Cardinal Vincent Nichols said the Government’s Prevent strategy risks alienating people and puts too much pressure on schools to report children to the police.
Addressing a full room at Archbishop’s House on Tuesday, the Cardinal said he had no doubts that terrorism is a threat, but insisted the thinking behind government policy to counter radicalisation should be more “profound”.
“We are at a very delicate point in which the defining of what is extremism could go quite seriously wrong, it could become far too embracing, far too expressive of simply current social consensus,” he said.
Prevent - part of the Government's anti-terrorism strategy - has been criticised for making public institutions, such as schools and hospitals, responsible for reporting potential radicals to the authorities.
Maulana Syed Ali Raza Rizvi, a senior Islamic scholar who was sitting on the panel alongside the Cardinal and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, went further in his criticism saying he believed the strategy would fail.
“Unfortunately I do think that it will fail because of the amount of complaints they are receiving…The Government has not looked into it deeply enough to give a clear guideline to teachers and to community workers”, he said. “There should be more consultation with community members from the Muslim community – it will help improve the entire strategy.”
The faith leaders were responding to a question from the former Business Secretary Sir Vince Cable at the Benedict XVI Lecture held each year to mark the meeting of the Pope with representatives of other religions during his visit to the UK in 2010.
The cardinal, chief rabbi and maulana all spoke on the topic ‘Living as a creative minority in the UK’ and shared their experiences of faith communities contributing to the common good.
Chief Rabbi drew on the Old Testament story of Joseph’s captivity in Egypt to reflect on the Jewish experience in foreign lands. He said he believed in order to flourish, society must provide opportunities for minorities to contribute and that minorities must “integrate but not assimilate”.
Maulana Rizvi said he believed the Muslim community had much more to contribute to British society and he lamented the fact that some Islamic leaders had failed to represent a faith that is all about respect, love and justice.
Cardinal Nichols spoke of education as the key to integration of and opportunities for minorities. When asked about the upcoming mayoral elections – a question from an audience member – he said an attempt to “clean the streets of over-religious expression” had been part of the campaign. He said “a society that privatizes religion and ‘doesn’t do God’ is weakening itself”.
It was the first time the annual lecture, organised by the Bishops’ Conference and St Mary’s University, had included speakers from all three Abrahamic traditions.