Is teaching a counter-terrorism curriculum the best way to stop young people being radicalised?

As a Muslim community organisation launches a special counter-terrorism curriculum this week, will theological teachings help the UK challenge extremism?

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What is the best way to prevent the radicalisation of young people? As each week brings news of young men and women leaving their homes in the UK to travel to Syria and Iraq, it’s a question that has received a lot of airtime. Proposed solutions range from harsh punishments and stripping citizenship, to ever-increasing online surveillance, to engaging young people and providing better role models.

This week, the community organisation Minhaj-ul-Quran International (MQI) is launching a “counter-terrorism curriculum” in the UK, which aims to counter Isis recruitment. It is rooted in Islamic texts, drawing heavily on Quaranic verses and the hadith. MQI is run by the Pakistani theologian (and one-time revolutionary) Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri, who shot to prominence in the west in 2010 when he published the first ever fatwa against terrorism. He is the author of ten books on counter-terrorism, which emphasise the Islamic values of compassion, mercy, and peace.

The central idea of the curriculum is to counter extremist ideology through Islamic theology. It is based on the assumption that young Muslims are particularly vulnerable to radicalisation when they don’t know much about their faith, and fits in with MQI’s overarching aim of educating the masses about their religious rights and responsibilities.

“The curriculum can be used in schools, madrassas, mosques, to teach young people that Isis is completely opposite to what Islam stands for, and what Quranic and Prophetic teachings are,” Shahid Mursaleen, spokesman for MQI, tells me.

It will initially be rolled out through mosques and religious schools, along with some one-day seminars at universities. Numerous religious leaders in the UK have signed up to promote the curriculum. MQI is also working with prison chaplains and is in discussions about giving school assemblies.

The organisation has trained a team of 50 online activists to counter extremists on social media. “What we’ve done is equip them with enough knowledge to go out there and rebut the arguments of those extremists on Facebook, Twitter, and different social media discussions,” says Mursaleen. “They counter the narratives from a theological point of view. For example, these people believe that if they kill innocent people who happen to support the west or the war on terror, they will go to paradise. This is completely against the teachings of Islam. If somebody believes that, they will become disbelievers. The aim is that if any youngster comes across these discussion forums, they will see our counter-narrative.”

Will this strategy work as a preventative measure? It would be difficult to argue that clear theological arguments countering extremist ideology do not have any use. MQI is primarily a grassroots community organisation; equipping people within Muslim communities with clear arguments against extremism can only be a good thing. Among other things, the curriculum explains why terrorist groups like Isis, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban do not have the religious authority to declare jihad. But as with any prevention strategy, hard evidence of effectiveness is hard to come by.

There are many reasons why people join radical groups such as Isis. Fervent religiosity is certainly one factor – and it is frequently ill-informed, as the case of the convicted terrorists who went to Syria with a copy of Islam for Dummies shows. But there are other factors too: the desire for adventure and glamour (Isis excels at online propaganda), social or economic disenfranchisement, the feeling of belonging that comes with membership of an extremist group, the attraction of a “noble” cause or mission bigger than oneself.

We don’t have clear data on who joins extremist groups and why, or on what works to prevent people from joining. In the most basic terms, this means that preventing recruitment requires a multifaceted approach. Theological teachings such as MQI’s curriculum may not be the magic answer to the problem, but they can certainly form an important part of the picture.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.