For all its reputation on international security, Britain is failing in one important task: protecting itself from jihadi terror. Make no mistake, the terrorist attack in Manchester this week, which has claimed 22 lives so far, will have long-lasting impact. Parents can tolerate a lot but they won’t tolerate terrorists targeting their young daughters.
What the country needs now is an important debate on how to improve domestic security. Instead it will likely get a series of shouting matches on TV in which each side will accuse the others of siding with terrorists.
The problems are manifold: the government’s counter-terrorism policy is in tatters and barely works; the opposition parties are incapable of holding them to account; and British Muslim organisations are unwilling to provide the leadership their communities need.
Let’s be blunt about this. Successful counter-terrorism needs the police to have the confidence of people closest to potential terrorists. But this is exactly where Britain is failing. We could offer a good example to the world at a time it seems to be close to going up in flames. Instead we are just thankful we are not as incompetent as the French.
The Conservative government deserves much of the blame. It’s approach to counter-terrorism has been contradictory, confusing and more interested in scoring political points than getting the job done. Ministers have been known to accuse people ‘supporting terrorism’ without evidence, have alienated potential allies and ignored the very Muslim groups willing to work with them. In some cases Muslims have been unfairly targeted for completely innocent actions, making it easy for their critics to paint the whole operation as anti-Muslim.
Complicating this has been a concerted campaign by some Muslim activist groups to paint all government work as driven by Islamophobia, and smear any Muslims working with them. Hardly anyone wants to admit that the surveillance of extremists is needed, nor that hate-preachers are still active at some mosques. The self-appointed ‘community leaders’ have AWOL, the big organisations merely offer platitudes.
The fix for Britain’s woes is the same for countries everywhere. The government needs a straightforward and non-political approach to counter-terrorism that works with ordinary Muslims against extremists. (This already happens to some degree – the Manchester bomber was also reported to authorities for his extreme views by friends). It has to take a hardline against Muslim hate-preachers, but also the far-right extremists who are whipping up racism against minorities. This isn’t special favours, this is equal treatment.
Muslim organisations too have to take responsibility and challenge those who solely want to poison government relations. They have to take on the hardliners who say blasphemers must die and preach hatred against other minorities. They have to work with the government to improve counter-terrorism efforts. Most victims of ISIS are Muslims. As the British Muslim Women’s Network wrote this week, “doing nothing is not an option.”
But what really poisons the well in the UK’s counter-terror efforts is the hysterical attitude of its right-wing press. In our social media world the more extreme and simplistic you are, the more notice you get. A click-hungry industry automatically rewards people who get the most attention. Popular conversation in Britain now resembles a snake pit more than a debating society.
Every time the subject comes to counter-terrorism the government immediately diverts attention by calling for more surveillance. The news media duly follows its lead. So while the government has cut funding for traditional policing and grassroots work on one hand, it has turned Britain into the most watched country in the world. None of this has made the country safer.
Once the dust settles, angry British parents will demand to know how the government can prevent more such terrorism. But if the media and political establishment’s past history is anything to go by, nothing will change anytime soon. If other countries can’t learn from its example then they should learn from its mistakes.
Sunny Hundal is a writer and lecturer on digital journalism based in London