The state we’re in – a panel of SR writers reflect on the crisis facing Britain
Andrew Hook – Talk to the imams
I have only two points to make. And I know that not all readers will agree with them. First, we don’t need to hear more platitudes about how all Muslims are not terrorists, and how the perpetrators of these horrifying crimes are only a tiny minority of extremists. We know all that. What we want to hear is how to deal with that tiny minority.
To my mind in all the welter of well-meaning generalities about the need for restraint and tolerance in our multicultural society, the most pointed and relevant comment on the actual problem we are facing came from a young woman in the audience of a recent edition of ‘Question Time’. She began by saying she was a Muslim and proud of her religion. But she went on to explain that the reality was that in too many mosques the message from imams and other community leaders was that Western values and beliefs were a threat to Muslims and so had to be rejected. Surely it is time for the leaders of the Muslim community to spell out loudly and clearly – very loudly and very clearly – what the clear limits of such rejectionist attitudes exactly are.
My second point is a related – seemingly simple-minded – one. I think we all struggle to understand how it has come about that these young men are willing to destroy their own lives in order to kill others. Do they really believe that by doing so they are gaining admission to some kind of heavenly harem? If so, the message going out from community leaders and from every mosque every day should be that such a belief is a fatal lie. Challenged in this manner, who knows, perhaps some would-be bombers might think again.
Barbara Millar – The unattended bag
A couple of years before 9/11, I was at the Statue of Liberty. While admiring the view of the New York skyline, still complete with the Twin Towers, I spotted an unattended holdall. I looked around for a possible owner. No-one in sight. And I couldn’t let it go. I never can.
Having lived in London during the IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s, I can never see a bag or a suitcase or any seemingly innocuous clothes-carrying item without fearing what it may contain. I found two workers on Liberty Island and told them about the holdall – explaining, briefly, why I was so concerned. At the time they seemed sanguine, dismissive. Terrorism had yet to touch them.
Last year I confronted someone at Heathrow Airport. We were in the queue to be processed through passport control. One chap – British (I know that because he swore at me) – left his bag in the line while he nipped off to the loo. There are constant messages at airports about not leaving unattended baggage – and he had just done so. I thought about contacting security. In the end, I gave him the benefit of my considerable doubt and remonstrated with him on his return. He simply abused me, indifferent to any anxiety his actions had caused.
I haven’t lived in London for over 30 years. But I have never forgotten what it was like to go out on the town during that wretched time, when people going for a drink, or out for a meal, or enjoying any of the myriad pleasurable activities a city can offer, were considered fair game for terrorists. Even if we now consider the IRA to have been ‘more responsible’ terrorists because they would usually issue a warning. To this day, if I see a bag with no person clearly attached, I have to fight the rising sense of panic, and I have to find its owner or report it.
This is what living in London, or Manchester or any other big city in Britain is going to feel like for a new generation of young people. Constantly being on alert, constantly feeling suspicious about others’ actions, movements, intentions. A meal in a busy restaurant, a drink in a crowded pub, a stroll across a well-lit bridge, offering the most sublime views of a vibrant capital – all now pleasures utterly tarnished by fear.
We are exhorted not to be afraid, to go about our normal business, to show the terrorists that they cannot win, that nothing can diminish our spirit. But that’s not true. Living in London in the 1970s, when a bomb could be in a post-box, a litter-bin, a parcel, engendered a primal fear that those who haven’t experienced random terror activities can never understand. Days after this latest dreadful incident in London, once news of the murders has disappeared from the headlines, most people will put it all to the back of their mind. For those who live, work and play in London and Manchester, the fear will never go.
Bob Cant – Choose Life
Terrorists aim to generate fear, not just among people within shooting or stabbing range, but also among the wider community in which they are active. An attack on a multiracial, going-out area like Borough Market reflects the London killers’ deep hostility to the very idea of people mixing socially on a free and open basis.
There has been an enormous sea change over the last 50 years in the ways in which we are able to socialise, and segregation by gender or race is no longer as socially acceptable as it once was. The bars and restaurants of Borough Market are, by their very existence, a challenge to the authoritarian and misogynistic ideology of these murderers. They particularly hate the right of women to enjoy themselves in public and to choose their own sexual partners; the attack on the Ariana Grande concert particularly targeted young women.
Those freedoms of choice were hard fought for; they should be precious to us but many now take them for granted. We have to learn to value our own way of life if it is not to be swept away in a maelstrom of fear. Remarkable stories of solidarity shown by ordinary citizens have been told about the way people supported one another on Saturday night and such solidarity should really become the new norm. We should let other people know where we expect to be going when we go out; we should not leave people alone if they become drunk or otherwise incapacitated; we should be ready to be resilient in the face of any attack. The terror attacks are random and while we cannot expect to prevent them, we can build up a spirit of resistance that makes us stronger when they do happen.
Parents and teachers and youth workers need to encourage debate among young people in their care so that they can develop a sense of resilience against terror just as they have to learn about sexual behaviour, alcohol consumption and drug usage. We should not wait for politicians to set the tone for the society in which we live. Ordinary people going about their business, behaving like neighbours and being vigilant, without being prejudiced, can generate the kind of common sense that we need to enable us to maintain our way of life. Those of us with memories of how prejudice was expressed against people with Irish accents or black people or people with non-traditional forms of sexuality can remember how these prejudices never resolved any crisis. We need to let our politicians know that, while we are building a spirit of resilience among ourselves, we expect them to be reflecting on evidence and finding resources to support our police and our emergency services.
One of the most terrifying features of this current period is that there is no prospect of dialogue with such killers. While I am sure that countries like ours became targets because of our governments’ support for various military interventions, even if such interventions were to cease it is unlikely that the killings would cease. The self-hating behaviour of the killers suggests something more irrational at work; it reminds me of the slogan of some of the followers of General Franco: Long live death! The surest way to resist such hateful groupthink is not through fear but through choosing life. It feels strange for a humanist like me to quote the Book of Deuteronomy but it calls on us to ‘choose life so that you and your children may live’. I choose life not just because I love my own life but for the right of future generations to do so too. Let’s resist the killers by choosing life. We can start now.
Rachel Sharp – A semantic battle
Watching the third terrorist attack in as many months unfold on my television screen has been a disturbing experience. Every time I watch the news with my mum, she shakes her head in disbelief and walks away. ‘The world’s gone mad,’ she says as she leaves the room.
I feel indescribable sadness for all those who have lost someone they love in these atrocities, and those sympathies extend to the innocent members of the Muslim community who have suffered racial discrimination as a result of the hate crimes which have followed the attacks.
Since reading the Reuters notification on my mobile that alerted me to the events of Saturday night, Donald Trump has exploited the atrocity to promote his Muslim travel ban, Theresa May has called for a more aggressive regulation of the internet, and many have taken to social media to demand an end to the UK’s tolerance of what the prime minister has called ‘the single evil ideology of Islamist extremism.’
And while the war on terror rages on, I’ve been following the semantic tug of war between those who call the terrorists who carried out the attack on London Bridge ‘Islamic extremists’ and those who call them ‘extremists’. When Douglas Murray appeared on the BBC’s ‘Sunday Politics’ to discuss the aftermath of the Manchester attack, he claimed that we could all do with ‘less Islam’ and asserted that the Islamic faith was at the centre of recent atrocities. And yet, the Muslim Council of Britain has described the London Bridge attack as an affront to the religion of Islam.
It all begs an important question: are the people who commit such violent acts against innocent people in the name of faith truly members of that faith? If so, then why do we never hear the Ku Klux Klan or the Westboro Baptist Church referred to as ‘Christian extremists’? Just last month, Christian militias killed at least 30 civilians in Bangassou, located on the Congolese border, as part of a series of attacks on Muslim populations, but the media and politicians barely addressed these attacks at all and failed to label those who committed them Christian extremists.
Analyses have shown that there are more references to violence and destruction in the Bible than in the Quran, particularly in the Old Testament. Like the Quran, mandates for acts of terror, including executions and sexual slavery, can also be found in Christian scripture. It seems clear to me that if we are prepared to label the fanatics who carry out these kinds of attacks on innocent people enjoying their social freedoms on a Saturday night in London ‘Islamic extremists’, then we must be prepared to employ the term ‘Christian extremists’ to those who carry out similar acts across the world in the name of a Christian God.
In the wake of such horrific events, this semantic battle might seem like a frivolous side note to those demanding action, but this terminology seems to be doing more harm than good. As I write this, another notification lights up my phone screen: ‘Racist vandals spray-paint "Terrorize your own country" on an Islamic centre in south London’. The world’s gone mad.
Ron Ferguson – The long haul
We’d better get used to this. Isis isn’t going to go away any time soon. It cannot be bombed out of existence. It’s like one of those birthday cakes, which, when one blows out the candles and turns one back on it, flares back into life.
Listening attentively to BBC Radio Scotland, I have come to the conclusion that there must be more ‘security experts’ on the planet then there are midges. Yet even if the number of security staff is quadrupled, and every citizen and every dog is strip-searched every single day and the spread of surveillance devices and the suppression of basic human rights reaches Orwellian levels, it will still be impossible to stop determined zealots driving onto pavements and mowing down pedestrians. So we’d better get used to the litanies of dispiriting Groundhog Day bulletins full of the arithmetic of death.
Up until fairly recent days, we’ve been able to deceive ourselves into thinking that this will blow over. The unpalatable reality is that, like it or not, we are in it for the long haul.
Religion isn’t going to go away any time soon, either, for better or worse. For better and for worse, I would guess. Although it would be a mistake to blame this conflict entirely on religion, it would also be a mistake to think that we can understand what’s going on without a working knowledge of religion.
And we do need understanding. What we are currently doing isn’t working. Military ‘solutions’ can’t do the business. How can we know when we have ‘won’ the war against terror if we don’t even have an understanding of what is driving the terrorists? Professor Louise Richardson’s book, ‘What Terrorists Want’, should be required reading in our schools and academies.
A little bit of Christian history – here was the deal in the 11th century: you’ll save your soul and go to heaven if you kill a bunch of infidels. Does that sound familiar? It certainly would to the likes of the suicide bombers, who currently either are or are not disporting himself with 90 virgins in paradise as their reward for blasting themselves and a few unsuspecting strangers to fragments of scorched flesh.
In 1095, when Pope Urban II rallied Christians for holy crusade, he offered an extraordinary reward to those who set out to liberate the land of Christ’s birth: ‘All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins.’
Read His Holiness’s lips: kill and be saved. Really Christian. eh?
While there are undoubtedly connections between the activities of the Manchester and London bombers and the recent invasion of Iraq, the links go much further back than that. Osama bin Laden repeatedly referred to the crusades in his cheery wee videos. When President George W Bush, taking ineptitude to unprecedented levels, called for a ‘crusade against evil’, it was as if he was reading a script prepared for him by bin Laden himself. Even Basil Fawlty, never mind Dick Cheney, would have told him: ‘Whatever you do, don’t mention the crusades.’ The first crusade began nearly a millennium ago, but Muslims refer to those terrible events as if they happened yesterday.
I’m not making the conventional case that mainstream Christianity and Islam are all about peace and love and organic vegetables, and that this glorious harmony is spoiled only by a few dysfunctional extremists. Institutional Christianity and Islam have the capacity to hurt people, whether by violence, the protection of paedophile priests, or the suppression of women. Amidst the spiritual riches of the mainstream sacred texts, there are passages which present a vengeful and even genocidal tyrant god. Given the evolutionary nature of religious thought this is unsurprising; what is indefensible is the use of these historical texts to justify current violence.
Surely all this means that religions cause most of the troubles in the world?
This liberal consensus – which is itself bristling with immaculately conceived dogmas – is eye-wateringly naïve. Human beings have an innate capacity to start a war on an empty earth. The charnel house of the 20th century contained more than 100 million corpses – not due to religion, but to fascism, totalitarian socialism and other less than benign causes.
Some fascinating Christian-Muslim dialogue is going on at the moment. Why are we not hearing about it? Professor Reza Aslan’s history and critique of Islam from the ‘inside’ calls for a reformation within Islam. Why is his voice not being amplified?
The other thing is this. The instinct for religion represents a hunger for ultimate meaning. A longing for the transcendent is neither a dysfunction nor a disease. The only language we can use for the search for God is, by definition, human language. The trouble comes when this provisional, stuttering talk is taken as a literal map of ultimate reality. And hardening of the theological arteries leads to ideological and political trouble.
Any human institution which has come down through history inevitably carries a great deal of baggage. The Christian church, for instance, is a flawed and sometimes absurd creation. Yet despite its obvious sins and clamant need of continual reformation it keeps in circulation whispers about a divine, unconditional and ultmately liberating love. It not only attracts seriously dysfunctional and sometimes dangerous people, it nurtures and forms lots of incredibly generous, caring and inspiring non-celebrities. That’s why it will never go away.
At their best, communities of faith dream of impossible possibilities like loving and forgiving enemies. They also bear witness to a beautiful kingdom of heaven which exists not in Jerusalem nor on a movie screen but within and beyond the human heart.
Walter Humes – Two narratives
The latest terrorist attack demonstrates just how vulnerable our society has become to hatred and violence by individuals and groups of ideologically-driven fanatics. It is impossible for the security forces to monitor all potential killers 24 hours a day: full surveillance of one individual alone requires a team of 30 officers. This clearly has implications for the way ordinary people live and work, the extent to which they feel safe, and their confidence in government and the agencies responsible for maintaining law and order. Official advice to remain vigilant but to carry on as normal is designed to reassure, but further similar attacks would soon create a climate of fear.
The language in which public figures respond to terrible events that lead to death and injury is very important. Ill-chosen words could provoke protests and unrest in those communities where tension is already high. Already two types of narrative have emerged. In her address to the nation outside 10 Downing Street, the prime minister, Theresa May, said that ‘things need to change’ and we have been ‘too tolerant of extremism’. Nigel Farage, in a similar vein, said that we need ‘to have an honest conversation about the mistakes we have made in the past’. Both these comments seem to call for a greater willingness to confront the extent of the political, religious, ethnic and cultural divisions which are evident in some parts of the country.
On the other hand, there is a less confrontational narrative which emphasises community solidarity and ‘pulling together’. It is linked with the values of democracy, freedom and tolerance. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, referred to the need for ‘resilience, faith and hope’ and ‘a determination to overcome the terrorists’ while upholding the principle of justice.
These contrasting reactions strongly suggest that Britain cannot currently be described as a nation at peace with itself. While the immediate response to the latest atrocity has to be tough, practical and effective, there is also a need for a more considered analysis of the likely consequences of different forms of engagement, not only with the Muslim community but also with the wider electorate.
Katie Grant – Feeding the worm
I’m not a fan of ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’. It’s the humour I can’t stand. Clunky, ponderous, obvious, it’s British humour at its most sniggery-smuggery, but also at its most familiar and comforting. Quite pleased to hear the programme yesterday, though. Even more pleased to find I could still only stand half a minute before reaching for the off button.
The day I cling to GQT will be the day the current crop of mass-murderers, will, for me, have turned into terrorists. A trite example, this is not a trite point. Murderers provoke physical fear which passes when the murderer is caught. Terrorists work through insinuation, worming into our hearts and minds a creeping fear that, with each attack, festers and grows. When the media call murderers ‘terrorists’, they’re feeding the worm, just as I would be feeding it if I found myself scurrying for comfort to GQT.
Does that mean I’m against further protective measures? Well, the first duty of a government is to keep its citizens safe. This involves loss of individual liberties. Cue a philosophical/ethical/political discussion quoting Hobbes, Mill, Locke. Cue vox pop saying ‘but we just want a common-sense approach’. There is no common-sense approach. Each government must take its stand and argue its case according to the times. Cue objections from the lobby group Liberty, former fiefdom of the recently ennobled Shami Chakrabarti. Cue counter-objections from the ‘if you’ve nothing to hide you’ve nothing to fear’ lobby. Meanwhile, the government, whether Conservative or Labour, will wobble between the Scylla of state-sponsored surveillance and the Charybdis of privacy. That’s what common-sense security looks like, these days: a wobbly tightrope strung between two shouting crowds.
What does common-sense electioneering look like? In the blue corner, the Conservatives thought a little financial common-sense might liven up their election manifesto. It did, but not in a good way. A sensible, if unattractive, measure designed to address our unaffordable social care costs was greeted with outrage by those, including Jeremy Corbyn and our own dear leader, who equate being down to your last £100,000 as penury. In the red corner, the ‘magic money-tree’ Labour party, exercising a monumental memory-wipe, are peddling the myth that nationalisation is the common-sense cure-all. Nobody talks any common-sense whatsoever about the poor old health service.
Yet the election on Thursday isn’t about social care, nationalisation or the NHS, and it doesn’t diminish one jot my concern and sympathy for the victims of last week’s atrocities to say that despite Westminster Bridge, the Manchester Arena and London Bridge, the great issue on Thursday isn’t security. There will be more attacks which we must deal with as best we can. But whatever the colour of the government on Friday morning, the big issue of this particular election is still Brexit, and for those not immediately caught up in the attacks’ grim aftermaths, choosing to ignore that is like me turning on GQT and listening through to the end.
R D Kernohan – Prepare for more
Since the editor asks for personal reactions to ‘the situation facing the country’ as a result of terrorism it is possible to say what no politician or working commentator would dare say. I do not know what can or should be done about Islamic terrorism.
In so far as it professes to be Islamic we must leave this to be resolved by the Muslim theologians and their congregations. In so far as it is a terrorist crime we should have the police and other security services set out the options they think practicable and let our political leaders, whoever they are next week, assess their merits and drawbacks. Some of the more populist suggestions, such as the large-scale internment or deportation of fanatics are probably still disproportionate to the present threats and would provoke major practical and legal difficulties, even if not moral ones. And we can leave to the ordinary processes of policing, law, and public opinion the need to guard against low-level retaliatory hate crime and remain alert to any threat of counter-atrocity.
But I know a few things we should not do. We should not get worked up about the extent to which the police should be armed. A mainly unarmed force, without general weapon-training, cannot be quickly turned into a gendarmerie. In any event countries with routinely and often heavily armed police have proved as vulnerable as we are to Islamic terrorism, whether from organised cells or lone surfers of the hate-filled websites. But it is self-evident that we need more armed police more readily available than we used to. We may not like it but we have to accept it.
Nor should we fret about past mistakes that we can do nothing about, whether in foreign policy or encouragement of immigration by ‘communities’ who do not want to assimilate within the wider and always diverse British community. It is now irrelevant whether Enoch Powell was right or Tony Blair wrong. We have made mistakes and there may be policies that we should amend or realign, but is absurd to think that rational discussion of policy is relevant to the immediate need to defend ourselves against the irrational and blasphemous blend of terrorism and utopianism which professes to be a radical form of Islam.
There are no parallels to be drawn with Irish, or Basque, or even Palestinian terrorism. In these and similar cases there have been people and structures, however unlikeable and sometimes hateful, to be talked to and terms to be discussed even if not agreed. But Islamic terrorism (a mood, movement, and refuge for the confused) offers no rational terms to be discussed or people with whom discussion would be profitable, far less an organisation able to reach and observe ceasefires and settlements.
Sadly that probably means that there will be more atrocities against soft targets in Europe and North America as well as in Britain, even in small countries with no great involvement in policy. Daily atrocities in the Middle East will continue against the Muslim majority as well as vulnerable Christian minorities. Our best hope is that our security systems will be effective enough to prevent the loss through public outrage of the freedoms and tolerance which Britain offers, even at times to those who abuse them. But freedom needs the protection of both law and morality; and there are actions and attitudes not to be tolerated.
Alasdair McKillop – A renewing force
Watching the ‘One Love Manchester’ concert on BBC1 last night, it occurred to me that culture is the last remaining realm where our best values can be expressed in a way that inspires a shared sense of spiritual uplift. What government or church could have achieved such simple healing on the same scale?
The political and religious worlds seem increasingly barren: barren of hope and meaning and positive consequence. There will be those for whom their decline must necessarily mean the decline of society but is it not the final liberation from the great mobilising tyrannies of the past that burned the individual at the stake and in the industrial furnace for the sake of a collective ideal?
If liberal democracy means anything, if it has any claim on our loyalty, if it has any power to inspire self-sacrifice, then it’s because it’s the system of government we are freest to ignore. It provides the most freedom for the expression of individual creativity and the most freedom to attend a pop concert safe in the knowledge that doing so will not activate the sickly machinery of repression.
People still find ways to connect: small groups still coalesce to form
bigger groups, just not for the nefarious ends of a higher power. We do so most often in our mutual enjoyment of a rich culture interpreted by individual genius. This is our renewing force, our invigorating force: culture is like the wave that draws into its great reserves before washing over us again with something new.