Dr. William CrawleyA large and varied audience attended The Democracy Forum’s latest seminar, hosted in collaboration with The Quilliam Foundation at the Edwardian I, St James’ Court in London on Tuesday July 21. They had gathered to discuss the ever prevalent issue of radicalisation, and in particular to address the question ‘How committed is the West to rooting out the sources of terrorism?’

The seminar, sponsored by Lord Diljit Rana, was chaired by Dr William Crawley from the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and on the panel were Carlotta Gall, New York Times correspondent and author of The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2014; Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, civilian military scientist and Charles Wallace Fellow, St Antony’s College, Oxford; Nikita Malik, Researcher at The Quilliam FoundationZahid Hussain, former Times correspondent and author of the highly acclaimed books Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam and The scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan; and Dr Usama Hasan, Senior Researcher at The Quilliam Foundation.

Dr Crawley began proceedings by saying the event could not be more timely, in light of David Cameron’s recent speech on countering terrorism, which had put policy questions at the centre of the news agenda. Recent events show, he said, that ideologies are not confined to territorial frontiers and have to be faced both at home and abroad.

After a brief introduction to the panel as a whole, he introduced the first speaker, Carlotta Gall, who, basing her talk on the twelve years she has spent reporting from Pakistan and Afghanistan, called for greater openness from governments when it come to fighting terrorism.

Her own experience of violent Islamism and terrorism has been extensive, and she spoke of the hostility and secrecy of those Arab fighters who had gone to help the Afghan people resist the Soviet occupation, but had a very different view and agenda from Western aid workers. She saw the Afghan Taliban as a forerunner of ISIS today, with the same violent and terrorising tactics and desire for an Islamic Emirate with totalitarian control.

Referring to her book, she spoke about what had gone wrong in the West’s fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. It was, she said, confronting ‘the wrong enemy’, which was not the Afghans but the Pakistani military and intelligence services, which have long been supporting and funding the Taliban, allowing them sanctuary and running the Taliban insurgency from Quetta. She herself had been subjected to violence from the Pakistani security forces, which took strong measures to prevent her and other foreign reporters, as well as Pakistani journalists, from reporting on this crucial matter.

Osama bin Laden had been ‘handled’ by Pakistan, said Gall, whose intelligence agencies considered him an ‘asset’, and he had been kept in a safe house with the full knowledge and protection of the ISI. Yet Westerns governments had never confronted or tackled this, and never got to the crux of the real ‘Afghan’ problem across the border in Pakistan. This problem of Western governments’ failure to come clean about Pakistan’s role in fostering terrorism still exists today. Gall ended by drawing parallels between the situation in Afghanistan during the 1990s and that in Libya today.

At this point Lord Diljit Rana stood up to welcome guests to the seminar and say a brief word. He referred to the struggle against extremism as a ‘third world war’, and said all governments should consider this a common global problem and make concerted efforts to counter it, rather than continuing with their current piecemeal approach.

Dr. Ayesha SiddiqaFor Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, radicalism is ‘a battle no one is fighting’, and she spoke particularly about Europe and South Asia. While ISIS is the ‘fashionable’ topic for discussion, Pakistan is getting ever fewer funds to research other extremist groups, she said, with Western funds going to ISIS regions and no one really looking at the issue of radicalism without violence, that is, cases of radicalism in which people are not dying. There is a greater need to look at the troubling undercurrents of violence in Pakistan and South Asia, which governments don’t want to understand.

Dr Siddiqa considered what role Europe could play in opposing terrorism, and said that financing a certain type of discourse was not helpful. She suggested that the West deploy major foreign policy shifts so that it was less interventionist in Syria and elsewhere, and called for more discourse between Muslim groups themselves. She asked how this was being managed, and looked at levels of violent extremism in South Asia and what was being done to counter it.

It was important, said Dr Siddiqa, that Britain and the West stay away from Islamic religious discourse altogether, as people will find processes suspect if such discourse is non-indigenous, and have no faith in them. Muslims can manage their own discourse.

If we allow militant Islamic groups to dominate the public domain and media, this gives them greater power to spread and makes it very difficult to counter terrorism, warned Dr Siddiqa.  Many groups, as well as ISIS, such as L-e-T and L-e-J, are using social media to recruit young people, and nothing is being done about it. We must also consider and engage with other types of radicalisation, such as Hindu and Buddhist. More work should be done regarding the education of young people and, she concluded, amid the constant talk of narratives and counter-narratives, we must ask ourselves what really needs to be done; what kind of society we want and then make efforts to build it.

In the first short Q & A/discussion session, Professor Harbhajan Singh, Chair of the London Faiths Network, said that a fundamental change was needed in government and public thinking with regard to radicalism, while Aftab Siddiqi of the Commonwealth Journalists Association asked about the truth behind attacks on the Muslim community, and for school governor Ken Bromfield, adherence to religious authoritarianism lay at the root of radicalised thinking—a point the panel largely agreed with. Student Rob Butchart posed a question to Carlotta Gall about whether the West really had picked the ‘wrong enemy’ or was employing deliberately divisive tactics, to which she replied that some Western diplomats and intelligence services have not been very open about their activities. Pre-2006, the West did not know how much Pakistan was helping the Taliban, she said, but after that they were aware. The debate is ongoing about whether to work with or confront Pakistan. She stressed again the need for more openness in this regard, while Dr Siddiqa reminded the audience that in 2005, NATO had worked side-by-side with militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba. She also stressed the dangers of merging territorial issues with religious ones, and of religion as a legitimiser, and offered a definition of secularism as it applies to states.

Lawyer Piara Mayenin asked how one could pinpoint what was radicalising the Bangladeshi community, and how to tackle it, and the audience and panel discussed how too much airtime was being given to religious rather than cultural matters. One journalist asked whether Afghanistan or Iraq was the ‘wrong enemy’, and wondered why the Pakistan government was not able to assert its authority in fighting terrorism. In reply, Carlotta Gall called the US invasion of Iraq a ‘disaster’ for Afghanistan and spoke of the West’s failure to address the problem of Pakistan’s animosity to Afghanistan, and the former’s desire to dominate the latter.

Following a short coffee break, Nikita Malik, co-author of The Quilliam Foundation’s recent report South Asian Militant Groups and Global Jihad in 2015, focussed on the role of policy-makers within South Asia’s intricate security situation, and on what drives the younger generation of potential jihadists there, who have never lived in a peaceful time and are therefore susceptible to the appeal of groups with more international aims than the Taliban, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Malik was critical of attempts by national governments in South Asia to counter such groups, highlighting a number of internal problems—including high levels of corruption, lack of secular education, an unaccountable hawala system, and very limited inter-state cooperation—which have hampered counter-radicalisation and counter-terrorism efforts. Where these efforts have been successful in harming the Taliban’s infrastructure, this has created more opportunities for al-Qaeda and IS to thrive. 

A number of policy changes needed to be implemented, Malik concluded, to ensure a more successful strategy. She suggested fostering regional and local initiatives, focusing on a counter-narrative that promotes anti-violent messages from local religious clerics in madrasas and religious institutions, and an increased focus on mental health policy and care distribution.

After setting the context for his presentation with a brief history of fighting terrorism in Pakistan, Zahid Hussain looked at regional security in the subcontinent and Pakistan’s battle against Islamic militancy. He addressed the growth of jihad in Pakistan, saying that equal responsibility for this lay with Pakistan itself and the West. Pakistan was now haunted by the very militants it had fostered, and was in a state of denial about it. Shocking events such as the December 2014 Peshawar school attack might have temporarily united the nation but such unity was fragile, said Hussain, and there was little sign of Pakistan’s so-called ‘national action plan’ to fight terrorism within its own borders. The scale of violence had reduced somewhat in recent times but needed to decrease further. When states adopt confused policies, he warned, the whole narrative will be confused.

He called the term ‘war on terrorism’ misleading; for while there is to some degree a need to use force when the state loses control, the ideological/political war on terror is not really happening in Pakistan. The West must also take some responsibility for helping to create conditions in which groups such as ISIS can grow and thrive.

A pressing concern for the final speaker, Dr Usama Husan, was the need to reclaim Islam from Islamic State, and he offered an introduction to theological counter-narratives to IS and other form of Islamist extremism.

He highlighted four main theological points—the ‘key Q’ranic notions’ of Ummah, Caliphate, Sharia and Jihad—which had been excessively politicised by extremist Muslims, when in fact they were much more focused on human rights and dignity. Depending on interpretation, each of these concepts could be positive or negative.

Dr Husan said that Muslims, for whom the extremists’ violent and disgusting behaviour is very painful, must ‘shout the loudest’ against it and reinforce true Islam’s open-minded views on human rights, gender equality and shared humanity across faiths. But, he added, we must also address the role of Western colonialism in current problems.

In the final Q & A, broadcaster Loveena Tandon asked why the Koran was given to such different interpretations, to which Dr Husan replied that this is true of all religious texts, which are open to both exclusivist and inclusivist readings. He added that we must build structures to engage with extremists, while he, Dr Siddiqa and audience members engaged in a brief discussion on the ethics of warfare.

Audience-1The audience—which comprised several journalists (including those from the UK’s major daily newspapers, the BBC, Channel 4, Sky, China’s Xinhua News Agency, Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter and popular Spanish TV channel Telecino), MPs and peers, foreign embassy and UK government representatives, academics and students, school governors and community leaders, members of think tanks and interfaith groups, as well as bloggers and interested members of the public—was very interactive in the Q & As, and, sadly, the seminar ran out of time with many people still wanting to ask questions and continue the debate.

Among the audience members were Dr James Chiriyankandath, Senior Research Fellow at London University’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies; Ian Drury, Home Affairs Correspondent at the Daily Mail; the Guardian’s Damien Gayle; Katherine Horrocks from the Home Office; Koichi Onodera, a visiting fellow at the Royal United Service Institue (RUSI); Tariq York, a Policy Advisor at the Cabinet Office; and Ainhoa Paredes, UK correspondent from Telecinco (MEDIASET SPAIN), the most watched TV channel in Spain.

Dr Crawley rounded off events by reading short messages from the Chair of The Democracy Forum, Sir Peter Luff, and US Ambassador H.E. Matthew Barzun, expressing their regret at being unable to attend the seminar due to longstanding prior commitments. Sir Mota Singh, the Forum’s Vice-Chair, said he could not better the words of the distinguished panel, saying simply that it had been an excellent and intelligent discussion.