“I tell noble Lords from my own experience that if we are too heavy-handed we risk further radicalising families and communities at the grass roots, if some of their young are treated without any notion of a trial or evidence—all those British things that we try to stand for. We must handle this matter very carefully” – Bishop of Derby, 19/6/14
On 19th June 2014, Lord Dykes led a debate to ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the threat from the spread of militant aggressive jihadism in the Middle East. The Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Alastair Redfern, took part in the debate, speaking of the challenges associated with tackling transnational groups, and the need for close international co-operation in dealing with them. He also spoke of the need for strong community-based work in the UK, to help tackle and reduce instances of British citizens fighting in the Middle East. He endorsed the strong heritage of European Islam and of the need to engage its voice in a sophisticated debate.
“the assessment of the threat from the spread of militant aggressive jihadism in the Middle East”.
I take the point that our priority is the humanitarian challenge with so much chaos and destruction. We must invite the Minister to make every constructive response she can to that challenge.
I will talk about the dramatic advance of ISIS and the danger of the collapse of the Iraqi state. Of course, some of the problems stem from what could be called poor government and a lack of common good, diversity and military organisation. However, we must confront a deeper issue. As we have heard, ISIS is transnational. It is not just in one place; we have heard that its kind of jihadism extends to Pakistan. ISIS does not fight a war but operates through acts of terror, which is a very different way of trying to resolve disputes. There is a danger that this is setting up a model of battlegrounds of terror within existing states, without any way of trying to sort that out—things just rise up from below.
What is at issue is the future of the state as a political organisation. ISIS has a totally different set of values. It sees itself as the embryo of what it might call an Islamic state but is challenging the notion of a political state as one that holds together diversity. It says instead that there is only one way to have a state, which is on a much narrower basis. That is a dangerous pitch to make in a world of increasing diversity and pluralism. It sees this Islamic state emerging from the actions of small bands of fighting scholars. That is why we see these frightening interrogations of captives about their faith. It is a bold bid for a totally different understanding of political organisation; not a state that holds together diversity, works with it and puts humanitarian needs first, but a version of a state that is narrow, uncompromising and brutal in its desire for conformity.
That political question raises some important issues which I invite the Minister to address. Is the policy of funding moderate opposition in Syria working? Do we need greater international co-operation across this whole area, as the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, suggested? Could more be done to engage with Gulf states about the funding of this kind of extremism?
I offer one brief comment about foreign fighters caught up in the jihadist movement. It is estimated that there are 12,000 foreign fighters from 78 countries.
The word on the street in Derby, where I work, is that people from our community are fighting there; some have come back and then returned. I can understand the Prime Minister and others talking about the danger that that kind of involvement in this anti-political movement could bring into our own country. However, I offer a word of caution about the way we express that risk and danger. In the Netherlands, they have a sophisticated debriefing system so that when people come back they are not immediately confronted as criminals but engaged with, and there is an exploration of what they are about and where they are going. I tell noble Lords from my own experience that if we are too heavy-handed we risk further radicalising families and communities at the grass roots, if some of their young are treated without any notion of a trial or evidence—all those British things that we try to stand for. We must handle this matter very carefully. We must have evidence if we are to criminalise people and we must try to engage with the issue they have got caught up in, which runs counter to the state as we know it, rather than trying simply to fight back and crush them as they would crush other people.
Finally, I ask the Minister: what is the role of the local community, not just the Government, is in addressing this aggressive phenomenon? How can we help young Muslims engage in democratic debate about politics? A lot of the energy comes from feeling excluded from that possibility. Have any lessons been learnt about the unforeseen consequences of the way in which we conduct foreign policy? Can we think critically and creatively about ourselves and how we conduct foreign policy? If it is having this effect, are there lessons to be learnt about how we present it? I also have a question that is significant to the work in which I am involved: what is the future of European Islam in the mix, across the world? We hear a lot of voices speaking for all kinds of Islamic approaches to faith. There is in Europe a sophisticated, engaged and rich tradition of Islamic thinking and practice. Are we able to engage that voice more creatively in the debate?
The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi): …The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby raised an important point: how do we deal with these individuals, either before they go out or when they come back? How do we ensure the broader Muslim community is kept on board during this time? Noble Lords may be aware of Pew research and Gallup polls that show the British Muslim community’s trust in institutions, including the judiciary and Parliament, is higher than that of other groups. It is important that we preserve that element of trust, belief in the rule of law and sense of fairness that are fundamental British values. The research shows British Muslims are already signed up to those British values.
It is important that the role of the community is not underestimated. That could be mums—including mums who have lost sons to extremism—working together and talking about the impact that travelling overseas will have on the lives of their families. We must also show young Muslims—I think the right reverend Prelate asked this question—that they must engage in this through a democratic debate. You do that by showing that democracy works…
…The right reverend Prelate asked: what is the future of European Islam? The only way that I can reference that is by using an analogy that I have used many times. Islam is like a river and it takes the colour of the bed over which it flows. It is not culturally or geographically specific. Therefore, Chinese Muslims will look very different from North African Muslims, Pakistani Muslims and European Muslims. The bed over which European Islam will flow is Europe…
…We will also continue to tackle the political and humanitarian issues that are fundamental to conflict prevention in many parts of the world. We will of course continue to make sure that we stem the flow of funds to terrorists—to which, again, the right reverend Prelate referred—and keep looking for effective ways to stop individuals from bypassing current laws on terrorist finance…