In Britain, tolerance and the ‘acceptance’ of extremism

Political analyst Dwayne Ryan Menezes tells DW that British Prime Minister Theresa May is right to start a difficult conversation about tolerance and extremism. The UK has avoided the discussion for too long, he says.

UK London am Tag nach dem Anschlag (Reuters/P. Nicholls)

DW: British Prime Minister Theresa May says there is “too much tolerance for extremism” in the United Kingdom. What does she mean by that?

Dwayne Ryan Menezes: For various reasons, tolerance of different religions, which is good, has come to mean a passive acceptance and even gradual accommodation of the ideological extremisms that have emerged in their name, which does not have to be the case. The irony, however, is that the tolerance of religious extremism is counterproductive – not only to any endeavor to promote interfaith trust or appreciation of diversity in society, but also to the religious communities themselves where different factions wrestle for control over how the religion ought to be interpreted.

Turning a blind eye to the distribution of anti-Western leaflets, the endorsement of homophobia and the subjugation of women, or the preaching of sermons that advocate violence against unbelievers in any religious institution, for instance, will obviously have serious implications, not least because it will gradually empower those whose perspectives and objectives may not reflect the highest ideals one might see a particular religion to represent. After all, extremists and terrorists – even if they operate independently and remotely – are not isolated entities floating freely without a social network in which they are embedded, but often emerge from certain, immediate social environments, physical or virtual, where they might find explicit or implicit moral, financial and logistical support, a social environment that sociologist Stefan Malthaner describes as “radical milieu.”

UK Dr Dwayne Ryan Menezes (The Polar Connection)Dwayne Ryan Menezes is the founder and director of two London-based foreign policy think tanks, Human Security Centre and Polar Research and Policy Initiative. He is also the coordinator of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Yemen in the UK Parliament. His views are his own and not reflective of those of any organization with which he currently is or formerly was affiliated

Why must the “realization” that British governments have tolerated extremism for a long time lead to “embarrassing conversations,” as May put it in her speech following Saturday’s attacks? And what could these “embarrassing conversations” be? And with whom?

For too long, we have been simply too afraid to call a spade a spade. We rightly do not wish to hold a religion responsible for the acts of what some might perpetrate in its name. We understandably do not wish to cause offence to entire religious communities because of the deeds of the extremists among them. We thankfully do not wish to be, appear, or be accused of being bigoted, racist or xenophobic or encourage any form of bigotry or discrimination that might make a minority group feel threatened, insecure or uncomfortable. We do not want our naming of one big problem – that of Islamist extremism – to contribute to another growing problem: that of Islamophobia. Look at the great reluctance with which we even attach the adjective “Islamist” to “extremist” when there is an attack or acknowledge that the ideologies that fuel violence may sometimes find their bearings in religious texts and clerical rhetoric.

Contrast that with the great readiness with which we search for what we may have done wrong that could explain why such trials and tribulations should be meted out to us or explore the many alternative identity markers that could be used to describe the perpetrators – “Asian,” “Asian origin,” “North African” – as if such clumsy ethnic categories best explains their motivations. Clearly, our fear of being, or even coming across as being, intolerant of any religion has resulted in a gradual acceptance even of the religious extremisms that have emerged in its name, and it is time that we, as a united nation, say “enough is enough.” This will mean having embarrassing conversations, which will largely entail confronting the elephant in the room, rather than walking all around it and touching it and hearing it and feeling it and yet describing it as just a “forest creature.”

Remember, the greatest problem we need to tackle is the political ideology of Islamism, but, to do so, we have to first understand that the fight is not with Islam, but within Islam, and we have to talk about Islam if we must support Muslims keen to pull the religion away from the extremists.

But “embarrassing conversations” might not be sufficient to tackleextremism and radicalism  in the United Kingdom; the government will have to make some difficult and unpopular decisions and implement them. Do you think May can afford that politically?

As I’ve suggested earlier, we need to study carefully not just the causes and consequences of radicalization, but also the processes by which individuals and groups get radicalized. We need to focus on the recruitment and grooming processes. Furthermore, we need to expand our focus from “radicalized” and “radicalizing” individuals to the “radical milieu” – the social environment that facilitates the radicalization. Only by addressing this gap can we ever hope to make genuine progress in thwarting the forces that threaten to undermine our unity and disturb our peace. We need leadership that is willing to confront and solve, not just appease. I am far more certain of May’s ability to do that than I am of Jeremy Corbyn’s.

The close ties that the United States and EU nations maintain to Saudi Arabia, which experts say funds extremists groups in the West, as well as in Muslim countries, render the talk about combating extremism pretty much hollow and superficial. Is it time for countries to revise their relationships with Riyadh?

Yes, of course, but it is a difficult matter. On the one hand, stability in Saudi Arabia is critical for the stability of the region as a whole, so I do not think that countries in the West have much of a choice when it comes to whether or not they should be close to the country. On the other hand, having close ties does not mean having to be friends that affirm everything the country does. If we are willing to be a critical friend to our closest ally – the United States – when necessary, then why must we be so obsequious to Saudi Arabia? Can anyone even in Saudi Arabia say with certainty that Yemen is a more stable place as a result of Saudi involvement? When one considers the prospect of increasing Saudi influence in the Maldives, where Islamism is already on the rise, is there really no reason to worry? How could Muslims – or the West – ever fight against Islamist extremism effectively without the source of its ideological and financial oxygen being regulated simultaneously?

I guess the concept of “radicalizing milieu” could also apply to states: Are there states that provide the enabling social environment in which the transnational problems of extremism and radicalization can derive the moral and financial support needed to prosper? If so, could those problems ever be addressed without a transnational policy focus on those enabler states?

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