Breda O’Brien: Countering extremism requires new responses

Religious literacy and willingness to have difficult conversations would be a start

A  Muslim woman holds a placard near the scene of the recent attack at London Bridge and Borough Market in London. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

A Muslim woman holds a placard near the scene of the recent attack at London Bridge and Borough Market in London. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

 

The appalling violence of the London Bridge attacks has led to Theresa May stating: “Enough is enough.” However, it is far from clear that two of the areas that she focused on in the wake of the attacks are going to be successful responses to violent extremism.

She promised to create international agreements to regulate cyber-space and also to promote pluralistic British values as a counter to the preachers of hate.

However, neither approach is likely to be successful. For example, there have already been efforts to tackle extremist online activity.

By July 2016, the Europol’s internet referral unit had removed 8,949 pieces of jihadist content from the internet, compared with just 511 in the previous year. Earlier the same year, Twitter announced it had suspended 125,000 accounts “for threatening or promoting terrorist acts”.

In response to these actions, those promoting violent extremism simply move platform, from Twitter to Telegram, for example, and then retreat further into the darker areas of the internet.

Sometimes the rule of law can be profoundly unjust and therefore unacceptable to a religious person

While the echo-chamber effect of social media is troubling for many reasons, experts disagree about the importance of online radicalisation, saying exposure to charismatic leaders in the real world is just as important.

More importantly, there is no consensus about what constitutes radicalisation in the first place, with some people defining it as willingness to promote or take part in violent acts, and others defining it much more widely.

Religious illiteracy

Archbishop Justin Welby, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested last November that religious illiteracy was hampering Whitehall’s attempts to identify real extremism.

It had become clear to him that that an unnamed “very senior politician” had no understanding of what motivates religious people, even moderate ones.

He described a conversation with this politician, who was defensive about the government’s drive to promote British values. The politician’s definition of an extremist was someone who says that her or his faith is more important than the rule of law.

Welby said he took a deep breath and said: “Well, you’ve got a real problem here, because for me personally my faith is more important than the rule of law, so you’ve got an extremist sitting in here with you.”

The politician’s viewpoint did not take into account that sometimes the rule of law can be profoundly unjust and therefore unacceptable to a religious person.

For example, Rev Martin Luther King, who was motivated primarily by his Christian faith and mobilised Christian church networks to combat institutional racism, was described by powerful people as an extremist.

J Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s first director, called him “the most notorious liar in the country” and Alabama clergy denounced him as an extremist inciter of hatred and violence.  King, was, of course, a pacifist who abhorred violence of every kind, but that did not prevent him ending up in jail.

There is obviously no comparison between the jihadist ideology and that of King, but the senior British politician’s definition of extremism would have encompassed both.

The “religious illiteracy” Welby referred to means some political and media analysts see the problem of violent extremism only as a political and economic phenomenon.

This insensitivity to religion means moderate Muslims often feel that pluralistic British values actively exclude them. So the very people who can play a vital role in identifying extremists in their own communities feel less than valued by mainstream British society.

Difficult conversations

May’s focus on “difficult and embarrassing conversations” might hold more promise. Living together in a modern society demands that difficult conversations be had about values.

Take something as simple as a handshake. Many Muslims do not shake hands with unrelated members of the opposite sex.

Is this a cultural difference of no particular significance, or does it signal far more profound value differences?

Regarding Islamist jihadism as a refuge only for the socially disconnected is a dangerous mistake

For fear of seeming Islamophobic, Britain and other European countries are dancing around these questions, but if people are to live side by side, ignoring these questions is counterproductive.

Far more seriously, in 2014, a complex mixture of misogyny, institutional apathy and political correctness led to the Labour-dominated Rotherham council ignoring for years systematic targeting of young girls for sexual exploitation, because most of the perpetrators were of Pakistani Muslim origin.

It led to more than 1,400 young girls’ lives being blighted.

Mainstream Muslims in Britain are as strongly against both sexual exploitation and Islamist violence as secularists and Christians are.

However, regarding Islamist jihadism as a refuge only for the socially disconnected and discontented is a dangerous mistake. It is an apocalyptic religious cult and its particular brand of Salafist Sunni Islam appeals to idealists, and not just the troubled.

It is a dangerous and fanatical worldview. There is no magic bullet to tackling its influence, because even though only a tiny minority adhere to its beliefs, the damage that they can do is enormous.

However, a degree of religious literacy, and the willingness to have difficult conversations around values would be a good place to start.

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