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Europe’s fight against extremism and its lesson for India

The fight against religious extremism isn’t one between religions, but one between the fanatics and everyone else. India should learn from the mistakes that Europe is making to avoid doing the same.

analysis Updated: Sep 04, 2016 21:42 IST
The fight against religious extremism isn’t one between religions, but one between the fanatics and everyone else.
The fight against religious extremism isn’t one between religions, but one between the fanatics and everyone else.(AP File Photo)

This week two religious preachers from Pakistan will finish their tour around several British cities and towns and then probably head back home. Normally, this would not be controversial. Except that just a few months ago, both men stood in front of a large rally in Rawalpindi to praise Mumtaz Qadri, the terrorist who had murdered politician Salman Taseer for defending Christians and Hindus in Pakistan. How were these two preachers of hate allowed to enter Britain? When I asked the British Home Office, they refused to give me an answer.

This isn’t a one-off incident. A few months earlier another hate-preacher from Pakistan, Mohammad Hanif Qureshi, who had also praised Mumtaz Qadri, was allowed in too. When I raised the issue, a government source told me they think he entered under a false name. Even British Pakistanis were angry that these hate-preachers had no problems getting visas even as many ordinary people did.

Britain has been trying to combat extremist Islamic preachers and their followers for over ten years now and yet, as these incidents show, it still does not have a consistent approach. It was only a few weeks ago that Anjem Choudhary, a notorious trouble-maker who privately urged Brits to join terrorist groups, was finally locked up by the police. British Muslims had become so angry with his hate-mongering that he had been banned from every mosque in Britain, and yet he was still allowed by the police to preach hatred from the streets for over ten years.

Read | Radical UK Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary guilty of inviting support for IS

But the problems that Britain faces from extremists is nowhere as bad as for other European countries. In just two years the rise of ISIS and other jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq has become a huge headache — an even bigger one than al-Qaeda posed when Osama bin Laden was alive.

It’s estimated that since June 2014 over 27,000 Muslims from around the world have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight. An astonishing 5,000 of those fighters are from Europe. But even more surprisingly: there are four times as many Muslims in India compared to all of Europe, and yet less than 30 of them have gone to Syria to fight. That is an estimate from Indian spy agencies themselves.

Does this mean the world’s largest democracy has lessons to offer to Europe, or can it learn from problems there? The answer is somewhere in the middle: Daesh has focused more on recruiting from and attacking Europe, it is cheaper and easier for Europeans to get to Syria, and there are more alienated and angry European Muslims who hate their country than in India. All these factors put India at an advantage, for now, but it could soon change.

Since January 2015 France has faced seven different terrorist attacks, killing hundreds and injuring more - all inspired by groups in the Middle East. Recently there have also been attacks in Belgium and Germany, plus big arrests in Britain and Spain. Over 1,000 people were arrested for terrorism-related offences across Europe just last year. You can see why Europe is starting to panic.

I think there are three lessons that India can learn from Europe’s mistakes and experiences.

The first: Muslim citizens are the best allies security services have in their fight against extremists. They have helped foil countless terror attacks in the US and UK, either by reporting suspicious behaviour or helping with operations. Belgium and France in contrast have been much less effective because police and spy services are overwhelmingly white and have little contact with those communities. There is little trust on either side.

Read | French suburbs: Tinderboxes of terrorism?

Second, extremists recruit by convincing the weak they have to pick sides in a coming ‘clash of civilisations’. They tell people that co-existence between different people isn’t possible. But we know this isn’t true because jihadi groups kill other Muslims far more than non-Muslims. So it doesn’t help if a government helps the terrorist narrative by discriminating against Muslims, pass laws targeting them (like in France), and denying them a bigger stake in society. They are fellow citizens, not an alien force. By giving asylum to nearly a million refugees over the past year, Germany has done more to counter the Daesh narrative than any of its neighbours.

Third, governments must take all types of extremism seriously if they pose a threat. Britain largely ignored the threat of white far-right extremism until a man opposed to immigration murdered an MP in June this. Many Indian Muslims rightly complain that while the focus is on them, the threat from extremist Hindu groups is ignored.

Britain may not have the perfect record in battling extremism but its ‘salad bowl’ approach — which allows immigrants to maintain their culture and religions as they integrate into society — has been more successful than places like France which demand assimilation. The fight against religious extremism isn’t one between religions, but one between the fanatics and everyone else. India should learn from the mistakes that Europe is making to avoid doing the same.

Read | Islamic State can find no ground in India

Sunny Hundal is a writer and lecturer on digital journalism based in London. The views expressed are personal.