News and Comment

Faith communities need to be at the heart of tackling extremism

Friday 16 May 2014

The Terrorism Task force established by David Cameron concluded in December 2013 that:

“Extremism is less likely to be tolerated by communities which come together to challenge it”

Faith groups are critical to building bridges between different communities and challenging extremism. At a recent conference hosted by Westminster Briefing, with speakers from the Home Office and The Quilliam Foundation, we at OPM spoke about the important role faith communities play in delivering the objectives of the Prevent agenda.

Whilst faith communities are not a homogeneous group – and as we have seen with controversies about hate speakers – not necessarily benevolent – they are of critical importance in achieving many of the objectives set out in the Prevent strategy, including shaping the design and delivery of local Prevent funded projects and action plans; countering extremist narratives; identifying and supporting people displaying vulnerabilities; and safeguarding institutions, such as schools.

The role played by faith communities in tackling extremism has shifted since the 7/7 bombings. Up until that point the Government sought to involve groups more directly – especially those of the Muslim faith – in developing solutions to the problem of violent extremism. This model included the nomination of Prevent leads in various faith groups and the formal involvement of faith communities in local partnerships. This ‘blanket approach’ to involving Muslim communities in the fight against extremism exhibited by the Government was sometimes criticised. Over time, and with the arrival of the new Prevent strategy and a reduction in central funding, this approach has been replaced by a more informal, community-led strategy, targeting only those faith communities that appear most vulnerable.

Research by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue shows that this community-led, less top down approach, is more likely to work:

‘Civil society [including faith communities] can challenge the narratives of radicalisers and extremists and put forward positive alternatives. These counter-messages are often more effective when they come from communities themselves, rather than governments.” 

There are many good practice examples of this approach taking place across the country, including:

  • Haringey Muslim Forum which involves a wide range of local people in shaping the local Prevent agenda, as well as feeding in views from the communities on other issues of concern
  • Birmingham Feast Project, which is a cross faith group that uses social action to break down barriers to those of different faiths
  • Leicester’s workshops with female scholars (Alimas) on topics such as radicalisation, citizenship and extremism

Involving people of faith in an agenda that is as charged and emotive as extremism is not without its challenges. Many communities continue to be suspicious, if not downright hostile, to the Prevent agenda. Some parts of communities of faith – particularly young people and women – and smaller faith communities, can also be very difficult to engage with. Pressures on local authority and police funding also mean that there are not necessarily the resources locally to set up forums and more formal approaches to engagement.

The way forward might be challenging, but as the examples above show, it is also possible to make progress. Those who are leading the way here are using a combination of outreach to engage seldom heard communities, and a commitment to supporting approaches that are truly community-led. They are also ensuring that strategic plans and projects are designed and involve faith communities throughout.