4 Dec 2013

Can you tackle terrorism with community projects?

Hatred-motivated terror attacks could be prevented by more work on community cohesion says a government taskforce. Too woolly or can it work?

The cross-government taskforce on extremism was set up in the days after soldier Lee Rigby was killed and decapitated in a London street in the middle of the day, by two men proclaiming themselves to be Muslim extremists.

Today it published its recommendations on how Britain can prevent such attacks happening again and reduce extremist views of all types – from right-wing extremists, or on any religious or racist grounds.

Making community cohesion programmes a legal requirement in areas where there is community tension, is one of their top recommendations.

The others include installing moderate Muslim chaplains in universities and prisons, a tighter definition of extremism in all areas, and an ASBO for people caught expressing extremist views that can immediately make them stop. The taskforce also want community work that brings whole communities together, not tackling separate groups in separate ways.

“Extremism can flourish where different parts of a community remain isolated from each other. More integrated communities will be more resilient to the influence of extremists.”

The tighter definition of “extremist speech” now includes “vocal opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

Another recommendation involves the censorship of the internet so that extremist material is removed from Google searches.

Home Secretary Theresa May welcomed the recommendations in a Ministerial Statement today.

Can community projects genuinely help tackle big global problems like terrorism? In the past they’ve been criticised as a waste of money, stigmatising and even worsening community tensions.

The report argues that it can make things better. So do three groups who are working to build community cohesion in places where extremism is a threat.

Here’s what lessons they can offer about stopping extremism before it starts.

Stopping terrorism before it starts: three approaches

Quilliam – on Muslim extremism: ‘We need more moderate voices’

What they do:

Quilliam are an organisation promoting voices from within Islam that counter more extreme views, and advocating the integration of Muslims in Britain.

What they think works:

Dr. Usama Hasan, a senior researcher at Quilliam, says open debate is essential to stopping extremism taking hold:

“Exposing people to a wider range of ideas is very important. In the past, in Islamist extremism was the default option for many young people in Britian, they only heard a very narrow interpretation of Islam which was also quite extreme.

“So it is very important to have a diversity of views. That’s the intellectual approach, the other important thing is human contact, which is where mentoring and the Channel programme are very important.

“But it’s also humanising the other – because extremists of all kinds demonise other people. Neo-Nazi will demonise Jews or non-white people in general, and similarly the Islamists preach a lot of anti-Western rhetoric against non-Muslims.

“This language dehumanises people and that helps justify violence. If you demonise people it’s a very short step to say they are legitimate targets.”

Dr Hasan agrees that putting communities together is crucially important:

“The report said it was mistaken to keep communities apart, it’s one of those failings of multiculturalism that people talk about. It can allow extremists to operate in little communities separate from the rest of British society.

“They have been allowed to preach that Muslims cannot join the army or the police, that Islam is incompatible with democracy – and be unchallenged for many years. These views are allowed to fester in almost insulated communities.

“The organisation doesn’t think the internet censorship will work, according to a Quilliam statement on the government proposals today.

“The internet itself is not a problem, but rather a medium used to spread extremist narratives; it is these narratives that should be challenged.”

Youth on Solid Ground – Manchester youth group: ‘You need people to trust you’

What they do:

Youth on Solid Ground run youth services in Manchester and offering activities from football to cooking workshops to mentoring to apprenticeships.

They say their work has reduced anti-social behaviour in the area by 73 per cent in the last four years. One of their objectives is community cohesion.

What they think works:

Operations Manager Majid Dar says it is important to know the local communities, so that people trust you and engage with you.

“Being a local organisation and having the knowledge of the young people, we’ve been able to make a massive impact. Because we’re local and grassroots we can speak and talk on any issue any topic including views around extremism. For us to speak to them is not an issue, or them to understand.

“We have a good dialogue and it’s worked for us amazingly.

“We’ve used workshops designed by Cambridge University on extremism. The other method we have is trained mentors from the community, from the same background as the young people and it’s easy for them to engage them on topics.

But it’s important to offer young people more than a workshop, says Mr Dar, highlighting the whole range of reasons young people come to them and engage with them.

“If we just had a service to say ‘oh we’re just tackling this one issue’ they wouldn’t come.”

Corrymeela – Sectarianism in Northern Ireland: ‘Talking about what divides you’

What they do:

Corrymeela was born out of a Christian society in Belfast 50 years ago that has been bringing together Protestants and Catholics all through the Troubles, aiming to reduce prejudice in both communities.

What they think works:

John Hunter, chair of the council of Corrymeela said that working across different communties was absolutely crucial to their work:

“In our experience what works is when people are brought together to explore issues which divide them, but through the examination of those issues they begin to realise how much they have in common.

“At its heart is the ability to meet in a safe and secure environment where people don’t feel threatened, and explore issues that divide communities and groups and through that hopefully build up the relationships that will be sufficiently strong when testing times come.

“We hope that those people will able to influence their colleagues in the communities they come from and through that, address prejudices.”

It wasn’t complicated he said, but it was hard to get results:

“It has results, but it’s hard to objectively count them. We always say Corrymeela begins when you leave: it’s relatively easy in a neutral environment to build up those relationships, it’s more different to maintain them when you get back to the ghettoised communities you may have come from.”