As the threat from violent extremism grows, new research by OPM suggests faith communities can be part of the solution – but only if they are properly involved in the process.
The Government believes faith communities can play an important role in tackling extremism. They can help ‘lead the challenge to an ideology that purports to provide theological justification for terrorism.’
The recent fatwa issued against Isis, backed by many British Imams, is an example of how they provide this challenge through a moral leadership role. They can influence how local counter-extremism strategies are designed and delivered, often providing officials with important insights into tensions and threats facing local communities. And they can help break down barriers between communities of different faiths, reducing segregation and distrust between communities: factors associated with extremism.
We have seen a gradual shift in how the Government has involved faith communities in combatting extremism. Initially, after the London 7/7 bombings and the release of the first Prevent Strategy for stopping people becoming or supporting terrorists in 2007, the Government reached out to national faith groups and gave them a prominent role in shaping its new agenda. There were also moves to involve local leaders – often male, middle aged, and long-standing community representatives– as sounding boards for local Prevent action plans and initiatives. Projects did seek to involve people of faith, but were often controlled tightly by central government, local government or the police.
But as Prevent became subject to growing criticism, especially in the Muslim community which accused it of targeting them unfairly, the strategy for engagement began to shift. National faith bodies became less closely involved in decision-making and there were greater efforts to involve local faith groups in constructing new initiatives, especially young people, women and smaller religious sects.
This was not just a political move, born out of the Government’s frustration with national faith leaders who did not always support what the government was doing. Increasingly it reflected new evidence that community-led, rather than nationally determined, initiatives were more likely to succeed. One study concluded:
‘Civil society [including faith communities] can challenge the narratives of radicalisers and extremists and put forward positive alternatives. These counter-messages are often more effective when they come from communities themselves, rather than governments.”
In research for the Home Office (2014 unpublished), we found numerous examples of faith communities playing a critical role in countering extremism.
In Birmingham, a charity called The Feast brings together young people of different faiths through ‘encounters’ where they talk openly about their religion and values and how their faith can be used for peaceful purposes.
In Haringey, North London, a Muslim Forum has been given funding to develop its own projects to counter extremism, including strengthening local mosque governance and teaching local people how to counter radicalisation.
In Leicester, women female scholars (Alimas) are being taught how to spot extremism in their community and combat it. One participant told us they were chosen to take part because they ‘were at the heart of the community and because they have a religious background, giving them more authority’.
But involving faith communities in sensitive counter-extremism projects can be very challenging work. Many people of faith– especially in the Muslim community – remain deeply suspicious of the Government’s Prevent Strategy, and in some cases they are downright hostile. On how the problem of extremism is tackled – especially in light of the threat posed by Isis – views remain sharply polarised.
So how do we proceed? Firstly, our research tells us that we need to be much more careful about how we describe counter-extremism activities and their goals. If the appeal for help is couched in the language of security, information-sharing and technocratic jargon, it is likely to discourage people from becoming involved.
Prevent is ultimately about protecting communities from horrendous crimes and helping vulnerable people who are exposed to extremist recruiters. The language of ‘safeguarding’ and ‘protecting communities’ is a more attractive sell to faith communities.
Secondly, initiatives which seek to counter extremism need to be designed and delivered as much as possible by the community itself rather than by officials based in local authorities or the police. Led by those who are credible in local communities, community-led initiatives can reach those people that are hardest to engage.
Thirdly, engagement with faith communities is time-consuming and challenging work, especially if you are to reach those who do not attend committees or take part in political processes. Those wanting to tackle extremism need to develop skills in community outreach and community organising – skills that are as much about listening and encouraging others to lead, than in managing projects or running meetings.
Each passing day seems to produce more evidence that the UK faces grave dangers from violent extremists. With good community outreach, a grassroots approach to getting them involved in initiatives, and with a clear message about the outcomes we are trying to bring about, faith communities can be part of the solution.