Saturday, 30 August 2014

This government has tacitly acknowledged its failure on anti-extremism. But Labour should examine its own conscience

Last week in Iraq, American journalist James Foley was murdered by Islamic State.

He was murdered savagely and painfully, and he was not even murdered in supposed punishment for a crime; it was merely to send a message to the West. If that were not enough, they then put a video of the whole killing on YouTube.

It is difficult to find words for the psychotic nature of both the killer and the twisted ideology which drove him, not just to kill, but to kill a quite innocent victim in such a way.

Above all, we should be disturbed to know that the perpetrator, from his accent, is thought to be almost certainly British.

How did we end up here? It is dispiriting enough that you can grow your own terrorists to bomb you, as happened in the London bombings of 2005. But to export your terrorists is, well, a bit careless.

Britain of all countries, it seems, is becoming the place where extremists can feel most at home, or even come here with the express intent of becoming radicalised. As Haras Rafiq of the anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation, wrote yesterday, “London and the UK has been primed for this for decades”.

What is certain is that the government’s blasé approach to anti-extremism and anti-terrorism has not helped, as I wrote here two years ago. On coming to power, and egged on by Lib Dems with an interest in civil liberties sometimes bordering on obsession, the Tories largely dismissed the Labour’s rather effective Prevent anti-extremism programme, reducing its funding from £18m to £1m. As Rafiq puts it:
“When our Prime Minister says that his Government is going to redouble the efforts to stop youngsters being radicalised – the redoubling of zero still equals zero.”
It also reduced detention periods for terrorist suspects, something which Theresa May later fudged. And finally yesterday, she pretty much announced a massive U-turn on everything that had gone before.

So, bizarrely, a right-wing, Tory-led coalition had attacked and repealed Labour’s policies – from the left – and no-one batted an eyelid. And it’s not as if evidence wasn’t there that the system was ineffective: we might recall the deportation battles of extremist preachers Raed Salah (who successfully appealed) and Abu Qatada (deported only after an eight-year fight), hardly examples of a watertight anti-extremism law in action.

So, we can happily slate the coalition for their woefully inadequate response to extremism. Good.

But now we come to Labour. It is true that in 2008, Gordon Brown’s government largely failed in toughening up Britain’s detention laws. Jacqui Smith’s plan may have ultimately failed and opinions differed widely as to its efficacy as a policy, but at least she was trying to deal with the issue.

The same cannot be said for many MPs, unions and the party’s rank and file, who breathed a collective sigh of relief. It was all felt to be, well, a bit too right-wing for Labour.

And better forgotten altogether are the numerous incidents of back-bench MPs “engaging” with hate preachers such as the aforementioned Salah, invited to speak at the Houses of Parliament in a room booked by the now-disgraced former Labour peer Lord Ahmed, to speak alongside MPs Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Burden. Or mosques, such as that in Finsbury Park, which invite hate preachers.

But the lack of latterday progress in central government and stupidity of the odd Labour parliamentarian surely pales into insignificance when we compare with what the party has done on the ground, in its councils and local parties up and down the country.

At local level, we have spent not just a few years, but decades, cultivating extremist organisations* such as the Islamic Forum Europe in Tower Hamlets. One of our most senior politicians, a sitting mayor of London no less, invites a known hate preacher and hugs him in a now-famous photo-op.

In the name of “reaching out”, we have MPs such as Sadiq Khan – now on the front bench – appear at suspect Islamist conferences, such as the rather ironically-named Global Peace and Unity, now become so awful and full of radical imams that no Labour MP will touch it. And many of us doughtily defended the Muslim Brotherhood when it got into power in Egypt, because we thought it was a legitimate, moderate political representation of Islam. It is not.

No, we soft-pedalled on extremism because we were afraid of being seen as racist or sectarian; we made base calculations about losing votes; or worse: because we simply didn’t see it for what it was. That the threat from jihadism was over, exaggerated by some hawkish, right-wing types who just secretly wanted another war.

But it’s not just about Iraq any more. As Pat McFadden put it so well this week at Uncut:
“We don’t have a choice about whether to engage in this fight. If we don’t go to it, it is coming to us.”
In the wake of last week’s murder, one thing is clear: without the right action, it is surely only a matter of time before such murders take place on British soil.

It is about time we took a long, hard look at ourselves as a party, and asked ourselves what each one of us can do, to make sure that that cannot, that it will not, happen again.

*For those who doubt that this organisation is “extremist”, aside from checking out their links to some deeply suspect organisations in Pakistan, I refer readers to their Press Complaints Commission complaint against Andrew Gilligan, where this nomenclature was explicitly allowed to Gilligan in the judgement.

This piece first published at Labour Uncut and selected for Progress' What We're Reading

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