The UK foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, has accused a majority of Muslim nations of either ignoring the threat of Islamic extremism altogether or turning a blind eye to what is going on in their mosques, schools or prisons.
Hammond said Islamic leaders had to lead the fight against extremism in their countries, but tackling extremism by security measures alone was simply dealing with the symptoms of a disease.
“While the west is facing a security problem, the Islamic world is facing an existential challenge,” he said. “Fundamentalism and moderate Islam are incompatible and only one of them can survive.”
His unusually frank criticism, likely to startle many political elites in the Middle East and elsewhere, reflects a Foreign Office view that too many Islamic countries are failing to combat the internal threat of extremism in their society, or instead depend too much on repression.
Hammond did not name any individual countries, but Saudi Arabia has been repeatedly accused of allowing an extremist Wahhabism to be taught in its schools.
Hammond, speaking at the Munich security conference, said some Islamic countries had taken up the challenge through effective counter-radicalisation and counter-fundamentalist programmes, but he added: “Speaking very frankly, I think they are in a minority. Some are more or less ignoring the problem. Others still insist it is an external threat that is imported from outside and decline to look closely at what is going on in their own schools, their own mosques and their own prisons. Others are relying too heavily, almost exclusively, on a security solution.
“Sometimes it is right to lock people up, but locking people up does not stop people thinking and for many it strengthens the extremist narrative.”
He added the world was “spending a huge amount of effort dealing with the symptoms of a problem and not addressing the problem itself”.
This failure was critical, he said, since “the heaviest burden of fighting the underlying Islamic fundamentalism will fall on the Islamic world itself”. He warned moderate Islamic leaders: “While the extremists preach hatred against the west and any version of Islam apart from their own, their main objective is to enforce every Muslim to submit to their distorted interpretation of Islam.”
Hammond argued the fight against Islamic extremism would continue even if Islamic State, “the current fashionable manifestation of Islamic extremism”, was defeated on the battlefield. The problem would simply appear somewhere else, meaning the only sustainable long-term solution was to address the fundamental causes of extremism.
With the UK government currently revising aspects of its counter-extremism strategy through a review being conducted by Louise Casey, Hammond argued the two fundamental causes of extremism worldwide were a lack of a hope, such as a lack of jobs, and also a framework into which that lack of hope could be channeled. “Fundamentalism was this framework,”he said.
“We have all confronted extremist ideologies in the past in the 20th century, such as communism and fascism, but the threat of fundamentalist Islam is different,” Hammond argued. “Its ideology is different to communism or fascism. It is not an invention. It is rooted in a corrupt interpretation of one of the world’s great religions and because of that it has deeper roots and wider reach.
“It is harnessing the power of the internet and social media to extend its view across the world in a way which has not been possible with any previous extremist ideology.”
He said the UK counter-extremism strategy could be a model for other countries. The UK strategy includes a unit that analyses extremists, a review of the misuse of sharia law in British Muslim communities, contesting dangerous ideologies on the internet and countering a narrative of apartheid that says Muslims cannot live alongside Christians. It also encourages voting in elections, seeking to make the positive case for the nation state and to demonstrate that it is possible for Islam to be compatible with economic growth.
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