On Wednesday night I was heading up the Holloway Road on the world’s slowest bus (thank you blue car parked in the bus lane) for our
Pizza Pitta and Politics evening.
Each month Islington Lib Dems have a Pizza & Politics event where we discuss politics and, er, eat pizza. This month’s was a bit different – a Pitta & Politics evening, joint with the (Holloway-based) Dialogue Society, with yours truly in the chair. Our topic was how you tackle violent extremism in a liberal society.
I still remember where I was on 9/11 and 7/7 and the sense of panic, horror and anger as the news came in. Islington is a highly diverse borough, and we lost more of our citizens and workers in the 7/7 attacks than any other individual borough, so these issues affect our area deeply.
I was incredibly proud of the reaction of ordinary Londoners and the emergency services to the attacks. But I’m not proud of everything our Government has done since, from appearing to endorse torture flights to undermining the same rights that the terrorists want to destroy.
Tackling extremism is something on which the Dialogue Society, formed by 2nd generation British-Turkish Muslims, has done a lot of work. It was an unexpectedly topical topic, because among all the revelations about MPs expenses (how many homes do you need to be in the Home Office?), Jacqui Smith has just launched the second round of Contest, the Government’s anti-extremism strategy.
Dialogue’s concern is that in attacking the minority of extremists head-on only serves to polarise them more, by casting them as ‘the other’. Young people like to join groups that are supportive yet seem subversive: most are harmless, some are not. Bigging them up only glamourises them. And at the same time it gives negative images of Islam to the rest of us, which make a bad situation worse. Dialogue prefer to promote the positive tenets of mainstream Islam – peace and justice – both to Muslims and to non-Muslims, achieving what they call ‘de-radicalisation by default’. Instead of talking up extremism, you starve it.
We certainly did not starve – fantastic Turkish food, and food for thought from our speakers; Dialogue director Ozcan Keles, Meral Ece OBE and leading MEP candidate, and international academic Jonathan Fryer. Meral reminded us that challenging extremism is everyone’s responsibility and that only a tiny handful of Muslims are extremists. Yet it’s the 20 demonstraters in Luton who make the headlines, not the peaceful majority. Instead of the 4 Ps of the Government strategy, Jonathan proposed an Ode: outreach, dialogue and engagement. We even had Simon Hughes on a video link from Westminster.
We were enthused by how much of an agenda liberal Muslims and Liberal Democrats have in common, from defending free speech to encouraging democratic engagement – and challenging the stereotype that we’re both full of men with beards.
Next steps include mentoring future council candidates (provoking puns about Young Turks) and future events with the Dialogue Society, with the help of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Turkey.