9 November 2020

To defeat terrorism, we must stand up for Enlightenment values


There is a piece missing from Britain’s counter-terrorism jigsaw. As barbarity plays out on the streets of Paris, Nice and now Vienna – we need a plan to unite people around values antithetical to the sort of poisonous absolutism that imbues murderers with divine permission to kill.

Britain’s formal strategy, Contest, is built around four ‘Ps’ – Prevent, Protect, Prepare and Pursue. These are all necessary but insufficient strands of what binds a community together. We need more.

Three years ago, I wrote a piece for this website on the idea of a new front in our battle against violent extremism. I called it ‘Promote’ – an obligation on the state to actively promote fundamental British values in a way accessible and relevant to ordinary people.

Macron gets it – to an extent. France has been enraged by the audaciousness of recent terror attacks targeting teachers and worshippers for decapitation. We are meant to be repulsed and cowed by such acts of medieval savagery, whether perpetrated by lone actors or groups. In Nice Cathedral and suburban Paris, we are meant to infer that no-one is safe, no values inviolate, and nowhere is sacred in the pursuit of a brand of political Islam that seeks only blood-soaked subjugation. The President of France has framed his furious response in startlingly uncompromising language. He spoke of the threat of Islamist separatism, that holds its own laws above all others resulting in a ‘counter society’ with values at odds with the principles of the republic: secularism, equality and freedom under law.

It’s depressingly rare to find such clarity from a national leader –  his language has been stripped of the usual performative equivocation and lawyerly nuance by brutal circumstance. The lukewarm, candles-and-flowers response to the latest attacks from other western leaders is a dispiriting reminder of how spineless we have become in defence of the superiority of liberal democracy. Or even the notion that it is superior.

This was no 9/11, granted, but death can still come from a thousand cuts – as violent extremists and the theocratic dictatorships mobilising them understand only too well. But multiple acts of grotesque terrorism, in the case of France’s current assault, directed specifically to attack and undermine the state’s guarantee of freedom of expression, demands a muscular response.

Macron’s detractors will say that forthcoming laws to reinforce secularism will create a moral panic that risks alienating France’s six million Muslims. Cynics point to nearby elections and the need for Macron to outflank Marine Le Pen on the right. Whether these are fair charges or not, the Muslim community in France, as in Britain, remains the greatest asset in the battle against Islamist extremism. A securitised response alone, as necessary as this will be, cannot replace the power of united communities that shun the ideologues weaponizing grievance and seeking to recruit the next generation of jihadis.

So Promote was in essence a call for an intelligent, postcode focused, street-by-street struggle for the hearts and minds of isolated communities. Multiple studies have shown that such groups harbour ignorance or suspicion of fundamental British values, with second and third generation descendants of immigrants paradoxically less connected to mainstream life in Britain than their parents. Even the term ‘British values’ is contested, freighted with its colonial heritage and fair game for the left and its activist fellow travellers to conflate with jingoism and caricature with sneering condescension.

However we frame the principles we live by – essentially democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and tolerance for difference – it is important to understand that these cannot stand on their own as mere abstractions or disagreeable necessities. They can only be sustained by a population that buys into them, not as an optional extra but as a requirement of citizenship. Too often in the recent past, our public bodies and those leading them have shied away from their defence for fear of offending strident minority interests. The new orthodoxy of cultural relativism has castrated old certainties and emboldened enemies of the Enlightenment, keenly aware of and keen to exploit institutional timidity.

This is not a counsel of despair. Promote could be an opportunity to showcase democratic values and demonstrate in plain language how they operate and why they are essential. To give them compelling meaning where they are in a losing battle with fundamentalism, religious or otherwise. We are almost punch drunk from relentless agitation over rights by legions of pressure groups, identity grifters, quangos and sectional interest groups. I’m all for rights. I’m even more for an understanding that rights have no meaning without responsibilities. We have forgotten the most important part of the equation: my right not to be killed – by terrorists or otherwise – is not inherent, it is contingent on your responsibility to allow me to live, or in the case of poor M Samuel Paty, your duty as a citizen to permit freedom of expression even while offended by it. We cannot simply assume these basic protections and duties are self-sufficient or even properly understood. The unifying and positive message of duty to country is dying of neglect.

Promote would also be a way for the vast majority of our country’s Muslim community in all its diversity to join in as crucial partners in the protection of our national security. Recent research by the Crest Advisory thinktank and the Government gives the lie to the myth that Muslims are any less committed to combatting violent extremism than other ethnicities. The success of British Muslims in our civic life and the enormous contribution they make is our success. Recognising and celebrating their achievements undermines the grievance narrative that has been far too successful unopposed.

These ideas got me a polite hearing by Government three years ago but, regrettably, not much in the way of any action. It’s easy for such concerns to get overwhelmed by our present fixation on Covid. But as Marcon knows too well, and as I said then, “the monster of extremism is already inside the castle. It’s too late for cosy equivocation. We must redouble our efforts to encourage and insist on the civilised values that underpin our democracy. These values are not inviolable, they can be corroded by complacency and cynicism. By fear. Bringing people into the fold is an enormous challenge but absolutely necessary.” Time to unashamedly promote our Enlightenment values for all. While we can.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Ian Acheson is a Senior Advisor at the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.