After the Manchester attack: How can Britain better engage its Muslims?

Before the May 22 suicide bombing at a concert, Britain was already in a debate on how to prevent such attacks. That debate has lessons for the rest of the world.

Muslim men pray for victims of the attack at Manchester Arena at a mosque in Manchester, Britain May 23.

In the months before the May 22 suicide bombing in the city of Manchester, England, the British were in a lively debate about efforts to counter the radicalization of Muslims. No doubt the mass killing at a concert by a 22-year-old local man will revive the debate. Yet, given the country’s pioneering interventions in its Muslim communities, the rest of the world can still learn from how it has deterred both extremists and would-be ones.

Under a government strategy known as Prevent, more than 8,000 people have been referred for possible inclusion in anti-radicalization programs since 2012. At the same time, security forces have been on alert for the possible return of hundreds of people who left Britain since 2014 to join Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Officials claim that more than a dozen potential terrorist attacks have been thwarted.

Before the Manchester bombing, the last major attack in the country was the 2005 train and bus bombings in London. Despite this, Britons worry that the country is not doing enough – or is doing the wrong thing.

The heart of the debate is deciding on the proper approach in dealing with young Muslims.

Do you treat them as potential threats, relying on secret informants in mosques, secret cameras in public areas, and secret screening of their online viewing? Such tactics may indeed prevent some extremists but do so at the risk of alienating others against Britain’s democratic values.

Or do you engage them at multiple levels of their lives – their social or emotional problems, their education and job prospects, and their understanding of Islam?

Last year, a government committee suggested renaming the deradicalization program from Prevent to Engage, a sign of an emerging preference for the second approach. And the Muslim Council of Britain, which represents mosques and Islamic schools, decided to begin its own program of offering a counternarrative against jihadist propaganda to young Muslims. The council said the government was watering down Islamic theology in its approach.

One big issue is that government efforts are led by security officials, which scares off many Muslim families from seeking help if a relative appears to becoming radicalized. In some cities, such as Birmingham, local community groups are as active as police in countering extremism, supporting Muslim families in ways that encourage participation in anti-radical efforts. One of the most effective tactics is to have survivors of terrorist attacks or defectors from jihadist groups talk to young Muslims.

Britain’s debate is steadily tilting its anti-extremism program toward treating young Muslims with compassion rather than fear. After the Manchester bombing, it is a debate well worth watching.

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