19 March 2015 - 21 March 2015

Global ambitions and local grievances: understanding political Islam

Chair: Ambassador Akbar Ahmed

The first stirrings of spring, and a rare solar eclipse, were the accompaniment to this examination of the challenges of understanding the relationships between politics and the Islamic faith, and the recent outbreaks of extremist violence in the name of Islam. With the generous support of the Open Society Foundations, and wise guidance from our Chair, the result was a deep and rich discussion of the issues, informed by a common desire to find constructive ways forward, rather than simply to assign blame. We had many diverse voices around the table, Muslim and non-Muslim, though the Shia point of view was not adequately represented. While we did not always achieve consensus, some agreement did emerge on areas in which progress might be made.

It was important not to conflate political Islam with extremism, and to be careful about our use of language in general. With that caveat in mind, our discussion of whether Islam could be said to demand a greater role in politics than other religions was inconclusive, as was a related debate on whether Islam as currently interpreted was tending to feed extremism, or whether current extremists were just a tiny minority of misguided individuals claiming to act in the name of Islam. But we did agree on the need to promote inclusivist and tolerant interpretations of Islam, as had historically been the tradition, and to combat distorted views of important concepts such as jihad and sharia. The lead in battling extremism had to be taken by Muslims themselves. But everyone had a stake in this and needed to help. We discussed the extent to which the relative absence of a religious hierarchy, particularly among the Sunnis, left the field open for extremist interpretations of religion, and agreed that independent free-thinking ulema needed greater encouragement. We also looked at whether Islam needed the equivalent of the Christian reformation and separation of church and state. The Muslims present rejected the parallels.

What was behind the current wave of violent extremism in parts of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia? Some traced the origins back to Afghanistan, and the western-created jihad there. Others pointed to deeper roots. Many contributory factors could be identified, including poor governance or state failures in many countries with authoritarian regimes, the glorification of violence in today’s world, multiple frustrations on the part of the young digital generation, the attractions of an apparently clear ideology and identity in a confused and disordered world, widespread anti-western sentiment, and funding for hard-line interpretations of Islam. The collapse of authority in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere had done the rest. Religion itself could hardly be ignored, given that those concerned claimed to be acting from religious motives, even though many jihadists seemed to have a tenuous personal grasp of Islam themselves. The idea of a caliphate, as pronounced by ISIL, seemed particularly attractive. But there was no consensus on how far religion as such should be seen as fundamental to what was happening.

We noted that the increasingly toxic conflict between Sunni and Shia was also a major factor. Neither side had a monopoly on violence or hate speech, and the situation was genuinely alarming. The parallel and linked rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran was similarly deeply harmful and worrying. Reconciliation between the two was a vital political objective. Was violent extremism therefore confined to the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia? Some thought that the conditions there were uniquely conducive, but others feared it would spread further, even to South-East Asia, given time.

Meanwhile, the number of “foreign fighters” had reached worrying proportions, and not only from western countries. The drivers of this were partly the same as those of violent extremism in general, but there were extra factors too, including double alienation from country and family, perceived discrimination, identity confusion, anger at western foreign policy, extremist mastery of the internet and social media, and desire to help fellow Muslims in their hour of need. But the phenomenon was still poorly understood. Blaming either host countries or Muslim communities themselves was not a productive way forward. Both no doubt needed to do better. Counter-terrorism policy needed to be carefully calibrated not to make things worse. In any case, the rest of the world could not stand aside in the battle against extremism, but needed to understand the nuances of the issues and the dynamics much better if further costly mistakes were to be avoided.

For all concerned, countering the extremist narrative more effectively was seen as fundamental, particularly in social media, through quicker, more authentic and more appealing messaging. This could not be done most effectively by governments or other sources too easily seen as predictable or tainted. The lead had to be taken by Muslims themselves, in a non-sectarian way, through individuals and organisations with real independence and credibility. An initiative to help foster this was mooted. Other proposed directions of future travel, for governments and for others, to emerge from the discussions are listed below.

Much of the debate was gloomy, but there was hope in the views that Islam was perfectly compatible with modern ideas of human rights and democracy, and that the extremists remained a very tiny minority indeed. All needed to focus on the message that the struggle was not between Islam and the West, but between the violent extremists and everybody else. Continued, patient and respectful dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims was essential.

Islam and politics
While we spent less time on this broad issue than on extremism in the name of Islam, it was nevertheless a constant backdrop to our discussions. It was agreed that we should be very careful not to conflate “political Islam” with extremism. There were also concerns, though no clear consensus, about the right use of terms like the “Islamic world”, “Islamic extremism”, “Islamism” and “Islamic State”. In this note, I have used mostly “violent extremism”, “Muslim-majority countries” and “ISIL” for the sake of consistency.

Was there something about Islam, either intrinsically or in its current interpretation, which gave it a closer link to politics and government than other major religions? Some argued that there was a strong tendency in Islamic thinking, certainly nowadays, towards the view that the government of a Muslim-majority country should enshrine Islamic values and practices, notably Sharia law, in the country’s constitution and major institutions; and that this tendency was often accompanied by a view that there was only one true interpretation of Islam, with little room for tolerance of either other interpretations or other religions. Some believed that clerics should not only have an important watchdog role in keeping governments on the straight and narrow, but should actually be in charge.

Others took the view that Islam did not necessarily have a closer link to politics than other religions. For example, Christianity had for centuries been an integral part of the way that many governments in Europe had operated, and an “established” religion in many countries, with no clear separation from the state, even if this was much less true nowadays. There were plenty of Muslim-majority states which did not incorporate Sharia law into their constitutions, and which operated modern democracies where human rights and the role of women were fully respected, and diversity of faith was allowed. Texts also existed which could justify the separation of religion and state.

While we could not resolve this argument, there was agreement that it was vital that inclusivist interpretations of Islam should prevail. Islam had produced different interpretations throughout its history, and there was no historical or textual support for the notion that only one interpretation represented the sole truth, let alone the kind of hard-line, brutal interpretation put forward by ISIL and others. For most of its history, Islam had been notably tolerant, which many scholars and other experts thought was a natural interpretation of the diversity to be found in the texts. Similarly, terms like jihad, caliphate, umma and sharia were currently being wilfully misinterpreted, and this misinterpretation then pronounced to be the only version possible. This needed to be rejected.

The related question was how far Islam itself could be said to have a problem, in that extremism was drawing inspiration from current Islamic attitudes, or whether extremism was more the creation of a tiny minority of misguided and totalitarian individuals, based essentially on non-religious grievances of many different kinds, but given a religious veneer of justification. Again there was no consensus. Some argued that, while the vast majority of Muslims certainly did not support use of violence, some of the causes and ends espoused by violent extremists did have resonance for many Muslims today, from campaigns against cartoons of the Prophet, through forms of anti-Semitism/anti-Zionism, to the idea of the establishment of a caliphate; and that intolerance around such causes was being fostered by parts of the Muslim mainstream. The extremists themselves came from within today’s Muslim communities. Intolerance of others and of difference appeared to be becoming part of the Islamic ecosystem, and was being absorbed as such by younger generations. In any case, those Muslims who were violent extremists always said that they were acting in the name of Islam. Muslims could not just dodge that issue.

Others believed that all religions and ideologies had their extremists. Islam was not exceptional in this respect, and those arguing that there was something inherent in current Islam which encouraged violence, intolerance and extremism were both falling victim to a kind of Islamophobia, and encouraging it. The media were seen as particularly responsible for propagating such misunderstandings, through their addiction to sensationalism. While it was true that Islamic State and others claimed to be acting in the name of Islam, in fact their views were not seen as Islamic by the vast majority of Muslims. Claiming to be acting in the name of Islam did not make it true. One problem was that the lack of perceived legitimacy on the part of some states in the worst-affected regions left a void too easily filled by charismatic Islamic utopianism.

There was more common ground when it came to saying whose responsibility it was to deal with the problem. Most, including most of the Muslims round the table, accepted that Muslims had to take the leading role in countering violent extremism in the name of Islam, and to ‘own’ the problem. Nevertheless, it was also agreed that everyone, non-Muslim as well as Muslim, had an interest in, and a part in, the struggle against this extremism. The Muslim role was particularly clear where the religious aspects of extremism were concerned. Outsiders could not fix this and should not try, although they could help provide a context in which this could be attempted with a better chance of success.

We discussed at some length the extent to which the distortions of Islam which seemed to have gained ground had been helped to do so by the absence of senior religious authorities or established and authoritative versions of Islam. This absence was more obvious among the Sunnis than the Shia. There were established ulema like the head of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, but many such figures were seen, not least by the young, as captured by state authorities in one way or another, and as lacking credibility and independence. Too many religious scholars were also languishing in Arab jails. This helped to allow radical ulema a free hand in promoting their hard-line versions of Islam. Thus, although denunciations by Muslim leaders of the theological views of ISIL and other such groups were by no means lacking, contrary to some assertions in the West, they did not seem to be having the desired effect, again particularly on the younger generations. Meanwhile, institutions such as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) seemed to have little real influence.

It was argued that one way to correct this situation was to favour the re-emergence of genuinely independent and scholarly ulema, and to encourage them to speak out, without fear. They would no doubt not all agree, but this was in a way precisely the point: to allow the development of free, critical thinking, and pluralism of views. It was also important to encourage a higher quality on the part of those studying sharia (it seemed to be a universal issue for all religions that many of those studying them were not among the top scholars).

Did Islam need its own version of the Christian reformation, and the clear separation of church and state, as some in the West tended to argue? Muslim participants did not support the historical parallel, and pointed out that Islam had always had its own ways of allowing diverse schools of thought to flourish, and of accommodating reform. But the word “reform” was also a red rag to many current conservatives, and there was an obvious danger in brandishing it too publicly. One problem was that many Muslims saw their religion as under attack and in retreat. Whatever the accuracy of these perceptions, they fed a victimhood mentality which was not a good context for thinking positively about change. Rather it led to a closing of ranks, imperviousness to outside views, and a reluctance to be internally critical. Muslims needed the confidence and the space to reflect on their future properly.

The drivers of extremism
Against this background, we looked at what was behind the current wave of extremism. Where had it come from, and what led young Muslims, both from within affected Muslim-majority countries and from Muslim-minority countries (“foreign fighters”), to rally to movements like ISIL, despite their well-publicised brutality and apparently un-Islamic treatment of prisoners and women? We were agreed that there was no simple, one-size-fits-all answer, and that a combination of factors had led to the current situation.

We noted that this was not the first time in Islam’s history that extremist movements had emerged, and flourished for a time, as they had in the histories of other religions. Messianism/Mahdism had a long history. What was different now was that globalisation and instantly accessible international information, in both the conventional and the social media, made all grievances, however local in origin, immediately global, and gave extremists the opportunity to reach out to Muslim communities all over the globe. A phenomenon which, in the past, could have been contained and dealt with locally could now become an international cause célèbre almost overnight. There would always be vulnerable individuals attracted to such causes. Moreover, today’s youth, Muslim or not, was wired to challenge authority.

It was argued that the origins of many of the current extremist movements, including the most important, could be traced back to the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. A coalition of countries, led by the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, had encouraged, financed and armed a jihad against the Soviet occupation. Once the Soviet Union had been pushed out of Afghanistan, many of those involved had acquired a taste for jihad, and seen no reason to stop there, turning their attention in particular to others, including the other major superpower, the US – hence the emergence of Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Taliban, and the existence of a combat-hardened core of jihadists from a range of countries. ISIL was, in many ways, an outgrowth from AQ, although its views differed in significant ways. It had also taken a step never taken by AQ, occupying territory by force in Syria and Iraq, and declaring this to be the centre of a new caliphate. Asserted to be the re-establishment of the old caliphate, this had been a particular pole of attraction for many, however dubious the history and theology behind it.

Others believed that this violent extremism had deeper and long-standing roots, and that we should be careful not to dodge the issue by blaming external causes too readily, even though many were clearly important contributing factors. In any case, many such factors could be identified:

  • Multiple failures and frustrations in political governance, and in economic and social fields, demonstrated by many authoritarian regimes in the Middle East/North Africa/South Asia. Frustrated youths from countries with very young populations, with no other outlet for their energies and aspirations, were readily attracted into jihadist movements (although it was noted that not all IS recruits were young, or male).
  • The fact that, under many of these authoritarian regimes, Islamist movements had been for many years the only real opposition, however much they had been suppressed, and had therefore been both credible and organised once the regimes had disappeared. Not all such movements had been wedded to violent extremism, but some were, or had become so. It was ironic that some who had struggled for freedom and democracy in the early days of the Arab Spring had finished up inside movements which had absolutely no interest in allowing either of these things.
  • The romanticisation and glorification of violence. This was something affecting young men particularly, of all and no religion, around the world, but in the Muslim case there was a clear outlet for it. There was a particular attraction/bandwagon effect from the apparently effortless early victories of ISIL. The brutality was seen as a legitimate means of frightening enemies, and not sullying the justice of the cause.
  • Strong anti-Western sentiment, fed by a wide sense of oppression of Muslims by the West, with a long charge-sheet: colonialism, imposition of artificial borders (Sykes-Picot), propping up of repressive regimes, failure to resolve the Palestinian impasse, intervention in Iraq (plus Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo etc.), domination of the Security Council, economic exploitation and general double standards. This underlay much of the extremist narrative, and exploited the sentiment of humiliation and injustice felt by many Muslims.
  • The attraction of an apparently clear ideology, into which people could submerge themselves, in a confused world full of disorder, where identity was so easily lost. This fed on, and into, a powerful “us and them” narrative which helped to create divisions with the rest of the world and drive a “homogenisation” of what was meant by Islam.
  • Generous support and funding for hard-line interpretations of Islam, predominantly from various sources in the Gulf.

Against this background, state failure, particularly in Iraq and Syria, had created the specific conditions in which ISIL and others could flourish. The 2005 invasion of Iraq had broken the Iraqi state and the sectarian behaviour of former President Maliki and his government had finished the job. In Syria, the Assad regime’s brutality to its own people, in the face of an originally peaceful protest, and the reluctance of the West to intervene militarily, had led to the emergence and reinforcement of Islamist resistance groups financed and armed primarily from the Gulf. The collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and of the previous dispensation in Yemen, and the long-standing power vacuum in Somalia, had offered fertile breeding grounds for extremists. The weaknesses and corruption of the authorities in Nigeria had left an opening for Boko Haram in North-East Nigeria. Continuing problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan had helped the Taliban to flourish.

It was argued by some that the extremist movements which were proving most troublesome, and attractive to outsiders, were confined to the troubled areas of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. Individuals could be attracted from elsewhere, including other Muslim-majority countries, but it was notable that there were (at least so far) no comparably significant movements in South-East Asia or India, even though the Muslim populations there were very large. There was no similar phenomenon of state failure to drive extremism. Others suggested that this was naïve and that similar trouble elsewhere was only a matter of time.

One aspect we touched on, but did not spend enough time on, was the potential role of women in countering extremism. They could play a vital and helpful role, if empowered and encouraged to do so.

Where was religion itself in all this? Clearly, it was an important factor and was cited by many IS recruits as a driving force in their motivation. Helping co-religionists under attack was a powerful recruiting message. Eschatological theories about the imminent end of the world were surprisingly powerful and influential for many. At the same time, many of those joining IS or similar movements seemed to lack even basic knowledge of their own religion. The religious qualifications and intellectual ballast of many of the leadership also seemed dubious. ISIL certainly could not be understood without taking into account its religious dimension, and addressing this. Nevertheless, it was less clear that religion as such and religious differences with others were really the underlying forces at play – hence an insistence by some that the problem was not with Islam but with a few misguided Muslims perverting its meaning and its messages for their own reasons. Other religions too had seen, and continued to see today, extremists committing violence in their names, but that did not mean those religions should themselves be seen as fundamentally flawed.

The sectarian divide
While some participants were keen to play down the differences between Sunni and Shia, and to point to places and times where they had happily co-existed and intermarried, and continued to do so (hence the phenomenon of the so-called “sushi”), most round the table were agreed that the present conflicts could not be understood without taking fully into account the Sunni/Shia tensions, particularly in the Middle East. AQ and ISIL were Sunni movements. For many inside them, Shia Muslims were the principal enemy, as apostates or heretics, even above infidels outside Islam altogether. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s regime had seen the Sunni minority oppressing the Shia majority, although all Iraqis had suffered. The Maliki government had turned the sectarian tables – hence the apparent support for ISIL in Sunni areas of Iraq, despite popular fear of what ISIL domination might mean. In Syria, the Alawite ruling minority, seen as a branch of the Shia, had turned the civil war into a sectarian conflict, in particular through the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah (and had incidentally killed far more people in the process than ISIL). In Yemen, the Houthis, also of Shia background, were seen as trying to dominate militarily the Sunni majority, though the situation was more complex than that.

The brutality of attacks and massacres by both sides was rapidly leading to a wider Sunni/Shia polarisation which threatened to engulf the region, and spread further across Muslim communities throughout the world. Hate speech propagated by media from both sides was remarkable for its virulence. All this was genuinely alarming.

None of it could be fully understood without taking into account the parallel and related struggle for influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Gulf and more widely. Each side was accused of supporting extremism and promoting sectarian violence. Each denied it. But the problem was visible to all, and a hugely negative factor in the evolution of events in the Middle East. Reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia would therefore be fundamental to future stability. However, we seemed some way from that, to say the least.

Foreign fighters
Many Western countries, and others outside the usual definition of the West, were now profoundly alarmed by the number of their nationals who had left to join ISIL, and by the fear that many would return at some stage, radicalised further and well-trained, to carry out attacks in their countries of origin. Why was this happening? Many of the underlying forces were the same as those noted in the section above on the drivers of extremism, but more specific factors were also identifiable:

  • The apparent attraction to the young of a romantic life as a jihadist in an exotic location, compared with the grey and frustrating reality of everyday life. This could be compared to the attractions of gangs or cults for urban youth.
  • The mastery of the internet and social media shown by ISIL, in particular, in manipulating their narrative and playing on the sentiments of a young, ignorant and impressionable digital generation.
  • Susceptibility of young people to sophisticated grooming at a very vulnerable age, with undeveloped views and little real experience of the world.
  • Confusion about identity and belonging, and the perception or reality of lack of opportunity and discrimination in daily experience as a Muslim in a majority non-Muslim country.
  • False theological promises about the attractions and rewards of jihad and martyrdom.
  • Double alienation, from host country and uncomprehending older family members, compounding other frustrations.
  • Anger at aspects of Western foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere, seen as anti-Muslim.
  • A strong desire to help fellow-Muslims in their hour of need.
  • A lack of leadership and of authoritative religious guidance from poorly trained imams.

We noted that many of those concerned were not from poor or badly-educated backgrounds. While some had already been in trouble with the law for drugs or gang involvement, and might be looking for religious redemption as a way out, others had potentially bright futures and had not been on the receiving end of serious discrimination. We should avoid easy generalisations, since the phenomenon of recruitment and grooming was, as yet, far from fully understood. We also noted that while the internet was vital in these processes, so was ease of international travel. Young people seemed to have little or no difficulty in making their way through Turkey or elsewhere to the ISIL battlefields. They were going to some extent because they could, in a way which would have been impossible in the past.

To what extent was it reasonable to blame Western societies for failure to integrate and accommodate comfortably the Muslim communities in their midst, and thus for breeding alienation; or alternatively to blame the Muslim communities themselves for failing to adapt to the habits and values of the societies in which they lived? We had no simple answer to such questions. Many Western countries had gone to great lengths to make their Muslim communities feel accepted and comfortable. Overt discrimination was much less prevalent than in the past. However, there was still plenty of work to do – and the current situation, with news of “Muslim” terrorist-style attacks in the news almost every day, risked feeding both prejudice against Muslims on the part of the majority community, and a feeling of victimhood on the part of the Muslim community. This could be a vicious and self-reinforcing circle if all concerned were not particularly careful. While open Islamophobia had mostly been avoided so far, and remained a mind-set of relatively few, the trends were not healthy, and insensitive media coverage tended to make things worse.

We discussed in this context the success or otherwise of Western counter-terrorism and anti-radicalisation policies. The security authorities were duty bound to try to maintain law and order and protect citizens. All communities had an obligation to cooperate with them in doing so. However, there was a clear risk that heavy-handed approaches could be counterproductive – as the joke ran, did the fifth “p” in the British post 9/11 CT strategy, after prepare, protect, pursue and prevent, stand for “provoke”? It was noted that, too often, the only or main channel of government communication with Muslim communities seemed to be through one or other branch of the security apparatus; and that, in the UK, previous government attempts to work closely with the Muslim community on prevention seemed to have been abandoned in favour of more “crack-downs”. The importance of western governments not abandoning their own values, despite the worries about terrorism, was widely stressed. But Muslim communities had to take their own responsibilities seriously too. Simply closing ranks and complaining about demonization was not enough, given the seriousness of the challenges.

The message from both authorities and Muslim communities needed to be clear and identical; the issue was not Islam v. the West, but violent extremists v. the rest. Education about religion and faith, at schools and elsewhere, could play a vital role in preventing stigmatisation and stereotypes. Meanwhile, more attention also needed to be given to the task of rehabilitating and reintegrating returning foreign fighters and others tempted by extremist doctrines. This might not always succeed, but the alternatives of simply clapping them in jail, or leaving them to their own devices and hoping for the best, were certainly worse.

We noted that these problems did not affect just the so-called West. Most countries in the world had a stake in what was happening. China faced its own problems in Xinjiang. India had one of the largest Muslim communities in the world. Russia was deeply concerned about its own Muslim communities, and Chechen foreign fighters were strongly present on many fronts. Even Latin America was not immune. Foreign fighters had reached Syria and Iraq from an astonishingly wide variety of countries across the world – the figure of 22-28,000 from 100 countries was cited.

It was certainly not realistic for the rest of the world to think it could stand aside from the problems. But outsiders needed to take great care in how they intervened or tried to “help”. The law of unintended consequences was particularly harsh in this area. A good first principle was “do no harm”. Military interventions usually seemed to have made things worse. Outsiders could certainly help in areas such as promoting better governance, fighting corruption and fostering better economic and social opportunities in the countries racked by turbulence and violent extremism. Ultimately, these countries would have to find their own salvations, if indeed countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen could survive at all in their present forms; nevertheless, the rest of the world could not only make a difference, but could also best do so by sticking to universal values, not infringing them. In this context, progress on issues like closing Guantanamo, and peace between Israel and Palestine, would be helpful.

More widely, governments of non-Muslim majority countries needed to invest more in ensuring that they had a fully-grounded and properly-nuanced understanding of political Islam and the different strands within it, as well as the more violent movements. This might not provide instant guides to future action, but should certainly help in avoiding mistakes and counterproductive policies.

Countering the extremist narrative
A common thread running through much of our discussion was the vital need to find better ways of countering the apparently seductive messages coming from ISIL and others, particularly in social media. We recognised that this was bound to be an uphill struggle, and a long haul at best. The centre ground rarely had the best tunes. Those using the internet to promote ISIL had multiple channels, great speed of reaction and sophisticated if highly misleading messages. The mainstream media often did not help by making “stars” out of characters like “Jihadi John”, or elevating the crimes of ISIL above those of the Assad regime. Those trying to respond usually had to devise, clear and co-ordinate their messages, which meant they were often slow and unexciting. Moreover, if these messages came from governments and other official sources, they were often discounted in advance - seen as tainted and predictable from the start. More “star” Muslim presenters in the mainstream media would help, as would judicious use of humour/ridicule, and greater support for those Muslim organisations and individuals trying to get across balanced and positive messages. The volume of extremist messaging in social media needed to be met by a similar volume of mainstream comment.

We agreed on the need for more investment in this area to help delegitimise ISIL and similar movements, but also on the fact that such investment should not come from governments, corporations or other sources automatically seen as suspect. The funding needed to be Muslim, but not sectarian in any way, and ideally from the widest possible base e.g. by using crowd-funding. Using the skills of the many Muslims who worked in Silicon Valley or similar cutting edge environments should be explored.

There was specific agreement from some participants that they would investigate further the opportunities for Muslims to challenge through various media forms the violent extremist message of ISIL and similar organisations. This will be taken forward by a virtual group, with a view to obtaining funds for and organising an explanatory workshop as a first step, perhaps even at Ditchley.

No one pretended there were easy or neat solutions to these complex challenges but, without great claims to originality, the following directions of travel for further work by governments and others emerged from our discussions, in addition to the specific media point immediately above.
For governments in Muslim-majority countries and Muslim communities there or elsewhere

  • Accept that there is a religious issue to address in delegitimising violent and extreme versions of the Islamic faith.
  • Work to present a positive and tolerant image of Islam, and avoid reinforcing sentiments of victimhood.
  • Encourage independent religious voices to work and speak out freely, in order to help counter deviant or exclusivist interpretations of Islam, and misinterpretation of concepts such as jihad or martyrdom.
  • Promote through all means possible tolerant and inclusivist interpretations of Islam.
  • (For minority Muslim communities) Accept the need to respect the fundamental values of the societies in which you live.
  • Seeks ways to address the political, economic and social concerns of disenfranchised and prospect-less youth in Muslim-majority countries, too easily attracted to extremism otherwise.
  • Espouse specific policies and goals aimed at reversing the tide of Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict and hatred
  • Promote reconciliation between countries holding key positions around this sectarian divide, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.
  • Do more to prevent private and public funding and other support of extremist and violent interpretations of Islam.
  • Step up efforts to settle the appalling civil war in Syria, and the conflicts in Iraq, Libya and Yemen.

For governments and non-Muslim communities in non-Muslim majority countries

  • Put greater effort into countering the rise of Islamophobia and stigmatisation of Muslims, and genuine dialogue with Muslim communities.
  • Do more to ensure that counter-terrorism policies are sensitive and not ultimately counter-productive.
  • Help to create space for Muslim political and religious authorities to address and delegitimise violent extremism, without tainting such efforts through too close links.
  • Establish closer dialogue with Muslim-majority countries about common issues.
  • Do more to ensure that minority Muslim communities within countries feel comfortable about their place in society and are not discriminated against.
  • Get the geopolitics right, including by stepping up efforts to find negotiated solutions to the civil war in Syria, and the conflicts in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, promoting a genuine Saudi-Iranian reconciliation, and working more intensively to address some of the long-standing grievances of Muslims which help feed extremism, such as Guantanamo and the Israel-Palestinian dispute.
  • Exercise particularly great care over future interventions in Muslim-majority countries, particularly military ones.
  • Stick to tried and tested values both in counter-terrorism policies and in dealings with the countries at most risk.

Much of the discussion was understandably gloomy, centred around the apparent success of ISIL and the bloody and intractable conflicts in the Middle East, particularly Syria. However, in countering this trend, we were agreed on some key points: the importance of definitions and the right use of language, for example the need to talk about “violence by Muslims”, not “Islamic violence”, and to ensure that the enemy is not seen as Islam but as individuals and their lawless behaviour; the impact of social media, especially on the young, and the need to find better ways of tackling this; and the importance of continuing dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims, with patience and respect. There were also important positive signals in our discussion, notably the insistence from Muslims round the table that there was nothing in the Islamic faith which was incompatible with modern views of human rights and democracy, that faith should be able to unite as well as divide, and that the extremists continued to represent only the tiniest of minorities within Muslim communities. These are messages which need to be heard loud and clear by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


CHAIR: Ambassador Akbar Ahmed
Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC. Formerly: Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies, US Naval Academy, Annapolis; High Commissioner for Pakistan in the UK and Ireland; Iqbal Fellow (Chair of Pakistan Studies) and Fellow of Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.

Professor Amin Saikal AM FASSA 
Director, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (Middle East and Central Asia) and Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Australian National University. Formerly: Visiting Fellow, Princeton University, University of Cambridge and Institute of Development Studies (University of Sussex); Rockefeller Foundation Fellow in International Relations (1983-88).

Dr Maha Yahya PhD
Senior Associate, Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut. Formerly: Chief, Participatory Development and Social Justice team, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia; Consultant: World Bank, UNDP, CDR, Parsons Brinckerhoff; Rockefeller Humanities Fellow (1998-99); Mellon Post-doctoral Fellow (1997-98); United Nations Development Program, Lebanon.
Mr Mirnes Kovac 
Journalist/Columnist on Middle East and Balkans issues and Political Analyst, Sarajevo; Editor/Journalist, Preporod - Islamic Newspaper, Sarajevo (2005-).

Mr Scott Gilmore
Founder, Building Markets; Columnist, Macleans Magazine; Senior Fellow, Munk School of Global Affairs; Young Global Leader, World Economic Forum. Formerly: Canadian Diplomatic Service: Deputy Director for South Asia; Deputy National Security Advisor, United Nations peacekeeping mission in East Timor.
Ms Aleema Jamal 
Inaugural Executive Director, Laurier Project Foundation. Formerly: Consultant, McKinsey & Company, Toronto.
Dr Bessma Momani
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Waterloo and Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario; Senior Fellow, Centre for International Governance and Innovation.

Mr Mohammad Al Zaibak
President and CEO, Canadian Development and Marketing Corporation; Co-Founder and Former Director and CEO, Teranet Inc.; Member of the Board of Governors, Ryerson University; Vice Chairman and Director, Canada Arab Business Council; Advisory Board Member, Mosaic Institute. Formerly: Member of the Board of Directors: Canadian Chamber of Commerce; Toronto Community Foundation; Canadian Centre for Diversity.

Mr Tingyi Wang 
PhD Candidate in Political Science, Department of International Relations, Tsinghua University, Beijing.

Mr Mohamed Okda LLB MBA 
Independent Political Consultant, with a focus on Political Islam in Egypt and the Arab region; active in issues of interfaith and crisis mediation, religious-secular dialogue and human rights; Media Commentator.
Dr Dietrich Reetz 
Senior Research Fellow, Zentrum Moderner Orient; Senior Lecturer of Political Science and Principle Investigator for Political Science/South Asia, Graduate School of Muslim Cultures and Societies, Free University Berlin. Formerly: Member, Global Agenda Council on Pakistan, World Economic Forum (2011-14).

Ambassador Talmiz Ahmad 
President, Arabian Ocean Services. Formerly: Indian Diplomatic Service: Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2010-11 and 2000-03); to UAE (2007-10); to Oman (2003-04); Director General, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi (2006-07); Head, International Cooperation Division, Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, New Delhi (2004-06).

Mr Oliver McTernan 
Director and Co-Founder, Forward Thinking (2004-); Regular Broadcaster, BBC. Formerly: Senior Adviser, Club of Madrid; Visiting Fellow, Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs, Harvard University (2000-03); Priest, Islington and Notting Hill parishes (1970-2000).
Dr Malise Ruthven
Author; Contributor: Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books. Formerly: Lecturer in Religious Studies at: University of Aberdeen, University of London, UC-San Diego, Dartmouth College; Talks Writer, BBC World Service (1980-86).
Mr Mohamed Abdulmalek M.Sc. 
Libyan Muslim Brotherhood European Representative; Consultant to H.E. Dr. Omar Alhasi The Prime Minister of Libya, Libyan Muslim Brotherhood (LMB) Shura Council (2012-, 2008-10 and 1998-2007); Chairman, Libya Watch (2009-). Formerly: Vice President, LMB (2009-11); Chairman, Board of Trustees, Alwafa Relief; Chairman, LMB Shura Council (2003-05); President, Libya Watch (1999-2009).

Professor Osman Bakar 
Director (2013-) and Chair Professor (2012-), Sultan Omar 'Ali Saifuddien Centre for Islamic Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. Formerly: Deputy Chief Executive Officer, International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies, Malaysia (2008-12); Professor of Islamic Thought and Civilisation, International Islamic University Malaysia (2005-08); Malaysia Chair of Southeast Asian Islam, Prince Talal al-Waleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University, Washington, DC (2000-05).

Mr Ugochukwu Ezeh LL.B, BL 
Weidenfeld Scholar and Bachelor of Civil Law Candidate, University of Oxford; Associate Editor, Oxford University Commonwealth Law Journal. Formerly: Simmons Cooper Partners, Nigeria (2013-14); Facilitator (Media Management), World Economic Forum on Africa (2014); Research Assistant, Department of Public Law, University of Lagos (2013); Extern, Federal High Court of Nigeria (2013); Founding Member, Young African Research Arena.
The Most Reverend Josiah Idowu-Fearon PhD (Abu) 
Bishop of Kaduna Diocese; Co-Founder, Centre for the Study of Islam and Christianity; Chair, Programme for Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa; past President, Network for Inter Faith Concerns; Member, Religious Advisory Council, Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Formerly: Archbishop of Kaduna Province (2004-09).

Mr Zahid Hussain
Journalist and Author. Formerly: Pakistan Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, Washington, DC (2011-12); Correspondent, The Times of London; The Wall Street Journal.

HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
Chairman, King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. Formerly: Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United Kingdom and Ireland; Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States.

Mr Eduardo Lopez Busquets 
Diplomatic Service of Spain: Director General, Casa Arabe, Madrid and Cordoba. Formerly: Ambassador to Mozambique and Swaziland; Deputy Director General for Cooperation with Central, East and West Africa, Spanish International Cooperation Agency; Advisor in the Cabinet of the Minister of Defence and in the International Department of the Office of the Presidency.

Mr Mehmet Murat Yetkin 
Editor-in-Chief, Hürriyet Daily News (2011-); Eisenhower Fellow. Formerly; Ankara Bureau Chief, Radikal; Founding Team Member, NTV, Ankara; Diplomacy and Defence Editor, Turkish Daily News.

Professor Tahir Abbas FRSA 
Professor of Sociology, Fatih University, Istanbul (2012-). Formerly: Honorary University Fellow, Exeter Centre for Ethno-Political Studies, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, Exeter University (2009-11); Fellow, Birmingham University Centre for Studies in Security and Democracy (2007-09).
Mr Jonathan Benthall 
Associate Fellow, Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester (2009-); Honorary Research Fellow, Department of Anthropology, University College London (1994-); Co-Author, 'The Charitable Crescent: Politics of Aid in the Muslim World' (2003); Co-Editor, 'Gulf Charities and Islamic Philanthropy in the "Age of Terror" and Beyond' (2014). Formerly: Adviser on projects relating to Islamic charities, sponsored by Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (1995-2012).
Mr Gordon Corera 
Security Correspondent, BBC News (2004-).
Dr Alexander Evans OBE
Coordinator, Al Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team, United Nations (2013-).
Mr David Goodhart 
Chair, Advisory Group, DEMOS; Founder (1995), Editor-at-Large (former Editor), 'Prospect' Magazine. Formerly: Bonn Correspondent, The Financial Times (1988-91).
Mr Martin Hetherington 
Head, Middle East and North Africa Research Group, and Research Analyst on North Africa, Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Formerly: First Secretary (Political/Economic), British Embassy, Cairo (2006-10).
Mr Dilwar Hussain 
Independent Consultant on social policy, Muslim identity and Islamic reform in the modern world; Founding Chair, New Horizons in British Islam; Research Fellow, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, University of Coventry; Research Associate, Centre of Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge.
Dr Farhan Nizami CBE 
The Prince of Wales Fellow in the study of the Muslim World, Magdalen College, Oxford; Founder Director, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies; Emeritus Fellow, St Cross College; Member, Faculties of History and Oriental Studies, Oxford University; Founder Editor, Journal of Islamic Studies (OUP,
1990-); Series Editor, Makers of Islamic Civilization (OUP, 2004-).
Ambassador Christopher Prentice CMG 
Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service (1977-): Ambassador to Italy (2011-). Formerly: Ambassador to Iraq (2007-09); to Jordan (2002-06); Head, Near East and North Africa Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (1998-2002); Deputy Head of Mission, British Embassy, Budapest (1994-98); Assistant Private Secretary to Foreign Secretary (1990-93).
The Lord Williams of Baglan Ph.D, M.Sc (Econ) 
Distinguished Visiting Fellow and former Acting Head, Asia Programme, Chatham House; International Trustee, BBC. Formerly: United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Special Coordinator for Lebanon (2008-11); UK Special Representative on the Middle East and Special Projects (2007-08); UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East (2006-07); Director, Middle East and Asia, Department of Political Affairs, United Nations, New York (2005-06).
Ms Caroline Wyatt 
BBC News (1991-): Religious Affairs Correspondent (2014-). Formerly: Defence Correspondent (2007-14); Paris Correspondent, Moscow Correspondent; Bonn Correspondent; Berlin Correspondent.

Sheikh Dr Usama Hasan 
Senior Researcher in Islamic Studies, Quilliam; Fellow, Royal Astronomical Society; Convenor of international task force on Islam and Science, 2015; Trustee, One Voice Europe. Formerly: Senior Lecturer in Engineering, Middlesex University (2003-12).

Mrs Xenia Wickett     
Project Director, US Programme, and Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs, Chatham House. Formerly: Executive Director, PeaceNexus Foundation, Switzerland; Director, Project on India and the Subcontinent, Executive Director for Research, and Board Member, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University (2005-08); Director for South Asia, National Security Council, The White House. A Member of the Programme Committee, The Ditchley Foundation.

Ms Vanita Datta 
Counter Terrorism/Countering Violent Extremism Advisor, Africa Bureau, USAID, Washington DC (2009-).
Ms Elizabeth Dibble 
US Diplomatic Service: Deputy Chief of Mission, US Embassy, London (2013-). Formerly: Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (2011-13); Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs (2010-11); Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d'Affaires, US Embassy, Rome (2008-10); Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs (2006-08); Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
Dr Jerrold Green 
President and Chief Executive Officer, Pacific Council on International Policy, Los Angeles; Member, US Secretary of the Navy Advisory Panel and US Department of  State Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy. Formerly: Director of International Programs, RAND Corporation; Director of Middle East Centers, RAND and University of Arizona.
Professor Jytte Klausen 
Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation, Brandeis University, Massachusetts; Affiliate, Center for European Studies, Harvard University; Founder, Western Jihadism Project.
Professor Jonathan Laurence PhD 
Associate Professor of Political Science, Boston College (2010-).
The Hon. Farah Pandith 
Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Senior Fellow, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; Senior Advisor, Risk Assistance Network and Exchange (RANE) and Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Formerly: First-Ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities, US Department of State; Senior Advisor to Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, US Department of State; Director for Middle East Regional Initiatives, National Security Council.
Mr Anthony Richter 
Associate Director and Regional Director for the Middle East, North Africa and Southwest Asia, Open Society Foundations, New York; Member, Council on Foreign Relations; Member and Founding Chairman, Revenue Watch Institute. Formerly: Board Member: Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the Open Government Partnership.