The Australian Government has spent millions since the London bombings of 2005 on programs and projects to counter radicalism in Australia's Muslim population, yet the threat appears to be growing. What went wrong? Well, frankly, everything — from the basic premise of what leads and drives radicalisation, to what contains and neutralises it.
The fundamental flaw in the Government's counter-radicalisation policy is that it has relied heavily on Muslim community leaders to understand the roots of radicalisation. Not only are the Muslim community leaders no experts on the subject of radicalisation, but they are are also distant from the younger generation of Muslims who undergo an identity crisis triggered internally by Australian society (which functions contrary to their beliefs) and externally by sophisticated propaganda which they digest over social media.
The result is an obviously misdirected counter-radicalisation strategy focusing on sponsoring 'liberal' Islamic education, training for Imams, and the opening up of Islamic institutes at universities to promote research and dialogue.
Opening up new Islamic institutes and publishing liberal Islamic texts has absolutely no measurable impact on radicalism – thick intellectual texts are not read by majority of the Muslim youth. And there is little evidence that Imams have much to do with growing radicalisation, given that groups like al Qaeda and ISIS tend to bypass structures and hierarchy to reach directly to recruits.
Moreover, it is superficial to focus on youth that is 'at risk' of radicalisation with support groups and community-building programs. It is impossible to gauge who is 'at risk', and community-building projects have only a transient effect on youth and are largely driven by consultant-contractor interests.
Having previously worked on de-radicalising suicide bombers in Pakistan and countering growing radicalisation in the UK's Muslim population, I have a radically different approach to what drives this phenomenon and how best to counter it.
First, contrary to popular belief, poverty and economic conditions have nothing to do with radicalisation. There is yet to be a single study that can prove the correlation. Such a premise is reductionist and populist at best.
Second, the fact that the vast majority of Muslims form a peaceful community in Australia demonstrates that there is nothing wrong with the Islamic education currently being delivered. In fact, the demand to 'secularise' Islamic teachings will only provoke more propaganda by groups like Hizb ut Tahrir, causing actual radicalisation.
The truth is, in Australia and other Western countries, radicalisation of Muslims starts in the home, often unconsciously. Muslim parents in Western societies who want to raise their kids with Islamic ethics and morals go overboard, feeding manipulated Islamic teachings they deem suitable to keep their children 'on track'. But such teachings clash directly with what young Muslims are exposed to at school and in public places. Kids either end up living two different lives or get strangled by an identity crisis.
Having talked to numerous Australian Muslims, it's easy to see these two strands: there are those who are well integrated into the Australian society and are engaged in the national discourse on politics, sport, entertainment and so on. Then there are those living in self-imposed isolation triggered by their own morals and values, cut off from society and fantasising that every day they might wake up in a truly Islamic society.
Such people are the primary targets of Islamist radical organisations like Hizb ut Tahrir or violent groups like ISIS. Having talked to numerous radical Muslims in the UK, for them, living in a Western society becomes 'forbidden' when Dar ul Islam (the House of Islam) is established, as ISIS has claimed to do in Iraq and Syria. The concept of Dar ul Islam is at the centre of Islamist propaganda and explains why so many Muslims from Australia and Europe are leaving to join ISIS. Unlike al Qaeda, which was only interested in waging war against the West, Muslims all over the Western world are flocking to ISIS's call to help build a Caliphate or 'house of Islam'. It is interesting to note that ISIS's call has received a more robust response from Muslims in Western societies than those from Islamic countries. This goes to confirm that it is the identity crisis faced by younger Muslims in Western countries, triggered by their teachings at home, which resonates with the message from ISIS.
While the Australian Government could spend several more millions of dollars on projects like the training of Imams and publishing 'soft' Islamic literature, countering radicalisation may need a non-religious and social strategy that goes down to the household level to tackle the identity crisis that gives rise to radicalism.
Photo by Flickr user Patrick Begble.