Harsher laws against terrorism will fail unless its underlying doctrines are confronted
By Hazel Blears and Julian Lewis
A shortened version of this article was published in The Times on 27 August 2014
In July 2013, as Labour and Conservative members of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee and as individuals with an interest in extremist propaganda, we wrote a paper for the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism and gave evidence to it in person. Our message was, and remains, that we are well-served by our security and intelligence agencies in identifying and disrupting home-grown terrorists. However, we lack comparable capacity to neutralise the ideology which infects them in the first place and to support mainstream moderate Muslims in challenging the extremists’ perverted distortion of Islam.
In reviewing our current strategy and policies to prevent people being radicalised and drawn into extremist activity, we should follow the precedents of the wartime efforts to expose Nazism and the Cold War campaigns to counter Communism. The extremist ideology of political Islam is a similarly totalitarian creed, requiring an organised effort to undermine its appeal and to strengthen the long-term resilience of the communities most vulnerable to it.
In order to succeed, this work must be owned by the whole of Government, on a cross-Departmental basis, working closely with local Government and engaging with civic and faith organisations on the ground. It requires the creation of a specialist counter-propaganda agency to develop a counter-narrative to – and to support communities in their efforts to challenge – extremists. This agency should operate under the supervision of a permanent ministerial committee on which the Home Office, FCO, Department of Communities and Local Government, Defence Ministry and DfID should all be represented.
Naturally, we are aware of the work of the Research Information and Communication Unit in the Home Office (RICU); but we remain concerned about its limited scale – and therefore its impact – in challenging ideology and developing an effective counter-narrative. In our view it is essential that the moderate Muslim majority should be supported in practical ways in countering the messages of the extremists and undermining their claim to be the authentic voice of Islam.
Just as in previous efforts to undermine totalitarian ideologies, it is necessary to isolate the extremists from the mainstream community, to highlight the poverty of their ideology and to promote the values of an open, free, tolerant and inclusive democracy. This will, in part, involve the very difficult issue of the interpretation of Islam in the modern world. It is, of course, controversial and undesirable for Government to sponsor a particular interpretation of a religion; but it is essential that support be given to scholars to develop a coherent narrative and discourse about the role of Islam in a modern democratic state.
Some work has taken place in this area but it has been contested and sometimes undermined from within. We believe more concerted efforts should be made to engage with credible scholars to carry out this vital task.
Much more must be done to strengthen the cohesion and resilience of local communities to enable them to resist and counter extremist messages. In particular:
Greater efforts to engage women and young people, and specifically to give them status and a platform to express their ideas about the challenges facing them in trying to integrate and fulfil their ambitions in modern Britain.
More attention to the role of education in schools and Madrassas, to ensure that the true message of Islam is being promoted and that teachers are properly qualified and able to teach in English.
Appropriate regulation and monitoring of the Madrassa curriculum – and those employed to teach it – to ensure the highest standards of quality and integrity, and in particular to include respect for those of other faiths.
It is clear that this is a generational challenge and we strongly believe that a cross-departmental body of Ministers, officials and specialists in counter-extremist techniques must be established to organise this long-term but vital effort. Unless more resources are devoted both to developing an effective counter-narrative and to strengthening the ability of communities themselves to challenge the extremists, we will not overcome this threat to us all.
Hazel Blears was Labour’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, with responsibility for the Prevent programme. Julian Lewis was a Conservative Shadow Defence Minister. Both are members of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament.