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Posted on Fri 24 March 2017

Try as we might, we cannot discount the role of religion in these atrocities...

reform from within is the only answer.

There has been a chorus from politicians, community and religious leaders about the need to present a united front  in the face of the terrorist atrocity at Westminster. This desire for social cohesion in entirely understandable and it is praiseworthy that there has been no backlash against peaceful Muslims who have no intention to terrorise anybody.

Such valid concerns should not, however, lead us to neglect the profoundly religious nature of the radicalisation which has led to this and other acts of terror all over the world. The Salafi-Wahhabi narrative which underlies extremism and its terrorist consequences is rooted in a selective but devoted reading of the early history and practices of the Islamic world and in a conviction that these provide a detailed agenda for law, governance and social ordering today.

It cannot be said that such radicalisation is taking place in the West and elsewhere only through the Internet. Media technology has certainly played its part not only in propagating the ideology of extremism but in providing detailed instructions about the destabilising of whole societies, creating alarm and despondency and, indeed, about how particular acts of terrorism can be brought about. Those who are urging much more vigilance in this area are right to do so and their voices should be heard. It is also necessary, however, to identify and to prevent those agents and accomplices who are promoting extremist ideology in our universities, schools and prisons, as well as in mosques and madrassas.

The whole process of radicalisation has also to be seen against a background of more generalised ‘noise’ in and from the Islamic world. Radicals may not have come to power in more than a handful of nations but their baleful influence has been felt far and wide. The introduction of Shari’a, understood in its narrowest sense, has led to the denial of freedom of thought, expression and belief through the promulgation of draconian laws on blasphemy and apostasy. The freedoms and rights of women have increasingly become restricted in the fields of education, employment, family life and mobility. The history of armed Jihad is glorified and the teaching of hatred of people of other religions and cultures has been introduced even into school textbooks, thus affecting almost two generations of children and young people. There have been, of course, other significant factors in the resurgence of fundamentalism, such as lack of opportunity, high unemployment and corruption, but we cannot ignore the emergence of a mentality because of the constant pressure exerted by the unreconstructed fundamentalists.

Such a mentality is not limited to the Islamic world. Britain may be an island geographically. It certainly is not in terms of ideas, ideologies, cultural and religious movements. Quite apart from the New Media, there are students, missionaries, religious teachers and leaders moving in and out of Britain all the time. The cumulative effect is to reproduce mentalities here which have been produced elsewhere. Studies and surveys have shown that younger people are more vulnerable to radical ideology than their elders. This is most worrying for integration and for the future of a socially cohesive society.

It is natural that in the immediate aftermath of the attack, experts should concentrate on the security aspects of the situation. This is not, however, by any manner of means, only a security issue. It is also a religious and cultural one. What else then can be done?

One urgent necessity is for Muslim politicians, community and religious leaders to articulate a clear counter-narrative, not only to jihadism but also to the more widespread and strident calls for greater and greater ‘Islamisation' of communities and societies. It is not for a non-Muslim to say how they should do this but it seems quite possible for them to read their wider tradition, and the work of eminent Muslim reformers, in a way very different from the dominant narrative. Along with some courageous scholars and leaders in the Muslim world, they could declare immediately their respect for freedom of religion, that there is no legal punishment for apostasy or blasphemy, that women are free and equal in law and that the doctrine of jihad must now be understood in purely defensive terms and with protections, from their tradition, which are not dissimilar to those found in the criteria for a just war. Such a declaration will ‘detoxify’ an atmosphere which has for too long been allowed to be dominated by extremist chatter.

Leadership of this kind and the government can then cooperate to make sure that such a vision of Islam is heard andreceived in communities up and down the land. The effect on social cohesion and community harmony will be such that no programme of security, however sophisticated, could deliver.

This article was published by The Telegraph and can be accessed, here

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