“Is it always better to talk with terrorists?” was the question posed on a recent TV show that I was invited onto as a panellist. The discussion demonstrated how even the thought of talking could ignite passions: entrenched positions were taken, the moat was filled with water, and the drawbridge pulled up.
This was a microcosm of the way that the debate has been conducted. Nationally politicians and media are embedded into fixed positions. British politicians, especially so close to a tightly fought general election, are unwilling and unable to risk losing votes on a policy based on talking to terrorists who appear to be routinely killing innocent civilians by a method not seen in this country since it was a republic. Yet it is not only lazy to stick to an approach that precludes talking with terrorists, but probably means more decades of innocent people being killed on all sides.
As a country we tend to suffer from collective amnesia on the subject of talking with terrorists. And of course, the people who we once described as terrorists are viewed in an altogether different light from those who support, or are sympathetic to their cause. The very terrorists who were once so reviled were within a generation feted as leading world statesman, routinely invited to Buckingham Palace for Afternoon Tea with the Queen and respectfully ushered past the threshold of Downing Street.
Menachem Begin was a key member of the Zionist terrorist organisation, The Irgun, that planted a bomb killing 91 people at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946 and yet 30 years later he was the Israeli Prime Minister feted for making peace with Egypt; Martin McGuinness was a leading member of the Provisional IRA but since 2007 has been deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland; and Nelson Mandela was the imprisoned leader of the African National Congress that was dubbed a terrorist organisation by Margaret Thatcher. But within 20 years was installed as President of the post-apartheid South Africa and arranging a touchy feely photo opportunity with the Spice Girls.
In each case these individuals were framed by the media and politicians as the “Poster Boys” for violence and murder, reviled and ridiculed. The thought of the nominal leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, sitting down at Buckingham Palace with the Queen may be far-fetched, and have more than readers of The Daily Mail foaming at the mouth, but at some point talks will commence followed by some type of agreement and the obligatory state visit. Lessons of history show that this is the trajectory that follows as terrorists come in from the cold.
Terrorist organisations have support. This is not only in the killing fields of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan but in the US and Europe. The small but steady trickle of British people rising to the clarion call of IS should be a cause of alarm for our government after the money and investment into policies designed to support integration.
Policies under both parties were designed to promote common and shared British values amongst minorities but with a gaze fixed unrelentingly on British Muslims. Rather than promoting tolerance they have been accompanied by an increasing tide of hate crime towards Muslims, suspicions on the extent of their loyalty to Britain and unprecedented levels of electoral support for the BNP and UKIP.
In this climate of fear and recrimination, after 9/11 and military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is unsurprising that a small number of British Muslims, tired of their faith being ridiculed, coming under scrutiny by the police and demonised as either terrorists or sexual predators in the media, decide to support IS. Top-down dictats by a disconnected and corrupt political class is no match against the slick presentation by terrorist organisations on how innocent Muslims have been killed on an industrial scale in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The tiny number of British-born combatants belong to all of us. They come from towns and cities, have parents and siblings, worked in jobs serving communities, or were students at schools, colleges and universities. One of the most important tasks is to gain a better understanding on the reasons for supporting an imaginary caliphate instead of the reality of the country in which they were born and raised.
It comes as no surprise that the thought of talking with terrorist organisations invokes so much outrage when the daily projection on TV screens is of masked militants routinely beheading innocent people in some far away land, attacking media outlets or supermarkets closer to home. Yet some form of communication is necessary to stop the spiral of death and destruction. This is the pattern of the past and is likely to happen in the future with IS, its franchise operations or through political intermediaries.
Of course there is a difference between talking and negotiations. Just to reassure people who have joined a frenzied debate there seems little prospect of black limousines containing IS representatives being invited to sit down with the British Prime Minister any time soon. But in the future? Probably.
Harris Beider is Professor in Community Cohesion at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University. He writes here in a personal capacity.