For many months, government and media in the UK have been voicing concern about British Muslims who have traveled to Syria to enlist as jihadis, with the potential to return to the UK as trained terrorists.
Now Britain’s 130,000 police officers have been warned by the intelligence services to be “vigilant for their personal safety” in the light of a terror alert possibly connected with returnees. The news came as the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, disclosed that “thousands” of terrorist suspects are being monitored in the British capital.
It is not in doubt that there is much substance in the official UK security picture. Yet it is not in doubt either that more than a few Muslims and non-Muslims have gone to Syria for honorable humanitarian purposes. This was conspicuously true of the British hostage, Alan Henning, executed in Syria by IS at the beginning of October, who reportedly converted to Islam in captivity. Another such case, it appears, is Moazzam Begg, the British Muslim and former Guantanamo Bay detainee who was arrested by the British police on terrorism charges in connection with visiting Syria but was recently released with the charges against him dropped.
Insisting that he went to Syria to help victims of a murderous regime, Begg described his detention as “malicious and vindictive”. Forty prominent persons, including lawyers, academics, writers, MPs and Muslims, signed a letter to the Guardian newspaper to agree with him. They maintained that his targeting confirmed the widely held view among British Muslims that there is a concerted campaign to scare them away from involvement in public life. At the same time, they protested at allegations of terrorism and the arrest and detention of charity workers to “slur and curtail” the activities of leading Muslim welfare organizations.
If Britain’s leading politicians are loath to address such remonstrations, it is because, with a general election looming in May 2015, they are determined to betray no sign of appearing soft on national security. What unites Britain’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government and the opposition Labour Party is obsessive anxiety about the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party, the English nationalist party that has just gained its first member of parliament. Though the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, contends that the government has exaggerated the security threat confronting Britain, his party rests much of its popular appeal on lambasting the political establishment for losing control of Britain’s borders and letting in too many immigrants.
UKIP’s stance on immigration inevitably promotes the very fear-mongering that its leader purports to deplore. This autumn Britain’s Conservative Home Secretary, Theresa May, has proposed legislation that would enable police to make arrests simply on grounds of reasonable suspicion that an individual or group appears a threat to public order. Meanwhile, many Conservatives are seeking to outdo UKIP in their eagerness to repudiate Britain’s allegiance to the European Convention on Human Rights, a step that would signal a vast retreat from Britain’s historic commitment to civil liberties.
It is not hard to discern the counterproductive potential in all this. As the Guardian letter regarding Begg pointed out, when even charity workers are systematically scapegoated the danger grows that young Muslims politicized by images of suffering from Syria and Gaza will become yet more disaffected, yet more of a security threat. There are wiser heads within the UK apparatus of state, among them Richard Barrett, the former director of counterterrorism at Britain’s external intelligence service MI6. Barrett believes that Muslims who return to the UK radicalized by their experiences in the Middle East should not be treated as a homogenous group, but on a case-by-case basis, with resources made available to de-brief them with due understanding of their particular motivations.
During the World War II, the British government made it a criminal offense to spread “alarm and despondency.” In the UK at present it often appears that the chief purveyor of alarm and despondency is the government itself and that genuine security issues are being exploited for cynical purposes. The need is acute for a far greater contribution to discussion of national security from civil servants like Richard Barrett who are not actuated by a partisan political agenda.