Ministers have been urged to enlist the help of several controversial Muslim groups to stem the flow of British jihadists to Iraq and Syria.
Calls are growing for Whitehall to restore ties in particular with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), one of the country’s largest Islamic organisations. The group, which once enjoyed a close relationship with the government, has been ostracised since 2009 when one of its officials signed a declaration supporting Hamas and calling on Muslims to destroy “foreign warships” preventing arms smuggling into Gaza.
Robert Lambert, a former head of the Metropolitan police Muslim contact unit who is now a lecturer in terrorism studies at the University of St Andrews, said that the MCB and other Muslim groups could be valuable partners in the struggle against home-grown jihad.
“Throughout the UK, but predominantly in parts of Greater London, there are Sunni Muslim organisations, groups and individuals with either good track records of challenging al-Qaeda or Isis-type radicalisation and recruitment or clear potential to do so,” he said.
“In many instances the government considers these groups to be unsuitable partners because, in the government’s view, they are extremist and do not subscribe to British values.”
Mohammed Amin, chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum and a former senior member of the MCB, said it was important to draw a distinction between the council and the contentious views held by some of its members.
He called for the group to be brought back into the fold after its full-blooded denunciation of Isis earlier this year. “The MCB has a wide range of views, contacts and experiences that would be very valuable if they could be shared with the government,” he said.
Dr Lambert described the MCB as a notable example of a national umbrella body that has potential to help tackle violent extremist radicalisation and recruitment” and praised one of its affiliates, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), for its work with young Muslims around the Finsbury Park mosque in north London.
There is a long-standing division in counter-extremism policy over how to handle Muslim groups linked to Salafists, who advocate a return to the Islam practised in the seventh century AD, and Islamists, who believe that the religion should shape public life.
In a 2011 speech at a security conference in Munich David Cameron emphasised that “the ideology of extremism [was] the problem” and pledged to confront non-violent Islamism as well as jihadists.
Some politicians and experts, however, believe that there is scope for the government to engage with organisations linked to Islamist views without supporting them wholesale.
One mainstream Muslim leader who advises the government said that it needed to move on from its “all or nothing” approach to dealing with groups whose ideology clashed with its conception of British values.
“If it can find a way of engaging with the Muslim Council without endorsing everything it wants or its entire agenda, then I think that’s a sensible way of going forward,” he said.
Baroness Warsi, the former faith minister whose resignation over the prime minister’s refusal to condemn Israel’s invasion of Gaza this year dealt a heavy blow to the cabinet, said that while she would be “uncomfortable” about the government working in partnership with Islamists and Salafists, it was important to keep open a channel of dialogue.
“I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable with the government taking certain individuals or groups as partners, but I do firmly believe that we should be engaging with a whole range of individuals and groups,” she said. “There’s a big difference between funding an organisation and partnering with an organisation and talking to an organisation.”
Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a defence think-tank, said that talking to a wide range of Muslim groups was a “key element of countering radicalisation” but the government’s stance had toughened appreciably under the coalition.
The MAB said it was fully prepared to work with the government, while the MCB said that it would co-operate with ministers in their efforts against violent extremism but would not seek funding from the taxpayer.
“We are more than happy to work productively with the government on this issue, but we will be mindful of getting involved in initiatives that will further alienate young people,” it said in a statement.
“Of course we will have differences with the government as to how we deal with the scourge of violent extremism. But as a democratic body, we would be failing our affiliates if we only engaged based on what the government wants to hear.”
James Brokenshire, the security minister, said that the effectiveness of the Home Office’s counter-extremism programmes would be undermined if it commented on its partners.
“As part of our Prevent counter-terrorism programme we work with a wide range of organisations to raise awareness of the dangers of travelling to areas of conflict such as Syria and Iraq and the risk of exploitation by extremist groups,” he said. “We give support to programmes in communities to rebut terrorist and extremist propaganda.”