This is a cross-post from Year of the Snake.

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The University of Kent was honoured to be visited by two members of the Quilliam Foundation this week. In an event co-organised by the European Law Student Society, the Kurdish Society, and the Critical Law Student Society; Dr Usama Hasan and Haydar Zaki delivered an illuminating talk on Extremism, Terrorism and Radicalisation.

Dr Hasan spoke about the (incorrect) contemporary assumption that Islam is the only religion or ideology subject to extremist views.

The most interesting part of the presentation, for me, was the examination of the four key Qur’anic notions and how they have been hijacked by ISIS and other extremists to fit their world view.
These principles are: Ummah, Caliphate, Sharia and Jihad.

Ummah is portrayed by extremist groups as the Muslim nation, which can easily descend into xenophobia and supremacy, leading to mass-murder as it is easy to demonise and kill the ‘other’. However it has a deeper meaning – that of humanity under one nation. The inclusion of everyone, not just Muslims. Dr Hasan, a scholar and religious leader, stated incisively that if one believes in God they have to accept everyone, as God created everyone.

The Caliphate is hijacked to mean a single super-state, a land of Islam. It reinforces the ‘us versus them’ dichotomy, particularly epitomised by a medieval revival of the clash between Islam and Christianity. Modern nation states and borders are not accepted and Muslims must pledge allegiance to the Caliphate or are considered apostates. However, the Caliphate really refers to good government, a state that imposes just rule. It is perfectly possible to have a democratic Caliphate with equal rights for all.

Sharia, which means law or sacred law, is taken by groups such as Isis to justify brutal medieval practices. These include taxing non-Muslims, beheading, crucification and enslavement – including sexual slavery. Practices that the last caliphate, the Ottoman Empire abolished. Dr Hasan spoke about the hundreds of interpretations of Sharia that have been in existence – that there is no one Sharia and never has been. Some interpretations promote full gender equality and equality for non-Muslims, but Islamists want to impose their version of Sharia upon everyone.

The biggest eye-opener for me was Jihad – taken by extremist organisations to justify acts of terrorism. It has a much deeper meaning – struggle in the way of God. It refers to the spiritual and social struggle against evil, such as the inner struggle between good and evil paths. It also provided part of a system of ethical warfare that was used centuries ago. All of these interpretations have been forgotten or conveniently overlooked by those wishing to enforce their views upon the world and justify their barbaric ideology.

These principles need to be reclaimed from extremists as part of a movement to undermine harmful extremist ideologies and promote more nuanced views of Islam in the wider community.

This is why it was concerning that the UK government’s PREVENT programme, originally stated that believing in Caliphate, Sharia or Jihad meant one was an extremist, thereby excluding vast swathes of conservative Muslims from the ‘acceptable’ realms of Islam. It now defines extremism as an opposition to British values – although this is bound to be something that is difficult to assess or quantify.

Zaki’s comparison of far-right and Islamic extremists was inspiring. Both use the same arguments to justify their position and responses. They argue that Islam is incompatible with other societies and beliefs – for example that one has to be an Islamist if one is a Muslim. Both sides of the spectrum then portray any attack on Islamism as a wholesale attack on Islam – that the religion is incompatible and therefore an extreme response is required.

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He stated that ideas don’t make themselves violent, that they lend themselves to violence – this is the key message I will take away from the evening.

The work of the Quilliam Foundation has filled a gap of growing importance in policy work – becoming the world’s first counter-extremism think tank. You can find out more about the Foundation and access their publications here: http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/

I recommend ‘The Virtual Caliphate’ by Charlie Winter and ‘Countering Islamist Extremist Narratives’ by Jonathan Russell and Haras Rafiq.

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