Public Discussion: Exploring Extremism in Society

For more than a decade, inhuman and disturbing acts of terrorism have been one of the most fundamental concerns affecting our society, at both a national and international level. The most recent horrific and deeply saddening incidence occurred on our very doorstep, when Drummer Lee Rigby was brutally murdered in Woolwich on 22nd May 2013. This heartless act of terror has once again demonstrated that there is a strong need for understanding the phenomenon of terrorism that exists within the human mind, in order to identify how certain ideologies or thoughts can cause one to carry out these actions and thus correspondingly determine the ways in which society can collectively work towards eradicating such atrocities.

In order to provide a platform to meet this need, the Al-Mahdi Institute held a public discussion entitled ‘Exploring Extremism in Society’ on Tuesday 18th June 2013, which consisted of an illustrious panel of experts and community leaders from the West Midlands, and an audience of members from the general public from a variety of backgrounds. The learned panel included Dr Chris Hewer expert in Christian-Muslim relations, Dr Mohammad Naseem Chairman of the Birmingham Mosque Trust, Dr Haifaa Jawad Senior Lecturer in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Birmingham Univeristy, Shaista Gohir MBE a leading Mulsim womens activitst , Jahaan Mahmood Military Historian, Councillor Brett O’Reilly and Shaykh Arif Abdulhussain of the Al-Mahdi Institute.

The discussions highlighted that unless we seek to understand the causes that lead people to commit such acts, we are never going to be able to prevent them from occurring and to move society away from terrorism. As such, Dr Chris Hewer examined the effects of varying factors such as culture, global politics and distortion in the interpretation of religious texts. In particular, he emphasised the need to consider “how religious communities have tried to help human beings to see that what they are doing is wrong – and why have they failed.”

Meanwhile, Dr Haifaa Jawad reflected that whilst “every religion, including Islam, condemns extremism, why have a section of Muslims become engaged in this?” She discussed that there are perhaps two key aspects to this issue; firstly, certain socio-political economic factors that are underpinned by western policy have led to creating a sense of alienation and identity crisis, thereby causing radicalism amongst people from the Muslim faith. Secondly, religious factors, particularly the separation of the spiritual aspect of Islam from its legal aspect, with the latter dominating the former, have led to significant confusion and uncertainty existing within the religion.

Lending support to the first aspect, Jahan Mahmood, particularly discussed how governmental activities internationally, such as the illegal intervention in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, have resulted in creating an emotional response in individuals who are both deeply disturbed and have an unclear understanding of their faith, thus leading them to react negatively by committing violent acts of terror.

Shaista Gohir, a prominent women’s rights activist and campaigner, looked at the role of government in tackling the issue of extremism, and questioned whether “they are doing enough to speak to people who actually engage with grass-roots communities and young people who are on the fringes of terrorism”. It was established that the need for greater dialogue, in order to understand the causes of terrorism and why individuals feel alienated and disengaged from society, is imperative. Indeed, as stated by Labour councillor Brett O’Reilly, “if we are going to tackle extremism, whether it is far right in terms of the EDL or BNP, and islamophobia, or if it is extremism within the Muslim community, we have to be brave enough to have that dialogue, otherwise extremism will continue to thrive.”

The role of parenting was also considered in some depth during the course of the discussion. As noted by Shaista Gohir, it is highly challenging to be a parent in society today, as it vastly differs to the society that existed a decade ago. Thus, it became evident that it is crucial that parents have an in-depth understanding of their children and their views, including who they are interacting with, which can be achieved by encouraging stronger communication within families.

Shaykh Arif Abdulhussain, executive director and senior lecturer at the Al-Mahdi Institute, moved on to stress the need for taking a more pragmatic and self-critical approach to the issue of terrorism. He highlighted that despite all other socio-political and economical factors, the fact that barbaric acts can be committed not just in the UK but globally in a manner where such expressions of discontent are justified under the name of religion, demonstrates that Muslim theology needs to be critically evaluated. As stated by Shaykh Arif: “Muslims need to take responsibility, to be brave enough to state this, and to review and reform their theology.”

Undeniably, the role of faith is to establish peace and harmony, in order to bring about unity amongst all people and to help them to reach the fullest realisation of an individual’s humanity – it is not a tool that can be used to justify the taking of human lives. Thus, it is critical that the current mind-set is reformed, and people recognize that faith can instead be used to express discontentment in a peaceful and meaningful way. As identified by Shaykh Arif, “it has largely been due to the failure of Muslims in condemning extremist acts that we have reached to this point today”. Thus, theology needs to be reinterpreted again on the basis of human value, and this view was supported by Dr Chris Hewer, who stated that: “we have a crucial need to revisit and rearticulate the principles of Islamic theology in this multi-faith, multicultural and democratic secular society, in which our common values should be human values”.

Whilst it became clear from the public discussion held at the Al-Mahdi Institute that there needs to be a holistic and collective approach to understanding extremism, the causes of it, and how it translates into such horrific manifestations, Muslims need to understand their responsibility, and consequently support the outright condemnation of any acts of terror or barbarism that are carried out under the name of religion.

In essence, a worldview that uses religious texts to promote this extreme level of ungodliness in the name of God must be eradicated, and the Al-Mahdi Institute aims to fully work with society in reaching this goal. Indeed, Shaykh Arif’s parting note was met with unanimous consent amongst the audience, where he clarified that “the mosques, the families, the education systems and the schools do not only have to instil a sense of loyalty within the children towards humanity and God, but they must also instil a sense of loyalty to the country in which they live”. All faiths can be used positively to promote human values, co-existence and harmony in reaching out to achieve the ultimate good – God does not have any biases, He is the God of all equally, and if God is the most tolerant then there is no excuse but for us to be tolerant.

Link to Gallery