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To win over potential violent extremists we must win the battle of ideas, writes Maajid Nawaz

The murder of Lee Rigby, a British army soldier, has forced UK politicians to look again at their country’s counter-terrorism policies. And they must. The only way that we can win over potential jihadists to liberal democracy is by winning the battle of ideas.
This view is not universal: even after the shift announced last week, US President Barack Obama’s policy works principally on the assumption that, by decapitating al-Qaeda’s leadership with drone strikes and through relentless pressure, jihadist terrorism can be forced on to the run.

But one need only look at the rise of jihadist insurgencies in Somalia, northern Nigeria, northern Mali and Syria, successful jihadist attacks in Benghazi in Libya and In Amenas in Algeria, and the attacks on Boston and London’s Woolwich. These all demonstrate an uncomfortable truth: jihadism is no longer represented by any conventional organisation. It has become a brand – and brands generate followings without the need for leadership.

If the ideology of Islamism – as distinct from the religion of Islam – had in recent years become as toxic as the brand of, say, neoconservatism, we would by now be in a very different world. But it has not. Quite the opposite. There has been a failure to grasp how competing narratives fight for the attention of angry young Muslims, and we have grossly underestimated the appeal of the jihadist brand.

I have some insight into this. At 16, I joined the revolutionary Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Shortly afterwards in 1995, perhaps London’s first jihadist street murder by machete was perpetrated under my nose by one of my supporters at Newham College, east London, while I was president of the student union. Jihadism sprang from our extremist yet non-violent form of Islamism. If only someone had intervened before it had got to that stage.

So, undermining the gloss of the jihadist brand is crucial – and this means challenging extremism before it leads to terrorism. Theresa May, home secretary, recently said that thousands of radicalised individuals are roaming the streets who are yet to break the law. One wonders why it took a brutal attack in London for the UK government finally to start looking to stem this supply pool for terrorism at its source.

The British state already invests in early intervention campaigns in drug abuse and sexual health. Challenging extremism should be no less of a priority. Back in 2011 the prime minister seemed to agree. He gave a speech in Munich on how we could undermine not just violent extremists but all extremism. This, however, was not followed through.

Indeed, it is has been more than a year and a half since officials were asked to devise a strategy to suppress extremism and promote integration and social cohesion. Yet the government still has no worked-through counter-extremism plan and few civil-society partners to implement a strategy.

The reason for this gridlock is simple: intellectual paralysis. In the couple of years they have on any portfolio before they rotate on, civil servants simply cannot be expected to acquire the expertise required. There has also been a serious lack of political will, exemplified by a failure to force departments to work in concert on this agenda and to make sure that policies are implemented. Now, in the wake of the Woolwich attack, the government has announced that it will convene a counter-extremism task force. So what should it do?

Crucially, it needs to see this issue as one of competing brands – and any action we take must not result in reinforcing the extremist brand. We must not only adhere to our own values but be seen to be adhering to them. Liberalism will beat totalitarianism by killing it softly, not by mimicking it. So one should be wary about seeking new powers to intercept communications or banning non-violent extremist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir.

What would be far more effective is seeding grass-roots initiatives that discredit extremist ideas, narratives, leaders and symbols, and instead popularise alternatives so the process of creating a new trend can begin. Such a shift has been achieved with racism and homophobia, which have gone from being norms to taboo. The law can help in this regard but was never the main solution.
To drive such a social change through, a central unit could indeed be useful. But it will need expertise, must not be a political campaigning tool and will need a clear sense of direction: a battle of ideas will not be won by a Whitehall committee. All the more so if it is comprised of the very people who failed to implement a much-needed counter-extremism strategy to begin with.
The writer is author of ‘Radical’ and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think-tank.

This article was originally published in ‘The Financial Times’ on 29th May 2013. Click here to view the original article.