Interfaith to “Prevent” Radicalization

By   /  23 February 2018   

Violent extremism, and the radicalization of young British men and women, has become a central concern for the UK over the last decade. To tackle this issue, a government program of counter-measures named “Prevent” began to be implemented. While it was first introduced in 2003, “Prevent” remained unknown to the public for a number of years. Following the 2005 terrorist attacks in London, the scope and funding of the program increased dramatically.

“Prevent” attempts to encourage religious leaders, social workers, teachers, and other members of the community to report suspicious behaviors suggesting that someone has been or could be radicalized. This approach raised concerns among some sectors of the public opinion. For instance, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) warned of the dangers of typecasting groups or individuals due to the damage that it may cause to community cohesion. MCB also noted that “Prevent” might encourage Muslim youth in particular to be “viewed through the lens of security”.

On the other hand, the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based think tank, argued that “the vast majority of British Muslims favours state interventions against extremism in the shape of the Prevent strategy”. While recognizing the need for reform of certain aspects, such as the adaptability to new modernized terrorist recruitment strategies, Quilliam claims that “Prevent” should be perceived as “neither anti-Muslim, nor a failure”.

In fact, the strategy is intended to target all forms of radicalization, including that from far-right groups, who have been held responsible for a number of recent hate crimes in the UK. At the same time, to challenge the notion that “Prevent” attempts to spy on communities or individuals, the government should provide more information as to how the strategy is enacted on the streets of Britain. There should also be increased clarity as to the indicators of potential radicalization, so that citizens can become more aware of at risk individuals and of the options they have when deciding to report suspicious behavior.

Another way to improve the effectiveness of the government approach to “Prevent” violent extremism, is to deploy interreligious dialogue as a practical instrument to advance integration and harmonious coexistence in British society.

Interfaith is not new in the UK. Organizations such as The World Congress of Faiths have been actively encouraging interreligious dialogue for over fifty years, in order to quell prejudices and abuse leveled against religious minorities. This is no surprise given that the rise and fall of the British Empire resulted in a vast number of diverse religious communities making the UK their home.

More recently, given the continued threat of radicalization, there has been heightened interest in promoting interreligious dialogue at the civil society level. For example, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, the UK government body tasked with dealing with community cohesion, has backed a series of programs aimed at developing interfaith organizations across the country. However, these programs fail to target those members of the community that do not voluntarily sign up to attend interreligious events. In addition, poor attention is being devoted to the youth, as it remains the case that many young people in the UK grow into adulthood without seriously interacting with anyone of a different religion or belief.

If interfaith is to be successful in the UK and beyond, a long-term policy based on interreligious education and activities for the new generation needs to carried out, especially on campuses. Indeed, the radicalization to extremist ideologies and groups often takes place during the university years. The introduction of interreligious studies as a mandatory discipline, along with mandatory interfaith engagement, would greatly contribute to challenging prejudices and misconceptions between religious communities that are often at odds with each other. It would help combat Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and religious hate crimes, which saw an increase of 35% from the 2015/16 to the 2016/17 period, according to statistics from the UK Home Office.

In this context, interfaith workshops and groups should not solely focus on the differences and similarities between the three Abrahamic faiths or on fasting practices or biblical exegesis. Sensitive social, cultural, and political issues that may be the cause of rifts and tensions must also be tackled, including major international issues such as the sectarian infighting within Islam, the predicament of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, as well as the Israel-Palestine conflict. Young people would be endowed with a proper space for voicing their ideas and concerns, internalizing a culture of dialogue to settle differences.

The benefits of placing interreligious education and activities alongside the core requirements for any student at a UK university would be far-reaching, resulting in a significant shift in attitude for many young people living in Britain today. It would allow the forming of a new generation of scholars, experts, and activists able to operate constructively in cross-religious and cross-cultural environments, and who are willfully engaged in promoting peaceful co-existence. Interfaith thus holds the potential to function as a major asset for the British government in the framework of its efforts to counter violent extremism and radicalization.

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