. Yet has enough been done by religious and civic Muslim leaders in dismantling this political and extreme religious narrative?
Issuing statements condemning terrorism will not dismantle the extremist views held by individuals like Adebolajo and Adebowale. Press releases after Rigby's murder by some British Muslim leaders stated that while challenging extremism is a responsibility on us all, "at the end of the day, it is the job of the police authorities to protect us, as the public has no power of enforcement." Confusing the role of the Government's Prevent and Pursue agendas, some Muslim leaders fail to understand the important role they can play in supporting vulnerable individuals in a pre-criminal space and in directly challenging their ideological worldview with Islamic theology.
It is exactly this lack of understanding which has frustrated many of the Muslims I have worked with over the years. Earlier this year, Inspire completed a 6 week challenging extremism programme in Leeds to help educate women about the extremist threat and taught them key theological counter-narratives to extremist ideology. Many of the participants lived doors away from the homes of the 7/7 bombers and participants time and again stated "if I knew this information ten years ago when my children were teenagers, I would have taught them about the issues raised in this course. This is the first time I've been educated on such a crucial and important topic." These women expressed feelings of disappointment in religious and civic Muslim leaders in not providing their children with a contextualised understanding of Islam and their inability in directly challenging extremist ideas so easily available on the internet. In my experience of working with Muslim communities at the grassroots, it has shockingly been rare for participants to have been taught about theological counter-narratives to extremist ideology.
It is utterly ironic that these leaders do not feel it is appropriate for the police or the government to counter misinterpreted theology, and rightly so, yet they do not want to take up this challenge themselves which then begs the question who do they think should be countering extremist ideology when extremists justify their politically motivated actions with verses taken directly from the Qur'an?
Not all British Muslim leaders or communities however, show such apathy. After the failed (a Muslim reported him to the police) suicide bomber Andrew Ibrahim's attempts of blowing up Bristol town centre in 2008, members of the local Bristol Muslim community were adamant that no other young vulnerable Muslim would be ignored. They set up Naseehah, a community led initiative which would help and guide individuals and to support the police in their work. 25 local members were trained to recognise, support and de-radicalise individuals using Islamic theology.
Having been de-radicalised whilst in prison, Andrew Ibrahim sent a message of endorsement to the members of Naseehah articulating how important it was for local faith leaders to be equipped in being able to challenge extremist ideologies. Not receiving this support and the failure of local imams to answer difficult questions posed by him before his attempted terror attack, he turned to the internet where he succumbed to answers provided by extremist websites. This is preventing extremism community work at its best: building resilience within communities, directly challenging extremist ideology, supporting vulnerable individuals and referring radicalised individuals, both far-right and Muslim extremists to Channel, an early intervention collaboration between local authorities, the police and other partners to protect those people at risk from entering the criminal space.
On Thursday it was widely reported that Adebolajo's brother Jeremiah warned of more attacks to come. We can take measures like banning external preachers but this will do little to extinguish the ideas that drive such acts of violence and hate. While sitting in Lebanon Omar Bakri Muhammad is still teaching young Muslims in London every night via the internet for example. If we want to combat extremism, we and in particular Muslim leaders need to recognise that this is a battle of narratives centred around theology and by amplifying theological counter-narratives to extremist ideology we can help make their narrative redundant, make our country a more secure one and prevent them from dividing us as a nation.