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Debate about Islam and security dominates British election

Labour Party supporters, rear, stand next to an electronic billboard behind Conservative Party supporters, front, outside a campaign event attended by Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May in Norwich, Britain, on June 7, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Toby Melville *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-BRITAIN-ELECTION, originally transmitted on June 7, 2017.

LONDON (RNS) When Prime Minister Theresa May called a general election seven weeks ago, she said she wanted a stronger mandate to secure a better deal for the United Kingdom as it left the European Union.

But after three major terrorist atrocities in three months, all claimed by Islamist militants, the political debates about Brexit, as well as education and the public health system, gave way to intense discussion about Islam and security ahead of Thursday’s (June 8) election.

After the latest attack, in which eight people were killed and dozens injured — some stabbed and others rammed by a van driven at high speed into pedestrians — in the London Bridge neighborhood on June 3, May said, “Enough is enough.”

At a vigil two days later with politicians, police officers and religious leaders, the Muslim mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, addressed the terrorists and said: “As a proud and patriotic British Muslim, you do not commit these disgusting attacks in my name. Your perverse ideology has nothing to do with the true values of Islam.”

That didn’t stop increasing calls on Muslims to acknowledge a connection between their faith and jihadi violence, particularly after eyewitnesses said the knife-wielding attackers at London Bridge had shouted: “This is for Allah.”

Some of the most emphatic voices have come from commentators in the right-wing press. Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn wrote that while the vast majority of Muslims don’t support terrorists, “it is incontestable that the terrorists are all Muslims who quote the Koran to justify their deranged war.”

Muslim girls hold posters on Westminster Bridge on March 29, 2017, during an event to mark one week since a man drove his car into pedestrians then stabbed a police officer in London. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Stefan Wermuth  *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-BRITAIN-ELECTION, originally transmitted on June 7, 2017.

In more measured comments, the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said it is not enough for religious leaders to say the attacks had nothing to do with Islam. He told the BBC’s Today radio program: “If something is happening in our own faith tradition we must take responsibility for being very, very clear in countering it.”

The Muslim commentator and founder of the Women Against Radicalization Network, Henna Rai, urged Muslims to talk more about the reasons for the atrocities and to see it as part of a worldwide campaign. “This is happening because of the terrorists’ anti-Western sentiments such as hatred of democracy.”

She added that she did not believe the terrorists had targeted the British election campaign; they were happening because Islamists claimed that killings during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan would lead to greater rewards in heaven, and she noted terrorist violence happening elsewhere in the world.

Tariq Ramadan, an Islamic scholar at Oxford University, said the terrorists’ interpretations of Islam were distorted.

“But we have a moral duty to take responsibility,” he told the BBC. “We have to condemn but also explain the causes. We need to look at political reasons for what happens. Yet to explain is not to justify.”

Amid the emotions triggered by the attacks, some in Britain were not so keen on explanations. Commentator Allison Pearson, in the Conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph, called for firm action against Islam by the government: “If mosques which preach hatred of the West need to be closed, then do it.”

Ads on London buses and in Tube stations for Islamic Relief, showing a child being carried by rescue workers under the slogan “Save a Life this Ramadan,” reportedly angered some commuters.

On Tuesday, the Conservative prime minister said she was prepared to impose new restrictions on the freedom and movement of terrorism suspects. It was unprecedented in a British general election for a political party to announce new policies just before the ballot. But May, who is under pressure over cuts in policing and claims of intelligence failures, said she was willing to do more to take action against suspects “when we have enough evidence to know they present a threat but not enough evidence to prosecute them in full in court. And if human rights laws stop us from doing it, we will change those laws so we can do it.”

This would mean in effect the United Kingdom opting out of the European Convention on Human Rights, which it has abided by since 1953. Both the Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties immediately opposed May’s proposal.

This is also the first time a British general election campaign was interrupted by terrorism since 1979, when the Conservative politician Airey Neave was blown up by an IRA car bomb in Parliament’s car park at the start of that year’s election battle.

A government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said authorities felt under pressure to take firm action.

“There is a prevailing mood now, we cannot go from one atrocity to another. Something has to be done.”

The security focus in the campaign seemed to favor Conservative Party candidates. Certainly, their rivals on the left, including the Labour Party, were finding it hard to shift attention to issues where the Tories would be on shakier ground, such as spending on health and education, care for the elderly and Britain’s housing crisis.

One expert proposed that terrorist conspirators be charged with treason after one of the London bombers was revealed this week as having worked at Westminster Tube Station, giving him access, as the London Evening Standard put it, to “tunnels underneath the Houses of Parliament.”

It evoked Guy Fawkes, one of Britain’s most notorious traitors and part of a Catholic plot to blow up Parliament with gunpowder in its cellars, in 1605. Then and now, the British nation was in a highly febrile mood, fearful of religious conspirators and worried about what the future might hold.

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Catherine Pepinster

16 Comments

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  • My theological opposition to the tenets of Islam is pronounced, beyond that I have no doubt that the bulk of Muslims under present circumstances, and perhaps any foreseeable circumstances, are peaceful, well meaning people who simply wish to get on with their lives like the rest of us. However, separating the wheat from the chaff via present security and intelligence activities seems to be lacking. In Britain its a particular problem as it is a densely populated and relatively small country with a history of great openness. That is a recipe for continuing difficulty as long as fanatics of any stripe are moved to hate and harm their fellow human beings.

  • The conservative approach to Islamicist terrorism is singularly useless and kinda lazy.

    They avoid reliance on doing useful investigative work, cultivate intelligence assets and relying on communities to isolate and report terrorists (or potential terrorists). Instead they advocate nonsense involving overbroad and counterproductive profiling, illegal surveillance, systematic harassment of communities and terrorism promoting arguments to remove civil liberties of people based on their religion/ethnicity/national origin.

    The issues in the UK had with the last incidents were largely due to haphazard police work/investigation. Not taking tips and informants from various Muslim communities seriously, not following up on suspicious activities, lack of coordination of resources and shared information. Even the families of these terrorists are willing to give up their own. But nobody bothered to listen.

    It is far easier to simply criticize the people in power and accuse them of doing a poor job than to actually take useful measures once one is in power themselves.

  • http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/islamic-state/12002726/The-grey-zone-How-Isis-wants-to-divide-the-world-into-Muslims-and-crusaders.html

    Daesh’s obsession with the “extinction” of the grey zone lies in the value of this narrative to its recruitment purposes. If it can convince impressionable and disgruntled Muslims that they cannot possibly live as Muslims in Europe, and that Daesh somehow embody the actualisation of Islamic ideals in the form of a utopian “state”, then potential adepts may feel squeezed into choosing a camp, a choice which Daesh seeks to facilitate with promises of redemption and uber-machismo and by playing on real concerns over the religious freedom of European Muslims. From this perspective, any state repression or racist backlash provoked by acts of terrorism is just an extra boon.

  • The United Kingdom is reaching a 9/11 point. They are finally realizing that these are not criminal actions; but a concerted treat to the nation. They need to come to consensus that this is combat with radical Islam and take definitive steps to counteract it – just as they did with the Nazis in World War II. Laws against treason and sedition must be enforced. This is not some human rights convention. This is war! Until England realizes this, they are destined for oblivion.

  • Blame the victim not the perpetrator. Nice. Not so well thought out. Informed more by a fairy tale view of life than real facts on the ground. Leave national security affairs to folks who actually have knowledge in the area and are tasked with the responsibility.

  • Yes, you have advocated blaming victims or worse lumping them in with perpetrators because doing real work, not miring yourself in prejudice and not engaging in hysterics seems beyond your capability here.

    People who actually know about national security have repeatedly called views like yours ridiculous and counterproductive. I would trust someone who quotes Gen Mattis on the subject than someone who quotes Donald Trump Jr.

    Go eat some M&Ms.

  • I suspect that is “People who actually know about national security….” found my evaluations and advisement “ridiculous and counterproductive”, I would have been fired long ago.

  • Not quite sure what the point is, except that it appears that such terrorist acts will continue in order to gain some further political, cultural, or religious end.

  • Getting us to compromise our democratic values, dividing the world into crusaders and jihadis, giving in to orchestrated panic for the sake of perceived safety is how those ends are met. Killing and breaking stuff only furthers the terrorists ends so far. Then we do the rest for them.

    Benjamin Franklin’s dictum is true today as it was back in his day. Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.

  • The more you crow about your alleged credentials, the less credible you sound. Especially when you appear to be simply following along with every ridiculous stance in conservative canon as of late. Moreso when you go through BS drama queen appeals. You overplayed a hand. That’s all.

  • Not to be pedantic, but I think it was actually phrased, “…will soon find they have neither,” but that doesn’t really change the meaning.

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