Countering extremism is in everyone’s interests

It is important for civil society to cooperate with government in tackling dangerous narratives


The study released yesterday by Teeside University, with statistics from Tell Mama, confirms what we have known for some time: that there is a negative symbiotic relationship between religious and anti-religious extremism, and that both often manifest in violence.

The study shows that there has been a spike in hate crimes against Muslims, delivered in ‘retribution’ for terrorist atrocities around the world. Islamists pose a real threat not only to state security, but to the very Muslims they claim to represent.

Likewise, in their new pamphlet on ‘Religion and Belief in Schools‘, Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead confirm that that there is a growing trend of religious and anti-religious extremism, much of which manifests in violence, but more often exists legally.

Even when non-violent, these extremisms perpetuate discord in our society and normalise ideas that are contrary to the universal human rights values that we hold dear in a liberal and democratic nation.

Clarke and Woodhead assert that community cohesion is a vital function of education. I wholeheartedly agree. I also believe that schools can play a key role in promoting critical thinking and dialogue to challenge the extreme views that often lead to violence.

The work done in schools must go hand in hand with local community-based strategies to facilitate dialogue and challenge all extremisms.

There are three main ways of ensuring that these strategies are delivered effectively.

The first is early intervention, delivering primary prevention to young people before extreme ideas take root. After all, no-one is born with hate and very few people go on to commit violence.

The second is promoting dialogue, and rehumanising the ‘other’ to show that prejudice is usually unfounded, as well as finding peaceful solutions to legitimate areas of grievance.

The third is engaging with communities so that we have credible voices to take this approach further. We need to make sure that we can address grievances in ways that don’t further the mutual incomprehension between religious and non-religious people, and minimise unintended negative consequences of preventative work.

All of Quilliam’s outreach is largely centred on these principles, and we have tried over the last two years to practice what we preach and morph into a more ‘think-and-do-tank’ model.

With public sector funding cuts, it has been necessary to engage the Corporate and Social Responsibility (CSR) departments of private sector organisations and philanthropic trusts and foundations who support work in this area.

In the long-term, this presents lots of opportunities to innovate, build grassroots capacity, and maintain credibility by avoiding the government-funding tag.

However, given that the government sets the strategic direction for work in this area and has presumably evaluated the success and impact of all publicly-funded projects in building its evidence-based policy decisions, it is entirely sensible that organisations wanting to pursue projects in this domain will appeal to government departments to fund them.

Indeed, Quilliam wrote to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) in December 2013 to ask them to fund a project that would bring together those vulnerable to religious extremism or anti-religious extremism for the purposes of dialogue and rehumanisation in pursuit of community cohesion and counter-extremism.

Readers might like to see the proposal I delivered to the then-minister for communities, Stephen Williams MP.

Unfortunately, our bid was unsuccessful and we have been unable to implement our project on the scale that we had hoped. However, I stand by my commitment to tackling extremism in this way, just as I stand by our decision to apply to DCLG to support this work.

Asking government for funding, even talking to departments about strategy and policy, is seen as a taboo by many in this field but I feel it is important to be transparent.

We all know that the central narrative in much of Islamist extremism is ‘the West is at war with Islam’. Behaving as though we are ashamed of how we counter extremism will only tacitly fuel the notion that we are siding with the West, exacerbating this all-pervasive and dangerous dichotomy.

We need a communities-centric strategy to develop policies that counter all extremism rather than just Islamism, and require a civil society approach to work in this domain. It makes perfect sense that the government should play a role in supporting this.

However what should not be tolerated is the concerted effort of the anti-Prevent lobby to smear all attempts to make our society more cohesive and our state more secure.

Let us remove the taboo and stand strong behind countering all extremisms.

Jonathan Russell is political liaison officer at Quilliam

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