Friday 7 October 2011

‘I wish the government would stop trying so hard to make my life safer’

Understanding Extremism: What are the real dangers? , Frontline Club, London, 14 September 2011

With the passing of the anniversary of World Trade Center attacks, and the ten years of self-reflection over the ‘9/11 decade’, the war Frontline Club hosted a roundtable discussion asking ‘Understanding Extremism: What are the real dangers?’. The debate included a wide range of issues relating to both Islamist and far-right terrorism and extremism. Nevertheless, the main focus appeared to be on the actual threat of terrorism, how terrorism and its ideologies are promoted, and how they can be combated.

On the question of the actual risk of terrorism, the panel appeared to be in agreement on the rather sensible conclusion that terrorism is not a particularly big threat to our everyday lives. As one panellist pointed out, less than 60 people have been killed in the UK by terrorists in the past 10 years. It is also worth noting that statistically residents of the United Kingdom were actually more likely to be harmed by terrorist attacks in the decade prior to 9/11.

On the supposed related issue of the number of people under the influence of ‘extremist ideologies’, the some of the speakers seemed to feel there was a bigger problem. Ghaffar Hussein of the anti-radical Islam organisation the Quilliam Foundation went as far as to say that according to school teachers he spoke to in Stoke-on-Trent, a majority of children in the area either sympathised with Islamist ideas or held far right nationalist views.

It has been pointed out elsewhere by Bill Durodie that although, when surveyed, 7% of Muslims said they ‘admire organisations like Al-Qaeda that are prepared to fight against the West’, when the same questions were asked to the general population, 3% of Britain 6 0million population said yes, which is much higher than the 7% of 2 million Muslims in Britain. Therefore it seems that any sort of rise in radical Islamist sympathy is probably more to do with youthful posturing and bravado. Furthermore, such views don’t translate into acts of mass murder automatically. If they did, the terror death toll from terrorism would be much higher, considering, as panellist Dr Mathew Feldman pointed out, all you need to create a high powered bomb is ‘a credit card and a modem’.

Concerning the alleged prevalence of far-right nationalist views, you need to look no further than the collapse of the British Nationalist Party’s vote recently, and the relativly small turnout of a couple thousand in Luton for the English Defence League’s homecoming protest earlier this year.

Politicians have eagerly drummed up the risk of terrorism and extremism for their own benefit. In an age of non-politics, and lack of any real vision about how society should be ,politicians have positioned themselves in a comfortable role of being ‘anti-extremist’ and ‘anti-hate’, whether of the radical Islamist or far-right variety. Failing to appeal to voters with traditional ideologies and visions of a better world, ‘combating extremism’ and ‘not being the BNP’ is the new pledge to voters.

The discussion soon moved onto the role the internet in drawing young people to Jihad or far right ideas. Hugo MacPherson, from the ‘anti-extremist’ MPower Youth Project claimed that the internet, with its assortment of Jihadist sites, played a large role in drawing people into Islamism. Much of the panel were in agreement on the importance of the internet, with Dr Feldman advocating an international ‘Internet Treaty’, a euphemism for giving governments the green light to shut down the free flow of information the internet has allowed. Such a view assumes people are docile idiots, easily indoctrinated by the slick propaganda of Islamists. Hussein took a more liberal view, stressing the need for the internet to provide ‘counter-narratives’ to combat the ideas of Jihad and Political Islamism.

Radical Islamist ideas’ recent albeit limited rise can be pinned down due to the ideas of multiculturalism, which has encouraged people to see each other as distinct communities with a fossilised identity. As Kenan Malik argues, multicultural politics abandoned appealing to Muslims on an individual basis, seeking to engage them instead on a ‘community basis’, with the legitimate representatives of the ‘Muslim community’ being the traditionalist, stuffy and conservative organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain. As a result many young Muslims have found themselves stuck between this fossilised identity and a wider secular society that views them as distinctly different. Out of this, the opportunity for a more radical and ‘revolutionary’ identity, Radical Islamism, can grow.

It is also striking how many of the ideas of radical Islamism, outside of the grand talk of a Caliphate, mirrors much of the self-loathing and misanthropic ideas in the West. For all the recent hysteria of Daily Mail articles leading to the rise of right wing extremism, the whole spectrum of the British press can fit in with the ideas of Islamism. This can been seen in bin Laden’s Guardian-style scorn at George Bush for not signing the Kyoto Protocols, or the view shared by both Islamists and sections of the right wing that Britain is morally degenerate society, full of drunken ‘louts and slags’.

The roundtable discussion ended with a reiteration that the threat of terrorism is greatly exaggerated, even if some members of the panel felt the prevalence of so called extremist politics was an issue.  The panel failed to address the real reasons for the rise in Islamism, however their contributions were informative. Although the issue of civil liberties itself was not discussed much, Dr Christina Hellmich ended with the perfect quote: ‘I wish the government would stop trying so hard to make my life safer’.

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