Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

10 July 2007

Sir Alan West: Un-British Defence Of the British Way Of Life

On Sunday (8 July), Sir Alan West – Britain’s new security minister – went on record as saying that people in Britain needed to start behaving in an ‘un-British’ way and ‘snitch’ on people they suspect of involvement in terrorist activity: passing on information to the authorities about such people, who might be members of their own community or family, and who might expect not to be betrayed in this way.

No reasonable person could object to the proposition that there is an overriding moral duty to talk to the police about anyone whom one genuinely suspects of involvement in terrorism, no matter who they are. But does this constitute ‘snitching’? Could it not be seen as an act of loyalty to the people one reports on in this way, if they are part of one’s close circle of friends and family, in that one would be saving them from getting involved in criminality, and potentially from suicide?

The use of the word ‘snitching’ – admittedly employed deliberately by the minister to maximise the newsworthiness of his statement – is unfortunate in a number of ways. First, it plays into the general atmosphere of suspicion verging on paranoia towards Muslim communities, in that it feeds on an idea that these communities are full of actual or potential terrorist cells that are all busy hatching plots, which require ‘grasses’ on the inside to give them away. Clearly, one would expect the police and the security services to make use of informers in the fight against terrorism, as against any other form of crime. But the image implies that the minister is calling for something more extensive and extreme: that ordinary people in Muslim and non-Muslim communities, perhaps really everyone in mainstream society, should transform themselves into the eyes and ears of the security services. This puts me in mind of the Stasi in Communist former-East Germany, where reportedly one-quarter of the entire population were official informers. Under such circumstances, you would really have to be cautious about what you said or wrote in public about subjects such as terrorism and Islam in case someone took against you and reported you as a terrorist sympathiser.

Secondly, the minister’s remarks exemplify an important aspect of the government’s approach to the problem of extremism / proto-terrorism in Muslim communities: it attempts to drive a wedge between so-called moderates and so-called radicals in the effort to bully and enlist the moderates into becoming agents in the fight against extremism. But this approach is built on a false dichotomy between the two groups, which itself rests on a misunderstanding of the root (‘radical’) cause of terrorism. This in turn is a form of terror, which ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ Muslims share to some extent: the fear – which also verges in extremis on paranoia – that the West is embarked on a campaign to destroy Islam. By dividing Muslim communities – the Islamic ummah or fellowship – internally by encouraging the more ‘pro-Western’ elements to turn against the more ‘anti-Western’ groups, would an approach such as that advocated by Sir Alan West not actually increase the resentment and paranoia felt by the ‘radicals’, while reducing the influence the ‘moderates’ could exercise over them, as the trust between them would have broken down?

And there’s another irony in the whole scenario set up by Sir Alan’s use of the ‘snitch’ word – and no, I’m not talking about Harry Potter! The minister is inviting members of the Muslim community, who are precisely the kind of people we’re supposed to want to integrate with British society (i.e. who are to some extent un-British) to start behaving in an even more un-British way (which is also framed as being ‘un-Islamic’) in defence of the British way of life! In this way, the best defenders of Britishness are the un-British Muslims who betray their even more un-British Muslim brothers. As if to say that we all have to be more like the Muslims and the terrorists to defeat them: more intolerant and repressive, more furtive and treacherous – more un-British indeed.

Sir Alan West’s whole premise is that the British way of life is under severe threat from ‘radical Islamist’ terrorists who want to change it. (I won’t now get into a discussion of what might be meant by that phrase; suffice it to say that the whole terminology that is used to describe who the terrorists are and what they believe in is a total mess and needs a hefty dose of (British) rational clarity injected into it!) Yet in the same breath, the minister says – and these are his actual words, if not arranged verbatim in the exact sequence he used – that we’ll all need to change our way of life in order to deal with the threat. But if we do that, doesn’t that mean that the terrorists have won: that they’ve actually succeeded in changing our way of life; turning us into a less open, tolerant society; and putting us into a permanent state of fear, which is in essence the whole purpose of terrorist activity – to provoke fear and to prompt the society it is attacking into acting violently and repressively out of fear, so stoking up the conflict and resentments which fuel the terrorist effort, and allowing the terrorists to make a credible claim that they are really waging a war?

Because this is basically what Sir Alan West’s language implies: that he wants Britain to go onto a permanent war footing and to believe that, and start acting as if, it is facing as severe a threat to its way of life as it did in the Second World War or at the height of the Cold War. The rhetoric of the War On Terror may have disappeared; but the underlying thinking is the same.

But does terrorism really pose the same level of threat to the British and Western way of life as did Nazism or Soviet Communism? While not wanting to underplay the seriousness of the specific terrorist plots that the police and security services are working so hard to foil, and have indeed succeeded in doing so on a number of occasions, how many people really believe that we have already entered into an all-out war with Islamism upon which the whole future of our way of life depends? Look around you; do you see a nation at war? What you see is a nation that is still intent on living the life that Sir Alan wants us all to renounce in favour of a sort of total war against the terror that lurks round the next corner – the enemy within our communities.

Who’s to say that the nightmare vision of a Britain laid waste by a series of utterly devastating terrorist attacks could never happen? I personally was sceptical about the warnings of imminent terrorist outrages ahead of the 7/7 bombings two years ago; and it seems from today’s news that I was wrong to suggest in my last blog entry that the 21/7 bombers might have deliberately bungled their attacks. But even if this nightmare came to pass, would that mean the ‘Islamists’ had succeeded in destroying the British spirit and British values, if by that is meant our love of freedom and respect for justice? Change our way of life, yes; such a scenario would inevitably bring about an impairment of our standard of living, new constraints to the way we lead our lives, and a great deal of life-changing suffering and pain. But would they change us, our commitment to democracy and our culture? Is it at all remotely conceivable – in the real world – that the ‘Islamists’ could impose Shariah law and Islamic faith on this nation; and, even if this one-in-a-zillion eventuality arose, would they succeed in altering our hearts and converting us into true believers?

Because there is a true war going on, and it is – as the political establishment so fondly likes to call it – a battle for hearts and minds. But the Islamists are never going to win that battle over us; nor are we going to win against them if we think we can overcome their commitment to the ideal of a world united under Islamic law through the sheer, British power of moderation and liberal reasonableness.

This war is indeed playing itself out in our hearts and minds, which are in danger of succumbing to a bunker mentality: nice, safe, moderate Britons and moderate Muslims on one side; and the vision of a radical-Islamic hell on earth on the other. But this is just a nightmare scenario, not the reality – not yet, and most likely not ever.

We have time – still – to prevent the nightmare from becoming a reality. But to do so, we must stop demonising the terrorist and start engaging with him as a human being. It’s when society dehumanises the enemies it fears that it itself becomes most like them: intolerant, hate-filled, un-British – united with the terrorist in the very fear that their world and culture is in peril.

8 July 2007

Are Suicide Bombings an Attack On ‘Our Values’?

At the time of the 7/7 bomb attacks, whose grim two-year anniversary was marked yesterday, it was said that these atrocities constituted an attack against ‘our values’ to which we had to show defiance. Similarly, during the recent wave of largely bungled bombings, the last of which – on Glasgow Airport – had a distinctly suicidal component, the terrorism that they exemplified was also characterised as an assault on our values.

Leaving aside for now the issue of what exactly ‘our values’ might be, are suicide bombings primarily intended to destroy them? Or, if that is indeed one of the avowed intentions of the suicide bomber, should we in a sense dignify that intention by building it up as a serious assault on our whole value system and way of life?

In our Western-centric way, we tend to forget that suicide bombings have become one of the tactics of choice in other conflicts: that between Israel and the Palestinians, and the de facto civil war between Muslims in Iraq, for instance. In these cases, the suicide bombing is not obviously intended as an attack on the values of the West per se, although it indirectly expresses opposition to Western policy and actions in the Middle East. Similarly, you could see the suicide assaults on targets in Western countries as intended, on one level, to make a political statement and achieve political objectives, albeit that this dimension does involve an element of opposition to Western values and ideology.

In this respect, the 9/11 and 7/7 incidents were extremely eloquent: in the former instance, an awe-inspiring assault on some of the most potent symbols of Western power and, in particular, the US superpower in the shape of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The fact that such a horrific action gave rise to so much jubilant celebration in many Muslim countries should not lead us to rush into condemnation of Islamic barbarism and blood-thirstiness but should – and perhaps was intended to – give us pause for thought about what the West collectively had done to give rise to such hatred and despair. Not that this exonerates the actions of terrorists. But it certainly made people sit up and start to pay attention to the problem, and in that respect, it was a powerful and successful act of communication.

Similarly, the 7/7 outrages could not have been timed for greater effect. The government, Tony Blair, the media and the official representatives of the city of London were all basking in the self-satisfied glow of Live8, the Gleneagles summit (and its promise to tackle global poverty) and the award of the 2012 Olympics to London the day before. The horror of 7/7 and its aftermath threw all of that into question, as if to say ‘enough with all your fine words; but this is the horror you’ve inflicted in Iraq and Palestine, and what are you going to do about it?’. This at least was one of the messages that seemed to come out of those attacks in the context in which they arose, even if the underlying thinking was twisted. The knee-jerk, indignant reaction to the bombings that they were an assault on ‘our values’ merely served to make us deaf to that message once again.

So what of the recent, mercifully ‘unsuccessful’, attacks? A new Scottish prime minister had just come into office without, as yet, any indication of a change in the policy on Britiish involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so an Iraqi doctor, working over here as part of our liberal, global, tolerant market society, attempts to carry out two massive bombings in London and one in Glasgow, Scotland – the first terror attack in that land. The political intention appears clear: to whip up public demands and personal pressure on GB [Gordon Brown] for a British withdrawal from those two countries. This is more the message from these failed attacks than that they are an assault on our values per se, although the ideological motivation is undeniably also present.

And by the way, isn’t it rather uncanny that London seems to have experienced more than its ‘fair share’ of bungled bombings: the supposedly attempted bombings of 21/7 and now these latest episodes? The 21/7 would-be bombers have claimed that they didn’t actually intend for their bombs to work, that they were just trying to wreak terror without the carnage – achieving the desired communication impact of terrorism minus the bloodshed; martyrdom for the cause without the ultimate martyrdom of death. Is it possible that the latest attacks were also not fully followed through for the same purpose: to provide a warning of what could happen if British policy didn’t change, rather than actually provoking a further wave of support for the British military presence in those countries, which might well have happened had the bombs gone off? Perhaps we should take it as a warning even if it wasn’t actually intended as such.

Ultimately, I’m speculating about the intentions of the suicide bombers, failed or successful. But we need to pay more attention to the message that these incidents are conveying if we really want to do everything to avoid a repetition, and one which this time could have massively deadly effects. The terrorists are wrong in their assumption that their actions can sway the policy decisions of Western governments, i.e. that policies will be amended in direct response to the threat that terrorism poses. However, they are correct in thinking that their attacks have a huge impact on our hearts and minds. The extremely cleverly conceived and executed attacks of 9/11; the brilliantly timed and co-ordinated bombings of 7/7; and the possibly calculated botched attacks of 21/7 and last week speak powerfully to our emotions and our imaginations. And this is perhaps the only language the terrorist feels is left to the people in whose name he misguidedly carries out his atrocities.

It shouldn’t have to take shared suffering and a common experience of suicide bombings to that of the Palestinian and Iraqi people for us to show compassion towards them and listen to their despair. We may not believe that we are directly responsible for the suffering in those lands; but we do have a duty and the opportunity to do something about it.

If only for own protection.

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