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The Syrian conflict threatens community cohesion

Ted Cantle
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It is crucial that local authorities bring all communities together, says the founder of the Institute of Community Cohesion

The latest threat to the cohesion of local communities creates more questions for councils struggling to cope with demands for intervention.

Will youngsters who return from the Syrian conflict become local agents of terror? There are no certainties and as many opinions as there are ‘experts’.

There is not even agreement over the motivation of the hundreds, possibly thousands of young people who have gone off to wage Jihad. Given the appalling violence and harsh living conditions, there can be little certainty that more than a handful will actually live to make the choice to return. War is often the sad antidote to romantic notions of righteousness.

Local authorities must take this risk seriously as even a small number of returning fighters could carry out terror attacks on home soil. The danger is that we repeat the mistakes of the Prevent agenda and survey and stigmatise whole sections of our Muslim community as we try to thwart a small number of individuals.

Prevent, ironically, hardened and homogenised Muslim identities. Such an approach is already inappropriate given the condemnation of extremism by many Muslim leaders and the way in which family members have reacted by even travelling to Syria to try to persuade their youngsters to return.

It is true that some of the appeal has been in the name of Islam, for example through the now notorious video in which young men from Aberdeen and Cardiff implore their ‘brothers’ to join the fight. But it is secular too; having a Kalashnikov in one hand and a grenade in the other and escaping humdrum reality appeals to the foolhardiness of youth.

Local authorities must leave the identification of high-risk individuals to the police. That is not to say that any local institution should not report suspicious activity, but we must take care not to further drive Muslim communities into a resentful position.

Cohesion strategies must work with all sections of communities and avoid relying on self-appointed faith and community leaders, who may be out of touch with young people.

This also means looking at all the risks. Prevent belatedly started to consider far right and other extremism. It is crucial that local authorities bring all communities together by working across them and breaking down monocultural segregated environments such as schools, housing, workplaces and social spaces, where singular and extremist views are simply reinforced. This is a big task, but ultimately it is the only one that will succeed in creating a genuinely cohesive society.

Ted Cantle, founder, the Institute of Community Cohesion. He is the author of Community Cohesion: A New Framework for Race and Diversity (Pagrave Macmillan)







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