PRACTISING religion the “correct way will help to win hearts and minds,” a government minister has said.
Muslim leaders have come out in full force condemning the actions of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in recent weeks, while the government has launched community initiatives to help bring people together.
In an interview with Eastern Eye, communities minister Lord Tariq Ahmad spoke about the boundaries of freedom of speech, tackling radicalisation and supporting Muslim communities.
Sadaqa Day, which took place last Sunday (22), brought together individuals, places of worship, schools, women’s and community groups, scouts and guides groups with the aim of making neighbourhoods a better place through volunteering activities in the community.
Lord Ahmad said there was no better way of breaking barriers and forming friendships than through working hard on a “shared interest”.
The initiative is part of a wider effort to bring communities together at a time when race relations could be facing their biggest challenge yet.
Last week, two militants claiming to be from ISIS killed 25 people, including one British tourist, inside a museum in Tunisia. Earlier this year, gunmen in Paris shocked the world when they killed 12 people from French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for depicting the Prophet Muhammad in cartoons.
Lord Ahmad, who has a background in banking and finance while also being an active member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, was serious and measured in his response to the Paris attacks. He said he understood why some Muslims may be offended by depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and revealed how he is “personally” offended by depictions of “any prophet”. However, he added, he would react by articulating his reasons for finding it offensive.
“If there is a line in the ground that you think has been crossed and you find it offensive, then you articulate those,” the peer told EE. At the time, Pope Francis entered the debate surrounding freedom of expression saying there should be limits and that religions had to be treated with respect, so that people’s faiths were not insulted or ridiculed. To illustrate his point, he said his assistant could expect a punch if he cursed his mother. “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit,” he said.
In response to that, Lord Ahmad said: “What the Pope was trying to convey is the strength of sentiment that was maybe felt by people of faith when they see actions such as this.
“Equally, he would be the first to say that ‘as a person of faith, you may feel it (offence), but that’s where faith comes in’. It’s about tempering that reaction to actually say, ‘What does faith tell you? It tells you to reflect and to ponder. And it tells you to consider. That’s why often where something upsets you, one of the things is to always reflect.
“Not to say what you think at that moment in time; that will often get you into trouble. That’s what any faith would always tell you. That’s the way to win hearts and minds.” In dealing with radicalisation, Lord Ahmad said it was important the government looked at each case individually and that no “knee jerk” responses were taken to tackle the issue.
According to the Home Office, an estimated 600 British citizens have travelled to Syria or Iraq to fight, of which around half are thought to have already returned to the UK. Many of them are thought to have been radicalised online, through social media and chat rooms. The number of arrests for Syria-related terrorist offences totalled 327 in 2014, a 32 per cent increase compared to the previous year.
“It’s not a one size fits all. It’s about trying to deal with individuals as individuals. And deal with their rehabilitation into society,” he said.
“Some of the stories, to put it into total context, even those people who have travelled to Syria or Iraq, aren’t about people who ideologically suddenly put on some kind of perverse interpretation of Islam.
“These are people who may have tokenistically picked something up and now trying to brief themselves and thought ‘okay, let’s get out there.’”
He acknowledged that extremist views on social media were a big problem and that the government was encouraging young people to counter the radical narratives online though the UK No Hate Speech Movement. It trains and supports young volunteers to operate on the internet, supporting victims and challenging hate-fuelled perpetrators through “counternarrative” activities. But Lord Ahmad insisted that any restriction on websites should be managed carefully.
“I think we need to be careful in the whole management of this process and not have a knee-jerk reaction to it and have a very managed process in ensuring how websites people are viewing, are looked upon.
“There is an onus, as much as there is on editors and journalists and social media, to actually say if there is something reported, number one, how can other users make sure there is an easy mechanism to alert people to it and, secondly, how quickly it can be taken down. There’s also an onus and responsibility in the household as a mother and father to ensure that what their child is viewing and what he or she is seeing is part of their parental responsibility.
“We’re working with social media companies to tackle just that and websites are being created to actually counter that narrative. This is a work in progress and we need to do a lot more in that regard.”
Lord Ahmad explained how initiatives, such as the Prevent strategy, the government’s programme for tackling extremism and Channel programme were working to prevent “anything from becoming a problem”, but said more reassurance was needed from authorities to help people come forward to report suspicious behaviour.
Last year the Metropolitan police launched a campaign urging Muslim mothers to talk to the authorities if they think their children may be about to go and fight in Syria. Lord Ahmad acknowledged that parents would understandably think twice before reporting their children,
“Of course, they would be worried. The reaction should often and always be to sort it out within the four walls. That would be the reaction of any parent to demonstrably see how they can deal with this.
“There’s also a need for reassurance, and how we can work with people who maybe going down that path to prevent it from becoming a problem before it does. There needs to be greater reassurance between the reporting authorities, the police and the parents who are actually looking to resolve this, other than it being someone being marked for life.”
In January, Lord Ahmad signed a letter with communities secretary Eric Pickles, which was sent to 1,000 Muslim leaders asking them to explain how faith in Islam “can be part of British identity”, after the attack on Charlie Hebdo. They said the government will do all it could to defeat “the voices of division” but ultimately the challenges of integration and radicalisation “cannot be solved from Whitehall alone”.
“This is about shared responsibility,” said the minister. “The government isn’t for a moment suggesting, ‘Muslim community, over to you’, because these people purport to act in the name of the faith you follow, or have some perverse interpretation of that faith.
“Recent events have shown that the government is working together with communities to ensure that we eradicate this from its core. But we do need the Muslim community to work with us on this and we are providing avenues, whether it’s reporting religious hate crime or indeed if they come across religious hate preachers themselves, the vehicles to allow them to address these issues.