Theresa May’s populist promise to gag those who don’t break the law but who do scare us has put attention back on the domestic fight against terrorism. Last week the Commons backed limited military against IS but we’ve left a gaping hole in our security much closer to home.
Hundreds of British young people are fighting for jihadist groups while others plan terrorist violence here. Counter radicalisation clearly isn’t working, yet we persist with a strategy that is wrongheaded and puts us all at risk
Deep in neo-conservative thinking is the belief that something is rotten in British Islam. Advocates of “draining the swamp” – hardliners like Michael Gove and more moderate Home Office hawks – see counter-radicalisation purely as an ideological and theological struggle.
This flies in the face of almost every study of radicalisation. These tell us that, despite the motives claimed by terrorists, there is actually much in common between those who joined Baader-Meinhof, ETA, the IRA and the Tamil Tigers and today’s radicalised. The key question is not Why do some young British Muslims become terrorists? but Why do young terrorists emerge in every generation and conflict?
In every case there’s large group of young people alienated beyond the usual frustrations of youth. It could be poverty but is as likely to be discrimination, a clash of generations or cultural rejection. Crucially, they feel no voice and little stake in a wider society.
There will be a clear cause, possibly legitimate but maybe romantic, which offers identity, meaning and purpose. It might be national liberation, self- determination, religious expression, or class conflict; but at its core are seen deep wrongs needing to be put right.
Those young people will live in a culture in which many others also believe justice is not being done, that the rest of society is not interested, that the processes of change are closed.
In this milieu the radicaliser operates.
Radical movements have their intellectuals, so of course there are times and places when winning the ideological argument is crucial. But young people are rarely radicalised by ideas alone. It’s the emotional and social connections, the sense of meaning and purpose that attract.
Too many young Muslims share that sense of alienation, voicelessness and injustice. Feelings of rejection, stereotyping, powerlessness and double standards are commonplace This does not make them terrorists. It makes them vulnerable.
Muslims are more likely to describe themselves as British than any other community. So when the Mail screams “Be more British” Cameron tells UK’s Muslims the message seems to be “you will never truly belong here”.
Young Muslims feel shock and abhorrence at IS atrocities but do ask why deaths in Gaza don’t attract the same revulsion.
Terrorist fundraising is rightly illegal but many know of our silence about terrorist funding from our allies in the Gulf.
It’s right to resist segregation in classrooms but the state does fund separate schools for boys and girls.
It’s easy to see how, inconsistently applied to the far right and to Muslim preachers, May’s gagging orders could trigger yet more fears of hypocrisy and double-standards.
The Met Commissioner says ‘if you are going to start fighting in another country on behalf of another state or against another state, it seems to me you’ve made a choice about where you want to be’. Yet British citizens can join the Israeli Defence Force, take part in the illegal occupation of the West Bank or shell Gaza, and return unchallenged.
What may cause most pain is the absence of issues like these from public debate and policy. The drive to blame theology has left more important concerns unaddressed. The insistence that the Middle East conflict or the Iraq War don’t justify terrorism (they don’t of course) means that their role in radicalising is ignored.
Many non-Muslims rarely think about these issues in this way. To list them does not mean that every hurt is justified. But their exclusion from mainstream comment and debate is a significant cause of vulnerability.
The single-minded focus on theological and ideological argument, and silencing their advocates, has marginalised a whole set of concerns that disturb young people and can be exploited by radicalisers. A huge majority oppose violence and fear for their children; we undermine them by ignoring their concerns.
Real security will come when young Muslims they feel they have an equal a voice, stake and future; when being British is an identity we can all share, rather than a fixed state of ideas to be handed down and enforced from on high.
Counter-radicalisation strategies must respond to their concerns and be developed with them, acknowledging the legitimacy of the concerns they raise, even as the debate about them continues.
Politicians must rethink the language we use on issues like the Birmingham schools of course we can challenge socially conservative practice but let’s not confuse it with the ideology of terrorism.
Let’s go back to the Cantle Commission 2001 plan to break down social segregation and encourage young people within and across communities to debate and discuss the values and the future of our country.
Police and security action are essential but will never be enough. When counter-radicalisation is failing it is time to return to evidence based policy not dig deeper into political prejudices.
John Denham was Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government from 2009-10 and a Home Office Minister from 2001-2002