When I heard the news about themurder of British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich on May 22, my first reaction was horror. My second was dread. Sadly, my fears that anger would be targeted at Muslim communities across the UK have been confirmed.
Over 200 incidents against Muslims and mosques have been recorded since the murder, the most serious one an arson attackon Grimsby Islamic Centre in Lincolnshire, while people were inside. (Thankfully, initial reports suggest that police forces across the UK have responded well, including with preventive deployment of officers).
Rigby’s gruesome killing is rightly being treated as a crime. The alleged attackers, Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, have been charged with murder. They should be prosecuted fairly. But the murder is inevitably also being treated as a terrorist incident, triggering an almost equally inevitable political response.
Ministers have suggested tougher measures to tackle radicalization, including preventing people viewed as extremists from speaking on TV. Atask forcehas been set up to tackle extremism and radicalization. Some in government and elsewhere are also calling for the revival of the Communications Data Bill (dubbed the “Snooper’s Charter” by its many critics), which would permit widespread monitoring of phone calls, social media, and internet traffic by the security services, with scant safeguards. But before there is a rush to adopt new powers, it is worth reflecting on the lessons of Britain’s experience of tackling terrorism over the last decade.
First, restricting civil liberties is counterproductive. It is worrying that the home secretary was quick to bring up the Communications Data Bill, which was blocked for now by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg for its lack of safeguards. A senior official from domestic security agency MI5 has dismissed the suggestion that the bill would have averted the Woolwich attack as a “cheap argument.” Last December, the joint parliamentary committeeset up to review the bill said it was “too sweeping” and did not sufficiently protect the right to privacy.
Responding to such a terrible act requires a well thought out and measured response that looks at the long-term. It should start with recognizing that in an open society, the risk of lone wolf attacks cannot be eliminated. The focus should be on reducing the risk that young men will be drawn into such appalling violence, and building trust in local communities without which no effort to tackle terrorism will be effective.
Second, measures should target all forms of extremism and radicalization. The far-right English Defence League has been quick to try to capitalizeon Rigby’s murder. As the Home Office stated in its 2012 reporton countering terrorism, “Extreme Islamist and far right organizations feed off one another and try to create enmity, suspicion and hatred between our communities.” The prime minister has said the task force will look at extremism in all its forms. This should include a genuine focus on far right violence.
It is more important than ever for the government to send a clear message that racism and xenophobia will not be tolerated.
At the end of April, 75-year-old Mohammed Saleem was stabbed to deathas he returned home from his local mosque in Birmingham. While the investigation is ongoing, his familybelieve it was a racially motivated attack. A robust response to such crimes from the police and courts – and strong condemnation at the highest level of government – is vital.
And finally, we need more effort to avoid viewing certain people, or groups, with suspicion because of their religion or appearance. Efforts by previous governments to prevent radicalization and recruitment, under what became known as the Prevent Agenda, faltered in part because of overreach by the authorities, with measures such as the installation of CCTV in 2010 in two mostly Muslim neighborhoods in Birmingham sending a signal that the entire community was suspect, damaging rather than fostering trust.
After the Rigby murder came a multitude of condemnations by Muslim groups and individuals in the U.K. The family of one alleged attacker, Michael Adebolajo, expressed its condolences to the victim’s family. The Muslim Council of Britain condemned the killing in the strongest terms. Prime Minister Cameronmade the point that “[t]here is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act.”
Reminding people and the world that a religion and its adherents are not to blame for a crime committed by disturbed individuals is a good thing. But I feel sad that people who identify themselves as Muslims should feel the need to state what should be obvious to distance themselves from an act they had nothing to do with.
Instead of pursuing plans that indiscriminately restrict people’s privacy, the government should focus on building trust to minimize the risk of such horrific acts happening again. Doing so would also deny the objective shared by many extremists of sowing division in society. When it comes to tackling extremism, in all its forms, there are no shortcuts.