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Fighting Terrorism with Values

In Britain, the discourse about terrorism has increasingly revolved around cultural issues related to the assimilation of foreigners (particularly Muslims) into British society, often cheerled in a fear-mongering and shrieking manner by the right-wing press. Last night, anti-extremist think tank The Quilliam Foundation held their 1st anniversary in central London with a panel discussion entitled ‘What do Britons have in Common?’ It left me wondering whether these sorts of debates, well-meaning as they are, really reach the people they need to reach, or whether they just reinforce the alienation that leads people down radical paths?

I’m not sure the British really like talking about what it means to be British. Certainly, we can trot out the usual responses about freedom, tolerance and Monty Python. We might perk up when someone mentions history, so long as we studiously ignore some of the more ignominious episodes of our past. But for the most part it’s a debate many would rather not bother with.

Unfortunately, that debate is constantly being thrust at us by the media and civil society, not out of some desire to better understand ourselves and our place in the world, but in reaction to a perceived (and occasionally real) threat: Islamic terrorism.

As interesting and insightful as the speakers were at the Quilliam bash, it was hard not to think that this desire to outline certain ‘shared British values’ was ultimately driven by an exclusionary impulse: we are what we are not – we are not political Islamists, we are not opposed to liberal democracy, we are not apologists for suicide bombing.

All good things not to be. But does adamantly stating these positions help get through to that minority that feel otherwise? The Quilliam Foundation – which was founded by two reformed political Islamists, including the acclaimed former Hizb-ut Tahrir member Ed Husain – think so, and increasingly so does the government. In only a year, Quilliam has made a sizeable impact on the discourse about Muslims’ place in British society and counter-terrorism.

They take a tough line. Anyone who does not support liberal British values has no place in the debate. One of the organisation’s early triumphs, touted in its annual review, is that it forced government ministers to pull out of their planned appearance at last July’s IslamExpo in London because certain of the organisers had alleged links or sympathies with Middle Eastern groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Can we be sure that this was a good thing? More than 40,000 people gathering to celebrate Muslim art and culture, and debate the difficult issues of multicultural Britain – and the government was forced into a boycott. It’s not hard to imagine why. Links between ministers and terrorism – however tenuous – make for embarrassing headlines in the right-wing press.

And now this approach is working its way into policy. The new counter-terrorism strategy released last month, Contest Two, included calls for all British citizens to do their ‘duty’ in standing up for the institutions of parliamentary democracy. This makes life much easier for politicians, who get to wax lyrical about patriotism rather than trying to forge links with Islamists and other awkward bed-fellows.

But does it really help? Challenging extremist views, and refusing to listen to those that hold them, does not help us understand where they come from and what makes them so attractive to a sizeable proportion of British youth. This approach tackles the symptoms of extremism, rather than the causes.

The roots of extremism in Britain are complex, but it is clear that they emerge from a combination of poverty, lack of opportunity and perceptions of Islamophobia. It might be countered that many of those who adopt extreme Islamist views come from relatively privileged and educated backgrounds, but they still hold close ties to Muslim communities that face some of the worst socio-economic indicators in the country. The existence of disadvantaged communities is taken as evidence of endemic, institutionalised discrimination.

Two other factors play a part in the move to extremism by creating an atmosphere of perceived Islamophobia. First, there is British foreign policy, which is easily and readily interpreted by Islamists as a war against Muslims. The other factor terrifies the government because it is the British press.

A study last year by Cardiff University found that two thirds of Muslim-related articles published in the mainstream press between 2000 and 2008 focused on Muslims as a threat, a problem, or both. The apoplectic over-reaction to the recent army parade protests in Luton shows that little is changing. The incessant refrain is that Muslims are not culturally compatible with Britain. In one form or another, this is almost the only story that ever gets told about Muslims. Of course, this is not mentioned once in Contest Two, because the government knew it would be eaten alive by the more rabid dogs of Fleet Street if it had.

For many young Muslims, these factors cause a defensive reaction – the building of protective walls around their social group, the hardening of identities, and the adoption of tough and uncompromising cultural views that offer some measure of resistance against the alienation they feel in wider society. It is the classic rebellious impulse in action. In its own way, it has parallels to the punk movement or the hippy movement: just as they had their own provocative fashions and cultural attitudes, so do the Islamists.

Just as it was with the punks and the hippies, trying to engage them in a debate about shared British values is doomed to fail from the outset. Those who hold extremist views have built strong barriers between themselves and mainstream society. Challenging them only reinforces those barriers and pushes them further away. The real answer is, unfortunately, a long-term one, and involves tackling the social and economic roots of extremism, problems which have still not been addressed in any kind of determined fashion.

In the meantime, the vapid debate about ‘Britishness’ totters along inanely, occasionally invigorated by a stirring speech about the moral superiority of liberalism, or how good we are at taking the piss out of politicians. But this is not a debate to have in a time of economic and cultural crisis – for that way lies jingoism. In fact, one of the better angels of Briton’s nature has been their contempt for high-fallutin’ rhetoric. We might envy that certainty of self that we see in the French and Americans, but there’s also a part of us that sees them as pompous and naïve. Perhaps we ought to remember that a crucial part of being British is that its essence can’t quite be pinned down.

For more of my ramblings on the role of social cohesion in counter-terrorism strategy, you can check out a recent article I wrote for OpenDemocracy here

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