UK government lacks counter-extremism strategy, says head of London think-tank
London - The UK government needs a counter-extremism strategy to complement its counterterrorism strategy, Maajid Nawaz, chairman of the UK-based think-tank Quilliam, says.
Speaking to The Arab Weekly on the sidelines of the release of a report looking at the spread of jihadism into South Asia, Nawaz said: “There is a gap in the government policy at the moment which I’ve been advocating to be filled. That gap is what I call a counter-extremism strategy. The government has a counterterrorism strategy but what it hasn’t got is a strategy to deal with non-violent extremism.”
British-born Nawaz was jailed in Egypt in 2005 for being a member of radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation outlawed in Egypt. He grew disenchanted with political Islam after more than four years in Egyptian prisons and co-founded Quilliam — the world’s first counter-extremism think-tank — with other former extremists when he returned to the United Kingdom.
After failing to secure a seat for the Liberal Democrats in the latest parliamentary elections, Nawaz said he was focusing his efforts on expanding Quilliam beyond the United Kingdom.
“What the government is lacking is a kind of civil society-based, non-violent extremism-based strategy. Hopefully, by the end of this year, the government will adopt such a strategy,” Nawaz said.
With the Islamic State (ISIS) holding an increasingly strong sway over some young British Muslims, Nawaz said the government, non-governmental organisations and think-tanks such as Quilliam must do more to counter extremist ideology and expose ISIS’s true nature.
More than 1,600 Britons are believed to have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, including 17-year-old Yorkshire resident Talha Asmal, who became the United Kingdom’s youngest suicide bomber in an attack near an oil refinery south of the Iraqi city of Baiji, and Mohammed Emzawi — better known as Jihadi John — who has brutally killed at least seven foreign hostages over the past year while spouting hateful ISIS rhetoric.
“What I’m really enthused by is some of the outreach work that we’re planning to do like taking members of families of foreign fighters and those who have lost their loved ones [to] schools and speaking directly to students as a warning,” Nawaz said.
For example, he said, “Take a mother who is in grief, who has lost her son, to meet [British Muslim] kids as a warning and saying ‘This is what happens if you go out there [to fight]‘.”
He called on British Muslim religious leaders to do more to promote a counter-narrative to ISIS’s hateful ideology. “We need religious leaders to come out, not just against the violence but, against the ideological underpinning of the violence, against some of the geopolitical constructs that ISIS supports, such as the idea of resurrecting the caliphate. We need religious leaders to come out and debunk some of these myths,” Nawaz said.
Nawaz said the responsibility for counter-extremism goes beyond British Muslim leaders and is something that must take place at a grass-roots level.
“We’ve had some help from the British Muslim community, but I wish we had more,” he said. “We need more help [to counter extremism], not just support in terms of financial donations, but more moral support.” Unfortunately, Nawaz said: “Sometimes Muslim communities in Britain can take a reactionary position because they’re defensive and because they’re worried about speaking about such things and that makes them insular. I encourage them to be out in the open so everyone speaks about this [extremism]. We can no longer be in denial about the extent of the problem within our communities.”
Despite criticism regarding the paucity and disorganised nature of British Muslim communities’ counterterrorism response, Nawaz said the key was to hear more voices raised against ISIS and extremism, even if they were not necessarily in accord.
“I think the way forward is to let a thousand flowers bloom. Let everyone contribute to the civil society discussion towards a more pluralistic democratic future.
“One hopes that if everyone does that together, even if they’re not working in tandem, you’ll see a result,” he added.