I was impressed when I read the speech delivered by Theresa May, the Home Secretary, at the Royal United Services Institute last month. I regarded it as a balanced summary of the risks we face and tweeted accordingly.
In my view, there is a serious problem of British Muslims travelling to Syria and Iraq to fight for so called “Islamic State” (ISIS). While doing so there, they are likely to commit abominable crimes. Furthermore, we face the risk of them committing terrorism in the UK after return. As evidence that the risk is not just conjectural, Mehdi Nemmouche, the alleged perpetrator of the Jewish Museum of Belgium murder, is believed to have spent over a year in Syria and appears to be affiliated to ISIS.
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill 2014-2015
When the Bill was published, I downloaded it promptly, but have only recently got round to reading it. Very briefly, without attempting to summarise the Bill, the provisions include:
- A power to seize passports when people are trying to leave the UK where a person is suspected of intending to leave the UK in connection with terrorism-related activity.
- A power to temporarily exclude someone from returning to the UK. My reading of the Bill is that the excluded person will have the ability to come back fairly quickly by arranging a “permit to return” with the Home Secretary.
- Some changes to Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs), retention of internet data, legislation of “Authority-to-carry schemes”, and prohibition of payment of terrorist ransoms.
- A general duty on specified authorities to prevent people being drawn into terrorism. I hope that when the Home Secretary issues guidance if the Bill is passed she will adopt my suggestion from 2013 of publishing a Government register of hate preachers.
- Support for people vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism.
Reactions to the Bill
Liberty (an organisation of which I have been a member for many years) produced a 34 page briefing for the second reading, pointing out the many concerns that they have with the details of the legislation. Such detailed critical scrutiny is entirely appropriate, and one of the reasons I support Liberty.
On social media, I saw many critical comments from British Muslims and next to nothing favourable apart from a cautious welcome (the right tone in my view) from the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam. I decided to audit my memory while writing this piece. Few Muslim organisations appear to have commented on the Bill, apart from the Islamic Human Rights Commission which was very critical. The Muslim Council of Britain appears not to have taken any public position. The “vox pop” comments in this AFP story are consistent with the negative reactions I recall from social media.
Reading the Bill led me to reflect on why my reaction to it is so different from those other Muslims whom I encounter complaining about it.
Radically different views of Britain
The fundamental issue is how one sees our country and our society. The simplest way to illustrate this is to write down some propositions that I regard to be obvious:
- It is the Government’s duty to protect all of its citizens, including Muslims, from harm, and it seeks to do so.
- The Government values equally all of Britain’s citizens, including those born overseas or descended from immigrants, irrespective of their religion.
- Apart from those limited legal consequences that follow from the establishment of the Church of England, the Government has no agenda to prefer some religions over others.
- There is no Government vendetta against Islam or Muslims.
- Radicalisation is a real process, whereby either slowly or quickly law-abiding Muslim citizens are led astray to want to commit acts of terrorism either in the UK or overseas. (I am well aware that non-Muslims are also terrorists but the focus of this piece is the threat we face from those attracted by ISIL.)
In my view, there are large numbers of successful well-integrated British Muslims who agree with the above propositions. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons they are rarely heard on social media or in the press. One practical factor is that they are busy getting on with their careers; when at PwC I had very limited time for writing pieces such as this one.
Unfortunately there are also many British Muslims who dissent from some, and in extreme cases, all, of the above propositions. Furthermore, by dint of loud repetition their narrative risks being accepted as true by many of those who have not yet formed a view of their own.
There are of course other issues where views are almost as polarised. For example, I support Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms to the benefits system because I see them as being primarily driven by the desire to help people by saving them from a life on benefits. However, many left-wing campaigners see the reforms as deliberate measures to further impoverish the poor to provide tax cuts for the rich.
What the Government needs to do
You cannot persuade people of the truth of propositions such as those above by just saying them once. However. it does help to say them repeatedly, since eventually people start to hear them.
More fundamentally, you persuade people by doing things, and then telling them what you have done. Our Government actually has an excellent track record of demonstrating that it treats Muslims as equal citizens, including for example:
- David Cameron’s robust stance on the right to practice halal (and kosher) slaughter.
- The plan to introduce Shariah compliant student loans and business start-up loans.
- The UK being the first non-Muslim majority country to issue a sukuk.
- The establishment of Muslim free schools.
However, I believe we do not do enough to tell people, repeatedly, what we have done and this allows negative narratives of the type which concern me to proliferate.