The research on violent Islamic extremism and how to tackle it is now extensive. What guidance does it give us in deciding whether Michael Gove or Theresa May and Charles Farr are right? The former believes that Islamist ideology is the most dangerous threat facing Western liberal values, and it needs to be rooted out and destroyed. Drain the swamp. The latter take a less apocalyptic view. Rather than waste resources on ideological warfare, an intelligence-led approach which targets groups and individuals intent on violence is the way to deal with the problem. Deal with the crocodiles.
The interesting twist is that Michael Gove has an unlikely ally in Tony Blair. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation focuses, in part, on re-education. Only this April Mr Blair gave a speech to Bloomberg warning that the West was blind to the enormous threat to the world posed by radical Islam and its teachings. He argued that it was “absurd” to spend billions on security and defence whilst failing to deal with an “ideology that is being advocated in the formal and informal school systems and in civic institutions of the very countries with which we have intimate security and defence relationships.”
As part of the Westminster Faith Debate series, Charles Clarke and I gathered together four experts on Islamic radicalisation in different parts of the world – including the UK – to debate exactly this topic. What does the accumulating research evidence tell us about how best to deal with the threat of Islamic extremism? Drain the swamp or concentrate on the crocodiles?
The panel member who argued for swamp-draining was Ed Husain, author of The Islamist, and a fierce opponent of the kind of radical Islam espoused by Hizb ut-Tahrir of which – as a young man in Tower Hamlets – he was once a youthful advocate. His own experience had convinced him of the danger of Islamist ideas. Later in life Husain had advised Tony Blair and his government by way of the Quilliam Foundation which he founded with Maajid Nawaz.
The other three panellists – all academic researchers – disagreed strongly. What needs to be countered, they argued, is not the embrace of radical ideas, even anti-liberal, anti-democratic ones. They are common currency in many Muslim countries, observed Professor Mark Sedgwick, a Middle Eastern specialist, just as communist ideas were once widespread. Trying to eradicate them is hopeless – a lesson that McCarthyism should have taught us.
In any case, argued Dr Mat Francis, the accumulating evidence shows that there is no simple pathway from extremist ideology to violence. The vast majority of people who hold extremist opinions have no violent intent. “Islamist” violence is always over-determined – there are multiple causes, many paths, and no single “conveyor belt.” This is why the move to violence can be explained in retrospect, but not accurately predicted in advance, other than by looking for signs of a move to violence. Indeed, there are cases where a man becomes a terrorist whilst his brother with exactly the same views and circumstances does not.
Moreover, as Dr Marat Shterin pointed out, it is often counter-productive for states and security forces to counter radical ideas. Research on religious movements confirms that the spiral towards violence – from Waco to the northern Caucasus – often involves the ramping up of an “us-and them” mentality combined with a sense of grievance. If the “minority” attracts growing criticism and repression by agents of “the majority” the results can easily be a vicious cycle of escalation. On the one hand there’s the danger of alienating communities, on the other not dealing adequately with security threats – a balance which Charles Clarke felt no UK government had yet got right.
So the balance of opinion fell firmly on the side of May and Farr. Counter-radicalisation work should follow established counter-terrorism pathways, which rely on gathering good intelligence and looking in a focused way for indications of interest in violence, involvement in networks advocating such violence, and other indicators of a move to violent action. It is not the business of the state to prescribe or proscribe particular theologies, any more than particular political ideologies – so long as they operate within the law.
One important proviso however. It is perfectly legitimate to educate and argue against false beliefs. If there is really a danger that any school in Britain is promulgating a single, fundamentalist, version of Islam, that needs to be tackled. The way to do it is by having much better provision for teaching religion in schools – in both the formal and informal curricula. Ignorance of religion plays into the hand of religious minorities who claim their version of the faith is the only true one. At the moment the place of RE in the curriculum is a mess, and there seems no appetite in government to intervene in the one kind of swamp-draining that might really help.
Linda is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University. She researches religion around the world, and is particularly interested in charting rapid religious change since the 1980s. She was Director of the £12m AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme (2007 to 2013) which commissioned 75 separate projects. Her most recent books are Everyday Lived Islam in Europe (ed) and A Sociology of Religious Emotion. Together with Charles Clarke, she founded and organises the Westminster Faith Debates.