Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 19: Tackling Terrorism: A Liberal Democrat Approach

In this chapter, Nick Clegg
"seeks to move beyond the infantile stand-off between those who see terrorism as an expression of multiple grievances and those who regard any engagement with extremists as a form of appeasement, towards a policy of 'critical enagement'."

In a nutshell he nails the two wrong positions between which this debate is typically polarised. While grievances make good recruiting sargeants, this is about ideology - we face terrorist threats from those who reject democracy, human rights, gender equality, the non-violent contest of ideas, constrained government, the liberating potential of science and the separation of church and state. While some on the left would like to blame it all on the USA, I will suspect that they are not too committed to these values themselves. The right (eg Melanie Phillips), often happier to recognise the ideological angle are shown no mercy:
"But winning an ideological battle is not possible if the battle is not joined in the first place. That is why it is so curious that those who have rightly sought to delineate the nature of the ideological threat have then advocated a highly introverted strategy in which the sole purpose of public policy appears to be to ignore, exclude and ostracise those individuals and organisations who might provide some insight into the threat we face."

So, we should assert liberal values and not lapse into relativism. Liberalism is what the terrorists are trying to destroy: belligerent political rhetoric and 90 days detention in Siberia, are short cuts to giving them victory on a plate.

And here is the challenge:
"how to divorce the widespread grievances of large numbers of large numbers of British Muslims from the activities of Islamist extremists, in order that the former can actively help to expose and defeat the latter"

Some key elements to our response to this challenge are laid out. We must engage with specific communities, not "the Muslim community" which does not exist as a single entity.

We must engage with 'fence-sitters', and listen to their grievances.

"An unholy alliance of Tony Blair's stubborn refusal to admit any errors in his decision to invade Iraq, and the breathless accusation of appeasement bandied about by hardline commentators against anyone prepared to acknowledge ommunity grievances, has led to a self-defeating defensiveness in government. Instead, a self-confident government should have the strength of purpose to listen, and where justified, refute the ... grievances of many mainstream Muslim communitites."

And we should recognise the divisions, typically generational, within some Muslim communities: that young men in particular are most at risk of radicalisation, and we might look for ways we could help community leaders (and parents?) deal with this challenge. This is perhaps my only question mark on the whole chapter - I am a little wary of deference to community leaders, it seems to deny the huge diversity of views within any community, and may reinforce a position of authority that might not be popular or deserved. But it would have been a digression for Nick to have gone into this.

These three themes, and another three I didn't mention "are by no means exhaustive". But they add flesh to the policy of critical engagement, indispensable to starving extremists of the support of their non-violent neighbours.

Nick goes on to talk about more structural issues, MI5, MI6, the police, an integrated border force and securing the ports. All good stuff we should be familiar with. And finally, under the heading of legal reform, rather than ever more draconian detention without charge, Nick advocates reforms to give us an effective process without abandoning judicial oversight. The threshold test allows a suspect to be charged in the expectation of further evidence coming to light. Post-charge questioning would remove one of the obstacles to charges being brought early. Admission of telephone intercept evidence would bring us into line with almost the rest of the world. None of these are simple quick fixes; each must be done with care. But they show that there is scope for increasing the effectiveness of the fight without trampling on liberty.
"In the past the government has appeared to hasty in side-stepping due process in a rush to meet the terror threat, whilst overlooking a host of practical reforms... As the national debate on terrorism matures, our aim should remain steadfast and simple: to protect both our lives and our liberties"

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