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Tackling Extremism Amongst Muslims While Respecting Freedom of Religion

Holding extreme religious views is harmful in itself. It also makes it more likely that the holder or others influenced by him will become terrorists. Extremism can be addressed without infringing freedom of religious belief, and some concrete proposals are set out.


14 April 2016

Bright Blue is an independent think tank and pressure group for liberal conservatism.

Although it was formed in 2010, I only became aware of it relatively recently, when they asked if I would be interested in contributing to a forthcoming essay collection "Conservatism and human rights." I suspect they may have approached me as a result of my piece "The European Convention on Human Rights – Should the UK stay or leave?"

I was asked to write 1,000 - 1,500 words on "Tackling Islamic extremism without being Islamophobic." As I don't consider extremism to be Islamic, and avoid the word Islamophobia, I agreed a revised title "Tackling Extremism Amongst Muslims While Respecting Freedom of Religion."

Eventually my contribution was not included in the booklet, as they had different religion related piece, "Re-finding faith" by the journalist Timothy Stanley.

Bright Blue later asked me if they could publish an abridged version of my contribution on their website. It was published on 7 April 2016 as "Integrating Britain: Supporting British Muslims and tackling extremism." My full text original below.

Tackling Extremism Amongst Muslims While Respecting Freedom of Religion

Mohammed Amin is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum and a Patron of Curriculum for Cohesion. He is writing in a personal capacity.

The terrorists who carried out the 7 July 2005 London bombings, who killed Drummer Lee Rigby, who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and who rampaged through Paris in November 2015 had something essential in common, apart from being Muslims.

All of them believed that what they were doing met with God’s approval. That is clear from the London bombers’ suicide videos. It is also obvious from a moment’s reflection, since people who believe in God don’t do things which they expect will cause them to be sentenced to Hell for all eternity.

Some terrorists die in action. However, others survive and can be interrogated after arrest, and of course the views of many would-be terrorists emerge during their trials. There is a relatively consistent set of beliefs (space does not allow detailed coverage) which mark them out as religious extremists. Obviously other parts of their religious beliefs are shared by most Muslims, including the writer: e.g. Muslims should not gamble or drink alcohol because God does not want us to.

As a rule of thumb, Muslims can be trisected:

(1) Mainstream Muslims (the overwhelming majority)

An adjective is needed, although “mainstream” seems vague. The writer avoids the commonly used adjective “moderate” since it wrongly implies that such people are somehow “less Muslim” than the categories below. The writer considers that for people in this category, their religious beliefs normally enhance their lives and also make them into better citizens.

(2) Non-violent extremists

The world view of some in this category can be very similar to that of the terrorists below. However, they are not engaged in terrorism and currently have no plans to be so engaged. Others have similar but less extreme beliefs. At the margins it can be hard to distinguish some in this category from some in the previous category who are simply very religiously conservative.

(3) Terrorists, either already active or would-be terrorists

Their activities are criminal. Very few fall into this category, but even those few are very dangerous. Our law enforcement authorities need every assistance in identifying and arresting them.

Dr Matthew LN Wilkinson of the SOAS research programme Curriculum for Cohesion is writing an entire book about these categorisations with the working title “Distinguishing between Islam, Islamism and Violent Extremism: a philosophical-legal guide.”

Why is non-violent extremism a problem?

Some non-violent extremists will change their intentions and go on to become terrorists, posing a risk to others. Tragically they will also be wasting their own lives.

Those who simply remain as non-violent extremists still contribute to an environment which facilitates other impressionable young people acquiring the beliefs, both religious and political, that terrorists hold.

Quite apart from the implications for terrorism, holding extremist views is self-limiting, and not conducive to living a happy successful life in Britain. If you believe non-Muslim friends are prohibited, that most other Muslims are deficient in their religious practice, that careers do not matter, that our society is wholly corrupt, then you are not going to have much of a life or many friends outside your extremist bubble.

Non-violent extremists may also violate the rights of others.

Our society recognises that children have rights, which can be enforced by the state even against the wishes of their parents. E.g. the right to medical treatment even if the parent wishes to deny it. The state protects children from physical abuse by their parents, if it becomes known, and sometimes permanently removes children from harming parents. Many, including the writer, consider that indoctrinating your child with extremist views is a form of child abuse meriting state intervention if identified. While proof can be difficult, we should not shy away from the principle that children have the right to be brought up without being so indoctrinated.

Similarly, school pupils below the age of 18 have the clear right not to be indoctrinated. This means that non-violent extremists have no place as school teachers or governors. The same principle should apply to young adults in educational institutions. Accordingly, the writer welcomed the public sector Prevent duty contained in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 section 26.

What, concretely, can we do?

The key issue is that it is not illegal to hold extreme views. Nor should it be. Our country stopped criminalising the holding of views around the time that we stopped burning Roman Catholics at the stake.

Accordingly, we should avoid the McCarthyite approach of seeking to pre-emptively identify people who hold extreme views. Quite apart from the human rights aspects, little would actually be achieved by producing a beliefs checklist to be signed before being hired as a teacher.

However, teachers who behave inappropriately should be sanctioned under a proper disciplinary procedure with an appeals system. Just that is happening after the Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham, with teachers being “struck off” from the teaching register for their improper conduct at those schools.

The Department for Education has set out in its model funding agreement for academies the requirement below:

2.47.       The Academy Trust must ensure the Academy actively promotes the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. [September 2015 version]

This is very welcome and teaching pupils to reject such values would clearly be improper conduct. However, the writer has explained why calling them “British values” is counter-productive.

Schools could also do much more to teach all pupils, including Muslims, how to think constructively about the role of religion in modern life, and how one can live as a religious person in Britain.

When it comes to universities, under CTSA 2015 s.31(2)(a) when carrying out its Prevent duty the university “must have particular regard to the duty to ensure freedom of speech.” This illustrates how Parliament protects our rights. Consequently, while the Government was originally minded to ban extremist speakers from universities, its formal guidance to universities now states in paragraph 11:

Furthermore, when deciding whether or not to host a particular speaker, RHEBs [Relevant Higher Education Bodies] should consider carefully whether the views… likely to be expressed, constitute extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism…. In these circumstances the event should not be allowed to proceed except where RHEBs are entirely convinced that such risk can be fully mitigated…. This includes ensuring that, where any event is being allowed to proceed, speakers with extremist views that could draw people into terrorism are challenged with opposing views as part of that same event, rather than in a separate forum. Where RHEBs are in any doubt that the risk cannot be fully mitigated they should exercise caution and not allow the event to proceed.

However, the Government needs to do more to help universities to identify extremist speakers. In 2013 the writer proposed setting up a Government register of hate preachers (with appropriate safeguards) to enable universities and other institutions to know who to worry about.

The Government should publish detailed case histories of convicted terrorists, setting out how they were radicalised, and explaining in detail the extreme views they hold. This would help to counter those who contend that there is no such thing as radicalisation, and that terrorists are solely motivated by their political views about British foreign policy. (See "Terrorism by Muslims and two opposing denials.")

Respecting freedom of religion

The essential need to respect freedom of religion can be illustrated with a specific example.

Many years ago, Parliament decriminalised adultery. However, most Jews, Christians and Muslims, including the writer, believe that adultery is a sin; an activity that God has prohibited. All who commit sin risk punishment by God in the afterlife.

Religious people have the right to hold this belief, and to propagate it, even if it upsets people who are committing adultery. For the law to prohibit the preaching of such beliefs would be an unacceptable infringement of freedom of religion. That is how “extreme secularists” become oppressors of the moderately religious.

The state should never criminalise people for preaching what God might do to punish any sinners in the afterlife, or indeed for preaching that God may directly punish sinners in this life.

The dividing line comes when someone proposes that humans punish sinners on God’s behalf in cases where the sinful conduct is permitted by UK law. Proposing that may be a sign of non-violent extremism. Attempting to carry out such punishment as a vigilante is clearly a crime.


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