Can education tackle Islamic extremism? This Middlesbrough man thinks it can

He’s Boro born-and-bred, proud to be British and wants us to live in harmony.And that’s why Ifty Rafiq put the past two years of his life on hold to develop an educational programme aimed at tackling Islamic extremism.The IT consultant, 36, is the man behind the Harmony Initiative.Born and raised in Middlesbrough, and a keen Boro fan, he attended Green Lane Primary School and Macmillan Academy before studying computer science at Teesside University.But his pride at being British – and his frustration at extremists trying to seize the agenda – has seen him develop The Harmony Initiative.And if, as he hopes, the Government gets behind the idea, he would love to see it rolled out across the UK.Officially launched at the Jamia Masjid Al-Madina Mosque in Middlesbrough, it’s an educational programme, aimed at professionals like teachers, comprising textbooks and a full suite of accompanying animations, addressing common misconceptions about Islam.
Ifty Rafiq, founder of the Harmony initiative, at the Mosque on Waterloo Road, Middlesbrough

Imam, Naveed Saddique, calls it “another tool with which we can heal the wounds of the past and develop a bright and inclusive future without the threat of prejudice and intolerance.”

Teesside Live talked to Ifty about his programme – and what he hopes to achieve.

What prompted you to start it?
People locked up in prison were coming out religious fanatics. They were being brainwashed into extreme Islam. The original plan was to try and educate them, but the Government wanted to stop students being radicalised too. The Government has a “Prevent Strategy” but it’s not as effective as it should be – we’re trying to add to what’s out there.

We’re aiming it professionals like teachers, and at students to stop them being radicalised. We also need to target those convicted of Islamic extremism and terrorism – we need to change their distorted views of Islam. Groups like Isis are planting a seed of hatred in their minds – we want to plant a seed of love that will lead to peace.

How have you developed it and how will it work?

(LtoR) Mohammed Rafiq, Dr David Cliff, Ifty Rafiq, Naveed Saddique, Mosque Imam – at launch of Ifty Rafiq’s education programme The Harmony Initiative

Two and a half years ago, I started thinking about doing something and a manuscript was the result. I showed it to a family friend from the LGBT community and they said turn it into a book – have a word with the Government and see if you can make it part of the national curriculum. It was originally one book, then two, now it should become three.

And the animations are all designed to attack online radicalisation. We’ve teamed up with a company to produce them and we’re doing up to 100 on all sorts of topics. But it’s all family funded – we didn’t want to have a fantastic idea and go to the Government with it, only to be told it couldn’t happen because of money. We don’t want teachers thinking it’s extra work on top of what they’re doing. Each chapter has a corresponding video – it’s just a case of pressing ‘play’. Now we’re trying to get the Government and Department of Education on board.

What are some of the key issues?

Khadin Hussain, 73, of Middlesbrough, praying and using the Tasbi beads
Around 90% of referrals professionals are making to the police are leading to no further action being taken, which is wasting valuable police resources. If the referrals are poor, it doesn’t bode well. And look at the perpetrators of the attacks – they’re our own British nationals yet they’ve gone on to attack us. I find that really upsetting. I’m trying to create a united front against our enemies. Some Muslims think our laws are designed to stifle our opinions and religious beliefs but they’re not. I love my country and want to help defend it. I’m talking about, and talking for, the 90% of the silent majority.

Did you enjoy growing up in Boro?

The Mosque on Waterloo Road, Middlesbrough

I loved it and never had any problems. But I recognise there are people out there who think they are being discriminated against.

I’ve never experienced it myself – maybe I’m the minority but I’ve never had it. But there are obviously people who think there is an issue with discrimination. And many people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, hold a lot of misconceptions about the reality of Islam, often confusing cultural and religious practices.

What sort of misconceptions are there?

Children’s prayer room

That UK Muslims are disloyal and waiting to rise up and take over. That all UK Muslims wants Sharia Law. And that Islam is incompatible with British laws and values – we want to show that it IS compatible. And I want to challenge the misconceptions that Muslims are misogynistic and backward when it comes to things like forced marriages and female genital mutilation. I’m a moderate British Muslim – and I think most British Muslims are like me. The trouble is, most people in our community are very passive – no-one seems to want to get up and say ‘we have a problem – we need to tackle it.’

And what’s the aim?

One terrorist attack is one too many – that’s what hopefully we’re trying to stop. Education is the key to so many things and, ideally, we’re hoping the Government will support us. I’m doing something a lot of people aren’t willing or able to do, and that’s tell people about Moderate Islam. We’ve seen what radical Islam is – I want people to make the distinction. And ideally, we want the majority of the Islamic world on board, on our side and to be more vocal.

Mosque on Waterloo Road, Middlesbrough

All around the UK, there are millions of Muslims who share the British values of democracy, individual liberty and tolerance. Unfortunately, a minority of individuals, misguided about the true meaning of Islam, seek to undermine the fabric of British society and in doing, erode trust in the Muslim community. The Harmony Initiative is a grassroots project, created in consultation with a cross section of the local community, and is designed to complement the Government’s Prevent Strategy by providing a proactive arm in establishing a universal educational approach to anti-radicalisation.

But what difference can one person’s project make?
Well, Hitler was a single person – but so was Gandhi. One person can drown someone or save someone. One person CAN make a difference and I want to make a really positive one. I’m trying to plant a seed of love rather than hatred.

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