Professor Mike Hardy CMG OBE FRSA
It has now become an all too frequent scenario that we read news of the disappearance of one or more British citizens, apparently to join ISIL/Daesh, or the announcement of the deaths of those who already did so. In mid-June last year, traumatised families in Bradford raised the alarm when three sisters and their nine children – aged between three and 15 – failed to return from a pilgrimage to Mecca. The brother of the women is already thought to be fighting with ISIL/Daesh.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The real challenge for local communities, however, lies in the forces of prejudice that have been both unleashed and profiled, and the significant damage to what little progress has been made with plural society. [/pullquote]To anyone attracted by radical Islamic ideas, surrounded by western culture, ISIL/Daesh appears to promote a satisfyingly and fundamental ideology.
Some have suggested it is the certainty and the sense of purpose (albeit perverse!) that is attractive to some young Muslims who may feel alienated in or by the West?
We are often encouraged after such news that the young people involved had been groomed and brainwashed by radicals. The recruits are frequently described, no doubt accurately, in a domestic context, as pleasant and thoughtful family members and friends, and as victims. Though this is understandable, I suggest that we need to challenge this perception. Whatever other charges could be laid at the door of ISIL/Daesh, concealing its true nature is not one of them and we face a real struggle to counter the ideas.
The real challenge for local communities, however, lies in the forces of prejudice that have been both unleashed and profiled, and the significant damage to what little progress has been made with plural society.
In this way, ISIL/Daesh fulfils an agency role –it is responsible for the terror, but not by itself; it is the toxic mix of its campaign with a whole set of other imperfections and dysfunctions. And it is these implications that are the most challenging as actually the problems and challenge are over here, in our local communities, and not just over there in a distant place, and to change there we must begin with here.
The forces at work in our communities: complexity, perceptions and reality
Communities worldwide have always been diverse, complex and changing places. But the last two decades in particular have seen demographic shifts of an unprecedented scale: our societies and communities today both feel and are ethnically and culturally plural like never before. More than two million people in the UK are of dual heritage, and most are young. So this is only going to grow. Opinions about the impact of rising levels of diversity vary. Some associate these trends with separation, progressive decline in trust and heightened tension. Others place an unquestionable faith in the capacity of people and communities to adapt and absorb these major shifts.
Whatever our views, and whichever is the compelling explanation of the consequences, diverse communities are here and here to stay. And we have to work more actively to dismantle the obstacle course that most of us must manoeuvre on a daily basis: a negative and campaigning media, poor education and the strength of the forces of prejudice rather than the forces for pluralism.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Diversity and living with change and difference might be a lot easier and more successful if we did not focus so much on encouraging people to like difference and stressed more how and why difference isn’t that big an issue at all. [/pullquote]Prejudice requires less effort than pluralism. This is far more important than I can stress in this short talk.
Diversity and living with change and difference might be a lot easier and more successful if we did not focus so much on encouraging people to like difference and stressed more how and why difference isn’t that big an issue at all. I’ll return to this call later.
And all this is against a backcloth of general human insecurity; inequality and political, economic and social structural issues that may outweigh everything else. For me these create the most fertile ground for the myths, perceptions and reality of ISIL/Daesh to prosper.
ISIL/Daesh have used this globalised and mostly dysfunctional world to their advantage. They play on and seek to expose the sectarian fault-lines in the Middle East whilst at the same time offer route maps to dignity and clearer identity through high profile, abhorrent and extreme violence to young Muslim Europeans struggling to find either by other routes.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]In the UK following the attacks and murders in Paris in 2015, anti-Muslim hate crimes increased almost overnight by 300%, the vast majority of those recorded directed against Muslim women and girls. [/pullquote]Terror attacks in Europe by European citizens fulfil the wildest aspirations of ISIL/Daesh; they have led directly to unlocking hate crimes and prejudice. In the UK following the attacks and murders in Paris in 2015, anti-Muslim hate crimes increased almost overnight by 300%, the vast majority of those recorded directed against Muslim women and girls. Muslims now feel the harshest effects of rapidly enhanced security and community safety actions. For many the murders and mayhem reinforce a perception that Samuel Huntington was right and we are playing out a global clash of civilisations (or it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy)
Huntingdon’s clash narrative is important as its acceptance places obstacles to whole swathes of policy options: whether the clash is real or imagined, the ‘other’ becomes an intractable challenge. In Britain we have new laws that oblige schools and campuses to have due regard for the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism; security trumps rights for the most part. This shows a defensive ‘West’ (civilisation) and communities of besieged European Muslims neither of which help with the struggle against the ideas of the jihadists. The concepts of trust and respect – hallmarks of plural society – fade away.
Lines are drawn. Recent evidence records a third of British Muslims reporting feeling under more suspicion in the past few years, and over half non-Muslim Britons feel that Islam is incompatible with British values. An imagined clash becomes real because facts or reality are often inseparable from perceptions or this just may be the case that perceptions trump facts, especially when fuelled by a media focused on short-term outcomes.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]An imagined clash becomes real because facts or reality are often inseparable from perceptions or this just may be the case that perceptions trump facts, especially when fuelled by a media focused on short-term outcomes. [/pullquote]The powerful and highly visible actions of ISIL/Daesh have provoked belief and confidence in this notion of a worldwide contest for ideological supremacy that has been supported inexorably in the US, Europe and other ‘Western’ countries, by both the rise of neo-conservatism and an aggressively assertive press and media. In Britain, a necessary counter-terrorist response appears to have both protected and provoked, helping to grow divisions in society and making a pluralist journey forwards more difficult. Regrettably, among the significant collateral consequences have been the hardening of prejudice, the growth in hate-crimes in very local neighbourhoods and the proposals of government policies both foreign and domestic that are more likely ideological than evidence–led.
The reality however is that there were, and are, even more serious clashes within civilisations, both in the “West” and even more so within the Muslim world. In Europe tensions emerged and were played out around a growing crisis of identity among European Muslims (or indeed Muslim Europeans). This was complicated by local worries about illegal immigration. Europe is the more complex because of post-colonial issues and the territorial proximities and hence movements of people.
The Muslim world in the Middle East has effectively been marginalised by the coincidence of three issues: the Palestine-Israeli conflict – rooted in the early 20th Century; the intersection of energy-dependency and strategic military projection of the West, originating in the 1930s; and thirdly, the contested claims by Judaism, Christianity and Islam over the heritage of the region’s holy sites which remains an issue of significance for some. And what has been painfully missing has been a carefully designed and supported set of tribal, clan or family agreements, so crucial for any progress to be sustainable. All manner of agreements have so far unravelled because of these micro-dimensions of clashes within civilisations.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]A counter-narrative has emerged promoting inter-cultural dialogue (dialogue among and within civilisations), intended to encourage collective action across diverse societies to combat extremism. [/pullquote]Huntington was criticised by many, with evidence, with history, with ideology or with just simple logic. Some have argued that distinct cultural boundaries do not exist in the present day, so to many observers there is no “Islamic civilisation” nor a “Western civilisation”, and that the evidence for a clash is not convincing, especially when considering relationships such as that between the United States and Saudi Arabia. In addition, we can observe that the many so-called Islamic extremists spent a significant amount of time living and/or studying in the US and Europe. Evidence is stronger that conflict arises because of philosophical beliefs various groups share (or do not share), regardless of cultural or religious identity.
These observations are very significant for how we approach the struggle against the ideas of ISIL/Daesh. A counter-narrative has emerged promoting inter-cultural dialogue (dialogue among and within civilisations), intended to encourage collective action across diverse societies to combat extremism, to overcome cultural and social barriers between the ‘Western’-facing and predominantly Muslim worlds, and to reduce the tensions and polarisation between societies that differ in religious and cultural values.
The narrative of ISIL/Daesh
Secondly, I will explore, albeit briefly, what I will call the narrative of ISIL/Daesh and why this matters hugely.
There is little doubt that we face a real battle of ideas. ISIL/Daesh is an extreme ideology that quotes religious justifications to speak to a range of grievances and inspire horrific acts of violence. This is a battle of ideas that we cannot ignore, but it is a battle in which we do not seem to understand the ideas very well.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]ISIL/Daesh is an extreme ideology that quotes religious justifications to speak to a range of grievances and inspire horrific acts of violence. This is a battle of ideas that we cannot ignore, but it is a battle in which we do not seem to understand the ideas very well. [/pullquote]ISIL/Daesh is a ‘very Islamic’ organisation in the sense that its propaganda is burdened with theological and legal discussions and the ideas proselytized by its followers are drawn directly from their interpretations of Islam. All major decisions taken by ISIL/Daesh claim to follow the prophecy and example of Muhammad in almost obsessive detail operating essentially as a religious, millenarian group seeking to engineer a major transformation of global society, after which all things will be changed. This must be understood well to be combatted.
The vast majority of religious believers and the great majority of Muslims reject and condemn the extreme ideologies and their religious justifications. But the life progress or lack of progress of too many vulnerable people, whose need for secure identity and the comfort of belonging remains distant, find purpose in responding to calls to react against established society.
Many of these are the very young, in the UK and Europe they are second and third generation citizens. Our duty of care to these vulnerable and our need to disrupt what at times is a self-fulfilling cycle of violence that accompanied this vulnerability, means that we must both challenge the ideas themselves and develop resilience within those targeted for radicalisation.
So, we have to start with the difficult reality that this is about ideas based on a perversion of religion, and we have to mobilise and engage in effective counter-narrative. Much of this in my view is about taking dialogue seriously and using dialogue to recalibrate social relations between people, using dialogue to validate a social capital that dilutes the difference between the engaged and disengaged, the haves and the have nots. And we need to commit to the long-run and to a consistency that is completely detached from political election cycles.
Building a counter-narrative is so difficult when our overall knowledge and understanding is so limited, and this is not helped by the dominance of the media in the discourse and the dominance further of a media that is largely uncomfortable with acknowledging the role of faith in almost every aspect of life – this is a dimension of our most recent diversity that is critically understated and not understood. Add to that we have also an education system that is seriously weak and uninspiring – many teachers with a responsibility to handle people’s faith have little background for doing so.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Challenging the worldview of ISIL/Daesh begins by openly recognising that this is not a clash of civilizations between Islam and Christianity, but a projection, in part, of socio-political and economic imbalances of our world today. In one sense we have a context conducive to the chaos. [/pullquote]ISIL/Daesh is tapping into a general crisis of citizenship and malaise within Arab countries. Indeed, in many cases it is experiences of injustice and abuse by authorities, and not poverty, that are driving disenfranchised individuals toward radical extremist ideology.
Meanwhile in Europe, as I have suggested, ISIL/Daesh is building on a different crisis of identity and citizenship – particularly for second and third generation citizens from earlier migrations.
Challenging the worldview of ISIL/Daesh begins by openly recognising that this is not a clash of civilizations between Islam and Christianity, but a projection, in part, of socio-political and economic imbalances of our world today. In one sense we have a context conducive to the chaos.
In Europe, this may mean taking a very different view about refugees fleeing the very horrors visited by ISIL/Daesh in Europe over the past months and addressing the sense of exclusion and alienation that are driving thousands of its own citizens to join ISIL/Daesh. In the Arab region there are a complex set of changes needed, and a demanding agenda for inclusion, engagement and coalition building. History and the current approach to foreign intervention are both likely to get in the way.
This bleak picture informs our struggle.
It ought to be the case that we have a very strong understanding of the phenomenon of ISIL/Daesh, given the huge volume of articles, analyses, “expert discussions”, and books bringing analysis and assessment. But essentially we process armchair expertise, with little direct knowledge and little, so far, direct contact with a ISIL/Daesh’ s leaders or followers. Hence one interpretation falls over or contradicts another, some emphasise one hypothesis, and some offer another.
I draw two conclusions from this reality – the first is that we need humility-in-action; for each of the many stakeholders, participants and agencies there may well be an important contribution to make – part of the struggle, but rarely the whole struggle. It may well be that many can only be engaged in the ‘indirect’ – in our small spheres of influence, in communities, schools and on campuses, to think and act with clarity on promoting religious literacy, for example, or working across generations to enhance the skills and understanding needed for more resilient communities. We have heard about the amazing strength of contribution of 3FF, the experience it brings and builds upon.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Until we find some means of talking directly to the enemy we will never understand it and hence never come up with the proper mix of policies to deal with it. In other words, there has to be direct contact. [/pullquote]My second conclusion is more controversial. Our current experience and context has a distinguishing feature: the absence of direct contact with either ISIL/Daesh followers and disciples or, more importantly, its leaders. And the fact is that until we find some means of talking directly to the enemy we will never understand it and hence never come up with the proper mix of policies to deal with it.
In other words, there has to be direct contact.
In a world of back channels, where the covert is the new norm and the clandestine has pushed transparency aside, this is not an impossible task.
Has there ever been an “enemy” in history we have not found a way to talk to?
ISIL/Daesh today is more brutal, more sophisticated, and more powerful than many predicted. And military action so far has had only limited success in pushing it back. So some have suggested a different approach: negotiation. This is not a binary – not an either or – and it may be that a smart approach combines hard with soft power instruments. Some find the idea of talks abhorrent – others say it’s time to at least consider it.
Let me draw final conclusions by emphasising the humility-in-action to which I referred earlier.
In an earlier role, I led the design and managed the implementation of the Reconnect Programme with significant support of UK Treasury funding to tackle, specifically, the disaffection and disconnection of young Muslims. The Programme was distinctive because it engaged beyond Muslims, creating opportunity for over 100,000 young people from the UK and other countries to engage in activities aimed at creating common ground with those of other faiths – including exchange programmes and foreign visits. The Reconnect Programme was notable for its open engagement with Muslim and other communities, driven by the assumption that longer-term relationships between people created the opportunity for trust and for confronting challenges together.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Most diverse communities develop relatively successful strategies for ‘rubbing along’ through a process of mutual adaptation. The critical point is that all of this happens in spite of rather than because of the actions of government interventions. [/pullquote]In modern-day speak it was about building knowledge, understanding and confidence, and about helping the disengaged to see routes to engagement – engagement is a key part of being resilient and resistant to extremist responses.
There is a growing body of research that highlights the lived experience of people in their everyday lives. This shows that most diverse communities develop relatively successful strategies for ‘rubbing along’ through a process of mutual adaptation. The critical point is that all of this happens in spite of rather than because of the actions of government interventions, things happening by accident rather than by design. If we could generate compelling evidence and understanding and be clear how transferable this was to different contexts and places, then we could help people to put prejudice to one side and promote pluralism in their everyday lives. We can show that social interacting across difference can be life enhancing and enriching.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]In most studies, strong contact with neighbours builds resilience in communities and places helping both to solve problems and meet challenges.[/pullquote]Additionally, communities with strong social interchange tend to function better, are more resilient and are nicer places to live in. In most studies, strong contact with neighbours builds resilience in communities and places helping both to solve problems and meet challenges. Finally, strong social networks are a critical part of supporting adaptation and coexistence, particularly with new arrivals though they are also problematic if they promote fragmentation. All in all our research provides insights to a central issue in our modern times that of diversity in a time of rapid change and the notion that society is reconfiguring and refreshing continuously and faster – people, neighbours and citizens find this challenging, if not impossible to think in positive terms. We can observe results from this feeling of challenge: some withdraw, disengage and construct walls around what is familiar, their comfort zones, creating so-called ‘parallel lives’, in themselves not harmful nor threatening, but fragmenting nonetheless; others reject modernity, sometimes with anger, and begin to actively retreat in their minds to a nostalgic view, more often than not mistaken, that ‘things’ were better in the past, before the change.
The policy implications may then be more about how to help people to cope with rapid change – a new and contemporary skill-requirement. We do not have to resort to publicly celebrating or actively highlighting diversities, nor to promoting a ‘permissions’ culture where we ‘tolerate’ them, but rather maybe to focus more on learning to live with diversity rather than fearing it – we don’t have to like it.