Eric Pickles and Lord Ahmad yesterday co-signed a letter to 1000 Muslim leaders that expressed a desire to fight extremism in Islam and strive for better integration between communities. I am naturally suspicious of a public airing of something that could be better said in private, and I do suspect that the letter has a more than a hint of a ‘reassuring the general public that we are doing something’ aim to it.
Issuing a letter like this in the immediate aftermath of the horrific attacks in Paris seems simplistic and poorly timed at best, and populism aimed at the white majority at its worst. So I don’t like the letter, or at least the form that it comes in, but the reaction of the Muslim Council of Great Britain towards it has hardly been a helpful one.
Where the point of terrorist attacks is to divide and provoke, as well as to cause terror, the message in the letter is largely a positive one. It seeks to reach some form of sensitive conclusion about helping communities to better express themselves and avoid extremism. Nobody is suggesting that every Muslim is waiting to be radicalised, nor that every Imam has a radical wing of his mosque to keep under control.
So, to me, the decision to be pedantic about the wording of the letter rather than commending its general message of tolerance and inclusion is a surprising and counterproductive one. Imams are leaders in their communities as well as on a religious level, and as such, it is reasonable to ask them to be more vigilant than normal within their towns and cities given the troubled times we live in.
Whether we like it or not, young people are being radicalised in the name of Islam, and brainwashed into doing unspeakable things in the name of the religion. Fortunately, in this country, we have already achieved a certain level of harmony that allows sensible discussion to take place, and debate to be had but we should not allow this to get in the way of action.
There should be no justification for blaming Muslims for the actions of people who commit acts of terror in the name of Allah. Equally, however, there is no reason not to sensitively remind people of their obligations as citizens in the face of extremism. As stated, I have an issue with the form of the letter and the amount of public attention it has received, as I believe it could have been better managed through private meetings, but the takeaway from the contents of the letter should be positive. To do otherwise only invokes the disharmony upon which terrorists thrive, and serves merely to distance communities from each other when there is no real reason to do so.
Of course, this could be seen as a mere distraction from the real issue at hand, which is why the extremists are driven to radicalisation in the first place. Yes, Islam and other religions offer them a potentially dangerous safe haven because they provide them with the absolute authority to act as they see fit in the name of their god, but it is not religion’s fault that they turn to extremism in the first place.
No, instead the problem is one of class warfare and isolation. Religions thrive on their sense of community, on the implication that by being a part of a particular cult, you are part of something bigger, a greater plan. Just look at where religion’s roots are strongest – South America and Africa. It is not difficult to see that those most marginalised by society often turn to religion to escape from the perceived inadequacies of their current situation, and why, if they fall in with the wrong people through that, it can lead to radicalisation. All it takes is a word in the ear from the wrong person for the seed of extremism to take hold, particularly with the global nature of the conflict being as it is.
As such, it is hardly surprising that young people who feel they do not fit in with the current British way of living, whether that be because of their background, their education, or simply their level of wealth are unlikely to attempt to force their way in when they have a clear, and often preferable, alternative. Isolationism is the main cause of individuals being driven to extremism and this is what we should really be talking about; not the religions they manipulate once they are there. Not enough effort is made to strive for integration between respective communities, and it is this that must be addressed before anything else.
The letter then, whilst to a certain point a piece of propaganda to show that action is being taken to combat extremism in our communities, is well intentioned, if a little simplistic. It does not begin to address the causes of young men and women being driven to search out extremism in the first place. If, then,we are going to be taken seriously on this matter, and prove we are not merely passing the buck to Muslim communities in the face of radicalisation, we must make finding the political cause of this top of our list of priorities, and do our utmost to stamp it out.