13 July 2017

We needn’t sacrifice liberty in the fight against terrorism

By Syed Kamall

British stoicism was stretched, perhaps beyond breaking point, by the three IS/Daesh inspired terrorist attacks this year.

The most recent, at London Bridge just over a month ago, brought a marked change in the tone of the national debate about terrorism and radicalisation. And for libertarians, it prompted the most mixed of mixed feelings.

Our instinct, after all, is to be wary of any move towards state intervention just because the public mood says “something must be done”. Yet our respect for liberty and rule of law also tells us terror must not win – and eternal vigilance seems inadequate. In fact, we need to concede that something must be done to defend our values. After all, as one libertarian friend told me, “we should not confuse libertarianism with pacifism”.

A surprising number of classical liberal and libertarian voices have been heard issuing demands for action, ranging from mass round-ups of all Muslims under any degree of suspicion, through the revocation of British citizenship, expulsion of all Wahhabist clerics and the banning of foreign funding to British mosques, to wholesale internment without trial.

It’s tough talk indeed, similar to what David Cameron would have called “muscular liberalism”, but let’s be careful about insisting on measures which may simply serve to drive more disaffected Muslims into the arms of extremists.

We must also guard against that sort of malicious reporting of innocent Muslims we saw when the United States was sending people to Guantanamo. I myself was the target of a malicious smear campaign when a fellow MEP spread an untrue but vicious rumour that I had links to the Muslim Brotherhood. I dread to think whether this was enough to have had me placed on a watchlist.

So my advice as a Muslim and a classical liberal who has pondered the nature of radicalisation long and hard, is that we have to do all we can on three levels, internationally, nationally and locally. And across those tiers we must be sure we are doing all we should in key areas such as diplomacy, targeted military intervention, education, employment, security, border controls, community engagement, criminal justice, policing and the role of the internet.

First, internationally. We must secure the co-operation of political and religious leaders across the globe in properly isolating Islamism – and its violent manifestation – from the true body of Islam. As Ed Husain suggests, Islamism demands a caliphate and a theocracy; true Islam demands neither. Islamism demands war with the West. True Islam knows there is no such war and that Islam is accepted with tolerance in the West in a way it is not in many so-called Muslim countries.

The message from these leaders must ring out loud and clear that the Quran confirms faith to be a matter of choice. There is no compulsion over whether or what to believe. Terrorists are not martyrs bound for paradise but murderers condemned to hell.

We must re-examine our global intelligence and diplomatic efforts to make sure no tricks are being missed, and we must also stand ready to deploy our military resources should circumstances demand it. Likewise, international co-operation and corporate responsibility must be applied to ensure that the rhetoric of violent extremism is removed from the Internet.

On the national stage, it is clear that the Prevent counter-extremism strategy is not working as we would want; but we must resist calls to scrap it. Instead we must revisit it, revise it and make sure we consult as many Muslims as possible on how it can work best.

Perhaps we need, as Maajid Nawaz suggested, a counter-extremism coordinator to align the work of all government agencies – including education and security – who would report directly to the Prime Minister. After all, the scale of the challenge is daunting. At any one time, MI5 and police are conducting around 500 active investigations, involving 3,000 subjects of interest. There are some 20,000 individuals who are former subjects of interest, whose risk remains subject to review by MI5 and its partners.

Let’s not forget 18 plots have been thwarted since 2013, including five since the Westminster attack. This is thanks to the efforts of our security and intelligence services and police who uphold the rule of law and continue to defend our values and the security of our citizens.

There is much, too, that must be done on a local level. We must tackle extremism wherever it takes root – in schools or universities, in our mosques and community centres, in the neighbourhoods where we live and in our workplaces. Parents must make sure they know what material their children are accessing online. And we must make sure nobody is tempted to turn a blind eye to extremists through any misplaced sense of unity or shared victimhood.

Religious leaders play a vital role in helping us isolate extremists. At a conference I co-hosted with the Iman Foundation in Brussels, we discussed the drivers of terrorism: from young people searching for an identity or a sense of belonging, to others who were radicalised in prisons. Some of those who turned to Islamism were violent individuals looking for a new cause. Others were nursing grievances over a perceived unfair foreign policy. But there were also the emotionally and spiritually vulnerable, easily fooled into believing there could be a final shortcut to paradise in a world of temptation.

All of which means there can never be a “silver bullet” to neutralise the threat. Instead we must work tirelessly on all these different levels, globally, nationally and locally, recognising that politicians and policy on their own cannot provide all the answers.

Sure, we MEPs can introduce a new PNR system (Passenger Name Records) that helps track the movements of suspects – and, indeed, we have done exactly that. We can also increase the confidence of our national intelligence agencies by working better together and by addressing concerns some national agencies may have over their counterparts in other countries.

But on behalf of those of us who represent constituencies where young people have been radicalised, allow me to suggest one more thing. Last year, I worked with the Unity of Faiths Foundation (TUFF) on their football project. They hope to harness the power of the beautiful game to combat radicalisation by inspiring team spirit and instilling British values in youngsters from different religions.

At the project I met a young  woman who told me how she almost went to Syria, after being recruited via social media. The football project’s founder, when he found out about this, made a few phone calls and gave her the choice of going through the airport gates to Syria or through the stadium gates of the Premier League team that she supported.

When she arrived at the stadium, she was so overcome that she knelt down to kiss the pitch. Now, through her experience, she encourages others not to be recruited to terrorism. Think of how much death and destruction this one act might have prevented; and as the project’s founder said, one of the best ways to counter terrorism is to prevent people from becoming terrorists.

There are many other local anti-radicalisation projects being run across London and in other cities where young people have been recruited into terrorism. So successful is their sports-led approach that the projects have gained an international reputation.

They are an example of how it is only through collaboration on every level, right down to grass roots, that we can root out the poison of radicalisation. We must all work together to proclaim and defend our democracy and freedom, and reassure the vast majority of Muslims who just want to live their lives as their non-Muslim neighbours do.

So rather than seeking to protect freedom by diminishing it, I hope these are approaches that the vast majority of libertarians, classical liberals, Muslims and others can agree on.

Syed Kamall is Conservative MEP for London