To fight for justice is Islamic; to protect the persecuted is Islamic; to demand freedom and dignity for fellow Muslims is Islamic. To do so with indiscriminate and unlawful violence against fellow Brits is terrorism.
One strand of CONTEST is Prevent, with the stated aim ‘to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism’. It was supposed to be the helpful ‘upstream’ intervention and yet it’s managed to perturb the most people. It was committed to tackling terrorism by tackling the causes of terrorism. And yet now, a decade on, it is considered by a whole coalition of academics, lawyers, politicians, police officers and others to be not just ineffective but indeed counterproductive. Described as a policy ‘to be remembered as a textbook example of how to alienate absolutely everybody’, a policy designed to spot terrorists and stop terrorism has become a policy which has put on ice genuine policy work to understand the varied and complex causes of terrorism.
Since 7/7 in the UK, as had happened after 9/11 in the US, discussions around the ‘root causes’ of terrorism became too difficult an area for policy-makers. We moved to the how of terrorism without sufficiently understanding the why.
It's ideology, stupid
I accept that a terrorist attack like 7/7 played out in the glare of a twenty-four-hour international media circus triggered a political need to find a quick and easy answer to what makes a terrorist. But it is at times when our nation faces the greatest threat that we need our politicians to raise their game. The right answer was a considered and measured response, but the easy answer was a quick answer: we reached for ideology, the ideology of Islamism. Islamism became a quick, catch-all term, a reason that could encompass and explain radicalization in all its formats and manifestations, a term that would inform our thinking on how to spot a potential terrorist, a term that is now used in counter-terrorism policy-making across the world.
And yet despite all the academic studies, research and evidence , including testimonies of returning jihadis and ex-extremists, we still insist, ‘It’s ideology, stupid’ and continue making policy based on a premise that is simply flawed. If it blatantly isn’t ‘all ideology, stupid’, it’s stupid of us to keep saying it is.
If the analysis of the problem is neither comprehensive nor accurate, the solution will inevitably fail. This is dangerous territory, because the longer we fail to understand or acknowledge the root causes of terrorism, the longer we will simply deal with the symptoms, not the disease. The longer we fail to do the painstaking work of understanding what makes a terrorist, the longer we leave ourselves vulnerable to terrorism. And unfortunately the Coalition government of which I was a part from 2010 to 2015 made things a whole lot worse.