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Extreme measures

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Bringing different communities together can help to counter extremism. Jennifer Taylor looks at some success stories

The 7 July bombings revealed the depth of anti-Western feeling among a small but significant minority of home grown Islamic extremists, something the British state is struggling to deal with. Local government too is trying to get a clear picture of how people get involved in radical Islam and why.

Bruce Penhale, assistant director of communities at Oldham MBC, says three causes stand out. First, there are people who are trying to deliberately influence young Muslims, either face-to-face or over the internet, by putting out an ideological message.

Second, some young Muslims struggle with identity and how they find a place in society as British Muslims. As a result they almost see themselves as outsiders, which creates an us and them position. It's partly about the way the wider society treats Muslims or relates to Muslims, says Mr Penhale.

Finally, individual circumstances have a role to play, with certain young people being more likely to succumb to those issues.

'Different types of extremism has different causes'

Research from the Institute of Community Cohesion at Coventry University shows that inspirational factors are important. These include an individuals peer group and the influence of community leaders, which can be radicalising, according to the institute's founder, Professor Ted Cantle.

He says it is important to recognise that extremism in different groups has disparate causes. Extremism in the white community, turning towards extreme, far right parties, often is to do with alienation, poverty and disadvantage.

Extremism in at least some sections of the Muslim community has a more ideological basis to it, an international perspective of the world and an international perspective of the Muslim community's place within it.

Rodney Green, chief executive of Leicester City Council, says the current system for determining foreign policy creates more resentment, since minority communities have no say over what happens in parts of the world they have a close connection to. There was a feeling, for example, that Muslim views were not taken into account in decisions over the Iraq war.

Migration is poorly managed and is part of the issue around radicalisation, he adds. Well-managed migration leads to people becoming independent and a motivated part of the community. But poor management leads to deprivation, disaffection and a sense of polarising communities which can then be easily exploited by extremist views.

What can councils do?

So what can local councils do to prevent the spread of extremism? At a practical level they have powers to stop radical Islamic meetings if they think they will create public disorder, but that would not be the most common course of action. As Prof Cantle says: People have got the right to express their political views

Work with police

Councils can also work with the police. The institute has produced a tension monitoring toolkit which councils, the police and partners can use. But Prof Cantle points out: it's the police's job to worry about crime and disorder and I think it's the local authority's job more to worry about the causes and some of the underlying social and economic circumstances

Work with ethnic communities

To this end, some councils are working with the Muslim community. Oldham is carrying out work specifically designed to prevent violent extremism. It has commissioned projects from local community based organisation that will employ people to organise discussions, produce materials and encourage good practice.

Mr Penhale says: If extremism presents a distorted view of Islam, the people who then need to lay down the law about what Islam is really about need to be Muslims. So it's really important to have strong Muslim organisations.

In one of its specific projects, 18 young people from different faiths went away for one week to Auschwitz in Poland and Srebrenica in Bosnia. They will produce a film about their trip, then go out and talk to other young people about the dangers of extremism and how it damages lives.

Work with schools

Another project, the play Oneextreme to the other deals with far-right extremism and extremism in the name of Islam, showing the potential dangers when people try to change things by non-democratic means. The play will tour secondary schools in Oldham this autumn.

Councils can also do a lot to bring communities together. Prof Cantle says it is important to understand the tensions within communities, who is influencing whom, and where the messages are coming from. He adds that it's also about preventing stereotypes and breaking down insularity.

Margaret Richardson, community development officer for Building Bridges, a voluntary sector interfaith organisation, says: none of the problems in Burnley is we have communities that don't necessarily hate each other but they just live parallel lives.

The charity provides opportunities for communities to work together on projects. Over the summer holidays, white and Asian pupils did a week-long course on caring for the environment. An imam forum provides a body to represent the Muslim community when there is, for example, a terrorist event to respond to. The imams also work with local clergy on certain issues. By them being seen to work together, it sends a positive message to the town and turns around white views on extremism, says Ms Richardson.

Segregation is also an issue in Oldham, with Pakistani, Kashmiri, Bangladeshi and white communities living in different areas. The School Linking Programme enables children from different schools to spend time together each week.

Oldham is, Mr Penhale says: "The thinking is that if young people and people in general get used to interacting with people different from them, finding out about them, hopefully developing friendships with them, people are then much less likely to get very entrenched views about other people."

Oldham's annual festival of diversity is another way of creating these interactions.

"The trouble is that extremists are a very, very small minority of people and you end up labelling the whole community," says Mr Penhale. By having projects that address different types of extremism, the focus shifts to behaviour. It's about people who are willing to hurt other people in order to pursue their beliefs."

Councils should move away from using the word 'extremism', argues Mr Green, because it is sometimes regarded as having a high level of commitment to your faith.

"What we're talking about here is violence and being clear that community leaders should shun violence and distance themselves. That is a more rigorous target than just talking about extremism," he says.

To engage with Muslim communities, councils should encourage visible representation, so people feel their backgrounds will be understood. But ultimately, the burden for cultivating moderate opinion comes from community leaders, whom councils need to support.

Mr Green says: "Most of our Muslim communities would have exactly the same view about violence as you or I would have. And therefore they don't need some patronising lesson from the local authority leaders to tell them what to think. What they want is support and partnership and a sense of credibility within their own self-governing community."

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