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How to Prevent: Extremism and Policy Options – Tony Blair Faith Foundation

May 11, 2016

BlairMuch as I loathe Blair, it has to be said that his foundation produces lots of good and thoughtful stuff.

Most religious believers condemn the extreme ideologies and their religious justifications. But vulnerable people, unsure of their identity and belonging, find purpose in responding to calls to react against established society, often with their own deaths. To protect the vulnerable and end the cycle of violence, we have to challenge the ideas themselves and develop resilience within those targeted for radicalisation.

Preventing extremism is not something we will achieve overnight, in a year or within an election cycle. We have to build a strategy that reaches across generations. Security is the first duty of all governments, but hard power alone has never and will never be the whole answer.

This volume highlights three important things for prevention:

  • we cannot avoid the fact that this is about ideas based on a perversion of religion. In this battle of ideas, the only lasting solution will be one that understands fully, addresses and uproots the ideas themselves.
  • in understanding that this is a generational challenge, we need to implement reform now in order that the next generation has the understanding and skills necessary for building resilience to extremist ideas.
  • we cannot underestimate the need to fight this problem together.

The policy options it presents are not unrealistic, and take into consideration the full spectrum of challenges. We must recognise what works, and where there is positive impact we must seek to replicate it.

Strategic action is needed quickly to implement solutions that are long-term and have continuity and consensus. Governments will need to work hard to build coalitions for this work, not just within society, but also across government. The prevention of extremism is one of the greatest challenges facing this generation and the next. Unless we counter it together, we face a very difficult future as a global community.

In Strategic Prevention is Vital to Tackle Extremism, Angela Salt says: There are three things that policy makers should take into account. First, we cannot avoid the fact that this is about religion. To deny this, as Tony Blair said recently, is to misunderstand the problem and therefore misconceive the solution… there is a desperate need for better understanding of modern, mainstream interpretations of religion amongst policy makers to stop them designing bad policy. This is also necessary amongst the public to prevent indoctrination by simplistic and corrupt interpretations and to counter prejudice and hate crimes against religious groups – so we need better RE

In How to Prevent Extremism, Hazel Blears says: Empowering teachers and communities to tackle ideology requires informed and experienced officials. Governments must not shy away from taking the necessary action.  Whilst in government I commissioned respected Muslim scholars to work on a modern interpretation of Islam for a 21st century democracy where Muslims are a minority. Not only was it difficult to get people involved, but once the scholars agreed to undertake the work it was difficult to protect them from being pilloried by those who did not want there to be a modern interpretation, and after 12 months the project was ended.  I could have told her that before she started.

To achieve this, education must be a priority. Again there is controversy. In the same way that sex education and citizenship education were controversial when first introduced in the UK, the teaching of religion is difficult and addressing topics to do with extremism is challenging. There is a link between all three however, and that is the lack of support for, and confidence held by, teachers in addressing these issues. In the past, sex and relationship education was often left to staff who had the spare time, often without the appropriate support. The same occurred with citizenship  education that was meant to bring politics and democracy alive. Teachers were not specialists and did not feel confident about teaching something that they felt possibly crossed a line. Teaching religion can be quite threatening unless you are a specialist, especially when you are teaching people about their own religion, let alone covering complex and emotive issues to do with extremism. Teachers must be empowered to own this agenda in schools. She confuses professional with jobbing RE teachers.

In Religion as a Partner on the International Stage, Francis Campbell says: Far from being in decline, as many secular observers have claimed, religion is on the rise. The question for policy makers must therefore be, how to take account and bring the vast majority with them? In the context of religious extremism, the greatest challenge is ensuring that when policy makers do take religion into account, they do not let the exception, the extreme fringes of religious communities, dictate their whole approach. Well yes but how arrogant to think that ‘policy makers’ can corral religion.

He goes on: just 10 per cent of teenagers can name the five major world religions and only half of adults can name the first book of the bible – I thought there were 6 – and which bible are you talking about?

Better: World religions have played their part in shaping globalisation as they offer identities that transcend cultural, national and class boundaries. Political leaders must now engage with this religious soft power, supporting mainstream religious leaders to stop it being manipulated by extremists. If religion is given its rightful place on the international stage, it can help to achieve positive change across borders.

In The Importance of Theological Clarity and Rebuttal in Preventing Extremism, USAMA HASAN, from the Quilliam Foundation notes the piecemeal or distorted knowledge of Islam

I wonder: Anecdotally, in 2014, a Religious Studies teacher at a London secondary school was having problems with a Muslim schoolboy who was expressing views intolerant of other religions and, indeed, of other Muslim viewpoints. The teacher handed the boy a copy of my treatise on freedom of religion from an Islamic viewpoint and reported that within ten minutes the pupil had read the main points, retracted and apologised for his previous views.

There have also been several examples of families of British recruits to Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) engaging their sons and daughters in theological argument, with some success. For example, one of the youth justified joining the self-proclaimed ‘caliphate’ by claiming that Saudi Arabia is not Islamic enough because it does not levy the pre-modern jizya tax on non-Muslims. Ironically, this youth is unaware that the last acknowledged caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, abolished the jizyain 1839 on the basis of traditional, progressive Islamic jurisprudence.

In a Case Study: Nigeria Hope, Challenges and Opportunity: Nigeria’s Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism, Fatima Akilu says that Terrorism has provided Nigeria with unexpected opportunities to reform its criminal justice system, broaden its legal frameworks with the introduction of new bills that address terrorism and money laundering, as well as create a counter-terror – so why do they want the death sentence for gays?

In To Prevent, Understand Religious Ideology, Peter Welby says Governments tend to avoid the role of religion in extremism, meaning that policy and strategy to prevent extremism fails to address an underlying thread that ties grievance narratives together. There are two common roots to this neglect. The first comes from a well-meant desire to avoid stigmatising certain communities, stoked by a fear that ascribing motivating power to ‘religious ideology’ runs perilously close to finding the religion guilty for crimes committed in its name. The second, more dogmatic root is a secular rejection of ascribing motivating power to such an irrational force as religion. This position may regard religious ideology as a cypher for more underlying grievances.

In Extremism and Complexity of Thinking: The Psychological Reason for Investing in Education, Sara Savage has little to say and I wonder why they wasted pages to quote her. She’s never worked in schools so what does she know?

In Case Study: Pakistan Improve Critical Education, Improve Prevention: Lessons from Deradicalising Young Taliban Fighters, Feriha Peracha and others talk about Sabaoon, a flagship project, initiated by the Pakistan Army in 2009, which rehabilitates adolescent and pre-adolescent male members of extremist groups apprehended by the army in Swat and surrounding areas. SWAaT’s team of psychologists have developed a highly individualised model that includes mainstream education, vocational training and psychosocial support. Sabaoon has successfully reintegrated 164 individuals so far, and, with continuing support and monitoring, there has been no recidivism, a fact that is internationally recognised. Sabaoon graduates are acting as ambassadors in their own communities and across Swat and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. More than 50 per cent are pursuing academic goals and hope to establish careers. Many are training in vocational skills and, where possible, are providing free services in their own communities. Where education does not provide the hope to escape poverty, provide an explanation of grievances, or contribute to the production of constructive and attainable goals, young people are particularly vulnerable to extremism.

In Educating To Protect Young People Against Extremism, Jo Malone knows what she is talking about because she has been a classroom teacher: To counter extreme and divisive narratives and ideology, education must open the minds of young people to be comfortable with diversity and difference, reducing misunderstanding, prejudice and stereotypes. It is important that young people can differentiate between different value positions, respecting and appreciating that each has its worth for the person or people holding it. She talks about ‘dialogue skills’ and quotes Professor Robert Jackson: education systems should also offer the opportunities for young people to understand the life lived of faith and belief. Education that includes knowledge of the other involves a moral and ethical position and is not merely a cognitive function. The opportunity to question and challenge through dialogue .

In Case Study: Singapore Prevention Requires Participation: The Need For State-Society Partnerships, Rohan Gunaratna is almost an ambassador with local inert faith groups: The fight against terrorism and extremism can be won. Its success depends not only on government capabilities but community commitment to defeat terror and extremist ideas. Strong and trusting state-society partnerships are vital to building capacity and resilience in communities so that they can play their part in the fight. Communities need to be supported to recognise their role and feel that they can undertake it. They can then foster the dialogue and interaction needed between their members to identify those at risk and intervene to build their resilience and prevent the growth of extremism.

The report is online here.

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