Article by By Michael Mumisa taken from The Independent - Blogs
The previous government’s controversial programme for preventing violent extremism is currently being reviewed by the Home Office. How did it happen that programmes which were introduced with the aim of promoting “community cohesion” and preventing the influence of violent extremists ended up achieving the opposite of what they set out to achieve? Since the introduction of such programmes British Muslim communities have been engaged in what is effectively a ‘civil war’ which has left young Muslims (the intended beneficiaries of the programmes) further marginalised and more vulnerable to extremist ideas.
On November 8 2006, in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, I shared a platform with the then Secretary of State for the Home Office, John Reid, and Ruth Kelly at a conference held at the British Academy. I warned that if the fragmented nature of the Muslim communities in Britain was overlooked the government’s strategy would end up funding a ‘civil war’ between Muslims, and that a secular government should not be drawn into the debate on how Islam is interpreted or which Islamic theological school should be promoted. Unfortunately, this appears to have been the unintended outcome of the previous strategy for preventing violent extremism.
There has since been an assumption that Muslims can easily be divided into two crude categories: the good “moderate Muslim” and the bad “extremist” Muslim, and that the problem of extremism can be solved by pouring money on the “good Muslim” in order to neutralize the “bad Muslim”. The announcement in October 2007 that £70 million would be spent by the government on preventing violent extremism over three years unleashed a gold rush among the different and opposing Muslim sects in Britain. Since then each sect has been presenting itself as the “moderate” voice of Islam while demonising its rivals as the “extremists”.
What is at stake is the definition of “extremism”. For example, Barelvi Muslims have been defining “extremism” as what their historical enemies, Deobandi Muslims, believe. Likewise Sufi Muslim groups have grabbed on the funding opportunity presented by the government’s Prevent programme to settle old theological scores with their arch rivals, Salafi Muslims.
Nowhere has this been more reflected than in the way that radicalisation and extremism have been covered in some of the TV documentaries produced in Britain in the past 4 years where Barelvi and other Sufi sources have been used to investigate extremism among Deobandis or Salafis. However, the reality is more complex than what is often reported. Soon after the 7/7 bombings a Salafi organisation in Birmingham was the first Muslim organisation to print and distribute a collection of fatwas titled “The Corruption of Terrorism and Suicide Bombings: Exposing the Perpetrators of Evil” which attacked and condemned the 7/7 bombers as evil. In June 2008 Deobandi theologians based at the spiritual home of the Taliban, the influential ultra-conservative Islamic seminary at Deoband, India, issued a detailed Fatwa condemning terrorism and suicide attacks as the “most inhuman crime” which should be eradicated from society. Specialists on Islamic theology agree that the Salafi and Deobandi fatwas are more likely to succeed in challenging the extremist ideology than the widely publicised fatwa published early this year by the Pakistani-born Barelvi theologian Sheikh Tahir ul-Qadri http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/sheikh-issues-fatwa-against-all-terrorists-1915000.html.
The Taliban, Al-Qaida and their affiliate organisations justify their violence by drawing upon Deobandi and Salafi interpretations of Islamic texts. Thus, Deobandi and Salafi fatwas against violent extremism are more effective in delegitimizing extremist groups than fatwas and theological arguments from Sufi scholars such as Tahir al-Qadri and others however well-meaning they may be.
It is tempting to view Sufi Islam as the cuddly and apolitical expression of Islam that should be promoted among all Muslims in Britain as a strategy of dealing with the problem of violent extremism. Such an approach is dangerous. It can be argued that the religious quietism adopted by Sufis (both within the Barelvi and Deobandi communities) is what is driving young Muslims into the hands of extremists. Anyone who has studied religious quietism in different faiths knows that it always produces more radical expressions of the faith.
Not wanting to be accused of promoting extremist ideas, soon after the 7/7 bombings most Sunni Mosque committees across the UK imposed a total ban on political discussions in the Mosques. This means that young Muslims are now without an open and safe platform where they can express their political views and have such views examined or challenged by others. They have instead retreated into their bedrooms to search for answers on extremist internet forums. On the other hand Shi’a Mosques and Imams in the UK continue to engage in healthy debates on matters relating to domestic and foreign policy. Could this explain why young British Shi’as have not been vulnerable to violent extremist ideas in the way that Sunnis have?
Michael Mumisa is a PhD candidate and Special Livingstone Scholar, University of Cambridge