By simplifying the challenge of radicalisation, we fail to address its causes, writes Cristina Ariza
Last month, The Times reported that Anjem Choudary, the leader of proscribed Islamist organisation Al-Muhajiroun, will have to attend a compulsory deradicalisation programme as part of his probation. Choudary was released in October after serving half of his prison sentence for encouraging support for ISIS. This programme will complement a wide set of measures the Metropolitan Police has prepared to prevent Choudary from radicalising others that will cost £2m a year. But instead of employing reactive strategies to combat radicalisation, how can the government and civil society stop the ideology that propels Choudary and others like him from taking root in the first place?
An excessive focus on Choudary or similar radicalising figures also risks exaggerating their actual influence and succeeds in giving them the attention that they crave. Choudary himself was well aware of this before he was imprisoned and did not shy away from gifting the media with multiple rabble-rousing statements.
After all, the real risk of Choudary is not the man himself, but rather the appeal of the worldview that he propagates, which pits Muslims and non-Muslims against each other. If we only tackle message carriers and not the messages themselves, others will follow in Choudary’s footsteps and try to replicate Al-Muhajiroun’s ideology in a way that is more appealing to potential recruits.
The UK’s counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST acknowledges that ideology remains a strong driver in both Islamist and extreme right-wing terrorism, but fails to mention the role of non-violent extremist groups in fuelling terrorist ideologies. But this complex relationship between violent and non-violent extremism cannot be ignored and needs to be re-examined. For example, the perpetrator of the attack against Muslims in Finsbury Park in 2017 had obsessively consumed anti-Muslim propaganda online by non-violent far-right groups.
Shifting the focus from tackling the message carriers to the messages themselves implies recognising the dangers of extremism, in both its violent and non-violent forms. Our work at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has showcased that although there is no inevitable conveyor belt between non-violent and violent extremism, there is a clear overlap in their ideology. Policymakers should therefore bear in mind the importance of ideology when implementing measures to tackle violent extremism.
The government needs to create space and support for civil society to respond to extremism, as prioritising police-led strategies is likely to be perceived as facilitating a climate of excessive securitisation. After the Manchester terror attack in 2017, the government established the Commission for Countering Extremism to understand the extent and the impact of the threat posed by Islamist and far-right extremism. This is a welcome first step in addressing the pervasive effects of extremism on social cohesion.
Civil society organisations can continue to build on this work by liaising with local and legitimate mentors that can help tailor initiatives to reach those who are most inaccessible. Initiatives that do not directly engage with the population at risk through a counter-extremism lens, such as sports community groups, can also be a step in the right direction to promote cohesion and tackle the segregating aspect of extremism.
Both Islamist-inspired and far-right groups rely heavily on anti-establishment conspiracies and distorted facts to push their agendas. Education programmes that equip students with the ability to spot and debunk fake news would contribute to erasing some of the power of these conspiracy-fuelled extremist narratives. To this end, initiatives that promote critical thinking should be developed. Our Institute’s education programme Generation Global aims to promote open mindedness by connecting students from over 20 countries to engage in dialogue about issues of culture, identity, beliefs, values, and attitudes.
Extremism fuels division within societies and risks alienating huge swathes of the population. Dangerous radicalisers like Choudary who promote these ideologies need to be contained, but efforts at fostering a more inclusive and resilient society should start by investing on future generations to deny a fertile ground for these ideologies to flourish in the first place.
Cristina Ariza is a research analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. You can read more of her work here
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