Counter Extremism Strategy
Today (19th October, 2015), we have seen the release of the government’s counter-extremism strategy. A comprehensive document outlining the government’s plan to oust extremism from society by focussing on 4 key areas, namely: countering extremist ideology, building partnerships, disrupting extremists and building cohesive communities.
As Muslim communities, we appreciate that extremist narratives do exist, albeit within the fringes of our society. Undoubtedly, Imams, in their capacity as faith leaders of the community have always been at the forefront in safeguarding our youth from following a path that is contrary to the teachings of Islam as taught by the Prophet Muhammad (saw). If there are sectors of society that pervert these teachings, then the onus must be on us to promote the normative messages of Islam to the youth that prevents them searching for such poisonous alternatives.
The government’s focus on holding internet service providers, social media companies and broadcast media to account is commendable. To provide normative voices more opportunities to voice their opinions and ensure their messages are being heard will only help alleviate negative perceptions the wider community may have about Islam.
However, what needs to be ensured from the government is that equal focus is given to both sides of the extremism spectrum. Where there is an increase in the fight against Islamic extremism, there must an assurance from the government that right wing extremism, which heavily contributes to rising Islamophobia will also be tackled.
Additionally, the government must ensure that the fight against extremism does not infringe on freedoms. If there is an ideology that is deemed to be offensive, then it must be given a public space from where it can be critiqued and deconstructed. Our freedom of thought and our ability to debate is one of the most powerful weapons we have. The commendable desire to protect from harm can sometimes result in the limitation of universal freedoms. The fight to curtail extremism should not come at the price of liberties enjoyed by all. This is a collective struggle of people who seek to protect the vulnerable, but also wish to flourish in an inclusive society.
Lastly, there is no denying that this struggle is a long term one. The key for the Muslim community will be to ensure that young Muslims find in Imams and Scholars the role models they need and want to emulate. The eradication of extremist thought is something that will ultimately come from ourselves. Let our institutions, including our Mosques, Madrassahs, Islamic schools and seminaries be places of intellectual advancement and let us be forthright in building bridges of communication and working in partnership with the variety of excellent grassroots organisations as well as statutory agencies that operate all over the country in the fight against extremism.
Note on Prevent
Within the discussion around counter-extremism is the issue of ‘Prevent’ and its impact on the Muslim community. What must be emphasised from the outset is the responsibility of the Muslim community itself when tackling and addressing people who are out to either deform, confuse or misinterpret the religion and lead themselves and others down a wrong path.
As a government policy, it has evolved in definition and implementation over 20 years and become statutory as of early 2015 to implement the Prevent Duty. There is no doubt that where the Prevent policy directly impacts people’s lives, it must be challenged and critiqued. Where there is a feeling that a government policy is disproportionality affecting a specific community, in this case the Muslim community, then the onus must be on that community to cohesively engage with it and work towards defining an agenda themselves that supports the community.
Any legislation enacted by parliament must work for the whole society. Policies and their implementations need to be equitable and serve in the national interest. Faith leaders must be part of the debate and ensure that they fully understand legislative processes and their implication, offering sincere advice and a practical approach to governments, their departments and their instruments of state. Safeguarding their communities is their fundamental duty.
Where the Prevent strategy needs to adapt and become more effective is in tackling all forms of ‘extremism’, most notably right-wing narratives that undoubtedly fuel the rise in islamophobia. When there is a perception that the strategy is more holistic in approach, it may increase engagement with it.