Too often, programmes that aim to promote a more tolerant, liberal form of Islam lack purchase in Muslim communities. Tony Blair’s latest project seems to fall into this category.
It aims to counter violent extremism, but includes just four members with Islamic heritage on a panel of 24, and only one who lives outside the West. During the panel’s launch, a US State Department official said, addressing Mr Blair: “You yourself noted that this was largely a struggle within Islam … If they’re the target audience … it seems to me half the commission should be Muslim.”
Mr Blair struggled to answer. And there is little that can be said in his defence. The Muslim community does not lack voices in favour of reform: Mr Blair could have leafed through the pages of Critical Muslim, a British journal, to find any number. It is imperative to highlight voices who share the Islamic faith of the people they are speaking to, rather than treat it as an inescapable part of the problem, to be rolled back where possible.
That is not an indulgence of radical Islam, but a more effective way to undermine its messengers. A public figure respected by the regulars at Birmingham Central Mosque, or even heard by those who pray at the Dome of the Rock, will do more good than one who – however much the non-Muslim world may admire them – has few bridges into these demographics.
The business is a finely balanced one. It is also true that conservative Muslim groups, such as Cage, exaggerate the oppressiveness of counter-extremism projects, trying to win support by claiming – spuriously – that they are fundamentally Islamophobic.
There is, of course, a simple way for governments and think-tanks to block off such criticism. Seek out, support and hire people who have conspicuous roots in the places their projects aim to reach.
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