The head of a leading NGO says that social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook can help “challenge extremist rhetoric” and combat the radicalisation of young Muslims. Speaking in Brussels on Wednesday, Tehmina Kazi, director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy and a Fellow of the European Foundation for Democracy, said that it is not just extremist rhetoric that needs to be challenged effectively on social media, saying that “fundamentalist rhetoric should be as well.”
Kazi was one of the keynote speakers at a policy dialogue organised by European Foundation for Democracy, a Brussels-based policy institute, and the European Policy Centre think tank.
The debate was timely, coming in the wake of recent deadly Islamic attacks in France, Kuwait and Tunisia and the also the murderous attack on a Baptist church in South Carolina.
Kazi shared her experiences of working closely with Muslim communities, especially in the UK where she cites the example of the group “Inspire” which has equipped Muslim women with the skills to “just say No” to extremism, bigotry and patriarchy “in all its forms.”
She added, “They have made good use of social media by creating peer-led ‘talking heads’ videos to discourage women and men from joing Islamic State. These were widely shared on Facebook.”
Kazi also said that in order to “make sense of the confusing and often competing facets of reality before them” young people must be trained in “logic, argument, reason and the ability to weigh up different truth claims.”
She went on, “To this end, I would support specialised ‘critical thinking’ e-learning programmes for 16 to 21-year-olds.”
She added that there were too many conservative Muslim voices teaching in schools and universities. She said that there was not a lot of courage among leftist movements to counter the discourse of extremist religious groups. Fundamentalist rhetoric should also be challenged, she says, and one example is the petition last year calling for the removal of Maajid Nawaz as a prospective Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for tweeting an innocuous Jesus and Mo cartoon.
She told the audience that a number of secular activists challenged this “dirty tricks campaign” and Nawaz was kept on as a candidate.
“A proliferation of similar social media initiatives would send out a clear message – that extremist and fundamentalist viewpoints would be robustly challenged by a critical mass of people from religious and non religious backgrounds.”
She also cautions against the propagation of the “them v us” mentality that emphasises “otherness” of non-Muslims.
This, she said, “demeans and castigates” people from Muslim backgrounds who “happen to be different”, such as Shia, Ahmadi or feminist.
“I have a background in equality and human rights and actively support humanist causes and organisations. It truly depresses me to see members of the new generation signing up to a version of Islam that is so anti-human, un-egalitarian and brimming with hate … and this is before they have even fall into the clutches of Daesh itself.”
Kazi, who is based in London, noted that “a lot of people” claim that Muslim communities are not ready for “certain progressive changes”, be that an acceptance of same-sex relations, encouraging women into religious leadership roles or a refusal to make excuses” for individuals´ involvement in terror.
“We have seen the impact of this disastrous racism of low expectations all around us,” she declared.
Other speakers included Gilles de Kerchove who, as EU counter-terrorism coordinator has spearheaded the EU’s fight against terrorism for over seven years and who warned that efforts to tackle radicalisation of young Muslims by groups like Daesh will “take a long time.”
However, he pointed to several initiatives currently underway which he believes could have an impact, including a newly-launched, 18-month pilot project designed to “better communicate” the “good work” undertaken by the EU and others in areas such as humanitarian aid.
He conceded, “At present, the communications strategy for these things is a bit disorganised. But some excellent work is being done on the diplomatic, humanitarian and development fronts and we need to be ‘advertising’ this more.”
Europol, the EU policy agency, also launched another initiative earlier this week which, he says, is designed to help all those involved in the fight against extremism, including law enforcement officers, to better distinguish between online content that may be deemed as illegal and extremist rather than merely “distasteful.”
He also points to another initiative, a forum being set up later this year by the European Commission which seeks to involve social media operators and encourage them to more closely monitor online extremism.
De Kerchove said that he also broadly supports efforts by the “Counter Extremism Project”, a U.S-based initiative, to curb the spread of extremism on social media platforms.
CEP has fiercely championed the cause since its launch last September and, earlier this week, launched a European project in cooperation with the European Foundation for Democracy which will seek to lobby support to press social media companies, in particular Twitter, to remove any content that might be deemed as extremist or an incitement to carry out acts of violence such as those witnessed recently in Africa and Europe.
Mark Wallace, a former U.S ambassador to the United Nations who was also on the panel, called for the accounts of anyone found to be spreading “extremist” messages to be closed with immediate effect.
However, Wallace, CEO of the “Counter Extremism Project”, says that Twitter, compared with other social media like Facebook and You Tube, has been particularly slow to deal with such “aggressive” messaging.
Wallace said, “Twitter is currently the ´gateway drug´ for those seeking to recruit fighters for Islamic terrorism and this must be stopped…”
Further contribution came from Dr August Hanning, who as former head of Germany’s intelligence service was responsible for internal security in the country, who said that leaders of Muslim communities had a “special responsibility’” to help steer young Muslims from the path of extremism.
He said, “Whenever an atrocity happens they say that such acts have nothing to do with them but this violence is being carried out in the name of Islam so, yes, they have a special responsibility to do something about it.”
By Martin Banks