In the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks, religion was singled out by many in the government as the key driver behind terrorism. The vows to win the battle for hearts and minds came along with an unprecedented emphasis on the Muslim community as the provider of "home-grown" solutions to what was seen as a home-grown problem. All that was needed, it was argued, was for the Muslim community to "get its house in order".
To continue clinging to this discredited hypothesis, after countless reports and testimonies by intelligence services both here and in the US, (the latest being Eliza Manningham-Buller's to the Iraq enquiry) would be preposterous. It was foreign policy that fuelled radicalisation. In fact, religion can be a valuable tool in combating terrorism, refuting terrorists' attempts to confer religious legitimacy on their actions. A Gallup study in 2008 showed that many of those Muslims who opposed terrorism did so on religious grounds, whereas those condoning it did so for political, not religious, reasons. Many Muslim organisations in the field of counter-radicalisation utilise an Islamic ethical framework in their work.
However, integrating theology into a government counterterrorism effort is an altogether different matter. Governments are simply not best-placed to engage in the intricate and complex business of theology. As John Denham recognised rather belatedly in 2009, "Government and local government are not experts on religion". By nature, they seek to control debates and manipulate them to suit their political priorities. Their fraught relations with communities – already strained by the impact of draconian counterterrorism laws and allegations of torture – means that they simply do not have the legitimacy or trust needed to engage in sensitive theological discussions. Any attempts to do so are likely to be read as an unwelcome interference, leading to a further breakdown in trust.
All of these fears played out in the during the implementation of the Prevent agenda, which left widespread disillusionment in its wake. What began as an effort to involve communities as partners in the prevention of extremist violence quickly took on a life of its own, morphing into a large-scale experiment in social engineering, blending security haphazardly with questions of cohesion, identity and integration. The government's limited understanding of religion manifested itself in a preference for nebulous, politicised terms such as "moderate" and "radical" which served as a stick with which to beat those organisations and individuals it did not agree with, and shepherd the errant in the right direction.
While the government was devising criteria to determine what constituted a "moderate" Muslim, it was violating its own standards by creating, funding and promoting groups whose version of Islam fit neatly with its political agenda. This peculiar version of "democratic engagement" served to marginalise many groups. It created an artificial distinction between "moderate" and "extremist" which was exploited by both government and the various Muslim bodies that had become involved.
In fact, the government's own research identified numerous "drivers" for radicalisation, including political and economic grievances and social and psychological factors. Yet it chose to focus on theology as the element from which all extremism stemmed.
None of which is to say that engaging with religious communities has no role in counterterrorism. However, the experience of Prevent has revealed the dangers of making theology a key part of the counterterrorist toolkit. The political machinations involved in determining who could participate and who could not have consumed considerably more time and effort than can be justified by the results of these projects, while also encouraging sectarianism within the Muslim community. And while the government worked to influence theological debates, its failures in other fields – rendition, torture, detention without charge – undermined the legitimacy and trust which might have enabled it to play a genuine role in such discussions.
Theology has provided far too much of a temptation to government – providing it with a convenient distraction from its own responsibilities. There is no way to avoid the long-term painstaking work of tackling inequality, increasing participation and empowering the civic institutions that are vital to tackling terrorism and extremist violence. A mere fatwa here or theological roadshow there will simply not do the trick. (By; Intissar Kherigi)
Intissar Kherigi studied Law at King's College, Cambridge, then specialised in human rights at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, London School of Economics. She has worked in the House of Lords, the United Nations in New York, and the European parliament in Brussels.