Promoting a social response to radicalisation

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Julie Ward
Julie Ward

Member of the European Parliament

Last summer, at the height of the onslaught against Gaza, I recall a charged meeting with a group of young Muslim constituents whose sense of frustration and powerlessness led them to threaten arson and other forms of civil unrest if we, the elected representatives, did not act.

That experience clearly shows how problems in other parts of the world affect us all, making it essential that we take a pro-active global view on radicalisation.  The goal should be to build a more secure future for everyone, sharing resources, ideas and learning; meeting the threat of violence with dialogue; being brave enough to engage with the issues.

The terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen this year have raised profound questions. Although most terrorist incidents in Europe are not jihadist and the majority of jihadist terrorists have criminal records or suffered from mental illness, there remains a central concern: why do violent extremist ideas hold any appeal for European youths and how do we respond?

The answer to radicalisation is to encourage social inclusion and tolerance

The dilemmas of how to deal with terrorism and jihadist radicalisation in Europe test our fundamental values. The answers that we, as European citizens and decision-makers, provide will come to define us.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic compromised human rights and made rash, sometimes grotesque, declarations about who was “with us” or “against us”. We now understand, or at least should understand, that in order to defend our values we must stick by them. The answer to radicalisation is to encourage social inclusion and tolerance, greater civic engagement and democratic participation, and increased investment in education and jobs, particularly in marginalised communities. This robust and self-assured multiculturalism offers a vision of hope and opportunity able to tackle the root causes of radicalisation. Progressives in Europe must shape this debate to stem the rise of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and knee-jerk policy reactions that undermine human rights.

Three key areas need special attention. First, we must be sensitive in defining jihadism and radicalisation, to avoid painting identities and communities as monolithic. Second, education policies should emphasise inclusion and platforms must be provided for voices in Muslim communities that offer progressive and humanist narratives. Third, there must be engagement with the authorities, civil society and human rights activists from Muslim-majority countries where jihadist organisations operate.

Fortunately, these elements were all present to varying degrees in statements made by European institutions following the Paris attacks. Conclusions from the European Council and the Council of Ministers focused on promoting community dialogue and educational initiatives – the European Parliament’s Resolution on Anti-Terrorism Measures elaborates on these points at some length. Yet although there seems to be a conviction that inclusivity, democratic participation and dialogue must be promoted, more work is needed to ensure these ideas are implemented.

The European Union has always excelled at creating networks for exchanging best practice. The Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) was launched by the Commission in 2011 as a European platform to facilitate the work of “first line local practitioners”, combating radicalisation in communities. However, RAN is part of the EU’s counter-terrorism programme PREVENT, which has been criticised by some on the left for providing vague definitions of extremism, and inaccurate interpretations of Sharia law and jihad that tarnish peaceful devout Muslims. This has contributed to the lack of trust between authorities and certain Muslim communities.

extremism is not a Muslim problem, but can afflict any religious group

RAN must encourage civil society organisations to focus on empowering activists, scholars and community leaders who provide humanist visions of Islam, and engage in inter-faith dialogue and gender empowerment. In my region, that includes the Manchester Muslim Jewish Forum and the Christian Muslim Encounters research project at Lancaster University.

Community engagement must lead to meaningful democratic participation with local and national institutions, from getting citizens out to vote to encouraging greater public debate by young people. There should be more citizenship and political education programmes, such as those developed by Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND) in the UK during the run up to last year’s European elections. At the same time, cases of people turning to violent jihadism after a history of mental illness show differentiated care and rehabilitation services should be made available.

It is also important to remember that extremism is not a Muslim problem, but can afflict any religious group. The continuation of the Ku Klux Klan is just one example, with its message of “hope and deliverance to white Christian America”.  The fundamentalism practised by the Iranian regime, Al Qaeda and Islamic State abhors the modern age, with its freedom for women and young people. In doing so, it creates fear and oppression, restricting civil society and the media, introducing cruel Medieval punishments.

Education is key to countering extremism. Although the EU’s competences in this field are limited, the Commission should issue Country Specific Recommendations on inclusion of marginalised communities, citizenship education and inter-faith dialogue. Higher education must be more accessible, particularly for marginalised groups. Vocational training and apprenticeship programmes may provide social and economic opportunities in marginalised communities.

It is up to decision-makers and citizens to promote a progressive and inclusive Europe

Cooperation and exchange with countries in the Middle East and North Africa region   are key EU policy goals. They should not only provide support for those countries’ fight against extremism, but also introduce more voices into the European debate. As the Commission reviews its European Neighbourhood Policy programmes, it must provide for civil society and academic exchanges between the EU and MENA countries to emphasise support for human rights, democracy, gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. This will bring about the gradual overhaul of patriarchal power structures that make fighting extremism all the more difficult. Exchanges between European and MENA academics and activists can greatly enrich the debate.

Faced with both jihadist extremism and rising Islamophobic nationalism, it is up to decision-makers and citizens to promote a progressive and inclusive Europe, strong in its diversity, tolerance and multiculturalism. By stimulating citizen participation, investing in inclusive education and promoting open exchange with our neighbours, we can challenge the politics of fear and offer instead a politics of compassion and understanding. We would all be wiser and safer for it.

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