I’ve been sadly and silently following developments in Manchester after the tragic suicide bombing. Today I saw an interview with Saima Alvi, Vice-Chair of the British Muslim Heritage Centre. She made the point — calmly and eloquently — that terrorism has no religion.
This reminded me of Barack Obama, who knew the power of words and steadfastly refused to connect the words “terrorism” and “Islam.” Terrorists have nothing to do with Islam; they merely appropriate words and symbols from that religion of peace in order to justify their heinous acts.
Mrs. Alvi was interviewed by Sky News in the bright sunshine of St. Ann’s Square on May 25. She went on to talk about her 16-year-old daughter. She said her daughter wears a hijab (head scarf), and when her daughter came home yesterday she said everyone had been staring at her. She asked, “Why were they staring at me, Mummy?” Mrs. Alvi explained that her daughter is naïve and didn’t understand how the suicide bombing had increased tensions. “But what’s that got to do with me?” her daughter asked, genuinely puzzled.
There’s a point of insight here. To me (a white, non-Muslim American), a person who would blow up dozens of innocent strangers, many of them children, is a different species — almost non-human. I find it incomprehensible. So do most British Muslims. Like the 16-year-old girl being stared at because she wears a head scarf, most British Muslims consider terrorists to be a different species having nothing to do with them. Terrorists disguise themselves as Muslims, but they are not, for they have no regard for human life.
I wish it were that simple. The concept of radicalisation complicates matters. Terrorist ideology tries to take the kernel of something noble in human nature and twist it to the bad.
As a student of world religion, I would say that at the core of Islam is strong faith and ecstatic love for Allah and his prophet Muhammad, plus a rich culture and set of ethical guidelines. Terrorist ideology corrupts these things by mixing in an element of violent fanaticism.
I understand the concept behind the British government’s Prevent programme. I can also see its flaws. Some people who implement Prevent don’t really understand the nature of religious experience in general, nor Islam in particular. They tend to view a burgeoning interest in religion as something dangerous, a symptom of radicalisation.
In truth, it’s quite natural that many young people (including Muslims) will have conversion experiences which make them more religious, deeply religious. That in itself is a good thing, not bad. What’s needed is a clearer understanding that genuine religious feeling can be corrupted by bad ideas.
I read the full debate on Prevent from 01 February 2017 in the House of Commons, which shows a surprising degree of accord among both Conservative and Labour MPs that the programme leads to alienation and mistrust. The hope is that some less draconian, less Big Brother-ish means can be found to address extremist influence, without imposing a statutory duty on teachers and other professionals to inform on children who show vague signs of what is subjectively perceived as radicalisation.
A programme like Prevent (or something better) will meet with greater acceptance if it can develop further insight into the nature of religious experience, and the type of conversion experiences which many young Muslims are bound to have. The goal should be to support the authentic practice of strong religious faith, but to separate out (through critical discussion) the bad ideas which terrorists bring in. This is a more subtle approach which does not suspect or denigrate Muslim religion, but which tries to counter the spread of bad ideas which are not at their core Muslim religious ideas, but merely terrorist political ideas.
Terrorism is constantly in the news — on loop both literally and figuratively — so it cannot help being discussed. By all means outlaw terrorism, but not discussion of it. In the aforementioned debate, Hon. Lucy Allan said:
The Government naturally have a duty to protect the public, and they are seeking to discharge that duty through the Prevent strategy. We all want to see extremism tackled, and the intention of Prevent is, in theory, to stop young people being drawn into terrorism and to protect them from extremist views that might render them more susceptible to radicalisation. We get into more difficult territory, however, when we start to tackle belief, ideas and the expression of political and religious views. The whole issue then becomes a great deal more complicated. We could find ourselves in a situation in which the Government decide which views are too extreme and debate can be shut down, so that issues that are better discussed and challenged openly are driven underground.
That is all before anyone has even done anything. Prevent is operating in a pre-crime space, which sounds positively Orwellian. That is at the heart of some of the concerns being expressed about the Prevent duty. Our schools need to be places where young people can discuss any issue at all and develop the ability to see extremist ideologies for what they are. We need to help young people develop the resilience to challenge those ideologies, and if we expose them to only the views that the Government find acceptable, we deny them the opportunity to challenge alternative views and fail to equip them with the ability to think critically and learn how to exercise judgment.
Of the many problems with Prevent, I would like to focus on one in particular: that strong religious faith may be mistaken for (or conflated with) “pre-radicalisation” or “pre-crime.”
As I will shortly discuss, it is not uncommon for a young person to have a conversion experience which takes the form of a personal encounter with a loving God. No matter what their religious background (and this also happens to those raised as atheists), such an experience is certainly to be valued and treasured. It is often an ecstatic experience.
I think that genuine spiritual ecstasy can have a radicalising effect on young minds, if it is not accompanied by wisdom in philosophy. Peace Studies should be part of Prevent or similar programmes. Peace Studies is a universal course of study which can help anyone — whether Muslim, Christian, agnostic, or what-have-you — to live in peace and harmony with his or her neighbours, and with the world at large. This is what God wants of us, for all of us to live in peace. Most secular thinkers also favour peace.
Wars are a dreadful abomination and corruption. They should be eliminated, and one day they will be eliminated. But if human nature has not yet been perfected to the extent that it can completely eliminate wars, then let the wars be confined to conflict between combatants in war zones. To intentionally target civilian non-combatants — whether this is done by terrorist groups or government forces — is utterly wrong.
My point to those fulfilling statutory duties under Prevent is this: Don’t look on strong religious faith as something bad or dangerous. Look on it as something which, for many young people, is a natural process of awakening which may manifest as conversion, or as intensification of a faith which had previously lain dormant. (See this article in the Guardian for more about religious conversion via psychologist William James.)
One possible scenario for a Muslim youth is that he or she will grow up wanting to be as much like other (non-Muslim) children as possible. So, he or she may not place much emphasis on faith. But at some point in young adulthood, he/she may undergo conversion to a more active form of faith, including regular prayer, religious garb, and more meticulous observance of dietary restrictions. These changes may be precipitated or intensified by a religious experience of the type catalogued by William James — the kind of religious experience which is a common thread among many different religions. At the core of this experience may be awareness of a personal, loving God, and a sense of ecstatic union.
Faith is not the problem, religion is not the problem, ecstatic love for Allah is not the problem; the problem comes when young people whose faith is not yet mature and tempered by wisdom in philosophy or Peace Studies are told by terrorist recruiters that their faith justifies the killing of people of a different faith, or no faith at all.
I’m not wild about the government telling people how to think about religion; but to the extent this is done, it should at least be based on a more subtle understanding. I realize there are bound to be problems when government tries to distinguish between “authentic” religious ideas and terrorist political ideas. But once government has gotten into that messy business, it needs all the help it can get to sort the tangle.
In the same debate in which Hon. Lucy Allan voiced incisive criticism of Prevent, Hon. Byron Davies stuck up for the programme:
The importance of the Prevent strategy was made clear in the other place in 2016. I draw attention to Channel, which is one part of the broader Prevent agenda. It is an intensive, one-to-one mentoring programme that challenges violent views through the de-programming and rewiring of an individual.
This view, in which the human being is seen as a kind of robot which — when it malfunctions by adopting ideas considered undesirable — is in need of de-programming or rewiring, reflects a certain secular, scientific, or technocratic mindset which is largely hostile to religion. Members of many minority sects have suffered at the hands of those who felt justified in trying to “de-program” them of religious beliefs which posed no danger, and which were sincerely arrived at by the practitioners themselves.
De-programming as a proposed solution to the problem of radicalisation evokes the Orwellian world of IngSoc, and is characteristic of what’s already problematic about Prevent in its present form. The same arguments used in the past to justify aggressive de-programming of non-violent religious minorities are now resurfacing to justify aspects of Prevent: namely, that the attacks on freedom of thought and freedom of belief are justified under the broad rubric of “safeguarding the vulnerable” — that is, a “duty of care” argument.
Duty of care is clear when a school teacher knows that a child is being beaten or sexually abused, or is becoming addicted to heroin; it is far less clear when a child is merely suspected of having become more deeply religious — which in some cases is all that’s happened.
If the teacher’s own beliefs are Christian or Secular Humanist, the teacher may read into a child’s newfound or intensified love for Islam something sinister and dangerous which is not actually present. While it’s true that some terrorists claim to be motivated by religion, most religious practitioners — even those of deep faith and orthodox practice — are not terrorists. It is therefore inappropriate (to say the least) to treat people whose only “crime” is deep religious faith as if they were terrorists-in-training.
Some may say that since I am not Muslim, it is the height of folly for me to weigh in on these matters. But as a student of peace and a person of faith, I feel it’s my duty to share what I’ve learned in life. I am not a government bureaucrat or any kind of authority figure; I’m simply sharing my personal view in a time of trouble. And my view is this: Love God, be passionate in your love of God, be ecstatic in your love of God, be certain in your faith; but don’t let anyone tell you that God wants you to kill or maim other human beings in the name of faith; for this is a terrible corruption and not at all what God wants of us. No one is more anti-Muslim than the terrorist.
There’s a famous novel by American writer J.D. Salinger called Catcher in the Rye. One passage goes: “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”
If your religious conversion or spiritual awakening is genuine, lasting, and true, then it should make you want to live humbly for a cause, not die blowing up your fellow human beings. You can have strong, ecstatic faith, yet also balance that with a mature understanding, so that you recognize the presence of God in all humanity and would never consider killing others of a different faith, nor would you try by force to convert them to your own beliefs. This principle applies not just to Muslims, but also to would be Crusaders.
The goal of programmes like Prevent should never be to discourage strong faith or religious study, but to help young people temper their faith with wisdom, tolerance, and ideals of peace. I feel that wisdom, tolerance, and ideals of peace are fully consistent with Islam. So there need be no conflict provided we view things in a proper perspective. We need to develop the insight that faith is not bad, religion is not bad, only the problem comes when people bring in bad ideas, mixing them with the good.
You can have the most delicious sweetmeats which are absolutely delightful and made from the purest ingredients — but if someone mixes in arsenic then what was good becomes completely bad and poisonous. Pure love of God is good, but if someone mixes in the idea that out of devotion to God we have to kill dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people, then this kind of philosophy is Satan’s philosophy, not God’s philosophy.
I don’t claim to have the answer. Solutions to society’s problems will come from many different quarters. As a sympathetic observer, I do think it’s possible for someone to be British to the core, Muslim to the core, deeply religious, yet 100% against terrorism. For some people, this is the ideal.
There are also geopolitical causes of terrorism, as well as problems with our definitions of terrorism. Some people look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and feel that Western nations are the terrorists, dropping bombs on innocent civilians. So we can say there is a vicious cycle: War leads to terrorism and terrorism leads to war.
There’s an important distinction between causation and justification. Terrorism is never justified. But in looking for the root causes of domestic terrorism, we are not wrong to see foreign wars as an aggravating factor. This fact should not become a political football or part of the emotional “blame game.” Nor does this fact automatically lead to the conclusion that Western nations should play no role whatsoever in overseas conflicts. But Western nations must tread carefully, lest they be drawn into a conflict which they cannot solve, and where their use of military force only adds to senseless loss of life, or leads to abuses such as torture.
The problems of war and terrorism are intractable; that’s why we need Peace Studies to help us find long-term solutions to the cycle of violence. So much effort goes into planning for war, budgeting for war, gearing up for war, studying for war. If we put even half as much effort into Peace Studies, gradually we could sow the seeds of peace, and eventually these seeds would germinate.
Peace is not easy to arrive at. This is exactly why the field of Peace Studies has been developed. In order to achieve something difficult, we have to study the problem and begin visualizing the means by which we can solve it. If we just look quickly and say “Peace is too difficult, let us return to war” then we can never solve the problem. So let us devote ample resources to the problem of achieving peace, just as we have already devoted massive resources to the continued waging of war. If we never develop the vision and imagination needed to achieve peace, then we will continue to suffer the twin tragedies of war and terrorism.
Returning to the topic of Prevent: Any insights into the Muslim religious experience will be fairly useless without a human connection based on honesty and trust. Where government programmes have had success, it’s probably due to individuals who made that human connection and were able to act as teachers, mentors, or positive role models. Where government bureaucrats and behavioural psychologists devise leaflets to be covertly directed at the Muslim population en masse, I doubt this has a good effect.
The spirit in which a thing is done makes all the difference. Broadly speaking, counter-terrorism comes under the heading of social control. The notion of fighting terrorism by practising behaviour modification on British Muslims, pressuring them to conform to mainstream views, seems ill-fated because it smacks of inauthenticity, fails to address individual concerns, and may lack an underlying sense of warmth and caring. At its worst, the subtle message of Prevent is “Tone it down or be singled out for counselling” — but such counselling may be culturally insensitive and lead to further alienation.
According to Frances Webber, Vice-Chair of the Institute of Race Relations, “The government’s counter-radicalisation policy is trying to channel thought, speech and ideas into a fairly narrow concept of what’s acceptable, and everything else is becoming potentially ‘pre-criminal’.”
Insight, compassion, and caring need to be practised on an individual level to effect positive change. There must be concern for the person, rather than the desired social control outcome, e.g. “I’m here to make sure you don’t become a terrorist.” I think approaching people with that thinly veiled social control agenda is an instant turn-off. But if you’re a good teacher, mentor, role model, or simply friend, you can help someone make good choices — not by manipulating them, but by just being there for them — showing them that Britain is a beautiful place to be a Muslim, and it doesn’t involve hating anyone or bombing anything.
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
Sidebar: Heritage Radio AM – Manchester
While researching this article, I checked out the BMHC website and learned that they also run a radio station. I was really curious what a Muslim radio station in Manchester would sound like. I only listened for about an hour, but found it quite interesting:
As a student of world religion and world music, I enjoyed the mix of music, prayers, and adverts. (“Remember, if it’s plumbing, it will be available at Cheetham Plumbing!”)
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