Leading article: A smart and tough approach to Islamist extremism

The Government is right to take on the unrepresentative minority

Wednesday 25 March 2009 01:00

The Government unveiled a new strategy yesterday designed to curb domestic Islamist radicalisation. A rethink was certainly in order. The suspension earlier this week of official ties with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) was a vivid demonstration of the shortcomings of the previous strategy.

In the wake of the London bombings of July 2005, the Government invited the MCB to Downing Street for discussions on how to respond to the growth of extremism among young British Muslims. Public money was channelled to the organisation to help it turn the young away from terror. But it turned out that, despite its name, the MCB was not actually representative of British Muslims, and it had little clout with those individuals the Government needed to influence.

The problem is that British Muslims are a diverse and fragmented community. Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Somalis, Iraqis and Nigerians living in Britain all have different cultures, outlooks and economic circumstances. The lesson is that it would be better for the Government to decentralise its approach to dealing with British Muslims, rather than trying to communicate through a single umbrella organisation of doubtful authority such as the MCB. It is unclear from yesterday's strategy document whether this lesson has been fully taken on board.

The new strategy is right, however, to advocate a verbal confrontation with those activists and preachers who advocate cultural separatism and intolerance. In the wake of the London attacks, there was some confusion about the nature of British Islam. There was uncertainty among the broader public and policymakers about how deep the roots of extremism went.

Now, thankfully, we have a much clearer view. The overwhelming majority of British Muslims are productive members of society. They reject religious extremism and are appalled by the use of their religion to justify acts of terrorism.

But there is a hardcore and vocal element in the Muslim community which has a divisive agenda and which, though it does not practise violence itself, swims in the same ideological waters as those who do. This group does grievous damage to community relations through their stunts, such as the disgraceful picketing of the Royal Anglian Regiment's homecoming parade in Luton earlier this month. These are the individuals the Government, and indeed all of us, ought to challenge and isolate. They should invite the same sort of rebuttal and public censure as the racist far right presently receives.

More broadly, any successful strategy for curbing extremism has to involve the school system. Children coming to Britain from abroad need to be instructed in the values and culture of their host nation. Indeed, all children, not just the foreign-born, would benefit from such an emphasis on the system of toleration and mutual respect that we have built in Britain.

Dealing with ideological extremism is inescapably difficult for the authorities. The task involves treading a perilously fine line between respecting everyone's right to free speech and arresting those whose activities tip over to incitement. Wrong decisions can easily inflame matters.

But the heartening news is that by standing up for the principles of moderation, and robustly isolating the preachers of intolerance, the Government will be going with the grain of majority British Muslim opinion. The battle against radicalisation is one that can – and must – be won.

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