To defeat Islamists, our governments must enter the battle of ideas

Bishop John Arnold of Salford and Imam Irfan Chishti at a vigil in Manchester (Photo: Getty)

The mayor of London, writing in the Guardian, has this to say about the practical steps we must take in order to deal with the terrorist threat. He starts off: “We must now redouble our efforts to destroy the poisonous ideology held by these extremists and terrorists to stop another incident like this happening again.” He goes on to say: “We must renew and improve the government’s anti-extremism programmes, so that they are more effective at rooting out homegrown extremism. We must build stronger and more resilient communities that can resist the extremists. And we must give our police and security services the resources they need in order to keep us safe.”

The second bit has been said before, but it is the first bit that strikes me as important. The best way to fight terrorism is to attack it at the root, namely by countering the ideology that inspires these acts. One fights an ideology not with troops on the street or some other military response (though those are important too) but in the realm of ideas.

I am conscious as I write this that I have said all this before. In order to confront jihadist ideology we need to have proper theological conferences. That means platforms for discussion where scholars and others can argue amongst themselves, as heatedly as they like – because that sort of argument is far preferable to bombs.

Moreover, these conferences need to be sponsored by governments the world over. Again, don’t just invite the moderates, invite the radicals: I am sure the would come, given their huge hunger for publicity. This is the only way to delegitimising jihadi ideology – exposing it to the discourse of reason and the cruel light of day.

The current arrangement, where religious leaders meet and say nice things to each other, is not good enough and not working. Rather we need the sort of frank speaking that was attempted at Regensburg by Benedict XVI.

Modern governments, who all pay lip service to secularism, like to imagine that religion is none of their business. How wrong they are. They need to get involved in holding religious ideas (or, more accurately, pseudo-religious ideas) up to scrutiny. That such ideas are scrutinised is or should be one of the foundations of a liberal society.

If the old-fashioned theological conference should be tried again, perhaps another way forward may also be through the use of itinerant preachers. No, really. Back in the day, these men wandered from town to town attracting large audiences and delivering thunderous sermons condemning the shortcomings of their contemporaries. In the Catholic world, one thinks of men like St Bernadine of Siena and Girolamo Savonarola, who conducted very effective hearts and minds campaigns. There are many others; even in England and Wales, we have the example of John Wesley.

One may well think that the age of the itinerants is over; in fact preaching is still popular, only nowadays it is done via the television. If the government would only dedicate half an hour a day to proper religious discourse on the telly, this might change minds. It is surely time for moderate or sceptical voices to dominate the air waves and counteract the poison being spewed by the radicals. The government needs to promote what the Americans call “public diplomacy” and what we call more honestly propaganda.

All of this involves government getting involved, getting down into the arena and getting its hands dirty. It also means our government confronting other governments that sponsor extremist ideology: places like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, who, by their actions, give succour to hardliners. Until the government gets brave in the arena of ideas, little progress will be made against terrorism. It’s time for them to get off the fence.