COUNTER-TERROR STRATEGY – 25 June 2008

Dr Julian Lewis: By a happy process of self-selection, the three elements of any successful counter-terrorism strategy have been encapsulated by the first three speakers – the deep-thinking intellectual, the counter-terrorist soldier and the counter-subversion propagandist.

 

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr Vernon Coaker): Who’s who?

 

Dr Lewis: Wait for it! My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Paul Goodman) is the deep-thinking intellectual, my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Ben Wallace) is the counter-terrorist soldier and I have the much humbler and more disreputable role of counter-subversion propagandist. However, I am happy to follow on from the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre, who said that there are plenty of similarities between the current threat and former threats – that is the main theme that I shall develop.

Listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe – I am tempted to call him my hon. and learned Friend, even though he is not a barrister – I had a welcome sense of déjà vu when he spoke about the background to and the depth of concern in the Muslim community about the radicalisation process. I had that sense of déjà vu because I was reminded of probably the most intelligent academic I have ever met – a lady called Dr Françoise Thom, who is a senior lecturer at the Sorbonne. In the days of the Soviet Union, she was a very prominent Sovietologist, and it was a real pleasure to listen to her talking about Marxism and debating communism with Marxists and communists, because she knew far more about the doctrines than the militants who professed to follow them. The same might well apply to my hon. Friend.

I put this proposal to the House: the battleground with which we are concerned is the community, the technique used by our enemies is ju-jitsu and the currency of the conflict is ideology. I want to say a word or two about each of those strands. First, the message that the battleground is the community came through loud and clear in the first two speeches. In this conflict, we have the same situation as we had in previous conflicts with militants – namely, in a given community where an attempt is being made to stir up subversion or even insurgency, there is a militant minority and a moderate majority. If we ever reach the point of thinking that we do not have a moderate majority in the Muslim community in this country, we have already lost the battle.

I am sometimes rather worried by some of the messages that we get from people who are well qualified to talk about the issues because they have lived them. In particular, I recall a meeting in the House at which a very brave lady called Ayaan Hirsi Ali addressed MPs who were interested in the subject on her experiences with Islam. Of course, after all that she has suffered – she was persecuted and received death threats in the Netherlands, where she spent much of her life, although she now leads an existence that she well deserves in the relative safety of the United States – it is not surprising that she takes a very jaundiced view of the religion into which she was born.

Nevertheless, I was seriously worried by Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s main message, which seemed to be that the logical consequence of being a Muslim is to be a fundamentalist extremist. I do not accept that any more than I accept that the logical consequence of being Jewish or a Christian is to be a violent extremist. Yet we need only roll back time a few hundred years to see “Christians” burning heretics at the stake, usually because of some relatively obscure doctrinal difference of interpretation of the religion of the day. I believe that there are continuities here, which we ignore at our peril. The main continuity is that this is a classic case of fanatics and militants trying to hijack moderate majorities.

I ask those who are old enough to cast their mind back and remember what they read about the Third Reich and what some of us, at any rate, experienced during the cold war. Essentially, there is a continuity: Nazism was about the superiority of one race, Marxism and communism were about the superiority of one class, and what is called Islamism – I shall address that terminology in a moment – is about the superiority of one religion. Essentially, however, they have one thing in common, which is that the fanatic at the top of those respective movements possessed the one holy grail and the one true doctrine, and that anybody who stands against that, or even criticises it, deserves to be exterminated without mercy.

That continuity has traditionally been met by mobilising the silent majority – an overworked, but nevertheless accurate term – against the militant minority to isolate those people from the majority and so that they can be spat out and neutralised.

I said that the technique – the second strand – is ju-jitsu. The militant minority use that technique to try to polarise as much of the majority on its side as possible, so that when the minority does outrageous things, it does so not only to hurt the wider non-Muslim community, but to try to make that community hate the Muslim community. We fall into that very trap when we overreact to militant outrages by taking it out on the moderate majority and the people in the Muslim community who have nothing to do with those outrages.

How many members are there of the Muslim community in the United Kingdom today? At the very least, there are 1.6 million – that is the figure that I often hear, and it may well be larger – yet the number who have been engaged in outrages, either carried out or all those that have been frustrated, on which we congratulate the police and the security services, is a small fraction of 1 percent of the community. If that statistic does not suggest that engaging in outrages is in part a desperate attempt to try to make us overreact against the moderate majority, thus making those people feel more resentful and therefore more vulnerable to recruitment, I do not know what does.

The third strand – the currency – is ideology. Indeed, the battleground on which the day must be won has to be a counter-ideological offensive, which is where the work of the counter-propagandist comes in. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe referred to some of the organisations that are beginning to speak out, at last, in favour of moderate interpretations of the Muslim faith, showing that those people who seek to promote what is called violent extremism are distorting that faith.

There is nothing so valuable in an ideological struggle as people from the target community speaking out against and denouncing, from their direct knowledge of the issues at stake, the misinterpretations by the militants. Who was more effective against communism than the disillusioned Marxists who broke with it and realised its fundamental evil? I pay tribute to those people who were involved in militant so-called Islamic or Islamist groups but who have turned against them.

One aspect of fighting that battle is that we have to be very careful and, indeed, selective about the language that we use to describe it. I sometimes give as an example the attempt that has been made to distinguish between Islamic and Islamist ideology. It is a worthy attempt to try to draw a distinction and say: “When we are talking about Islamism or Islamist extremism, we are not really getting at you, the moderate majority of Islamic Muslim people.” Frankly, that is to make a distinction without a difference. Instead, I ask people to think of the following imaginary parallel.

Let us turn the clock back to when there was an upsurge of terrorism in Palestine directed against the British Army by organisations such as the Stern gang. If the Government of the day had made a great effort to denounce what they called “Jewish terrorism”, referring to those attacks on British servicemen in Palestine, which was still under mandate, members of the Jewish community in Britain would have felt somewhat defensive, even though they almost overwhelmingly did not support the attacks on UK servicemen.

Would it have made much difference if the Government of the day had said: “Okay, we’ll take care of this by calling it not Jewish extremism or Jewish militancy or Jewish violence, but Jewist violence”? It would not have been terribly reassuring to the Jewish community in Britain in those days or in that context. Similarly, it is not terribly reassuring to the moderate Muslim community in Britain today to be told that the issue is all about Islamism or Islamist extremism.

I have suggested that we should put our mouth, as it were, where our belief is. Our belief is that such extremism is a distortion and a misinterpretation of the Muslim faith, and indeed, if it is, we ought to say so in the way that we describe it. I believe that the correct way to describe what is going on is un-Islamic extremism. I have suggested that in the past, and I have been quite gratified to see some of the reactions on the internet from various Muslim organisations. They can see that to call something un-Islamic, if that something is being done in an attempt to hijack the Muslim religion, is not in any way insulting to the moderate majority.

We are concerned about preventing an appeal from an extreme interpretation, or misinterpretation, of a great religion from going out to individuals who can be recruited, and who do not need to be recruited in anything other than small numbers, to carry out violent atrocities in this country in the hope of polarising the non-Muslim and Muslim communities.

One feature of the people who are recruited is that often they have terrifically low self-esteem and have made a mess of their lives. They are then targeted and given a purpose, a role to follow and a belief that, having been the dregs of society, the outcasts, the criminals or the drug takers, they can suddenly become holy warriors and experience a form of redemption by carrying out some act in the name of something larger than themselves. Totalitarians have played off the vulnerabilities of people with low self-esteem for generations. They did it as Nazis, they did it as communists and now they are doing it as un-Islamic extremists.

One role of the counter-propaganda campaign that we need to promote is setting out positive role models for Muslims in our society. We should be proud of the role that Muslims play in our society and make it absolutely clear that when moderate Muslims wish to stand up against militants, they will have the support of the entire spectrum of British society in that all-important struggle.