Bourbon France had its lettres de cachet; the Soviet Union the state secrets law, whose contents were themselves secret. Faced with Uighur terrorists, Chinese authorities prefer to deny them the oxygen of publicity than scrub the crime scene to take the time to do forensic analysis that might identify the culprits.
These responses have one thing in common: secrecy, for reasons of state. It is the spooks’ preferred way to do business, and its success was limited.
Last week, it emerged that Britain is undertaking a secret counter-terrorism trial. The identities of the defendants, and the charges of which they are accused have been concealed. We are told it is for reasons of security. The Justice Secretary asks us to trust the judges. The British Judiciary is not bad, as institutions go, but it’s hardly perfect, and Chris Grayling certainly doesn’t think it so. The police and crown prosecution service do not, as Andrew Mitchell and Nigel Evans will surely attest, boast a blameless record. Policemen and prosecutors – and judges in courts of state security – are as John Locke said of monarchs, “but men.” If our attitude should be one of trust, its prudent to add Reagan’s rider “but verify.”
Secret courts raise the question: why are we fighting these terrorists? Do we object only to their methods or also to their ends?
In a parliamentary democracy such as our own, security officials’ role is limited to foiling their methods. They are employed to intercept plots, collect intelligence on terrorist organizations and supply the evidence for the police to press charges.
Extremists’ aims are a matter for all of us. What is the terrorists’ programme? Should it be accommodated as, say, the Mau Mau’s eventually was, or confronted, as was the Red Army Faction? Are the terrorists isolated, or do they have sympathisers whose ideas are as repellent, but who limit themselves to peaceful means? These are difficult and controversial questions, made more difficult on this occasion by the need to understand a vast amount of unfamiliar Islamist political philosophy expressed in Islamic religious jargon that westerners, educated in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, find difficult. The Conservative cabinet member who has worked hardest to understand this ideology is Michael Gove.
Even if his Celsius 7/7, with which I helped Mr Gove, is not the end of Tory inquiry into the matter, it is the right kind of contribution. It tries to understand what the Islamist programme is, and develop a political reply. It supplied a vital dimension that the last government’s counter-terrorism policy largely ignored, and this dimension was reinforced by the work of Baroness Neville Jones. It crystallised in the Prime Minister’s address to the Munich Security Conference in 2011, which Theresa May defended robustly in the House of Commons yesterday.
There are some who appear to believe that Islamists are motivated by immediate political grievances – that all they want is an end to drone strikes, restore the Morsi government in Egypt and establish a Palestinian state. We shall hear from them as the various reports into the “Trojan Horse” affair are published. They are simply wrong, and do even the Islamists with which they attempt to sympathise an injustice.
Charles Farr – it is unfair to cast him as synecdoche for a view well established in the security community – is not one of those people. The view attributed to him is broadly shared by elements of the security community. This “Vauxhall View” is the altogether more tough-minded position that the more extreme, and violent, extremists can be drawn off by promoting their slightly less extreme fellow travellers. It is not so much beating the crocodiles back from the boat, as diverting them by throwing sheep into the muddy water.
This is a proper and patriotic position for a security official to take. Their role is to focus on the application of the means at the state’s disposal to the security aspects of the problem. It is considerably cheaper and in the short term possibly less dangerous than draining the swamps. Yet whether or not the swamp should be drained is a matter for the elected government. Farr and his colleagues are doing their job in providing a narrower alternative, but it is Cabinet’s, Parliament’s and ultimately the public’s job to decide whether to adopt it.
If promoting less people who have “credibility” with the terrorists means that young Muslims are indoctrinated into a fanatical and intolerant version of their faith; that the majority of moderate British Muslims are traduced when extremism is presented as moderation; that girls are told they are inferior or that evolution is false; that gay Muslims struggle to reconcile their faith and their sexuality; that Muslims in mixed marriages are shunned, or that ex-Muslims who’ve renounced the faith are subject to intimidation, we need to ask whether the Government is sacrificing them for short term security. Is there an alternative: confronting Islamist political ideas, and defending those of liberal parliamentary democracy, that we should pursue instead?
The problem with Islamism, violent or not, is that it is hostile to a free society. In Britain this may be understood through the tradition of parliamentary democracy under the rule of law, but it’s hardly exclusive to these islands. This is its local style: the Germans, French and Tunisians do it, but a little differently. Iranians would, too, if they could overthrow their theocratic police state.
The reason we should oppose Islamism is the same reason that Tunisians or Iranians do. It is because it against liberty, the equality of men and women, and tolerance for all religions and none. This means that we have to choose our counter-terrorism methods wisely.
Not a few Muslims will worry that they are being targeted: told that their existence is incompatible with a “Western civilization” that is defined to exclude them and which they fear believes that “conditions for Muslims should be made harder across the board” or demands, as a crowd addressed by Dutch populist Geert Wilders, cried, that there should be “fewer, fewer” of them here.
As it takes action over schools in Birmingham, the government needs to make sure that its central principle is to promote parliamentary democracy in a diverse society. Those values – including liberty; equality of men and women; religion, for those who profess one, as a way of informing values, not a blueprint for a political programme – are embraced by people from the enormous variety of cultures that we are blessed to have attracted to our shores.
The Vauxhall View leaves them subjected to hardline “community leaders” to give the rest of us a quiet life. Like conducting trials through secret courts, it’s ignoble and counterproductive. As Eisenhower said of McCarthyism, it destroys “what we are attempting to defend.”