Countering Extremism in our Society

War is a deeply physical act, but ideologies are the muscle behind them.

“Ideas, ideologies, decide the life or death of nations.” Wrote Ivan Menzies, adding that “A nation without an ideology is lost. A nation with a false ideology is a danger to herself and to her neighbours. And a nation, perhaps a little nation, with a true and positive ideology may bring a light to the world.” (The Australian Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Dec., 1950), pp. 61-69)

This may seem familiar.  The most entrenched conflicts of history and recent times have been ideological in their nature.   What we are talking about here is not the individual fanaticism of the ‘lone wolf’ but the mass fanaticism of movements which creates the extremist beliefs that manifest as Daesh (ISIS), The English Defence League, Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Boko Haram and their peers.

The educator William T. Daly wrote that “Ideologies contain beliefs, which shape our view of why things happen, values which govern our sense of worth and self-respect, and prescriptions about the appropriate form of social relationships with others.  Together these three elements shape our perceptions both of what is and of what might be.  When the gap between the two [what is, and what might be] becomes too wide, mass fanaticism develops as a flight from an ideologically defined hell of the present to an ideologically defined heaven of the future.”  (A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 34, No. 1 (March 1977), pp. 43-53)

To understand the causes of, and solutions for, today’s conflicts – we have to understand the ideologies that drive them.

In this interview, I spoke to Haras Rafiq, CEO of Quilliam International – and one of the world’s foremost experts in counter-extremism. 

Q: What is extremism?

[Haras Rafiq] Our definition is extremism is the desire to enforce illiberal views which are in a dichotomy to the liberal values that we all adhere to in a Liberal secular democracy; and you can have non-violent or violent extremism.

Extremism isn’t always Islamist, it can be on the right and we also have far left extremism which we call the ‘regressive left’, (and this is opposed to people who are generally on the left.)

We have different types of extremism that are impacting us a society right now, and leading to violence.  And the first one is Islamism which- by the way- is not a word we’ve made up, it’s used in Arabic, and it’s on the Muslim Brotherhood’s website, they call themselves Islamists and they say what they’re following is Islamism.

This was their strategy to differentiate themselves from the ordinary, everyday Muslims in Egypt.

Islamism is an ideology that is imported from Europe in the 1930s onwards.  It was fascism and communism that were imported by Qutb, who became the ideologue of modern day Islamism.  He wrote a book called ‘milestones’ – equivalent (and sharing many similarities) to Das Kapital or Mein Kampf.

He was very proud of the fact he’d taken some of these ideas from Europe, and his concept was to people that instead of doing these totalitarian fascist things for the state, they were actually to do them for God.

The definition of Islamism is rooted in the desire to set up a Utopian Islamist state somewhere in the world, and to enforce a particular version of Sharia as state law.  That’s Islamism.

An Islamist is somebody who believes in that, and there can be different forms of Islamists; there can be people who don’t want to set up the Islamic state, but still want to enforce a version of Sharia on a state law, or as parts of state law.  That’s Islamism, and an Islamist is somebody who wants to do that.  We then have Jihad, which is an Arabic term meaning ‘struggle.’  The Prophet Mohammed basically said that the best Jihad that people had is on a day to day basis to do good rather than evil, an inner moral struggle.

Jihadism is somebody who supports or wants to use violence to achieve the aims of Islamism.  These are very, very clear definitions.

Salman Abedi, Khalid Masood, Khuram Butt, all of these people and the people in ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab… We tend to think sometimes that they are extremism.  But the reality is they didn’t breed extremism.  Islamist extremism bred them.

Another form of extremism which we’re facing in society right now is Salafi (the new name for Wahabis).  There are quietists who perhaps dress in a particular way, a bit like the Amish…. They won’t want to vote, they believe democracy is a sin, they believe that women are second-class citizens as compared to our liberal secular democracy, but they won’t harm anybody and they won’t try to force these ideas on anybody else.  Then you have the revolutionary Salafis who are people that will try to enforce a change within society through lobbying, through their victim mentality, victim blaming, a whole range of different tactics.  These people are I think, part of the problem that faces civil society.

Then you have the Salafi Jihadis; people like Khuram Butt, Salman Abedi, and the likes of ISIS – they joined them and supported them.  When Islamism and Salafism merge, that’s when you get ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram.

Q: What is terrorism?

[Haras Rafiq] We have to start by defining terrorism because different people have different definitions of terrorism.

The legal definition that we use in the UK is roughly that ‘terrorism is the desire to use either the threat or actual force or violence to impose or enforce political change’.

We used to be able to define groups quite easily; we could say the National Front were far right, the BNP were far right, but now we have a new phenomenon; the ethno nationalist.

For example, in Manchester there was a demonstration, a march, by a group calling themselves ‘Unite against Hate.’  It’s a very, very strange mixture of people; it wasn’t an EDL march, yet it was it was actually coordinated by Rebel Media.  In that march, there were some football hooligans, there were thugs, there were people who have a predisposition to violence, we also had people who were from EDL and those who- perhaps- were from far-right Nazi type organisations.  Here’s the thing, there was also a lot of people who perhaps throughout their life have voted labour, and still continue to vote labour, who find their politics is actually left of centre on everything apart from this issue. We also had people from the LGBT community and various faith groups, It would be wrong to call them far right.  We have to come up with a new name, ethno-nationalists, counter-jihadism or something else.

We also have the far left, the regressive left, who for their own reasons have decided to side with and support Islamists as opposed to ordinary Muslims.  And it’s almost like we have the left eye covering itself up and saying, ‘nothing to see here, nothing to do with Islam’, and the right eye bursting a blood vessel saying, ‘it’s all Islam, it’s all Muslims’, and Islamists saying that the divine inspiration for them is from above. It’s that blend of extremism that is threatening our civil-society right now.

Q: How do people become radicalised?

[Haras Rafiq] I’m going to focus on Islamist radicalisation rather than far right or far left.

There are some people who are saying foreign policy is the reason why people are being radicalised and the question I always ask them is ‘…what has our foreign policy got to do with Muslims travelling thousands of miles to go and kill other Muslims in Iraq and Syria?’.

I’m not saying our foreign policy is all good- I’m one of the people who marched against the Iraq war in London…  I supported the first incursion into Iraq when Iraq invaded Kuwait and that was to defend a sovereign state, but the second one I was passionately against at the time.

Radicalisation itself can be broken into three stages:

Firstly, you have grievances.  Every single individual in the world, including you and I, have a grievance or a problem at any given moment in time.  When you and I go to sleep tonight in our own beds, you’ll be thinking about a problem that’s affecting you and I’ll be thinking about a problem that’s affecting me.  To me, my problem is much greater than yours, and vice versa.  Some of our grievances may be genuine, some may be partial, and some may be perceived.  A genuine grievance can be racism, or it can be- such as with the case of Mohammed Sidique Khan, leader of the 7/7 bombers, that he fell in love.  He wanted to marry his girlfriend from University – and his father had already promised him to his cousin in Pakistan saying ‘no, you cannot marry your girlfriend from university, I’ve already said that you are going to marry your cousin in Pakistan’.  That was a problem, a genuine grievance for him, and he needed a solution for it.

A partial grievance is very, very, difficult to counteract because a partial grievance has elements of truth, and this can be where foreign policy comes into play for example.  These individuals forget about the fact that Britain went into Kosovo and prevented a bigger genocide of Muslims than we saw and focus in on certain aspects of our foreign policy, and turn these into their recruiting tactics.

Perceived grievances are those that don’t actually really exist but are in the mind of somebody.  For example, I remember somebody that used to be a senior recruiter for Hizb ut-Tahrir  (he isn’t now)  – He tells me the story where he was on a train once and he was recruiting.  He saw a young woman with a hijab on (so he quickly identified her as Muslim) she had a child with her and she was reading one of these free newspapers, Metro or Standard or whatever it was; and on the front page of the newspaper there was a story about a very famous celebrity who had been found guilty, or accused, of being a paedophile.  At that moment in time… because these guys are smart, most of their leaders at the top level are professionals… he realised that at that moment in time she must have a fear in her mind about her own child.  So, he approached her and said, ‘look at this story, look at the role models of these immoral Western societies, looks at what is happening, your child is never going to have any safety, she’s never going to be protected, there is a fear and threat from the Western society to your child, come and join our (Islamist) gang’.  Now that’s a problem.

We’ve got charismatic recruiters both online and offline- people put a lot of focus on online radicalisation, but here’s the thing –  ISIS and Al Qaeda don’t radicalise anybody, what they do is tip people over the edge. The online phenomenon just speeds it up.

These charismatic recruiters vent from an ideological intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual perspective, how do they fix people’s problems? they get them to join their gang…   and get them to look at the world through a particular prism, a particular world view, and that’s where Islamism comes into place.  Not ISIS, not Al Qaeda.  There is a lot of evidence that Islamist organisations such as Muslim brotherhood, Jamat Islami and others create a world, they provide perceived solutions to problems to get the individual to go through initially five behavioural stages.

The first one is to believe in the ‘otherisation’.  And this is where I say that Didsbury Mosque is part of the problem with some of the preachers that they have, and their ideological belief.  The otherisation states that anybody who is looking at the world through their lens is on one group, and everybody outside of this world view is another.  And they are different and separate.  And this includes other Muslims as well, by the way…

The next stage is the collectivisation.  They say that everybody who is not part of this gang, this world view, are all the same.

Then there’s the oppression narrative.  That is that everybody who is not of this world view, of this lens, is oppressing everybody who is part of this lens, and other Muslims as well even though the Muslims don’t know it.

Then you have the collective guilt.  That is everybody that isn’t part of this lens, everybody that’s not part of this world view is complicit in this oppression.

Then you have the supremacism narrative, that everybody in this group and world view is better than everybody outside.

This kind of radicalisation is not done by ISIS or Al Qaeda, it’s done by other Islamist and Salafi organisations.  The Didsbury mosque in Manchester, on a listing of what type of mosque it is, call themselves a Salafi-Ikhwani mosque, and Ikhwani is the Muslim brotherhood; then we’ve got ISIS, Al Qaeda and Boko Haram who help to tip some of these people over, and they say, ‘you have to have self-defence, and people have to retaliate for their aggression and defend themselves’.

Then you have the final stage that violence is the only way.

All of this is justified by a theological argument that the God wants you to do this, and will reward you for doing this.

Q: Why do extremist groups choose to use violence?

[Haras Rafiq] Groups like ISIS and Al-Quaeda want to destroy societies that they don’t like.  That means us, the West.  They want to create fear, terror and a division within our societies so that you get this polarisation and pull away from Muslims, normal Muslims as well, so that people start hating the Muslims and vice versa.

These groups know very clearly these terrorist attacks are not going to affect foreign policy, what they want is civil war and for more Muslims to join their cause.

Let me be clear, they hate us, we are part of the ‘other’.  We’re all the same, even other Muslims.  Let’s not forget Muslims die in Britain as part of terrorism as well.  We’re all complicit- in their eyes- in oppression.

Those individuals carrying out attacks believe that they’re going to go to heaven.  When Imams said they’re not going to read the eulogy prayers or carry out funerals for the London attackers, the reason they gave is that those persons were not Muslim.  That’s tribalistic denial.  You have Muslims who do good things or bad things.  You have Muslims who rob people, Muslims who feed the homeless, just like any other society.

Now, if they said they weren’t going to do his funeral to send a message to society, I can go along with that… but they said they’re not doing it because he’s not a Muslim when clearly, he is.  They’re not doing it because he’s not a Muslim, but there’s another reason.  But the guy doesn’t represent Islam and in fact no one actually does.

After the Manchester attacks, Mayor Andy Burnham went onto the media, he gave an interview to say the same thing; this guy is not a Muslim and he doesn’t represent Islam.  Well, Andy Burnham did exactly what ISIS do to us ordinary Muslims, but to the attacker.  He was excommunicated. I poked fun at him on a podcast and called him Sheikh Andy Burnham, and I said he was giving the Fatwa- which essentially, he has, and therein lies the problem in leadership…  Ordinary people aren’t stupid.  Our leaders really need to show some leadership.  Maybe their comments are well intended, to prevent revenge attacks on Muslims, however… what would be more effective is if people finally realise that the people saying it’s got nothing to do with Islam are wrong, and the people saying it’s all Islam are wrong.  The reality is it’s somewhere in the middle, and it is one interpretation of Islam.  People would understand that and get behind that, that’s the truth.

Al Qaeda have a near enemy and a far enemy.  The near enemy are the countries in the Middle East and the far enemy are Western countries.  And they thought that they couldn’t defeat the near enemies because they were supported by the far enemies, the UK, US etc.  Osama Bin Laden wanted to target the far enemy, so they would not have the appetite to interfere.  Guess what… that’s happening… he was right.

Look how difficult it was to go in when ISIS declared the Islamic State.  I remember when the Yazidis were stuck on the mountain pleading on air to Barack Obama because he was the “leader of the West” – ‘please intervene’ – there was a reluctance to intervene, and that’s because of this whole isolation problem.

These groups want to create this division, want to create this civil war, want to create this uncertainty, and want to create this narrative that it‘s all about foreign policy but in reality it’s all about supporting the world view of Islamism and Jihadism, supporting Islamism by force.

Q: What can we do to prevent extremism, and protect our societies from acts of terror?

[Haras Rafiq] People talk about the prevent strategy, and the protect strategy.  Every time one of these attacks happen, voices are heard that ‘prevent’s failed’.

There is a difference between stopping a terrorist attack and ideologically preventing a terrorist attack, and stopping a terrorist attack does not come under Prevent, it comes under Protect.

The government’s counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST contains the four Ps; prevent, protect, pursue and protect.  Protect is responsible for stopping a terrorist attack.

There’s a sharp end of stopping a terrorist attack where we need more investment… Not in the police… More police on the street would not have stopped Salman Abedi or Khuram Bhutt… The answer is more intelligence, and more resources into intelligence for Protect.

From a governmental perspective, we need more resource or investment, and a refresh, of the Protect strategy.

These extremists are changing the way they carry out the attacks, the way they hide themselves, and they manage to slip under the radar because MI5 and their peers are overworked. The official number of people being monitored – who are potentially, or could be, involved in some form of Islamist terrorist attack, is 3,000… that’s the official number.  Then there’s the unofficial number which I saw in the Times newspaper, who claim it is around 25,000 people who are vulnerable.  The real number is somewhere in between. To monitor somebody 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, takes between 20-25 people.  Protect needs more resources.

MI5 told us many years ago (and I agreed with them) that it’s not a case of if we see another Islamist attack in the UK, it’s a case of when.  They told us they were overworked and the way they work means they’ve got to prioritise the highest- risk individuals.  This means that they do a quick risk assessment they say ‘this guy right now is not involved in preparing for a terrorist attack and he’s not viable, let’s go to the one that is’.

Also, it is importantly, we need stop the denial.  We need to stop the attacks on all Muslims, all Islam, and stop saying that it is nothing at all to do with Islam and some Muslims and actually name and shame the problem publicly.

We need to Isolate the Islamists who emerge.  Isolate them from other Muslims.

We need to differentiate them from other Muslims, and Muslims themselves need to do this, and they’re not doing it.

I spoke to some Imams who said ‘Haras, first of all, we don’t want to wash our dirty linen in public.  And secondly, we don’t want to show non-Muslims that we are fighting amongst ourselves, that makes us look weak’.  This is a problem.

We need to name and shame the problem, differentiate these individuals and groups from other Muslims and treat them for what they are – a political, totalitarian, fascist ideology.

We need to treat Islamism in the same way we treat fascism, racism, homophobia.

I was consulted in writing the UK’s prevent strategy and even from the conception, we had two camps.  We had the Tony Blair, Hazel Blears camp that wanted to tackle the ideology.  Then we had the other camp led by Jack Straw and Gordon Brown who said it was not Islam, nothing to do with Muslims.  From 2010-2015 we had half a prevent strategy, funding was cut and since then we’ve not had the will or political constituency from leaders to carry these strategies through.  More than that, we have people who stand to be Prime Minister who are wanting to scrap the only effective aspect of the counter-terrorism strategy completely.

We need our politicians to get behind our contest strategy which has been built through conversations with nations around the world who all regard our strategy as being the benchmark.

We have to start with de-radicalisation and rehabilitation; and that means dealing with people who are showing empathy and support for Islamism and Jihadsim and their values – those who haven’t quite committed a crime yet and for those who have committed the crime and who been convicted.

We also need to have civil society challenging extremism, and building resilience.

In medical terms, why would we keep providing the antibiotic for a disease, when we could be providing the inoculation.

What doesn’t work is what is happening in Manchester and some other places, are using strategies when dealing with this phenomenon that involve funding and empowering non-violent supporters of Islamism to either represent Muslims or to prevent radicalisation, This strategy is comparable to using the BNP to de-radicalise Combat 18.  The BNP is (or was) a legal political party that wasn’t violent… It was a political party, they stood for election.  They were fascist, they were racist, they were xenophobic, and they weren’t an organisation that society or tax payer’s money would want to get behind.  Combat 18 was the violent arm of that ideology.

Different government departments even at national level and local level are all doing different things.  We desperately need our Prime Minister to appoint a counter-extremism co-ordinator, who reports into her and has teeth.  They need to make sure cross-government departments both local and national are actively delivering the strategy in the way that it’s meant to be delivered, that’s still not happening even since 2006 when prevent was launched.

Finally, we need to understand what our values are as a society (I’m not talking about British values, I’m talking about our liberal secular values).  As a nation, we’re against theocracies, but our values change and shift all the time.  Just 40 years ago it was illegal to be gay, it was criminal to be gay, and you could be put in prison.

We do have certain values which must remain fixed: human rights, pluralism, rule of law, liberal secular democracies – we need to hold on to these values for dear life, defend them, and challenge anybody and everybody that would try to destroy them.

How do we do that?  People like Salman Abedi, were initially radicalised through osmosis at home.  His father was a member of the LIFG, Al Qaeda.  So, he would have heard things on a day to day basis at home, from a young age.  Secondly, he went to the mosque regularly and would have absorbed the lens of the world view painted by Islamists because of the individuals preaching there… telling him that the only good Muslims are martyrs.  Then he went to university and he was hardened, he’d stand around with the Islamic society at university who refused to name ISIS as a terrorist organisation and invited people to speak who are classed as hate preachers.

Eventually his father took him to Libya and he did some fighting there, watched videos and was tipped over the edge by Al Qaeda.  Salman Abedi and others on a day to day basis have contact with people in that sort of society.

I really believe that his father didn’t want his own son to grow up and blow himself up.  He may have wanted other people’s sons to do it, but no father wants their own child to do it.

Salman had contact with people from our British society.  Teachers, parents, friends, relatives.  Police possibly.  The media.  Politicians.  He had contact with people who would have seen the signs… sometimes ignored them, sometimes would not have been able to recognise them.  And on a few occasions maybe even reported him for them.

We have to build this resilience upstream and say, ‘you know what, let’s empower civil society to challenge these ideas and build resilience’.  We need to do more of that.

Q: How can our communities be more resilient?

[Haras Rafiq] We need to get past this community leader model; that’s almost neo orientalism.

British Muslims, are just like anybody else… would you say, ‘take us to your white leader?’

By actually playing this faith-based identity politics we’re driving people to these communities almost…

When Theresa May was home secretary, she wanted to bring in banning orders.  I don’t support that at all, because if somebody hasn’t broken the law, the kind of society we live in and want to live in does not do that.  Also  pragmatically it’s wrong and will not have the desired effect.

We need to challenge these views openly, that’s part of isolating and naming and shaming and defeating the ideology.

We have a mantra at Quilliam and we say this a lot.  We say that ‘no idea is beyond critique’ in liberal secular democracies.

I’m a Muslim, and in Islam… my religion… exists a set of values and ideas, I decide to choose and accept some of those ideas, a certain interpretation of those ideas.  That’s my choice.  I was born as a Muslim and then as an adult in a Muslim household I decided to remain a Muslim.  But a certain type of Muslim, not an Islamist (which is a contemporary idea by the way).

Being a liberal secular democracy, no idea – including my religion – should be beyond legitimate critique.  That’s why I reject the notion and the terminology of Islamophobia, because why shouldn’t Islam be critiqued?  The word Islamophobia is often used as a deflection, as a shield, but anti-Muslim bigotry is real, and when there’s bigotry against an individual because of either the colour of his skin or the religion that he chooses to practice in a peaceful way, and bigotry against that person, that’s not on.

Q: What is the scale and growth of non islamist extremism?

[Haras Rafiq] Currently, the largest threat we face is from Islamist Jihadists but non-Islamist extremism is on the rise.  There is a symbiotic relationship between Islamist extremism and non- Islamist extremism. As one grows, so does the other. The arguments that they both use can be easily rotated by 180 degrees to feed each other’s echo chamber e.g. Islamists say that the west is at war with Islam and non-Islamist extremists will say that Islam is at war with the west, Islamists will say that the west hates Muslims and non-Islamist extremists will say that anyone who follows Islam (Muslims) hate non-Muslims. When the Prevent strategy was conceived, it mainly dealt with Islamist extremists, over the last year – over 30% of all referrals to its Channel programme were non-Islamist extremists and in Wales, that figure rose to approx. 50%

Q: Why do we seemingly reserve the word terrorist for acts committed by Muslims?

[Haras Rafiq] Terrorism is defined in the UK as the threat of or actual violence to affect Political change, or in other words – violence for ideological reasons. When Jo Cox was murdered, we were the first organisation to label the act as one of terrorism. We must be consistent in our approach both with correct labelling and then challenging the ideological reasons why people carry out terrorism. Otherwise, the polarisation that I mentioned will increase either by legitimate grievances of mislabelling or as we are seeing – fake news reporting to cause sensationalism. The other factor to consider is that until recently, we have not had a great deal of non-Islamist terrorism after the IRA (The IRA where non-Muslims and their acts were clearly defined as terrorism) decided to cease its operations in mainland UK. Jihadists are committing acts of terrorism around the world and so we here of Muslims committing these acts much more – especially in the EU.

Q: What would be your message to communities and individuals that felt caught in the crossfire?

[Haras Rafiq] This is not an ideological struggle between Muslims and non-Muslims. Everyone is afraid of repercussions either during an attack or afterwards. This is a struggle between good and evil and is not dependent on what faith (or none) you practice. Occupy the middle ground and challenge all of those that would want to radicalise others to totalitarian or hate based ideas. Defend our societal values and get involved in your own small way – it is the only way we are going to win this struggle.


View Interviewee Biographies

Haras Rafiq is Quilliam’s CEO and an Executive Board Member. He is currently a member of Prime Minister’s Community Engagement Forum (CEF) Task Force and was formerly a member of the UK Government’s task force looking at countering extremism in response to the 2005 terrorist bombings in London, as well as being a peer mentor for IDeA – advising regional government. He is also a member of the Advisory Group on Online Terrorist Propaganda at Europol’s European Counter-terrorism Centre (ECTC). Haras is also a trustee for the Franco British Council.

In addition to this, he has worked on and delivered a number of projects relating to the analysis of radicalisation, as well as the deradicalisation of extremists, and has presented on a number of academic and political platforms, nationally and internationally.

As part of his work, Haras is committed to countering xenophobia and hatred, and has spoken at many conferences and events, including the Global Forum on combating anti-Semitism (December 2009), as well as being a Chair of a working group of the Global Experts’ Forum on anti-Semitism in Ottawa in 2010.

Haras is regularly featured in the media as a commentator and has been a cultural ambassador through the UK Government’s “Projecting British Islam” initiative.

As well as the above, Haras has also served on the North West Board of the Mosaic initiative, which was initiated by HRH Prince Charles, and aimed at mentoring youngsters to become contributing members of society.

Quilliam is the world’s first counter-extremism organisation. We have a full spectrum and values-based approach to counter-extremism which means promoting pluralism and inspiring change.

Over the last decade we have grown to have operations all over the world and aim to tackle extremism of all kinds. To pursue our work more effectively and ensure that we are localising our efforts, we currently have a UK team, a North America team, and a Global team.

Challenging extremism is the duty of all responsible members of society. Not least because cultural insularity and extremism are products of the failures of wider society to foster a shared sense of belonging and to advance liberal democratic values.

Quilliam seeks to challenge what we think, and the way we think. We aim to generate creative, informed and inclusive discussions to counter the ideological underpinnings of terrorism, while simultaneously providing evidence-based policy recommendations to governments, and building civil society networks and programmes to lead the change towards a more positive future.



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