5 January 2016
This article was originally published on The Wall Street Journal, authored by Haras Rafiq
Another high-profile case of a radicalized British Muslim apparently participating in Islamic State atrocities in the Middle East this week again raises the question of how moderate Muslims in the West should confront jihadist ideologies in their mosques and communities. For many Muslim moderates in “at-risk” areas, it comes down to finding the courage to leave the Islamist echo chamber.
These ideological echo chambers exist in every community, but among Muslims the problem is especially acute. Muslim communities today are vulnerable to hijacking by proponents of political Islam, and for the average Muslim it can be incredibly difficult to leave.
Say you’re a first-generation Briton of Pakistani descent or a French North African. You can often find yourself growing up into an insular community. Your family members visit the same mosque and pray with the same imam. Your friends all respect the imam’s teachings. The social-media platforms you move through are mutually supportive of the ideas you encounter offline.
Often, it isn’t your imam who explicitly preaches a hateful interpretation of Islam. But he may tacitly condone such an interpretation, and radicalism is part of the cultural ecosystem of the mosque and the wider community. When a Muslim man or woman is constantly surrounded by extremist ideas, the process of dislodging oneself from these doctrines is painful. But it isn’t impossible.
Moderate Muslims do have ways to reassert control of their communities. If an imam or his followers are preaching violent action, this is a clear red line. Muslims must inform the authorities. Sanctioning or declaring jihad “by the sword” is forbidden if you are free to pray and practice your faith within your nation.
Muslims also should challenge tacit or direct support for extremism in any sense, and raising the issue with the council of the mosque should be an immediate response. This may prompt the council to look toward replacing the imam or speaking to agitators about their opinions. The more Muslims feel empowered to step forward and call out extremists in their communities, the greater we can foster constituent vigilance, institutional memory and organic resilience.
Realistically, however, these echo chambers are so deeply rooted that few Muslims are likely to take such steps. It is therefore the role of civil society to identify and engage with role models in the community who can inspire Muslims to feel confident to step forward and fight extremism.
Our foundation is experimenting with ways to do this, such as our Young Leaders Fellowship. This program trains young Muslims from at-risk communities in how to lead, navigate and debate with extremism in their communities.
But that’s not enough, especially for vulnerable young people who don’t know where to turn if they’re uncomfortable with the ideologies in their communities. Something along the lines of Britain’s highly successful National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children hotline would be an effective model to follow—a confidential resource people could contact to receive advice on how to counter extremism. Quilliam is working on such a project, but partners are needed who are unafraid to back a project that would inevitably encounter strong resistance from conservative Salafi Muslims.
With no confidential, well-funded and well-staffed service which young Muslims can turn to, we often see them turning to social media and “Sheikh Google” as they try to come to grips with the views they encounter. Unfortunately, extremists dominate the online Muslim community. This virtual space must be contested.
When the U.K. launched the first Prevent counterextremism strategy in 2006, its primary funding and support went into offline initiatives, failing to appreciate the digital landscape in which extremists operate. As we move through this new and darker phase in extremism across the world, linking the online and offline counternarratives against extremism will be vital.
This turns us to the still more profound challenge of targeting these insular communities with alternative narratives. These must be exciting, voluminous and more emotionally engaging than the appeal of the extremists. We must find, identify and lionize the too-often silent majority of Muslims who are being dominated by the louder minority. Popular culture, iconography and art are all ways to give those tempted by extremism more exciting outlets for their emotional development than political ideology.
However, artistic groups are often afraid of getting their fingers burned. The National Youth Theatre, Britain’s premier youth art group, pulled its production of “HomeGrown,” a play about extremism, due to fear of a backlash. We as a society must be more willing to engage with extremism and not fear being labelled Islamophobic simply for championing new schools of thought. What hope do Muslims have if the rest of society is unwilling to step into the breach with them?
Then there is the biggest obstacle of all: developing usable, scriptural refutations of jihadism that people can feel confident enough to quote and use when confronted by extremist preaching. Long academic scripts won’t pass muster in the digital age. We need to be innovative and quick in how we respond. Civil society and government can play a crucial role here. At Quilliam, we are working hard to formulate this, but we have a long road ahead of us before we, as a society, can tangibly reach into these communities and fundamentally change the debate.
Major cultural changes aren’t impossible, whether in closeted Muslim communities or in society at large. Witness the way in which campaigns against racism and homophobia over the past two decades have changed society’s attitudes through role models, popular culture, parliamentary advocacy, comprehensive media strategies, outreach and partnerships. It’s time we did the same with extremism.
To view the article as originally published on The Wall Street Journal, please click here.