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How to deal with home grown terrorism

November 14, 2015


It’s an uncomfortable but inescapable fact that there are people in Europe’s towns and cities who reject the lifestyles and values of their fellow Parisians, Londoners or Bristolians so absolutely that they want to maim and kill in order to impose their own mind-set of barbarism. This is the 21st century’s fundamental clash of civilisations and everyone who values Europe’s hard won values of freedom for the individual – liberty, equality and fraternity if you like, needs to wake up to the danger.

I want to make some observations about how we can build a cohesive and therefore peaceful society in a Britain that is largely white European and mainly secular but has among the population people who have family and cultural ties to many other parts of the world and cling tenaciously to religious beliefs. From my political perspective, it’s about how we must be more muscular in our liberalism, at home and abroad.

There are points to be made about how everyone can be a fully integrated Briton. I also want to make some subsidiary points about how liberals respond to the threat to our security at home and how our foreign policy influences opinions in Britain.

For over 20 years I was a politician in Bristol, witnessing how the city changed and trying to influence that change for the greater good. Over time my concerns became as much about demographic change as developments in the economy or infrastructure.  In my lifetime the human face of urban Britain has changed utterly. Bristol, Leicester, Cardiff and of course London are now multi-cultural cities.  London is truly the world’s global city, more so than New York or Paris. This is something to be celebrated, not feared.

In our increasingly globalised lives a capacity for co-existence, mutual respect and good neighbourliness at community, European and world level is the way forward.  Isolation leads to suspicion and loathing of the misunderstood other. Immigration has been good for Britain. Skilled migrants strengthen our economy and help us cope with an aging society. Admitting genuine refugees is the humane thing to do and in my experience refugees make a positive contribution and are eager to do so.

That’s a familiar liberal defence of immigration. But all small L liberals in mainstream politics need to recognise that there are some people who want to live in Britain (or the European Union) and hold a British passport but do not want to be wholly British. They do not accept our values and laws built up over centuries. They reject the concept of equal rights and opportunities for all, irrespective of gender, race or sexuality. They do not believe in freedom of speech, without fear or favour of political or religious belief.

Britain has been scarred by political dispute and religious bigotry but with the partial exception of Northern Ireland these conflicts are now the stuff of history. But some misguided Britons in 2015 are tempted to follow a backward view of Islam (such as Salafism or Wahhabism) stemming from the Arabian peninsular or Afghanistan and its neighbours. These are unreformed views rooted in medieval culture that 99.9% of Britons, including Muslims, would find barbaric.

Why would anyone in Bristol or Bradford or Paris want to fight for those who stone women for adultery, shoot girls who go to school or throw men from rooftops for being gay? But many Britons have departed for Syria, Iraq and other places to stand alongside the perpetrators of such barbarism. The uncomfortable fact is that not only will these jihadists return to Britain and spread those views but there are home grown terrorists who hold those views already.

So what can be done? As well as being a Bristol politician I also spent just under two years as the Communities Minister in the Coalition Government.  Most of my work in the public eye was about neighbourhood plans or housing regulation. But much or my time behind the scenes was taken up with oversight of various programmes of community cohesion. I travelled across England meeting groups of all religions and none who were trying to bring people together in Tower Hamlets, Blackburn, Wakefield and many other places.  No parent, sibling or neighbour wants to see a young man from their community putting on a mask and murdering people in Syria or blowing up a bus in London.  Nor do they want a young girl tempted to be a jihadi bride.  But it’s happening right under their noses.

We need a concerted and massive effort to make our towns and cities more cohesive places. It was I think Lord Leverhulme who originally said that “fifty percent of my advertising is wasted and if I knew which half it was I would be an even richer man.” It’s the same with community cohesion.  There is no magic bullet. National government, local councils, charities and faith groups all have a role and all will run programmes that either fail or at least can’t be proven to have worked. But we must try everything.

There are some areas that are obvious and need more investment. First, everyone should learn our common language, English. When I made that point a few months ago I was jumped on by fellow liberals on Twitter and Facebook saying I was, er, illiberal.  But there is nothing liberal about being shut out of job opportunities or being unable to talk to your neighbours in the street because of a lack of confidence in conversational English.  A proven ability to speak and write English should be expected before citizenship (not the same as asylum) is granted.  A common language brings people together. If you can’t speak English your source of news and whole world outlook is not going to be framed by the BBC or a British newspaper or website. On the flip side, speaking English may help mothers and sisters understand and intercept messages of radicalisation being absorbed by their sons and brothers.  Radicalisation is more likely to be via English, not Arabic.

Terrorism is largely facilitated by older men and carried out by young men. Enhancing the role and status of women will help combat this patriarchal status. This is a challenge right across public life and in businesses. But it is especially urgent to see more ethnic minority women as councillors, school governors, magistrates and business managers and directors.

Bringing adults together who might otherwise not meet is also essential. One of the programmes I helped re-launch was the Near Neighbours scheme, led by the Church of England urban fund. They bring people together for practical tasks, such as soup kitchens, tapestry making, music making – all of which I witnessed. It’s not rocket science to recognise that all humans have common skills and pastimes and they can be a good way to bring people together.  Similarly, we need more adults (especially males in this context) to lead cross community youth groups.  One of my Thick of It moments as a minister was to fall over while trying to give a boy a piggy back at a new scout group I was opening in Hackney.  Fortunately, he laughed rather than cried.

We can also do more to build a shared identity of what it means to British or a Muslim living in Europe.  So it is right that we highlight the Sikh and Muslim contribution to the British armed forces in both world wars. I am also particularly proud of the Remembering Srebrenica programme. Taking groups of young community leaders (from all faiths and none) to Bosnia gives recognition to the 1995 genocide and leads to discussion about how different Europeans perpetrated and eventually intervened to stop the atrocities. Again, it also brings people together who might otherwise not have met and tasks them with doing something positive for community cohesion back in their home town.

There are many other projects up and down the country.  In an era of public sector spending cuts the good news is that many of these interventions can be cheap, even at a large scale. If some of them work, then the value for money is priceless.  The Department of Communities and Local Government will see another round of budget cuts in this Parliament.  It would be an act of madness if community cohesion programmes are cut by DCLG and if the Home Office cuts its complementary work with individuals at risk of radicalisation.

The second challenge for liberals and libertarians is the internal security response to the internal threat to our lives and freedoms.  Liberals must always be suspicious of giving too much power to the state and its agencies. But we must be careful not to have a knee jerk rejection of every Home Office proposal to keep up with the communications capabilities of the sponsors of terrorism. The most common word being used about events in Paris this weekend is “shocking”.  It’s certainly a shock to our sensibilities but the fact of a successful act of terrorism is not a shock. It’s rather a surprise that there aren’t more.  The fact that there has been no large scale act of terror in London since July 2005 is not down to chance.  Special Branch, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ will have foiled many acts of terror.  But one day the terrorists will be lucky again.  It should not be down to the fact that the security agencies did not have the capability to detect and prevent. The security services are not interested in the internet activities of the vast majority of British citizens.  The right to privacy is a fundamental one in a liberal society.  But the bigger threat to my privacy comes from the owners of software programmes, social media sites and other money making corporations, not the good people in Thames House or Cheltenham GCHQ.

Finally, there is British foreign policy.  Globalisation brings trade benefits. It also exposes us to ideas, good and bad. Britain’s heterogeneous population means that people feel a personal connection with events in many parts of the world. Anger about events in Damascus, Hebron, Riyadh or Kashmir is felt in Britain.  I am a liberal interventionist. I believe Britain can be a force for good in the world.  There is a role for our aid programme, now the biggest of the larger developed economies.  There is a role for our network of direct and soft diplomacy. Britain inside the EU and working with the US must do more to bring about a long term solution in Palestine, the excuse for much poisonous activity at home.  But there must also be a role for armed intervention as well.  We must not allow Blair’s folly in Iraq to paralyse our response to IS or other groups in Iraq or Syria now. We must reason with the people who are open to reason but IS are something different and they must be smashed.

In my lifetime the world has definitely become a safer place.  There are now more democracies than dictatorships.  Europe is united and prosperous.  Rights for women and protections for minorities have improved in most places. Absolute poverty has reduced as China, India and other countries develop. But a new threat has emerged, based on a warped view of religion.  Urgent action at home and abroad is needed to protect our hard won rights to life, liberty and happiness.

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