International community urged to do more to tackle the idealogy of Islamic extremism
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International community urged to do more to tackle the idealogy of Islamic extremism

Islamic extremism and the ideology that drives it is corrosive to the fabric of democracy and threatens to “spread through the generations” unless effective and urgent preventive measures are taken. That was one of the key messages to emerge from a high-profile briefing in Brussels on radicalisation.

The briefing was organised by the European Foundation for Democracy in cooperation with the Institute of Peace and the support of the Counter Extremism Project and the U.S Mission to the EU.

It heard that effective prevention policies would be needed to help dissuade often impressionable young Muslim men and women from falling into the clutches of extremists such as ISIL, the so-called “death cult” responsible for the recent Paris atrocity and downing of a Russian civilian aircraft.

The two-hour debate on Tuesday featured speakers from both sides of the Atlantic: Zainab Al-Suwaij, director of the American Islamic Congress and Karin Heremans, co-chair of the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) education working group. Opening the event, Alexander Ritzmann, of the European Foundation for Democracy, a leading Brussels-based policy institute, said one of the aims was to discuss sharing best practices in countering violent extremism.

Al-Suwaij, whose organisation was launched in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York, said the results of Islamic extremism were now “haunting” both the Islamic world and the West almost on a “daily basis” and explained how U.S radicalisation programmes had sought to tackle the issue.

Her organisation, she said, has run awareness-raising programmes benefitting some 12,000 people on 75 college campuses throughout America over a seven-year period in a bid to prevent young people from being radicalised.

She said her experience suggested it was important to monitor carefully the activities of extremist preachers at mosques and Islamic schools in order to prevent some of them spreading “messages of hate.”

Al-Suwaij cited one example where she had reported the extremist teachings of an Iman at a mosque in the U.S to the FBI, which had resulted in that person being deported.In offering a counter narrative to such people it was important, she argued, to “mobilise” communities and also make full use of social media which, she pointed out, has become a crucial recruitment tool for Islamic extremists.

Developing effective “social programmes” for those young Muslims who return to their homelands in Europe and the U.S from Syria and such places was also necessary.

Society also had to “make a clear distinction” between “Islam, the religion” and “political Islam or Islamism” adding, “Most of the problems we are facing today are caused by political Islam and unless good prevention measures are put in place Islamic extremism is corrosive to democracy that will spread through the generations.”

She told the meeting, “We in the U.S are much more aware of these problems nowadays but the violent messages of hate some of these people spread is sometimes beyond comprehension. Preventing young people becoming radicalised is a big problem but that is the challenge we face.”

“We have to get the message across that the threat is not only to the West but to Islamic communities which are losing their young to groups like Islamic State.”Some examples of best practice in Europe were outlined by Heremans, whose RAN working group was just established and also includes a “Centre of Excellence” which allows grassroots activists to share information and experience on tackling radicalisation more easily.

An informal “manifesto” had been devised for dissemination to dozens of schools, training programmes for educators, as well as training for front line professionals at local, provincial, federal and EU levels – to address this burgeoning threat in schools. It encourages teachers to develop a “vision” on radicalisation and openly hold potentially “difficult conversations” on the issue. We are faced with a generational challenge, she said. 

She said, “We are saying to schools, ‘dare to communicate’ this issue and develop policies in much the same way as was done in the past for issues such as drug abuse and health and safety.”

Heremans, who is also principal of the Royal Atheneum School in Antwerp, readily accepts that this is not always easy, citing the example of when she tried to organise a minute’s silence at her school for victims of 9/11.The school has students from 60 countries, including conflict zones such as Iraq and Syria, and she said that managing “tensions” within the school could be difficult.

“What we did after the Paris attacks on 13th November,” she explained, “was to extend the minute’s silence so that it was a tribute to all victims of extremism, not just those killed in Paris. The aim was not to avoid confrontation but, rather, to connect with all our students.”

She also noted that it was necessary to give young Muslims a “sense of belonging,” adding, “We conducted a survey at our school in which we tried to establish who felt they had the strongest identity. We found that it was the Muslim students whose identity was the strongest. The problem is that this is what can make some of them so susceptible to radicalisation. We have to find ways of making them feel a better sense of belonging to their own local communities.”

Heremans also argues that, in discussing radicalisation,it is important to recognise the growing threat posed by extreme right-wing groups, not least in European countries such as Hungary and Greece, as well as Islamic extremism.The meeting heard about EXIT-Germany, an initiative helping individuals who want to leave the extreme right-wing movement and start a new life.

Co-founded by former neo-Nazi leader Ingo Hasselbach, the project has been working since 2000 to provide assistance to dropouts from extreme and violent right-wing environments.

Ritzmann pointed out that since 2011 EXIT-Germany had also become engaged in tackling Islamic extremism which, he believes, shares  “some similarities” with right-wing extremism.

In a question and answer session, one audience member said it was crucial to tackle the sources of why people are radicalised rather than just the “symptoms.” After atrocities such as Paris, the “temptation”, is to offer a “crisis response” but a better approach would be finding and implementing longer-term solutions.Responding to a question on Islamism, the ideology driving Islamist extremism, Al-Suwaij stressed that there the Muslim Brotherhood ideology was no different from that of ultra-conservative Wahhabist and Salafist doctrines that are increasingly recognised to be the main sources of violent radicalisation. The MB ideology is identical to Wahhabism and Salafism and political Islam/Islamism is the basis of all the problems societies have with extremism, she said. Political Islam is corrosive to the fabric of democracy that will spread throughout society for generations to come” she added and confronting it is critical for addressing radicalisation and violent extremism.                                

One audience member provided an example of good practice related to Spain the country that has seen the worst terrorist attack since WW2 – the Madrid train bombing in 2004 which killed 198 people.

Despite the huge rise in the number of Moroccans in her country, increasing in recent years from 75,000 to 900,000, Spain had successful integrated this, its largest ethnic group, into mainstream society.

Concluding, Ritzmann said the “very timely” debate had given rise to several excellent ideas, including the role education can play in explaining the phenomenon of Islamic radicalisation.

By Martin Banks