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Opinion: How to beat the preachers of hate

By Ghaffar Hussain
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Thu May 22, 2014
Radical preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri, pictured here in London in 2004, has been found guilty on terror charges.
Radical preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri, pictured here in London in 2004, has been found guilty on terror charges.
  • Ghaffar Hussain: We need to confront extreme Islamist narratives
  • Preacher Abu Hamza, found guilty this week on terror charges, renowned for radicalization
  • Undermine radicals by offering a stronger worldview, says Hussain

Editor's note: Ghaffar Hussain is managing director of Quilliam, a think tank formed to combat extremism in society. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his. Follow Hussain on Twitter @GhaffarH

(CNN) -- It is likely that radical cleric Abu Hamza -- who was found guilty on terror charges by a New York federal jury this week --- will now spend the rest of his life in a U.S. top security prison while his victims will gain some succor from the fact that he is finally behind bars.

However, merely stopping high-profile extremist preachers is not enough if the threat they represent is to be confronted. Much more needs to be done to challenge extremist narratives, ideas and propaganda if we are prevent the next generation of extremist preachers from emerging.

There was a time, during the 1980s and early 1990s, when individuals would rarely become radicalized without direct contact with an extremist preacher of some description.

In this context, preachers such as Abu Hamza became highly significant as recruiters and propagandists. Their ability to tailor the al-Qaeda worldview to young and impressionable audiences in Europe and North America allowed them to target a generation of Muslims born and raised in the West.

However, even though many key extremist preachers have now been arrested or deported -- such as Omar Bakri and Abdullah Faisal -- extremist narratives are still being disseminated and reaching their target audiences.

Jury finds radical Islamic cleric guilty
Terror trial begins in New York
Radical al-Masri to be extradited to U.S.

The likes of Abu Hamza have left a legacy which has now been taken on by some Western-born recruits, using educational institutions, prisons and the Internet to spread extremist messages.

The fact that an estimated 400 British citizens are believed to have traveled to Syria to join jihadist groups suggests their efforts are having some success.

In tackling extremism we need to ensure universities and colleges are not hosting extremist preachers without providing a robust challenge to their views. We need to ensure prisoners are offered mentoring and support to turn their lives around, making them less susceptible to recruitment within prisons. Online extremism also needs to be challenged with counter-arguments; this could be done through websites and social media accounts that confront the extremist narrative. A recent Quilliam report further details how this can be done.

Arresting key individuals or shutting down extremist websites -- as some European governments propose -- are not long-term solutions to this problem. Extremist narratives only lose their appeal when they are undermined and thoroughly discredited; when the debate is opened up and won by their opponents, rather than being shut down and lost.

We need to enter the realm of ideas and pitch more positive and enlightened values against extreme and regressive arguments.

The extreme Islamist narrative offers listeners a simplistic framework through which all geo-political developments are misconstrued.

Just as Marxists view all activities as part of a class struggle, so extreme Islamists rely on a West versus Islam framework or a Muslim versus non-Muslim rivalry. In the view of such extreme Islamists, Muslims are at war while non-Muslim states and political entities form part of a broad struggle to undermine Islam.

Conflict zones -- such as Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan -- are viewed not as localised or isolated conflicts but part of a grand conspiracy to undermine Islam and prevent the emergence of a utopian Islamist super-power.

Undermining extreme Islamism is about undermining the framework or narrative that is being used. This involves discrediting it and exposing its inaccuracies from a political, historical and theological point of view. It is also about revealing the true nature of the extremist narrative and presenting it in its unembellished form.

Extremists often rely on highlighting a select number of grievances, while ignoring other less convenient ones, in order to create moral outrage and garner sympathy. Exposing this selective and agenda driven approach to conflict zones and political developments is key to discrediting their efforts.

Ultimately, extremism will stop appealing to young people when it becomes unfashionable and is regarded as yesterday's news. However, or that to happen we need not only counter-narratives but also alternative narratives through which the world can be understood and appreciated.

For this to happen we need more political literacy, more spaces in which young people can discuss political and social developments and a stronger sense of national and regional identity so that people feel a greater sense of rootedness and belonging.

We undermine extremists by illustrating how our values are better than theirs and offering constructive answers in opposition to their destructive proposals.

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