A British Lesson in Combatting Terrorism
Learning lessons is always hard – especially when you’re in a higher position of power than everyone else. Paradoxically, its usually those in power that are in need of learning from the lessons of the past, more than anyone else – because if they repeat those mistakes, it creates far more impact than if anyone else does. You can learn lessons from your friends, or from those you perceive as your enemies. But its abject stupidity if you just refuse to learn them. That’s why I see stupidity reigning with some of our American cousins that support these hearings being held by Congressman King (R-N.Y.), investigating the Muslim community of the United States.
We in the UK had one of the largest ‘home-grown’ attacks on our country from radicalized Muslims – the 7th of July bombings in London in 2005. I was asked to be deputy convenor of a government established taskforce on ‘tackling radicalization and extremism’ in its aftermath. I’ve counselled different parts of government on the issue ever since – both as an academic, as well as a policy expert. For six years, we in the UK have looked at the issue within our borders with a great deal of seriousness – from all sorts of angles, and experimenting with different approaches. It’s a pity that Rep. King did not want to learn from our experience in this regard – because if he had, then he might have learned something from America’s closest friend in the world.
Through several governments, a variety of research, and numerous attempts, we’ve learnt some key lessons through trial and error. The first is that in order to tackle the problem of radicalization, which does exist, you need to get the Muslim community on your side. They are the first line of defense; they are a key intellectual resource in a battle that depends greatly on getting the right knowledge to the right people at the right time; and they cannot be substituted with any other community. The second lesson is to realize that in turning the entire Muslim community into a security issue, you damage your counter-terrorism efforts in a massive way. This is something that our Deputy Prime Minister re-affirmed just in the last few weeks – that if you stigmatize a whole community on the basis of the issues associated with a few, you get more problems than solutions. The entire citizenry needs to treat this as their problem, and communities must be identified as partners in the solution – as opposed to being part of the problem. The third lesson is that if you conflate questions around social belonging and security, you’ll fail at increasing understanding of both. These are the lessons that we’ve learnt in the UK – and I would argue we have far more of a security problem than the US has with regards to home-grown attacks from radicalized, violent Muslims.
There are other lessons to be learnt in recent history – and that is when you have a part of a community that is intent on hurting others, the whole country needs to step up, and call to unity against any individuals or populations. I’ve been in Cairo since just before the uprising began, and I’ve remained here since. I’ve witnessed the tensions between Muslims and Christians erupt into violence in several cases over the past week, which has resulted in a church being attacked, and fighting between Egyptian citizens. The response of the country was unanimous, and I’m seeing it play out today, on the first Friday after this outbreak. Friday is now the day of prayer and protest in Egypt, every week – and they go hand in hand in here. The sermons across the mosques all over this country are calling to national unity, and are castigating any Muslim who might think that Islam permits for any action against the Christians of Egypt. The sermons are clear about their message: the Christians have as much right to be in Egypt as the Muslims, and they stand together against the forces of counter-revolution. And following the sermons of the Friday congregational prayer of the Muslims, Muslims and Christians are gathering in Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the revolution that saw Muslims and Christians protecting each other and standing over each other in prayer. And in that square, as all over Egypt, they are calling for the unity of the Muslims and the Christians in this country that knows that a better future is not one where they are divided – but where they stand firm against extremists from all quarters. This is why Egyptians and non-Egyptians alike are launching in the coming days a new initiative called ‘TahrirSquared.Net’, that aims to increase common civil society actions in Egypt and the region – wherever the Tahrir Square effect of joining hands against disunity and injustice has been multiplied.
It has not been multiplied in Rep. King’s hearings. It was multiplied in the ‘Today, I am a Muslim too’ rally that took place in New York city, on March 6th. I saw reports of that rally from Cairo, and I saw the same imperative there on my screen, as I saw in person in Tahrir Square. I saw the same human beauty in that rally, where people of different religions stood together out of a belief in their common humanity, that I saw in person in Tahrir Square.
We have serious problems in Egypt – we have serious problems in the UK – and we have serious problems in the US. Its important we face those problems, head-on, without allowing ourselves to become complacent – but to face those problems with any degree of seriousness, we have to face them together. Otherwise, we might as well admit defeat, and send out an official message to al-Qa’eda and their friends entitled “You’ve won.” Because that disunity is what they’ve been aiming to achieve all along. Egyptians, Britons and Americans have got a better message than that.
HA Hellyer is a Europe Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). He is also a Fellow of the University of Warwick and director of the Visionary Consultants Group.
This article was published by The Washington Post, On Faith on March 12, 2011.