The path into terrorism in the name of Islam is often described as a process of radicalisation. But to be radical is not necessarily to be violent. Violent radicals are clearly enemies of liberal democracies, but non-violent radicals might sometimes be powerful allies.
This report is a summary of two years of research examining the difference between violent and non-violent radicals in Europe and Canada. It represents a step towards a more nuanced understanding of behaviour across radicalised individuals, the appeal of the al-Qaeda narrative, and the role of governments and communities in responding.
Like any rousing Islamic preacher, Muhammed Tahir ul-Qadri’s voice rises to a shout and his index finger jabs as he hammers home a point. But rather than angry calls for jihad (holy war) or a vitriolic denunciation of the West and its aggressions against Islam, Qadri’s message, equally forcefully delivered, is about moderation, peace, inclusion and understanding.
Addressing a packed auditorium from a raised platform, his words beamed on to large screen behind him, more than 1,000 young followers hang on his every word, even as his lecture moves into its fourth uninterrupted hour. Qadri, 58, who was born in Pakistan but now lives in Canada, is a renowned scholar of Sufism, a long tradition within Islam that focuses on spirituality, emphasising peace and moderation. In Britain, he is the main draw at a three-day retreat for young Muslims called “Al Hidayah” (Guidance), which over the past five years has grown into the biggest spiritual camp of its kind, with more than 1,200 attendees from a dozen countries.
The British government has worked to promote Sufism, supporting the creation in 2006 of the Sufi Muslim Council, a group that took a strong stand against Islamist extremism. But since then, it has moved away from explicit support, saying that working via the Sufi community — whose exact number in Britain is not known — is just one element of a wider approach to countering Islamic radicalism.
There is a political debate within Britain’s Muslim youth – and it is getting louder in the wake of continued scrutiny of their communities and faith. It is taking many forms and the outcome is uncertain. What is clear is that it is not just about how their world changed following the September 11 attacks – it’s about what it is to be British and Muslim, and disaffection with their place in society.