As news of the brutal beheading of James Foley made its way through social media late on Tuesday night, the initial reaction of many would have been that the reports were a hoax. However, Phillip Hammond’s interview on the Today programme the following morning discussing the video, making the point that the axe-man was likely to be a British citizen, confirmed the unfortunate reality and seriousness of the issue. Within hours, Barack Obama was making statements to the World condemning the act, whilst David Cameron curtailed his family holiday to hold emergency meetings about the situation in Iraq and Syria.
News reports suggest that IS are a brutal and ruthless outfit, and finding the solution to curbing their progress is certainly not a simple task. If you ignore them they will continue their brutality; attack them and you run the risk creating more even hatred, with the possibility of blow-back attacks at home. Arm local forces to counter them today, and tomorrow those once-upon-a-time allies may well become the terrorists who threaten you.
Whilst the nuances of the political situation in the Levant are important to understand in order to find a workable solution to arrest the spread of IS, the biggest concern for us as British citizens is the question of how the rise of IS is likely to affect us. David Cameron has already warned us about the realistic threat of IS inspired attacks on British soil, a threat which has also been confirmed by a former head of MI6. Naturally such statements leave the lay citizen with more questions than answers. How realistic is this threat? Would the likelihood of this threat increase with military involvement? Is this threat being overplayed to provide an excuse to preserve Western oil interests in the Kurdistan region?
Another important question that needs answering is how could an individual who seems to have been a British citizen conduct such a barbaric act? In attempting to answer this question, discussions around the prevalence of religious extremism and curbing it are likely to resurface once again. So for Muslims living in Britain, alongside living with the threat of a terrorist attack on their home soil, they also have the added anguish of increased media scrutiny (could it really increase any further?) and the prospect of hard-hitting Government legislation, which is likely to affect them first and foremost.
Church leaders have also expressed concern that the British government doesn’t seem to have a ‘coherent’ response to tackling extremism, and clearly questions need to be asked of the true efficacy of controversial measures such as ‘Prevent’; after all if individuals continue to be inspired by the likes of IS, then they have done little to ‘Prevent’ religious extremism.
One of the fundamental flaws in the Government’s Prevent strategy is that they have failed to engage meaningfully with the multitude of voices within the Muslim community. To many, it seems as if the Government is only keen to listen to those voices that agree with their preconceived ideas about Muslims, in order to give their ideas legitimacy, such as the infamous ‘conveyor belt theory’. The resulting effect of such collaborative efforts is a strategy in which tackling religious extremism coalesces with counter-terrorism policies, resulting in British Muslims feeling like a suspect community and perhaps even resenting the Government. Given this to be the case, could it possibly be that Government policies have fuelled radicalisation amongst Muslims, a theme which was explored in the award winning docufilm Britz?
The Government needs to take a more measured approach in tackling the idea of ‘Islamic extremism’. Indeed, the key step would be to try and construct a definition for the term ‘Islamic extremism’, by consulting Muslims to define this ambiguous term. For example, one of the fundamental aspects of defining ‘extremism’ is to clearly demarcate it from religious conservatism. Moreover, the government also needs to attain a more nuanced understanding of the make-up of Muslim communities in Britain, in order to engage and empower them to tackle the issues within the community to prevent individuals going towards the fringes of extremism. All this of course may require the government to work with individuals and organisations who hold views that government might not necessarily agree with, but the overall goal is one that is shared – to facilitate a British Muslim community that is proud of its identity and positively contributes to society, whilst maintaining the freedom to practice its faith.
Of course, there is a point of reflection here for Muslims as well. In order for them to be taken as serious voices by policy makers, they need to become more mature in their approach. Muslim scholars and thinkers need to put their scholastic tools to work to be able to provide robust, faith-based solutions to the numerous issues we face, which take into account the sociopolitical situation we live in. For example, debates and discussion on what constitutes extremism need to take place in house; after all how can we expect Government to listen to our ideas on these terms if we are unsure of them ourselves? Moreover, if Muslims continue to ignore discussing these issues in a meaningful manner and disseminate their views to policy makers, academics and the wider public, then they will continue to be sidelined in these matters.
Although it is likely that such an approach would yield meaningful results, perhaps they are somewhat idealistic. However, if the government do not use this opportunity to architect a paradigm shift in their challenge against extremism at home (or worse, they bring in even more draconian policies), it will indeed be an opportunity gone to waste, and one which may ultimately lead to more harm than good.