Reports that hundreds of British Muslims are fighting for the jihadists of Isis have sent a shiver down the nation’s spine. People want to know what the Government intends to do about these militarised fanatics, if they return to the UK. However, while it is understandable that politicians feel under pressure to talk tough, it is a pity their responses have been distinguished more by hysteria and opportunism than by anything more useful.
Boris Johnson has been especially egregious in this regard. With his eye fixed on his prospects of one day leading the Tory Party, the Mayor of London has issued a panicky sounding clarion call for the Western powers to “close down” the so-called Islamic State in the Middle East, and for the Government to stem the “tide of terror” in the UK by changing the law so that anyone travelling to “the war areas” without notifying the authorities is automatically presumed guilty of a terrorist act.
He is one of several senior politicians jostling to sound more muscular than anyone else on this issue. The Tory rebel David Davis wants to see Islamist fighters from the UK stripped of their citizenship. He has also castigated the more measured action plan of the Home Secretary, Theresa May, as “limp”, mainly because she pointed out that the Government could not strip Britain nationals of their passports, rendering them stateless, without breaking international law. Indeed, Ms May cannot get it right, because on the other side of the political divide, the shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, is blaming both her and the Government in general for the apparent rise in religious extremism among British Muslims – because ministers scrapped Control Orders in 2011 and scaled back funding for the Prevent programme. This is designed to “deradicalise” young Muslims by re-educating them into a more nuanced version of the faith.
Ms Cooper may have a point about the funding for Prevent, and about the apparently ineffective nature of the measures that replaced Control Orders, the so-called TPIMs. If the Terrorism, Prevention and Investigation Measures are not working, we need a rethink. Beyond those two issues, the chorus of public figures demanding “action” also have a point in the sense that – as a society – we cannot sit with hands folded, complacently hoping that the most militant extremists in the UK will drift off to the Middle East and remain there.
We need to be more alert about their activities and agendas. But it is sheer irresponsibility on the part of politicians to claim that the danger these people pose can be dealt with by a succession of easy strokes, whether it is re-educating them, removing their passports, or by microscopically monitoring their movements around the globe. Britain is a world hub, millions of people come and go each year and it is almost impossible to know where all these people are travelling to or have returned from.
As for calls to prosecute people who have gone to war zones, irrespective of their motives for going there, or their actions while there, this is grandstanding of the worst kind – grotesque in principle, unworkable in practice.
Religious extremists are a menace to a democratic society. But combating their ideology will take time and require much patient, hard work. We should not jettison hard-won liberties, or adopt a mirror image of their own totalitarian mindset in the process.