Questions of social cohesion and the battle of ideas against extremism (part II)
A study of the threat of Islamic terrorism in Britain, analyzing the historical and social components of a generation-long problem: there is a need for a comprehensive approach to homegrown terrorism in a democratic society, but there is no single solution.
THE THREAT FROM AL-QAEDA-INSPIRED Islamic terrorism faced by the UK is generation-long, as Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently put it at the Commons. That is why Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST, made public last year, is wisely long-term oriented. It’s most important strand, so-called Prevent, is concerned with preventing terrorism by tackling the radicalization of individuals. It thus involves a vast array of policies and areas of action, from addressing disadvantage and structural problems with regard to Britain’s minorities (particularly its Muslim population) to deterring those who encourage or facilitate terrorism, or engaging the Muslim communities in the battle of ideas against extremism, which we may roughly term winning the hearts and minds of British Muslims. This manifold approach to the problem of radicalization stems from the belief that there may be many factors which may turn a particular individual into an extremist, let alone a suicide bomber.
GAUGING PROS AND CONS OF BRITAIN’S SOCIETY
This counterterrorism strategy therefore pays a certain attention to existing structural problems of a socioeconomic nature, such as deprivation, discrimination against minorities or segregation, perceived to somehow contribute to the radicalization process of some Muslim youths in Britain. This focus overlaps with and forms part of the broader agenda of integration and social cohesion -issues which, as we saw in the first part of this piece, are at the forefront of the ongoing debate on the virtues and flaws of British multiculturalism.
An example of this approach is the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, announced by Tony Blair shortly after the attacks of July 2005 as part of his Twelve-Point Action Plan against Islamic terrorism. The Commission made public its findings last June. Interestingly, the report cast doubts on the accuracy of some pessimist views on relations among different peoples in Britain (views usually resonating in the headlines) since it provides an overall positive picture of the current state of social cohesion in Britain and shows that some of the assumptions usually made in this matter are not clear cut. For instance, it points out that economic deprivation is often but not always equivalent to low levels of local cohesion or that ethnic diversity can indeed have a negative impact in community relations but only in some circumstances (say, when in conjunction with a stagnant economy, as is the case of some towns in the North where riots have taken place). Amongst other recommendations and in line with the prevailing consensus, the Commission underlined the need to boost a sense of common citizenship based upon a new model of rights and responsibilities and other civic principles, such as an ethics of hospitality. Tellingly, the Commission’s report has been named “Shared Futures”, stressing the importance of articulating what binds communities in Britain together -rather than what divides them.
NATIONAL SECURITY VS. FREE SPEECH
A second area of action within the Prevent strand of CONTEST targets those activities which contribute to radicalizing others and inciting them to acts of violence. The measures therein comprised, such as the creation of a new criminal offence of glorifying terrorism, are partly the consequence of an awareness of the relative easiness that extremists had found to disseminate their radical ideas among British youths -through publications, the Internet or preaching violent jihad. Some of these measures have been criticized in that they might chill legitimate free speech -criticism of the Iraq war or the Middle-East situation provide a case in point. However, an argument may be made for such actions to be taken insofar as the preachers of hate are concerned, since there is evidence of the perverted influence exercised by the latter (many of them foreign jihadists who started arriving in Britain in the late 1980’s) on would-be terrorists. The case of Abu Hamza, the Egyptian-born preacher of the Finsbury Park mosque, now serving a prison sentence for solicitation to murder, seems compelling.
MUSLIMS AGAINST RADICALIZATION
Besides tackling the disadvantage faced by some of its citizens and hunting down those praising terrorism, the Labour Government itself reckons that, above all, it will also need to have its Muslim citizens on board to thwart radicalization. This is the basic assumption buttressing what some have called the community pillar of UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, which, to sum up, intends for the Government to engage with the Muslim communities in the fight against terrorism, critically understood as a battle of ideas. An example of this policy approach is the Preventing Extremism Together initiative (PET), originated in the wake of the July 2005 bombings when after a round of consultations with Muslim representatives, a number of Muslim working groups were convened by the Home Office to produce recommendations on how to tackle extremism in their communities. It was meant to be a partnership between the Government and Muslims which crystallized in the PET Report. Some of their initiatives have been taken forward, such as road shows of Muslim scholars talking against terrorism and other forums of dialogue with Muslims.
Notwithstanding and according to some sources, the prevailing mood among the members of the groups was that the whole project amounted to a mere window-dressing opportunity for the Government and that their efforts had been sidestepped with Tony Blair’s parallel announcement of new tough enforcement measures, or new rules of the game. The main recommendation upon which all of the working groups agreed, the establishment of a public inquiry on the root causes of the bombings (also requested from other public opinion groups in the UK) was ruled out from the start.
The second relevant strand of the UK’s strategy against Islamic terrorism is embodied in a body of enforcement legislation, which grants the Executive strong powers of detention of suspect terrorists, stop and search, surveillance and so forth. This Pursue strand has been greatly strengthened with every passing of a new antiterrorist law on an almost yearly basis since 2000, there is in fact a proposal for a 2007 Counter-Terrorism Bill, which will likely be passed this fall.
CONTROVERSIAL TERROR LEGISLATION
The broad range of measures comprised within this strand would merit a separate analysis. Overall, suffice it to say now that some of them are particularly questionable not only in terms of human rights compliance but also, and according to some officials, in terms of their real effectiveness to foil terrorist attacks. Among the most controversial stand out the broad detention powers without charge of terrorist suspects, currently 28 days, although Prime Minister Gordon Brown has stated that his government intends to extend this period up to 56 days; stop and search powers, which to some human rights organizations amount in practice to ethnic profiling (as they are disproportionately used against minorities), or control orders, tantamount to indefinite house arrest -these orders are used against individuals, both Britons and foreigners, who cannot yet be prosecuted or, in the case of foreigners, whose deportation may not take place (owing to risk of torture in their home countries). Other pieces of new legislation closed previous loopholes in the anti-terrorist laws, such as the new criminal offence regarding acts preparatory of terrorism.
I do not mean to discard all of these measures as just illegal or ineffective. The terrorist networks are increasingly sophisticated and thus difficult to track down and disrupt. It is true that the Labour Government faces the challenge of striking an unstable balance between full respect for civil liberties and the protection of the public. Regarding specific problems arisen from the fight against terrorism, for instance, sometimes there is not enough evidence to prosecute an individual suspect of having ties with terrorist activities and yet he/she must be kept under control, somehow; some other times, the police must act forcefully on the basis of patchy evidence which then proves to be wrong, at times, tragically.
A SENSITIVE BALANCE ON THE ANTI-TERROR SCALE
Hence admitting that these are difficult issues, the fact remains that the Labour government has overwhelmingly stressed these measures over the efforts to win the hearts and minds of Britain’s Muslim communities. To be sure, their effects are being disproportionately borne by Muslims, with the risk of further alienating those on the verge of extremism or sympathetic to the goals of the terrorists. Further, the accusations against some of these measures regarding their human rights quality are well argued indeed -some talk of a shadowy Executive justice beyond the fairness constraints of the law. These critiques thus must be taken seriously by the government of a State which stands for democracy and respect for the rule of law. Yet the Labour Government has dismissed them, together with the judicial checks on its powers, as mere hurdles to the wider counter-terrorism efforts. I know better seems to be the standard response.
CRACK-DOWN ON CRIME MUST GO BOTH WAYS
This trend has been complemented by a hardened stance from several members of Government mainly focused on the Muslim population, which would seem to be aimed at calming down the pressure of some mindless editorials and thus looking tough on terror. Moreover, sheer police blunders, for example, the shooting of a Muslim youth last year at Forest Gate (then released without charges) are wholeheartedly embraced with, at the very most, lukewarm apologies. In this regard, Tony Blair’s public apologies in 2005 for the false convictions of some people in the fight against the IRA (the famous Guilford 4 and the Maguire 7), begs the question of why similar cases with regard to British Muslims are not treated with due attention and respect.
Treating the very diverse Muslim communities as a rigid, monolithic group might chill internal debate and silence ongoing critique of some aspects of political Islam. Let me be clear: some purported liberals also contribute to this situation. As Kenan Malik -a writer- has explained, the plain dismissal by some of any criticism of Islam and Muslim leaders as Islamophobic is no better. Islamophobia or just the perception of Muslim hunting season furthers a siege mentality among British Muslims, breeds resentment and paves the way to extremism.
A CALL FOR A COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH. SOME LESSONS FROM THE PAST?
As a recent insightful study from Democratic Audit has made adamant, the British Government needs the trust of the Muslim citizenry, not only with respect to community relations in society but also for its counter-terrorism efforts -for example, with respect to the production of crucial intelligence regarding potential terrorists. And this trust is being severely hampered by the current approach adopted by the Labour Government, an approach which largely neglects sound efforts to prevent radicalisation among Britons. However, the latter is the most important element of its own counter-terrorist strategy according to the Government itself. The said tendency therefore might jeopardize the whole strategy against Islamic terrorism, which, as I mentioned at the beginning above, must be long-term oriented and from which many European governments might draw some useful lessons.
To conclude, home-grown Islamic terrorism represents a security threat to the UK, as several attacks or foiled attempts have made clear. This threat should not be belittled and there are no silver bullet answers for its origins. Whether the foreign policy and the Iraq debacle in particular, resentment for lack of opportunities or other factors, the fact remains that we do not know much yet of the reasons for which an extremist tilts toward mass murder. Thus no single approach to this problem will do.
STEPS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
In this respect, the battle for the hearts and minds of British Muslims may be at least as important as the police efforts to disrupt terrorist activities. The UK is undergoing a deep and far-reaching debate on its identity as a diverse, multicultural nation, a testament to its strong democratic credentials. Sound initiatives are being taken forward to address the issues of multiculturalism, cohesion and integration, which, importantly, may shed some light on similar processes in other European nations.
The Labour Government should therefore not hasten to curtail civil liberties, lest that not only Britain’s resilient social cohesion but also its own sensible anti-terrorist strategy be the ultimate casualties. Perhaps it might be useful to remember some of the lessons learned from the decade-long fight against the IRA, such as the importance of uprooting the terrorists from the communities where they receive potential support. Heavy-handed tactics against the Catholic community of Northern Ireland in the 1970’s and 1980’s did backfire. The current system of detention powers brings to memory the shameful internment without trial of hundreds of suspect republicans, the vast majority of them then proved innocent.
Tony Blair said that the rules of the game are changing. Thus far, Gordon Brown seems bent on following this single approach. To some extent, that is what the terrorist mind ultimately wants. Standing firm in the face of terrorism also entails standing firm to the values that make our democracies a higher system of human government.