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Muslims and extremism: A difficult dialogue

The minaret of the London Central Mosque, near Regents Park, London

The comments by Prince Charles last weekend about the growing threat of Islamist radicalisation were the day's most read item on the BBC news website.

The Prince of Wales warned that young people are being radicalised at an "alarming rate" and that it is one of the "greatest worries".

Prince Charles went on: "The frightening part is that people can be so radicalised either through contact with somebody else or through the internet, and the extraordinary amount of crazy stuff which is on the internet."

Prince Charles put his finger on an issue that refuses to go away and his intervention is just the latest in a series of attempts to discuss this pressing problem.

But it is easier said than done, as Communities Secretary Eric Pickles found when he wrote an open letter a few weeks ago to 1,000 Islamic leaders asking for their help in dealing with radicalisation.

His co-signatory was Lord Ahmad, who just happens to be Muslim.

Not that it helped much. The letter got short shrift in some quarters.

The Muslim Council of Britain, an organisation that claims to represent 500 mosques, schools and charities, was particularly fierce in its criticism of the letter - even though Mr Pickles didn't write to the MCB.

Ibrahim Mogra, the assistant general secretary of the MCB, dismissed the initiative.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Eric Pickles wrote to Muslim leaders

He said that imams had been working for years to "better educate" young people, and that the demand could fuel anti-Muslim sentiments in British society.

The main source of radicalism is the internet, not mosques, he went on.

But critics of the MCB said its response was an attempt to shut down discussion rather than engage in a constructive dialogue.

In some ways, this goes to the nub of the issue.

Those on one side of the argument accuse Muslims of keeping their heads down, averting their gaze, and not condemning loudly enough the role of extremists.

On the other side, Muslims say there should be no pressure on them to speak and they should not have to prove their legitimacy as citizens.

And anyway, they go on to say, they do condemn atrocities - but this is lost in the noise around the atrocity in question.

In writing to imams and others, ministers again highlighted the role of mosques in tackling extremist ideology.

The precise role of mosques though is hard to assess.

Who runs Britain's mosques?

Much is made of the influence of the Saudi-inspired Wahhabi sect (or Salafis, as they prefer to call themselves) in Britain's mosques, but this is a relatively small school of religious influence here.

The bigger school of Islamic thought is believed to be that of the Deobandis, a conservative interpretation of Islamic law that governs teaching in almost half of Britain's mosques.

But generally speaking there is no hierarchical Muslim religious leadership, no single authority figure the equivalent of, say, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and imams have a fair degree of independence.

Expulsion of extremists

Official government policy has tended to focus on expelling controversial imams or denying visas to extremist preachers.

In the past certain mosques - for example, Finsbury Park in north London where the radical cleric Abu Hamza was based - are known to have played a role in driving young and impressionable recruits into the hands of extremists.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Abu Hamza was an advocate of extremism

But others argue that more recently this malign recruiting role has been taken over by the internet and social media.

This is an ongoing argument. For example, the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremism think tank, published some research on the issue last year.

It suggested that the "majority of radicalised individuals came into contact with extremist ideology through offline socialisation prior to being further indoctrinated online".

In other words, the radicalisation seed is sown through person-to-person contact first of all.

The Pickles letter, his supporters would argue, is the kind of thing ministers have been saying for some time in relation to extremism.

And in defence of Mr Pickles, it has to be acknowledged that speaking about extremism is fraught with political and cultural traps.

Ministers are rightly worried that some terrorist atrocity might happen on their watch.

And in the wake of the attacks in Paris, who wouldn't be?

But at the same time they don't want to put a step wrong in dealing with a community that, rightly or wrongly, feels put upon.

The Muslim leaders from their viewpoint presumably see themselves as negotiating a difficult path.

Their own legitimacy as leaders is constantly open to question - after all, Britain has many Muslim communities.

Communication dilemmas

But ministers' attempts to reach out - or not - to British Muslims during heightened concern over terrorism have always posed dilemmas.

The coalition government has come under attack from one of its own former members.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Baroness Warsi has criticised government strategy

Baroness Warsi, the first Muslim woman to sit in Cabinet, has rounded on the government's strategy towards Muslims, saying its failure to engage had fuelled resentment in the Muslim community.

The same issue - how to engage with the Muslim community - was resolved in the Blair government by hugging close the Muslim Council of Britain, even though it is - and was - a largely self-appointed body.

But the relationship wasn't without its ups and downs.

Ministers distanced themselves from the group over its damaging refusal to attend Holocaust Memorial Day.

Then, in 2009, the then Communities Secretary Hazel Blears severed links with the MCB after its deputy secretary general, Daud Abdullah, declared his personal support for Hamas in Gaza.

The organisation, some claim, has never really recovered in official circles.

When David Cameron became prime minister, he demanded the MCB distanced itself from Dr Abdullah.

The Prevent anti-extremism programme has been another bone of contention between ministers and critics of government policy in dealing with extremism.

The Labour government spent millions of pounds on the scheme - which really came into its own in the wake of the 2005 London bombings - but its impact has been hard to quantify and critics claim it has stigmatised Muslims.

The Home Office has in recent years cut counter-terror funds to many Muslim organisations as part of its reform of the Prevent strategy.

It continues to draw fire from a variety of quarters.

Risk of alienation

The former head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, reportedly says it is counter-productive in that it runs the risk of alienating the very communities whose help is crucial in tackling extremism.

Others claim that Prevent highlights a wider fault in official thinking, with too much focus placed on dealing with radicalisation and not enough attention paid to tackling issues such as integration and alienation.

Image caption Eliza Manningham-Buller warned of counter-productive policy

In truth, no-one really knows how to connect all the dots in the journey that takes an apparently ordinary young person and turns him or her into a violent extremist.

And for a grouping that is almost constantly in the news, misconceptions about Muslims are still commonplace and can't help when it comes to making policy.

For example, the actual percentage of Muslims in the UK is around 5%, but those surveyed by Ipsos Mori recently said they thought it was 21%.

Hardly surprising perhaps given the number of stories about Muslims in the media.

Religious conversion - an issue in prisons where the number of Muslims is now at an all-time high, according to Ministry of Justice figures - is not necessarily the same as radicalisation, and counter-terrorism policies face the challenge of distinguishing between legitimate expression of faith and extremist ideologies.

Illiberal beliefs and practices, however uncomfortable, do not always end up in violent extremism.

And perhaps just as importantly for politicians and policy makers, the biggest challenge of all is how to get the message through to all of Britain's Muslims, a community - indeed communities - comprised of Shia and Sunni, speaking a number of different languages and made up of many ethnicities.

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