Time for a British version of Islam . . .

Deep faith and commitment to country can mix.

The recent trial of those behind the failed 21 July outrage is a stark reminder of the terrorist threat that Britain faces. There can now be no doubt of the scale of the threat. The security services estimate, since this failed attack, that a further 30 plots have been detected and foiled. Few expect these kinds of numbers to fall soon. It will be a challenge for at least another generation.

The government is constantly striving to sharpen our response. Reshaping the Home Office will give clearer oversight to the government's overall counter-terrorism effort. We must be prepared to give the security services and police the powers they need to keep our citizens safe. But we recognise as well that a security response alone will fail. We also have to address the fundamental causes of this home-grown violent extremism to win the battle for hearts and minds.

I don't underestimate the difficulties we face. But I know, too, that the good sense and decency of the vast majority of people in this country have ensured that no type of extremism has ever really got a foothold here. Oswald Mosley's fascists were defeated by decent people coming together. It is how the BNP, time and again, has been beaten back. Similarly, success today will hinge on forging a coalition against violent extremism. It means, in particular, reaching out and including the overwhelming majority of British Muslims disgusted by terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam. It means ensuring that those courageous individuals and communities who make public this view are not drowned out or intimidated by the minority who disagree.

It was in order to help ensure that those who stand up don't stand alone that I am today publishing an action plan to help tackle the violent extremism in our midst. It sets out how new training will help imams, particularly those engaged by the state, take on violent extremists' messages. It signals a step -change in the role of madrasas in teaching about citizenship. It supports strong and inclusive governance of mosques and establishes a new role for the Charity Commission.

These proposals come out of many discussions I have had in recent months with members of our Muslim communities. I've spoken with scholars and thinkers about where we go from here. I've listened to those behind the inspiration of community projects up and down Britain. And I have heard the views of women and younger people who have too often felt ignored.

There were, of course, concerns about aspects of the government's policies. But I was also struck by the unanimous and resolute rejection of any notion that Islam justifies terrorism and agreement, too, that being a devout Muslim is entirely consistent with accepting the laws and values that come with being a British citizen. Many are proud to be British, proud to be Muslim, and want to help all young people understand this too.

The likes of Tariq Ramadan have written about these issues. And an interim report of work I have commissioned from an impressive young academic - Tufyal Choudhury - makes a powerful argument for why the ultimate response to extremism in the name of Islam is an emerging European or British Islam.

It is not for government to engage in theological debate. But we need to show that we understand how a deep faith can be combined with a deep commitment to one's country. And we should be working together with the people who are best placed to give a lead to the young people most at risk of being influenced by the arguments from violent extremists.

The progress so far, in forging this coalition against extremism, has been impressive. From the British Muslim Forum to local organisations such as the Bradford Council of Mosques, many, I hope, respect the balance that government is making here. It is the about government challenging and supporting, not seeking to take control or provide all the answers itself.

The vast majority in this country share a vision of a tolerant and fair Britain, where people from all backgrounds get on; where all communities can marry deep faith with commitment to Britain; and where extremists are resolutely isolated. We are already taking important first steps. There is a long way to go, but I believe it sets us in the right direction.

Ruth Kelly is Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, France: Vive la différence?

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, France: Vive la différence?