Leading article: Treat with contempt the idea that Britain has been too liberal

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The Independent Online

But the message from Zawahiri, loathsome as it was, clearly increased the pressure on Tony Blair to respond. And that lies - in part - behind the Prime Minister's decision yesterday to hastily unveil extensive anti-terror measures to be implemented when Parliament is recalled from its summer recess.

Inevitably, the instant new laws he outlined were not encouraging, full of holes and with many potential problems immediately apparent. For example, Mr Blair has pledged to compile a list of extremist imams and preachers who will not be allowed to enter the UK. So who is to decide on which preachers are acceptable? The Prime Minister proposes to make it illegal to "justify" terrorism in any way. Will that make it illegal for the BBC to broadcast messages from the likes of Zawahiri? Will MPs who express understanding of Palestinian suicide bombers be prosecuted? This looks worryingly like a desire to be seen to be doing something, an alarming political tendency that usually results in rushed, botched legislation. Additionally, the Home Secretary will have far greater discretion over who can and cannot enter the country - yet we have seen how easily this Government is swayed by populist hysteria.

Of course, if there is evidence of incitement to violence and terrorism, the Government must take swift action against those individuals engaged in it. And in the light of last month's bombings, a closer examination of the links between certain radical Islamic groups and terrorism is justified. But most of what the Prime Minster announced yesterday smacks of knee-jerk politics. On asylum, it is argued that Britain must be more discriminating. But this is to mistake the nature of the principle of asylum, which is open to all those with a well-grounded fear of persecution. We should be proud of our history of providing a sanctuary to those in fear for their lives. And let it not be forgotten the July 7 bombers were British citizens, not asylum-seekers.

We must treat with contempt the cry that Britain has been "too liberal" in the past. This nation should be proud of its tolerance. Holding views offensive to the majority is not illegal; attempts to make it so must be resisted. Deporting those who disagree with us about society and banning their organisations is profoundly illiberal - and short-sighted, since it only pushes the problems underground. Gerald Howarth, the rather foolish Tory MP, was wrong to suggest that those who do not like our way of life should leave Britain. A strong society is able to cope with non-violent dissidents.

Four hundred years ago, Catholics found themselves in a similar situation to today's Muslims. And last century, British communists were viewed by some as traitors because they advocated revolution, while in more recent years there has been a bedrock of sympathy for Irish nationalism. The fundamental problem with Mr Blair's vague announcements is that so little was aimed at tackling the root causes of Islamist terrorism. Nothing was tailored to the task of reclaiming the minds and allegiances of that tiny number of young Muslims whose views have become so distorted they are tempted to regard killing innocent people as a means to an end. This is the tragedy we must resolve.