Editorial: Commission goes for hearts and minds

The Charity Commission was top of the bill in last week's initiative from communities secretary Ruth Kelly: Preventing Violent Extremism - Winning Hearts and Minds.

The regulator is being given £1.2m over two years to set up a new Faith and Social Cohesion Unit, which will work initially with Muslim charities and communities. This is not entirely new: the commission is already working with religious communities and has recently visited Buddhists and Sikhs in Birmingham.

But it is clearly a step change, with the independent regulator deliberately being drawn into the centre of a politically charged area of social policy. It is even using £400,000 of its existing resources for the faith unit at a time when it faces a 25 per cent budget cut. This diversion of funds is bound to make it harder for the commission to fulfil the new responsibilities that flow from the 2006 Charities Act, which many would judge to be more central to its role. Commission chair Dame Suzi Leather appears content, saying the regulator has "an essential part to play in building community cohesion and tackling extremism by supporting faith-based charities". Muslim organisations are less content, as we reported last week, and do not appear to be mollified by assertions from the commission that "work with other faith communities will follow at a later stage".

So how effective is this unit likely to be? The problems of extremism are complex and need to be tackled simultaneously on several fronts. The more that religious groups are brought into what the commission calls "the regulatory fold" of charitable status, the better they are likely to be governed. It allows the commission an opportunity to offer advice and support and, in the final resort, use its legal powers to rein in rogue trustees and prevent the abuse of funds, as it has done with evangelical Christian churches and mosques in the past. It might, over time and in conjunction with other measures, help to produce a more moderate outlook among alienated groups within Muslim communities, including new converts and some of the more radical leaders.

But the fact remains that the sense of alienation and injustice that fuels extremism and, ultimately, terrorism, stems only in part from causes that can be addressed in the UK. It stems mainly from the situation in the Middle East and the Gulf and the proven failures of British and American foreign policy and its reliance on military force. Unless those failures are recognised and some more developed thinking emerges, such measures as the commission's new faith unit will remain little more than tinkering round the edges.

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