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Cambridge institute to drive talks on tackling extremism in the UK

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An educational institute in Cambridge is spearheading discussions on the best methods of tackling fundamentalism and extremism within the UK.

The Woolf Institute, which focuses on religious difference through research, teaching and outreach, is working on a number of projects designed to deepen understanding of these politically-loaded terms, with the aim of improving relations between Government and grassroots community groups around the UK.

Tobias Müller, a political scientist who is organising a conference on this subject at the Woolf Institute on March 25/26, said: “Most people find it difficult to define fundamentalism. They say things like ‘I know it when I see it’ or ‘it’s linked to violence’ or ‘it’s when people act against the values of our society’.

Tobias Muller (left) and Dr Julian Hargreaves (right) in front of the Woolf Institute (7816279)
Tobias Muller (left) and Dr Julian Hargreaves (right) in front of the Woolf Institute (7816279)

“The problem is, when we give people a label and call them ‘fundamentalist’, we often go on to ignore their viewpoint because we don’t feel that they represent or even belong to the society that we want to live in. This is exactly the narrative that so-called fundamentalist groups thrive on, because they see themselves as ‘beleaguered believers’ whose beliefs make them outcasts of society,

“At the Woolf Institute, we investigate how the label ‘fundamentalist’ is being used. We want to make a practical difference to everyday life in the UK by trying to understand what motivates fundamentalist groups and why they feel alienated from society.

“We want to understand, for example, the changing role of women within such groups and why young people in Western Europe become attracted to these beliefs in the first place.”

Another research fellow at the Woolf, Dr Julian Hargreaves, was this week appointed to the expert group of the Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) – a national body set up in the wake of the Manchester arena bombing in 2017 to look into the causes of extremism and advise Government on an appropriate response.

His research interests include community responses to radicalisation and extremism, and relations between Muslim communities and the state.

Dr Hargreaves said: “There’s a widespread assumption that extremism is a huge problem for our country, a growing problem - but unless we can measure it properly, we can’t say with any certainty whether or not this is the case.

“Last summer, the CCE launched a drive to collect evidence that would help to build a detailed picture of extremism right across the UK. I contributed some ideas on how best to structure survey questions, making sure that the research methods are robust enough to deliver some useful benchmarks.

“I’m pleased to formalise my association with the CCE by joining their expert group this week, though it’s important to note the full context: the Woolf is an independent institute, committed to fostering dialogue that explores the relationship between religion and wider society, and so you’ll find us in conversation with a diverse range of influential bodies including, for instance, the Muslim Council of Britain.”

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