Comment Comment and Features

The best way to disarm terrorists

Armed French police patrol an area north of Paris after the Paris shootings (PA)

The terror attacks at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris continue to reverberate across Europe. The atrocity, in which 12 people lost their lives, was accompanied by a linked attack on a kosher supermarket, where another four people were murdered. Since then raids have taken place across Europe and alerts have been raised to unprecedented levels in modern times in a number of countries.

The attacks have also brought a renewed focus and debate about the place of religion in society, the right to freedom of expression and the right to offend. It has led to debates about integration and Barack Obama highlighting the shortcomings of the efforts in Europe compared to the successes in the United States.

Then there are the haunting scenes of European Jews once again raising concerns about their safety and security. The Home Secretary summed it up when she said: “I’d never thought I would see the day when members of the Jewish community would be fearful about staying in the UK.”

There is no doubt that the attacks of January 7 have caused fear across many countries. Terrorist attacks aim to do just that: to terrorise a population. We are likely to see in the coming weeks and months more legislation rushed through nations’ parliaments to deal with this latest terrorist threat. But the truth is that many of those measures – mostly reactionary in nature – may help to prevent some future attacks, but they will not end them. Rather, counter-terrorist measures which are rushed through in the wake of terrorist attacks can be counter-productive and actually feed a problem rather than solve it. We will have to be careful that we absorb the lessons of earlier times, but not repeat them. I don’t envy legislators the task of getting the balance right between providing security to citizens and yet maintaining fundamental civil liberties which underpin our Western civilisation.

Our governments and societies face a significant challenge in trying to de-radical-ise many of our youth who have found an appealing identity in radical ideologies. But the risk facing governments is that, on the back of terrorist attacks like the one in Paris, those advocating a harsh security response tend to get a more sympathetic hearing. Society and citizens often like a strong reassurance, even if it is ineffective. The perception of strength gives a sense of security, so often it becomes the safer bet. But for governments wanting to tackle the roots of the issue the challenge is more difficult. They have to think about what is effective. How do you de-radicalise even the most hardened ideologues who have committed acts of terrorism? Here there is some evidence which appears to work.

Today, one of the vehicles countering Islamist radicalisation is the Quilliam Foundation in London. In his recent autobiography the co-founder, Maajid Nawaz, chronicled his journey into and out of radical Islamist groups. He had held a leadership position in Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international militant group aiming to create a caliphate. While studying in Egypt he was imprisoned for four years. Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience. He also started to study more closely the distinction between Islam the religion and the modern political ideology Islamism. This was to be a turning point. By being adopted as a prisoner of conscience, he could see that he was not alone. Human rights, something intertwined into Western systems of government which he had been trying to overthrow, were now being used to fight for his release from the Egyptian prison. Today Maajid Nawaz has been selected to fight a parliamentary seat for the Liberal Democrats.

Nawaz’s story is reminiscent of another from another place and a generation before. A senior figure in the 1980s IRA became disillusioned with terrorism and its means and ends. His turning away from the ideology of violence came when he stood in the dock to hear the evidence ruled out because the judge could not be fully sure that the police had not extracted it by inhuman and degrading means. The IRA man saw a judge stand and uphold the law, even though the judge himself had been the target of an IRA attack a few weeks before. That judgment in that court defeated a longstanding justification for violence which the IRA man had held for years. He had used that justification intellectually to justify killing for a cause, insisting that the law and the system was against him. The judge showed him that it wasn’t.

When the case was thrown out the judicial system came in for heavy criticism from politicians and the press for being weak. Voices were raised which said that democracies couldn’t fight terrorism with normal procedures and judicial norms. We might hear such voices again, especially in the wake of terrorist attacks.

Both cases illustrate that even the most hardened terrorists can be converted by a values-based system which is not swayed by emotion and is administered blind to the race, religion and ethnicity of the individuals. While security responses have their place and may help to prevent some attacks, the continued and impartial application of values – even more so when times are testing – is the most persuasive and robust argument we have to win people back and to separate us from terror.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald (23/1/15)