“I have been working with PREVENT for nine years and I am not afraid to say it – Here’s why”

My recent op-ed talking about my radical middle way in understanding radicalisation and empowering communities to be part of the solution. 

http://www.asianimage.co.uk/news/15508319.I_have_been_working_with_PREVENT_for_nine_years_and_I_am_not_afraid_to_say_it____Here_s_why/

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BBC discussion

Maulana Saleem, Firoza and myself visited Joe Wilson at BBC Radio Lancashire, who aired most of our discussion split over 4 segments. 
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p055dwmg
18 minutes – Muslim engagement with the media and the sinking feeling when a terrorist attack takes place 
54 minutes – Religion, Violence and terrorism
Integration and 
1:22 Positive Muslim contributions and activism 
Radicalisation & Community Reach
1:54 Islamophobia and the need to Build Bridges 

Tea and Samosa Interfaith 

I’ve been writing this blog for some time and finally found some time to reflect. It feel like a lifetime ago that I was very fortunate enough to have been invited to speak on I is for interfaith on the A-Z of Things Unseen, you can hear the short 5 minute podcast here:
https://soundcloud.com/thingsunseen/a-z-of-things-unseen-i-is-for-interfaith

The opportunity to share my experiences was powerful, sharing memories, my thoughts on interfaith and how I am nurturing my children from a very young age to be interfaith activists. Whilst this podcast paints a human picture of interfaith I am actually much more critical.

Interfaith has been a journey, one on which I have faced many dead-ends, plenty of trials and errors, meeting some of the most wonderful people whilst facing criticism, resistance, barriers and often apathy. What is the point? many have asked me and continue to ask.

Why do we need interfaith? we need to find our own answer and I do not intend to answer this specific question. Please do share your answers. I will try to write a separate blog on the question of why!

I have met some inspiring individuals, I cherish and love the direction they have given me. Often they guide me through the darkest moments by spreading a light which ignites the heart, motivates the soul and body to act.

The term interfaith itself is loaded and can be a barrier for many, it often gives the impression of a melting pot of religions, one of being theosophical and therefore each religion loses it’s individuality. This is not the type of interfaith I follow, I am convinced that we need a model which celebrates and understands our differences, however the journey must begin with understanding our common ground and similarities. The last few weeks I have been reminded that very few people are aware of our common ground, this needs to be our starting point however we shouldn’t stop there. Like we should not stop at “Tea & Samosa” interfaith which celebrates the cucumber sandwich, whilst I do not deny there is a need to share our culture and yummy food. Teaching Indian cookery has allowed me teach the art of home made food cooked with traditional ingredients and recipes, whilst having conversations on faith and culture with those who may not engage with interfaith.

Tea, Samosa and cucumber sandwiches should be our starting point for our conversations, for too long and for too many this is the end point. We have too many “Citizen Khan’s” involved in interfaith, who like to come round the table, have their quarterly dose of samosas, take a lovely photo with a bishop, say a few loving words and leave without any further action or change.

These same leaders are the ones who work tirelessly to preserve their domain and authority instead of serving their communities. I do believe it is time for change, for those like myself who are young (at heart at least) to feel empowered and make change. I have found that individuals will do anything m to act as a barrier, to deter you by stringing you along, then directly by complaining about your work and then trying to hijack you.

The challenge is often two fold, one internal and other from those who want to use interfaith as a stick to beat you with. Often what I refer to as the Sookhedo approach, one which lacks genuine empathy. It focuses of beating Muslim participants down, why are Muslims not condemning terrorism and why are Muslims not doing enough about raising the subject of the persecution of Christian minorities. I do not deny that these issues need to be raised and challenged, however when these subjects are used to disempower, it often causes Muslims to disengage and therefore never to return.

Christian Muslim Encounters has always created safe spaces to speak about these issues, in June 2014 we hosted Dr Morrow who spoke about “The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World.” In July 2015 we hosted a full day conversation titled “Faith, Communities & radicalisation” which allowed communities, academics, faith leaders and activists to speak about radicalisation and recruitment by Da’esh and the Far Right!

If we want change we need to inspire and empower young people to play their part, to make mistakes, learn and create their own journey. I’m often troubled when I’m the youngest participant in the room, unfortunately I’m no longer young and quickly becoming one of the grey haired men often found at these events. 

I do believe that the current climate requires a radical approach to interfaith. Each town and city needs to bring institutions together employ an interfaith coordinators and nurture bridge builders. We need to reach a tipping point, we need 100 activists to become 1000, 100,000 and create a movement for change. This change requires us to alter and shape dynamics of our engagement which creates platforms which educates and empowers leaders and activists to become change makers. 

Salaam, Peace & Shalom

Ali 

How not to counter violent extremism 


The first few months of Presidency of Trump has provoked for many in the United States and across the world to unite, to stand up and declare that intolerance will not be tolerated. The seven country ban and recommendation for torture is making America less safe, this is not my opinion but of those working to protect the USA. Former FBI agent Ali Soufan has written extensively on why the proposed travel ban, reintroduction of torture and rebranding of CVE to Combating violent Islamic extremism or Countering Radical Islam is highly problematic. Read more here
This has been echoed by the former FBI agent Errol Southers, the director of Home Grown Extremism studies at the university of Southern California, who I had the pleasure of meeting during my recent visit. Read more here

As a Muslim who works on understanding and challenging radicalisation, I take a constructively critical approach and aim to share my concerns. I have recently travelled across the US meeting with communities, academics, law enforcement, policy makers and practitioners. This has been a wonderful opportunity to connect with leaders from across Europe. Our discussions have focused on creating solutions to the issue of countering home grown terrorism which are credible whilst not alienating the communities that we need to engage and work with. 

I fail to understand the rationale of rebranding CVE to Countering violent Islamic Extremism or Combating Radical Islam, with a proposed strategy that intends to cut the funding to combat the threat of the far right. This proposed change is causing further polarisation of communities by further fuelling the far right and therefore will face greater opposition from Muslim communities than under the Obama administration. The inclusion of the term Islam or Islamic will will reinforce the narrative that this agenda is Muslim focused and that they are a suspect community who do not belong in America. This will feed further alienation and isolation, questioning American Muslim identity and potentially making them more susceptible to being radicalised.

A rebranding of CVE would be welcomed by many as it has divided communities and policy makers. I have spoken to many who consider this policy divisive and further marginalising the communities who are already feeling that they are under the microscope. I met a lawyer, a young Sikh lady, we discussed at length why she considered CVE to be fuelling prejudice and unfairly targeting Muslim communities. We discussed at length the need for a policy which is more balanced. These encounters reinforces the claims that Obama’s CVE programme has failed due to the opposition of Muslim communities. However this proposed rebranding has already caused disengagement by groups who have been engaged and delivering local solutions. I was surprised that CVE practitioners refuse to accept grant funds for local work as it causes them to lose credibility with the communities they work with. As an observation, CVE in the US is much more muslim centric than Prevent in the UK. 

If the new administration is adamant in rebranding CVE, then there needs to be a process of engagement, listening to those who have concerns and criticisms whilst addressing how the policy can be improved and shape a more positive strategy and practice. Engagement is essential, particularly when we see that many are feeling alienated and vocalising how CVE is fuelling Islamophobia. I would propose that the administration engages with those who are working in policy, research, law enforcement, practitioners and communities. There is a need to understand the challenges and existing good work, whilst developing a third way! Unless the future direction is effective in combating the Far Right, Far Left, Da’esh and other forms of homegrown terrorism, the issue will only worsen and make it more difficult to prevent and counter. 

Governments need the support of communities, leaders and activists if they are to be successful in countering radicalisation. I have met many recently who have actively engaged on CVE however have decided to disengage to retain credibility with the communities they serve. At a time when communities and practitioners need to be empowered to create local solutions, the administration is disempowering. 

It is no secret that the new US administration has links to the right, particularly those who feed the narrative that Islam is an ideology not a religion and the US is at war with Islam and Muslims. Ideologically this is highly problematic and creates fertile ground for radicalisation particularly as American Muslim identity and belonging is being questioned. The following article delves into this issue in more depth Here
I refuse to take a security approach to prevent & CVE, my approach is to use community engagement and development to work with communities where they are at rather than where you want them to be! I often question, how can we empower communities to tackle radicalisation? The US approach is overly led by law enforcement, which does not trust communities to be the solution. I have found that knowledge and confidence are two significant barriers, therefore we need to invest in communities and leadership. Create more shared spaces for academics, researchers, policy makers, leaders, communities and practitioners to share and learn together. The voices of researchers, formers and survivors needs to be amplified, whilst the responsibility is not on a few. We need to work together collectively to be part of the solution.  

Reflecting on 2016

2016 hasn’t been a year of smooth sailing, a year of many highs and equally many lows, challenges and difficulties. This year has been a reminder that I need to focus on my health and exercise more. Kundalini yoga has been a regular feature of my week, pushing through many barriers including pain. I’m slowly becoming stronger, lost a little weight and intend to begin training in a form of a martial art in the new year. 

2016 has been a busy year, one filled with lots of activity and action whilst constantly feeling overly frustrated that I haven’t been able to do more. I’m not going to focus on the rejections, failures, unsuccessful funding applications and knock backs. I place my trust in God, accept His knowledge & wisdom, whilst being content with the outcome. After difficulty comes ease!
Community Reach has been a big part of 2016, having delivered 5 cohorts with over 80 participants having completed the programme in Lancashire. I have been delivering Reach for 4 years, to facilitate a nuanced conversation about the challenges of radicalisation in an informed way which empowers participants with greater knowledge and complexities.


 It has been amazing to have had the opportunity to get to know very sincere and talented leaders, activists and practitioners. Reach is slowly growing and I would like to see it grow into more areas. My emphasis through reach is to create a safe space to have difficult conversations about Da’esh and the Far Right. The primary aim is to empower communities, leaders, activists, practitioners, policy makers, teachers, youth workers and elected members to have a deeper and nuanced understanding of extremism, terrorism, radicalisation, ideology, narratives and counter narratives. Through this process we allow our participants to gain more knowledge and skills to challenge and counter radicalisation. We need to be willing to have these difficult conversations, have a multi-layered understanding of the issues and empower communities to create local solutions. Our journey of learning takes us to Northern Ireland for a study visit, to learn from the “troubles”, former combatants, survivors, peace makers, segregated communities, practitioners, conflict resolution and focusing on peace & reconciliation. Reach truly begins after the final workshop, we have built trust, confidence, understanding and skills. Our challenge to each participant is how can you apply this experience to create local solutions which do not alienate, isolate, stigmatise, discriminate and marginalise the communities that we need to engage. Our programme is inclusive, we emphasise the need and willingness to listen to concerns and criticism whilst being solution focused. We have had many participants who are Prevent critics and skeptics, many of these participants have completed the programme, acknowledged that communities need to tackle radicalisation and have spoken highly of our approach. These individuals appreciate and acknowledge that we do not stigmatise, alienate or antagonise communities. 

My next step is to create a longer programme, 12 days long, accredited by a university which allows more time to explore the history, sociology, psychology of terrorism. Concluding with how to empower communities to effectively prevent, counter and challenge radicalisation in an informed manner which does not sensationalise or exaggerate the threat. 

I felt honoured and privileged to have spoken at two Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) events. The first at Lancaster university chaplaincy centre, which included an exhibition by Faith Matters on the role of the righteous Muslims who protected those fleeing persecution during the holocaust. The second was the annual HMD church service at the Minster in Preston. I was touched to have been invited a second time, my first was 5 years ago in 2011. A few months before I was made redundant, I emphasised the need to focus on cohesion and good relations to counter the far right who grow during periods of austerity. My reflections during the 2016 service can be read here; HMD 2016

During January myself & Rev’d Dr Anderson Jeremiah, founders of Christian Muslim Encounters wrote the Preston unity statement in response to the proposed Edl demonstration. Over 300 signatories supported our statement, including the Bishops of Lancashire, Imams, councillors, faith leaders and activists. The statement and list of signatories can be found on the facebook page: Unity Statement 

A Muslim primary school invited me to speak at the “One Religion” week assembly, I emphasised the need for young people to be good citizens, foster good relations and get involved in projects which does societal good. I briefly touched upon the increase of Islamophobia and the far right, emphasising that only by becoming good role models can we counter and challenge the negativity about Muslims. 

2016 has been an important year as I have stepped into academia by working as an associate researcher at Lancaster University, we have been researching transnational activists. I have spent most of this year using life narrative story telling to interview former mujahideen, British Muslims who have travelled to countries like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya and other countries to fight. This research aims to understand the person’s life, causes for mobilisation, the return, disengagement and reintegration. In January 2017 we are bringing together academics, practitioners and leaders to explore “Reintegrating Foreign Fighters: Desistance & Disengagement.” 
My research this year has been diverse and focused on Da’esh, recruitment of British Muslims, the Far Right, Islamophobia and the history of Christian Muslim Encounters. There’s so much more research and learning that I need to do and this has reinforced my opinion that academia needs to be translated into resources relevant for communities. I wrote my PhD proposal to conduct an ethnographic study of Christian Muslim Encounters in Lancashire. A radical proposal which focused on the intersection between faith communities whilst focusing on the intersection between academia and communities. 

Christian Muslim encounters (CME) – There has been lots of brainstorming, planning and meetings to identify resources for this much needed work. I’ve had many people mention the “Faith, Communities & Radicalisation” conference which brought together 100 academics, researchers, activists, leaders, practitioners and teachers. We are in discussion about a project which had faced significant resistance and barriers, please say a special prayer for us. I have represented CME at the Anglican Muslim Forum meetings hosted by the Bishop of Blackburn and Lancashire Council of Mosques. A lovely opportunity to meet up with friends across the faiths, discuss relevant issues and share a meal. 

I have to give the Faith in Art exhibition organised by Mobeen Butt a mention, I was invited to the launch event and my eyes were opened to the power of art in building bridges, bringing communities together and an opportunity to learn. This has sparked an interest in Islamic art, something I have raised with a local museum for 10 years. I was felt empowered by the positive energy in the room, it has been wonderful connecting with the artists.


I was invited to be on the advisory board for Solutions Not Side, I am passionate about the conflict having taught drama at a Palestinian refugee camp in 2006. I have found that the Israel-Palestine conflict polarises communities, often feeding anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The conflict is an emotive subject, Solutions Not Sides Programme, has been formulated with the input of both Israelis and Palestinians, as well as senior members of Jewish and Muslim communities, it is designed to prepare students to make a positive, solutions-focused contribution to debates on Israel-Palestine. Solutions Not Sides focuses on direct student interaction with Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, and has delivered conflict resolution training, provided education and facilitated discussion on the conflict in the UK and Western Europe since 2010, engaging thousands of students in the process. It has been an honour to support delivery in Lancashire and delivering a workshop on “Peace Leadership” at the student leadership programme. In November a Palestinian and Israeli peace activist visited Lancashire schools and Witton Park hosted a community conversation. This brought together very diverse thoughts and opinions and we managed to share a meal together afterwards. 

I was invited to 10 Downing Street for the Easter Reception,this was a great opportunity to meet friends, politicians, civil servants and more importantly interfaith activists from across the country. A very memorable experience and this photo surprised me:


I’m not sure if I’m going to be invited back again!! A highlight of my year was being inviting to an Interfaith iftar with London Mayor Sadiq Khan by the City Circle. This was a great opportunity to connect with lots of inspiring Muslims and activists from different backgrounds.

I have delivered over a dozen workshops, spoken at conferences, lectured at universities and events – topics have included: 

Radicalisation, Extremism & Terrorism

Why is interfaith important?  


Methodist interfaith workshop 

Leadership 4 peace 


Tackling radicalisation 

Bespoke training 


Muslim activism 


Islamophobia, the far right and the media

 “Halal Britain” has been my cookery programme idea, I still need to find a commissioner who is willing to take a risk. I decided to get the ball rolling by starting a food blog, I’ve not had much time however in 2017 I will try to write one blog each month. I’m a foodie, I love cooking, eating, serving and teaching, this blog is an opportunity to show the diversity of halal food in Britain.

I was on my way to the Sociology of Religion conference when a truck decided to move lanes without looking and indicating. A very apologetic truck driver who took responsibility soon changed his mind after. The crash has left me in significant lower back pain, at one point I was surviving on painkillers and black coffee. I’m thankful that my back is recovering however I’m still not 100%. I finally got to deliver my presentation on Muslim activism at Richardson institute for peace conference in November. 

Two years ago I started the Muslims Against Da’esh facebook page, it has organically grown to over 14k likes and a reach to 2 million at its peak. I currently share existing content from different sources, with visitors from diverse backgrounds, this year the page has been visited by Da’esh supporters, at times having to remove hundreds of posts. In October I attended the “Innovation Lab” organised by ISD, it was wonderful to work with creatives, techies and social media leads to create counter narratives. I need to identify content creators and creatives during 2017 who can develop a series of counter narrative campaigns.

I’ve met some inspiring people along my journey, I would like to thank all those who have who have stood with me against hate, prejudice and discrimination. I would like to give a special mention to Mike Haines who has struggled with the loss of his brother David and found the courage and strength to wage peace.


I would also like to thank Gill Hicks for taking time out of her busy schedule to meet with me. Gill is a survivor of the 7/7 attack, I’m in awe of her courage and strength in promoting peace, I encourage you all to support MAD for Peace
I am determined to start 2017 focused in making a difference and being positive. I have lots to look forward to in 2017, new collaborations and existing partnerships.

I am looking forward to delivering a workshop titled “How to equip students with tools to create a more civil society” in partnership with Facing History & Ourselves. This workshop is aimed at teachers and youth workers, giving participants 8 lesson plans and 7 tools to use with students to help them understand civil society and become social activists. The day will explore identity, belonging, critical thinking, justice, rights and non-violent means for change. This will give teachers an innovative pedagogy to meet the prevent duty and develop citizenship/history/RE curriculum. 

Finally I am very excited about 2017 as I have been invited to take part in the “International Visitors Leadership Programme” in the US. I will be one of 14 participants working in the CVE related field, I look forward to learning from others, meet American practitioners/policy makers and share good practice. 

I do hope to blog more often in 2017, this year we have had visitors from 46 different countries. Please continue sending me your comments and feedback. 

How to equip students with tools to create a more civil society

I am pleased to announce that I will be working with “Facing History & Ourselves”

 

We will be delivering a workshop titled “How to equip students with tools to create a more civil society” on Wednesday 18th January at Witton Park Academy. 
Cost £50 per delegate

 

The overarching questions we aim to answer during the workshop is:

 

How do we develop citizens who can support and nurture civil society?
What skills and behaviours do we need to develop as citizens to do this important work?

 

We shall be exploring themes around active citizenship, social activism, identity, belonging, critical thinking, justice, rights and creating social change. By the end of the workshop, you will leave with eight lesson and tools with the knowledge, skills and confidence to teach this course.

 

We have limited places and we recommend registering early

 

Please share widely 

 

If you would like any further information please contact me on:
07872835318 or m.amla@lancaster.ac.uk

Responding to the Far Right

I’ve encountered the far right online as I’ve grown up, be that the BNP on yahoo and msn groups, to the EDL on Facebook and the many anti-jihadists groups (as they call themselves) on many social media platforms. 

The only thing in common has been the consistent anti-Muslim rhetoric, often being very crude whilst some of it being intellectual, articulate and eloquent. Post 9-11 many often have the stereotype of the knuckle dragging Neanderthal struggling to articulate their hate whilst vehemently and violently expressing it. The reality has been an interesting mix of the stereotypical racist to those who are articulating their hate in a very intelligent manner. 

I’ve been attempting to have conversations with members of the far right for over 15 years. I have come to a number of conclusions, debating isn’t going to change opinions actually it will polarise further and individuals will dig their heels in deeper. I often watch in dismay when Muslims feel the need to counter by debating and further exacerbating the problem. We need to pause, breath and take a step back. We need to find a new approach in order to effectively counter and tackle. 

We need to understand that Far right in Europe has diversified, from those groups who continue to be racist and anti-Semitic and have included an anti-Muslim rhetoric to those who have solely focused on Muslims communities who present Islam and Muslims as an existential threat. The Guardian has created an informative piece introducing the history of the far right in Britain. 
https://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2016/nov/28/the-far-right-in-britain-video-explainer?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Facebook

The anti-jihadist groups are an interesting phenomenon, they have often tried to distance themselves from racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric, claiming to stand against jihadism, terrorism, Salafism and the new buzz word Islamism (this is a topic that really needs unpacking and the diversity of viewpoints including those groups that engage in democracy and non-violent all the way through to violent Islamist groups), not Muslims per se. Scratch the surface and the reality is that they consider all Muslims to be the problem, either as hidden Islamists or jihadists and terrorist sympathisers.

We have seen a significant increase in anti-mosque demonstrations, often with blatant displays of racism and anti-Muslim rhetoric, a recent demo in Bolton saw a number of known neo-Nazis attending and one being photographed showing off his swastika tattoo. In reality the far right reinforces the narratives of Daesh and al-Qaeda, who consider themselves to be the only true Muslims and followers of true Islam. This protrayal of Muslims is a very worrying trend, however this has created a permissive culture for individuals to feel they have the right to express their hate for Islam and Muslims to strangers through words, comments to ripping off hijabs and physically attacking anyone who they perceive to look Muslim. Be that a Sikh man who wears a turban and a long beard to cancer sufferers who wear a scarf. 

Dig deeper and you will find that racist rhetoric is easily found and their claims of being non-violent is easily challenged by the number of EDL and far right activists arrested for violent crimes. In 2014 Ryan Magee, a service soldier from Eccles was jailed for building a home made nail bomb, there are many more examples  Arrests with significant capability have often had minimal media coverage, public discourse and political debate. The unfortunate murder of the MP Jo Cox has focused the issue onto the far right, how many more lives do we need to lose before we begin to take the far right seriously? 

“Ignore the far right” is a comment I’ve heard again and again, often by well meaning people including fellow Muslims! A continual policy of ignoring the far right has allowed their narratives to be normalised and we have seen a significant increase in Islamophobia, anti-semitism and racism. This approach has clearly failed however there is a continual denial about the problem and how we can be part of the solution. 
Having raised the issue of the far right for a few years, I’ve faced criticism and resistance! We need to firstly understand Far Right narratives, empower civil society to take a proactive approach to counter & challenge. We need to start a conversation and thinking about solutions. Last July, under the banner of Christian Muslim Encounters we organised a conference on “Faith, Communities & Radicalisation” at Lancaster University. The afternoon explored the far right and how as leaders, activists, practitioners, teachers, youth workers and policy makers we can begin creating solutions. During 2017 I intend to work in collaboration with a university in organising a conference on countering the far right through youth work, the aim is to create a deeper understanding of the issues and present examples of good practice locally & nationally. 

We need to create a multi-level strategy in countering the far right, at a local level this begins with Building Bridges, moving beyond the tea & samosa interfaith to fostering good relations and creating opportunities for meaningful encounter. We need to find allies and friends who will stand with communities against this threat. A willingness to have more local conversations in order to empower communities to create local solutions 

There is a need for deeper research into the far right, understanding the hundreds of international, national and local movements, organisations and groups who have a sophisticated network of activists who communicate through social media and annual conferences. We can only counter if we are more effective in bringing more people together to counter hate, prejudice and discrimination. 

Mosques, institutions and activists need to “Demystify Islam” in a way that  creates safe spaces to discuss Islam and the diversity of Muslims in Britain. I regularly deliver a workshop titled “Unveiling Islam” in churches which is a great opportunity to identify our common ground and understand our differences. The primary aim should be to inform and educate, we need to move away from street dawah and proselytism and focus on fostering good relations. 
Muslim communities often complain about the media, which has contributed significantly to Far Right narratives about Islam and Muslim. We must first have a more nuanced understanding of the media and develop strategies to engage beyond simply complaining in a reactionary manner. 

Muslim communities need to take a proactive approach in changing the narrative about Muslims. Only by taking ownership of the narrative will we create change using mainstream media and social media. We need to deliver training on media campaigning to support the activists and creatives in our communities. I attended training by the US embassy and recently the Innovation Lab by ISD has me convinced that we need to empower communities to create counter narratives to counter hate, prejudice and discrimination but to also create alternative and positive narratives.  I translated this learning to create a school based workshop and the challenge is translating this knowledge to develop local projects. 

What is a counter narrative? This is a great introduction by ISD https://youtu.be/5oxwZuDe7aM
I don’t claim to have all the solutions, however Muslim communities, institutions, leaders and activists need to understand the far right & start developing their own strategies to counter beyond being reactive!