Comment: Britain must lead the way in the battle of ideas that will defeat Isis – Guardian, November 2016

by Liam Byrne | 29.11.16

Here’s my comment piece to mark the launch of my new book: Black Flag Down: Defeating ISIS, Counter-Extremism and Winning the Battle of Ideas. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/17/britain-must-lead-battle-isis-theresa-may-counter-terrorism-plan

The wrong people are definitely cheering Donald Trump. Not just the odious Nigel Farage – but Islamic State commander Abu Omar Khorasaniwho declared this week that the “maniac” in the White House would increase terrorist numbers by thousands. With victory in Mosul on the horizon, now is the time for government to stop dithering and produce a new plan to tackle extremism that has a simple idea at its core: it’s time to move on from the neocons.

With Isis battered in Mosul, Britain’s EU security commissioner, Julian King, is warning that defeat in the Middle East “may lead to the return to Europe of violent Isis fighters” – now armed with Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric to seduce fresh recruits.

Last year Isis attacked 252 cities, killing 6,141 people. After the massacre in Nice in July, Isis’s three-month killing spree saw an attack every 82 hours. When MI5 chief Andrew Parker says “there will be terrorist attacks in this country”, he’s not mucking about. He’s deadly serious. Figures released on Wednesday by the Institute for Economics and Peace show a 650% surge in terror attacks on the west. And London mayor Sadiq Khan is warning that our border security isn’t tough enough to stop terrorists smuggling in weapons.

So where is the government’s plan? The counter-extremism bill has been delayed and the so-called Casey review on integration has vanished.

In the vacuum, while Islamophobia spirals out of control, British Muslims despair. As my friend Shabana Mahmood MP puts it, many British Muslims feel surrounded by “supremacists” national supremacists who declare you can’t be British and Muslim, and religious supremacists who say you can’t be Muslim and British. One lot try to deny Muslims their country. The other crowd seek to deny Muslims their faith.

With Trump heading for the White House, it’s time for our government to move on from the neocon philosophy of David Cameron and renew a counter-extremism plan that stands a chance of working. It needs a simple idea at its heart. There is no epic clash of civilisations between Islam and the west. This is a fight between the civilised and a cult. Never forget al-Qaida has killed seven times more Muslims than non-Muslims. Since January 2014, Isis has murdered more than 19,000 Iraqis.

That means it is time for Theresa May to drop the Cameron doctrine that there is some kind of “conveyor belt” between religion and extremism. It’s this philosophy that has inspired ministers to draw up a definition of “extremism” so broad that the archbishop of Canterbury says it would classify him as a criminal.

Anger can be a good thing. It is, after all, the source of social progress. Little was achieved by the contented in life. Lots of us get angry. But we tend to arrive at some great moral junction. One path leads to peaceful campaign for change. The other path leads to violence. Isis targets the violent people. That is why as many as two-thirds of its recruits in some countries have a criminal past.

The goal of good policy must be to manoeuvre those who thirst for justice down the path to peaceful change and away from violence.

We will need a battery of school reforms for a population that is hugely more diverse. We should boost integration by creating universal community service; spread “character” education and change the way we teach history to remind everyone that 400,000 Muslim soldiers once fought to keep our country safe. Crucially, we need to transform child and adolescent mental health. Figures I have seen suggest 50% of children referred to the deradicalisation programme, Channel, have some sort of mental health issue. And yes, we do need to reset Prevent, to sharpen the focus on safeguarding.

Decent integration policy is a prerequisite. We need new ways of celebrating our country together. Unity is strength. We need a more inclusive Englishness, so let’s start with a bank holiday for St George’s Day for a celebration to which everyone is invited. We should be prepared to party in pursuit of progress. And why not cap it all with a magnificent new British bill of rights with a statement that not only enshrines the European convention on human rights, but comes complete with a bold statement of British ideals, including free speech and compassion, to enshrine the “best of British” which we hold in common.

The war against Isis is a generational struggle. Its roots, after all, stretch back deep, over a century. But we cannot kill our way to victory – any more than we can arrest our way to peace. Peace comes from politics and to win in politics we need to win a battle of ideas. That seems unlikely to come from the next occupant of the White House – so Britain should help lead the way.

 Liam Byrne represents the largest Muslim constituency in Britain. His book Black Flag Down: Counter-Extremism, Defeating Isis and Winning the Battle of Ideas, is published by Biteback Books today

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