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How do we prevent radicalisation? by Colin Chapman

How do we prevent radicalisation? by Colin Chapman

Introduction - Nick Spencer, Research Director, Theos

Three conversations in three weeks, each with people at different – very different – points of this spectrum, each putting to me the same question: “Why hasn’t Theos done anything on Islamic radicalisation?”

And each time the same response, or at least a version of it. “Two reasons really: first, we don’t have particular expertise or new research on the topic, and second, we don’t have anything particularly new or different to say on it.”

Now, before some wag leaps in and says that that’s never stopped us before – I’m way ahead of you – I think those reasons are good and proper. Public leaders often need to make a statement because a statement needs to be made. So do some commentators, even when it doesn’t need to be made by them. But think tanks don’t.

And yet, of course, the question of radicalisation touches on so many issues about which Theos has done work over the years. Where are the fault lines in religious and political identities? How do we negotiate deep (religious) differences within communities?  Is multiculturalism dead? How far can and should politicians inform national values? How do we think about and negotiate religious freedom? Are religious education and ‘faith schools’ part of the problem or part of the solution? And, of course, how should we ‘do God’ today? Given all this, we could not not engage in the debate.

We have, but in a way that we sometimes prefer when the issue is complex, contentious and open to a range of interpretations from people of good faith (as we did here). Over the years our work here has brought us into contact with a wide range of people who do work in this area – historians and theologians, politicians and pastors, academics and yes, ‘think tankers’ (surely there is a better noun?). We have invited them to answer the question, and would like you to engage in the debate. Contributors include Colin Chapman, Tom Holland, Dilwar Hussain (New Horizons in British Islam), Emily Dyer (Henry Jackson Society), Louis Reynolds (Demos), Sean Oliver Dee, Shenaz Bunglawala (Mend) and others.

The contributors come from a variety of positions. Some agree (in part) with one another, some disagree, some disagree strongly, but all come at the question with considerable and thoughtful experience and sophistication. Our hope is that as the blogs that are posted here over the next week or so, you will read, tweet, like, engage, agree and disagree, and that by the end you will at least feel better informed. 

Our opening blog, from theologian Colin Chapman, is below.


How do we prevent radicalisation? 

Radicalisation is one of the pressing issues of our time, and as a former lecturer in Islamic studies in Beirut, it is something that I have thought about deeply. For my contribution to this Theos series on radicalisation, I would like to present my thoughts on preventing this coming about. Assuming that we’re not talking about Islamists who reject the use of violence and are committed to work through democratic processes to create a more just Islamic society, but about Islamists who turn to violence, this would by my 10-point plan:

1. Recognise the many different faces of Islam. While some Muslims are highly political, many are pietistic and even mystical, and others live in the world of Folk Islam or Rural Islam. Some Muslims embrace modernity, while others want to conserve the past with all its values and social customs (including its views of women). If there is violent and non-violent Islamism, there is also what has been called “post-Islamism” which incorporates democracy and pluralism into Islamism . Islam has as many faces as Christianity, and the vast majority of Muslims who are as critical of violent jihadis as all of us are should be encouraged to make their voices heard.

2. Understand more about Islam and encourage Muslims to be more self-critical about their history. In what is known as the Hijra, in 622AD Muhammad moved from Mecca to create the first Islamic state in Medina. Three of the first caliphs died violent deaths. By 732AD, Arab Muslims had created an empire stretching from France and Spain to the borders of China. Later they had their Safavid, Mughal and Ottoman empires. If we in the West have had to agonise over the Crusades, the slave trade and imperialism, are Muslims prepared to be as self-critical about their history? Of all the different brands of Islamism on offer in Muslim-majority countries today, has any succeeded in creating a truly just society?

3. Understand the importance of social and political issues. It’s been a basic conviction of Muslims that the state should ideally be Islamic and follow God-given shari‘a. The theologian Lesslie Newbigin often pointed out how the western secular mind-set had privatised religion and therefore found it difficult to cope with Muslims who want God to be recognised in the public sphere. Christians have a special responsibility to be bridge-builders because they should be able to understand both the secular and the Muslim mind.

4. Address local social and economic issues. ‘I’m not afraid of Islam,’ says Philip Lewis, a Christian expert on Islam in Britain, ‘but I am afraid of thousands of poorly educated young Muslim men who have no work.’ Poverty, unemployment and poor prospects don’t explain everything; but they are major factors in creating the discontent, which can lead to radicalisation.

5. Understand the anger of many Muslims. After 9/11, instead of asking ‘Why are these people so angry and do they have good reason to be angry?’, Americans put all their energies into ‘the war on terror’. The Muslim world is still living with what they have felt as the trauma of centuries of western imperialism, and their list of current grievances includes Israel/Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya and the Iraq war of 2003. The best way to respond to anger from others is first to put ourselves in their shoes and understand why they’re angry. We can challenge them if we feel their anger is unjustified. But at the very least we should be willing to see ourselves as others see us and own up to what we’ve done to provoke them.

6. Press for a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Why is it that Israel has been allowed by the international community to continue its occupation of the West Bank, which most of the world believes is illegal in international law? If a lasting solution to this conflict could be worked out, Muslims would have one less reason to be angry.

7. Press Muslims to explain why they believe the jihadi interpretations are wrong. When jihadis feel that the West has been making war on Islam, they inevitably identify with Muhammad who was under attack from the Meccans, and then apply to themselves the more warlike verses in the Qur’an. It’s not enough for Muslim leaders to repeat the mantra ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ or to say that qur’anic verses are being taken out of context. There are some hard questions that they need to answer about their scriptural sources and their history.

8. Recognise the negative consequences of multiculturalism. Sometimes it looks as if ethnic communities have been encouraged to remain closed and self-contained, while governments have channelled resources through Muslim organisations. In an effort to affirm different ethnic and religious communities, these approaches have often led to separation more than integration.

9. Encourage public debate between different kinds of Muslims. I would love to see a debate/discussion on TV between a thoughtful jihadi (yes – there must be some!) and a Muslim who can give good Islamic reasons for saying that the jihadi interpretations are wrong. It could be important for young Muslims who are drawn towards radicalisation to learn from the experience of Muslims who have become disillusioned with their jihadi  world-view.

10. Encourage Muslims to engage with other faith communities. When I used to take theological students to visit a mosque in Bristol and asked if a group of Muslims would like to visit our college, these were some of the responses I received from the leaders there: ‘We’re not experts in Islam and are too busy looking after our own community. And since we believe that Islam is the true religion, what would be have to learn from talking to Christians?’ If these attitudes are shared by ordinary Muslims, anything that helps Muslims to engage with the wider community – and especially with people of faith – will help Muslims to talk seriously with non-Muslims. If young men drawn to jihadi violence are genuinely concerned about creating a just society, they may find that there are others around them who have a similar passion, and that Christians in particular have a vision of what the kingdom of God might look like in Britain.

NB All of the above need to be attempted in one way or another!

Colin Chapman was lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon, until 2003. He has also taught at Trinity College, Bristol, and was Principal of Crowther Hall, the CMS Training College in the Selly Oak Colleges. He is the author of 'Cross and Crescent: Responding to the Challenges of Islam' (IVP), '"Islamic Terrorism": Is There a Christian Response?' (Grove), 'Whose Promised Land?' and 'Whose Holy City: Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict' (Lion). He is now enjoying semi-retirement in Cambridge.

Image by Wikimedia available in the public domain.


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