Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.’
It was the evening of 20th September 2001, when George W Bush uttered these fateful words to Congress in Washington, nine days after members of al-Qaeda’s Hamburg cell had launched their infamous attack on America, killing 2,977 people.
More than 14 years on, the problem of terrorism is far deeper and broader than the architects of the West’s original response ever imagined. On one hand, the Western allies’ various military interventions have proved to be far from decisive, while on the other, terror attacks by extremist groups have escalated to the point where they take place on almost a daily basis. Although the Paris attacks dominated headlines, during 2015 alone there were a total of 386 separate terrorist attacks – the vast majority of them Islamic – around the world.
Inside the Jihadi Mind, a 2015 report from The Centre on Religion and Geopolitics, sponsored by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, explains that ‘After the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda had approximately 300 militants. ISIS alone now has, at a low estimate, 31,000 fighters across Syria and Iraq’.
A HUMAN PROBLEM
What is clearer than ever is that it’s time to think differently, because if anything about the current situation is for certain, it is that the same old approach will always yield the same old outcomes.
It is also time to recognise that even though Islamic extremism presents our contemporary world with a unique threat, radicalisation is much more than an Islamic problem. It is a human problem, fuelled by the fact that so many young people – from those enticed by the lure of gangs and guns to those seduced by the sinister world of jihadist terrorism – do not feel that they have a place or voice in mainstream society.
The problem is that our present counter-extremism and counterterrorism solutions just don’t make this connection. As a result, they fail to get to the heart of things. Instead of tackling the roots – the fundamentals – of the issue, they attempt to deal with the symptoms of its growth. In a phrase, they are just not radical enough.
The primary answer to the problem of radicalisation is radicalisation
Religious extremism – whether Islamic or based in any other ideology – finds no more fertile soil than among people who harbour a sense of injustice, and believe they are unheard. It is a complex issue in which socio-economic injustice, lack of education and Western foreign policies all play their part. It slowly takes root in the seemingly unanswered search for a voice, identity and hope, which inevitably leads to frustration, resentment and anger. But, the acidic rain that brings such rigorous growth to this deadly poisonous plant is a fundamentalist misreading and distortion of its sacred text.
The issue of the overliteralistic, manipulation and exploitation of the Koran, or any other sacred text, propagated by a ‘pied-piper preacher’ is, to change the metaphor, the ingredient that makes the whole simmering mix of angst and anger boil over.
A PERVERSION OF ISLAM
Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar University is regarded as the world’s most important centre of Sunni Muslim theology. Professor Ahmad al-Tayeb, its grand imam, is perhaps the most influential Muslim leader in the world. In 2014, he gave the opening speech of a conference organised by the Muslim World League at the Grand Mosque in Mecca – called specifically to discuss the issue of radicalisation. In it he told senior clerics from across the Islamic world that it was time to acknowledge that the ideology of the extremists is a ‘perversion of the Islamic religion’. Jihadist factions, he said, commit ‘barbaric crimes with the clothing of this sacred religion, assuming names such as “Islamic State” with the intention of exporting their false Islam’.
Speaking in the House of Lords as part of the 2015 debate which led up to Britain’s decision to be involved in air strikes against ISIS in Syria, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, commented: ‘If we act only against ISIL, globally, and only in the way proposed so far, we will strengthen their resolve, increase their recruitment and encourage their sympathisers…military action is only one part of the answer. But there must be a global, theological and ideological component – not just one in this country – to what we are doing, and it must be one that is relentlessly pursued and promoted.’
The tragic reality, however, is that there are also those who preach division and hostility in the name of the Church. One prominent example – with global influence – is Franklin Graham, the son of the great preacher and wonderfully gracious Dr Billy Graham, who now heads his father’s Christian evangelistic organisation. As recently as December 2014 Franklin described Islam as a ‘religion of war’, making it clear that he has not softened his stance since he controversially referred to Islam as a ‘very wicked and evil religion’ in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. He said: ‘This is Islam. It has not been hijacked by radicals. This is the faith, this is the religion. It is what it is. It speaks for itself.’
A RELIGION OF PEACE?
Jesus’ famous words ‘Love your enemies’ probably amount to, at one and the same time, the most admired and least practised piece of teaching in history. But, despite its chequered performance, through the centuries, Christianity remains a religion of peace. At its very heart is the story of Jesus who came to preach the gospel – or good news – of peace, and died for his peaceful, subversive teachings at the hands of an empire and religious structure hell-bent on so-called redemptive violence.
Inspire is a peacemaking initiative by Oasis for schools, children’s and youth groups
Inspire aims to support young people in finding a positive narrative for their lives; a sense of worth, direction and belonging which will enable them to live fulfilling, peaceful lives immune to the lure of gangs, violence, extremism and terror. The project is designed to add value to the educational curriculum. It will also provide extracurricular activities that have peace-making at their core. It will enable young people to develop skills around active listening, negotiation and dialogue, conflict resolution, community building and social responsibility, as well as a respect for and celebration of diversity of religion and culture. Inspire will culminate in Peace 2018; a series of simultaneous events of remembrance and hope, which will take place across the UK on Friday, 9th November 2018 in town and community halls, cathedrals and churches, mosques, synagogues and temples, as well as war memorials.
In just the same way, however flawed the practice of Islam has become in the hands of a minority who have used the Koran as a tool for exclusion and violence, in essence, it is a religion of peace. Indeed, that is the very heart of the term Islam itself, which is derived from the Arabic root Salema meaning peace, purity, submission and obedience.
To quote Koran 5.32, which is widely held across the Muslim community as the foundation for creating a movement committed to the centrality of finding non-violent approaches to conflict resolution: ‘Whoever slays a person, it is as if he had slain mankind entirely... and whosoever gives life to a soul, it shall be as if he had given life to mankind altogether.’
EVERYONE NEEDS A NARRATIVE
In July 2015, David Cameron commented: ‘…when groups like ISIL seek to rally our young people to their poisonous cause, it can offer them a sense of belonging that they can lack here at home…’ The key he said, is ‘the question of identity’, adding that our task ‘must be to build a more cohesive society, so more people feel a part of it and are therefore less vulnerable to extremism’.
My small, flawed, personal micro-story was given a bigger, global, even cosmic context
If that is true, rather than simply attempting to build a defence against the threat of radicalisation through anti-radicalisation initiatives – such as that prescribed here in the UK by Prevent, the government’s post 9/11 counter-terrorism strategy – we should also be prioritising how we can imbibe a deeper, and more powerful, sense of purpose, identity, meaning and belonging into the lives of vulnerable young people in our communities.
Nature abhors a vacuum. So, rather than making our overall battle one to ‘prevent’ radicalisation, our priority should be to ‘encourage’ or ‘inspire’ it. I believe that the primary answer to the problem of radicalisation is radicalisation; radicalisation into a positive and compelling narrative that is worth living by. As Martin Luther King Jr said: ‘The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be? Will we be extremists for hate or for love?’ It is in owning a healthy and life-affirming story, which creates resilience, that will guard against a warped and destructive one. In the words of Catholic writer Richard Rohr, ‘When you get your, “Who am I?” question right, all of your, “What should I do?” questions tend to take care of themselves.’
If we are going to overcome the escalating problem of extremism and terrorism that our world faces, we need to find a narrative – or group of related narratives – strong enough, compelling enough, infectious enough, deep enough, rooted enough and radical enough to turn the tide.
A PLACE AND A VOICE
For a healthy sense of identity, everyone needs to feel that they have a place; that they can contribute to the society of which they are a part, and that their contribution is appreciated. And, the fact that so many young Muslims, as well as those of other cultures, do not feel that they have a place or voice in mainstream society is at the very heart of the problem. Without a compelling overarching story – a sense of who we are and where we fit – we are lost.
Read these words from the recruitment section of the British Army website.
The reality of radicalisation
Tuesday, 17th February 2015. Three British teenage schoolgirls from east London, Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase, left their homes before 8am, each giving their family a plausible reason for why they would be out for the day. Instead, they met and travelled to Gatwick Airport to board a flight for Istanbul.
Commander Richard Walton, of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism unit, described the three as ‘normal girls’ and ‘straight-A students’. In time, however, each contacted their parents to say they were living in Syria, with no plans to return home. Instead, police believed that they were training with ISIS for ‘special missions’.
It’s the tip of a large iceberg. In October 2014, Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, revealed that an average of five Britons travel to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS every week. The big question is how many more are there – choosing not to leave, but to stay and to plot? Hogan-Howe concluded that the ‘drumbeat of terrorism in the UK’ was ever-growing ‘faster and more intense’.
‘It’s a job where no two days are the same. Where travel and adventure go with the territory. Where you work with people who become lifelong friends…everyone has the opportunity and support to succeed.
‘The Army is different from most jobs. The people you work alongside aren’t just your colleagues, they’re your best mates…you get somewhere to call home.’
Why do young people join ISIS? Have we ever considered that it may well be for many of the same reasons that they might join a regular army?
This, of course, is exactly why the issues of good hermeneutics and clear communication are essential to both Muslim and Christian communities. We need to take responsibility for articulating better, bigger, more life-affirming, inclusive and joyous versions of our stories. This must become the pressing task of our scholars and practitioners.
I was radicalised at the age of 14. Through my attendance at a youth club at South Norwood Baptist Church in south London, my life was transformed. I felt as though I was lifted out of the pettiness that had consumed so much of my energy to that point, and into a different dimension. As a result, I’ve slowly come to understand life in a particular way, which has brought shape, meaning and hope to my journey thus far. My small, flawed, personal microstory microstory was given a bigger, global, even cosmic context as it was caught up into God’s big story.
My life was changed by the powerful combination of the investment of time by young adults who I looked up to, and their example around the living out of the teaching of Jesus. I was inspired.
What kind of counter-narrative do we need on which to build a counter-extremist strategy that is powerful enough to bring real peace to our streets as well as to our wider world? How do we promote a better understanding of Islam in our local churches alongside a willingness to build bridges of peace through dialogue with the Muslim community? How do we enable young people to develop core skills around active listening, conflict resolution, negotiation and community building? How do we help them to find confidence in their faith at the same time as a respect for diversity of religion and culture?
These are big issues that await our response. Will our generation demonstrate courage through our willingness to break new ground as we work together for peace, or is our legacy one whereby we will be remembered only as having been part of the problem?
As Eleanor Roosevelt, the diplomat, human rights activist and wife of Franklin, who served as American President through the Second War World, once said: ‘It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.’
Steve Chalke is the founder and leader of the Oasis Trust and serves as the senior minister of Oasis Church, Waterloo. His new book Radical: Exploring the Rise of Extremism and the Pathway to Peace (Oasis Books) explores the role of schools, local churches, children’s and youth groups in the search for peace