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Charlie Hebdo: Life After the Lost Boys

January 16, 2015

Paris Hebdo March

What now? Has anything fundamentally changed?

In J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the Lost Boys are children “who fall out of their prams when the nurse is looking the other way and if they are not claimed in seven days, they are sent far away to the Never Land”. Do the actions of three lost boys in Paris radically change our daily lives in the West, and particularly in the UK? Should non-Muslims look at every Muslim with a backpack on a bus, tube or train, and reach for a phone to call the police?

Should we give free rein to our government to monitor every phone call we make, email we send, tweet we post, every comment on Facebook and picture on Instagram? To share what they find with other intelligence agencies in the knowledge that information security is only as strong as the weakest link? Are we on Edward Snowden’s side or Theresa May’s?

First things first, if we think we can detect and de-radicalise every Kouachi, Reid and Tsarnaev lurking in our sink estates, middle-class suburbs or university Islamic Societies, we are mistaken, unless we are prepared to become a police state in the accepted sense of the phrase: we become subject to a government that exercises power arbitrarily through the police. Would we tolerate networks of informers in every street ran by a Stasi-like state security apparatus? And if we did become a police state, do we really think that we would be able to prevent every attack on our citizens and institutions? China, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf states are all countries with highly developed, well-funded security forces. They have not been able to stop Uigurs, Chechens, Al-Qaeda and ISIS from launching internal attacks far more frequently than those we have experienced in the West, Charlie Hebdo included.

That said, should we limit the ability of the security services to read our emails, listen to our phone calls and access metadata relating to our use of the web?  The debate in the UK over recent proposed legislation such as the Communications Data Bill – the so-called Snooper’s Charter – is centred on who is allowed to snoop, and on what activities they are allowed to snoop. Are organised child sex abuse, cyber fraud and human trafficking less important than conspiracies to commit terrorist offences? If the police and the security services are allowed to access this data, why not local councils, the Inland Revenue and other statutory bodies? “Snoop creep” is one of the main reasons why there is widespread suspicion of legislation that allows the state to monitor the activities of citizens.

From where I stand, the answer to the first question is that there is a case for making a limited set of criminal activities subject to “enhanced surveillance”, but with strict limits on which bodies can access the information. One of those crimes could be terrorist offences. As for the others, that’s an open question. But sex traffickers and fraudsters are not normally in the business of bringing decapitating soldiers, downing aircraft and detonating dirty bombs, though money launderers and hackers might be.

In terms of who might be entitled to carry out enhanced surveillance, access to the information should be limited to the security services and specific branches of the police – not all the police.

There should also be regular reviews of protocols governing what can be shared with foreign intelligence services. There should be no instances of “you share with me but I don’t have to share with you”. If that means that in some cases there are multi-level protocols that allow limited sharing with some countries – for example countries with shared interest in counter-terrorism but significantly different approaches to human rights – then that’s also worth considering. These protocols should be time-based – to be renewed or not depending on the level of threat at the time of potential renewal.

It should not be beyond the wit and wisdom of most countries committed to the rule of law and the right to privacy to come up with national and international agreements that do not infringe on the basic human rights of their citizens, yet provide effective tools for those whom we entrust with the task of keeping us relatively safe.

The technical issues around encryption are wickedly complex, as this article from the BBC points out. Yet whatever the protestations of technology and social media companies, a fundamental issue is often overlooked. These companies are facilitating the use of their sophisticated encryption techniques by actual and potential terrorists, by fraudsters and sex offenders. Yet they have the freedom to do business, make profits and enhance their value in the very countries that are affected by the malign activities of some of their users. Do they not have a moral responsibility to find a way to enable “dark traffic” to be decrypted by governments in those countries? If they object on the grounds that some governments are as malign as the users, this could be an issue that could be overcome by international convention, and the activities of signatories could be independently monitored, by Amnesty International perhaps. Far-fetched? Maybe, but let’s at least think about it.

Let’s now think about safety. In 2013 over 1700 people died on Britain’s roads. In the same year 551 people were murdered. The number of deaths in that year on British soil due to terrorism was just two: Lee Rigby, murdered in Woolwich by two Muslim extremists, and Mohammed Saleem, a Muslim, murdered by a Ukrainian racial supremacist. Those numbers don’t take into account how many people might have been killed had the police and security forces not done their jobs and thwarted potential attacks. But let’s just bear in mind that you would have had a greater chance over the past decade of being killed by lightning strikes (an average of three deaths per annum). The 2014 statistics are not yet available from the Office of National Statistics, but I’m not aware of any deaths through terrorist acts on British soil last year.

These figures are no cause for complacency. In 2015 there could indeed be instances where the “one attack in a hundred” actually succeeds, with mass casualties as a result. But we need to bear in mind that the 2013 death rate resulted from the current level of surveillance, not through any enhanced techniques currently being contemplated. But they do go to show that we have far more reason to fear for our safety on the roads, in our homes and in the streets for humdrum reasons than in some terror spectacular. Granted, 2013 was the year when Edward Snowden started leaking classified information. The full impact of those leaks, which the British Security Service claims damaged their efforts to monitor potential terrorists, had yet to be felt.

What the Paris attacks have undoubtedly achieved has been to increase fears among people in the West, even if those fears are unjustified by the statistics. And fear produces extreme counter-reactions, which is probably what ISIS and Al-Qaeda want. Attacks on mosques and rhetoric from extreme right organisations only serve to contribute to the extremist narrative of alienation and victimhood.

So what’s to be done about the lost boys waiting in the wings to make their bids for paradise? For those who are successfully indoctrinated, not much, I fear. The emphasis should be on those who have not yet fallen for the extremist narrative. As a number of pundits have pointed out, there is no point in trying to convince young people that the actions that they are contemplating are “contrary to Islam”, because it’s not difficult to justify any act of ISIS or Al-Qaeda by using a dark interpretation of scriptures. People will believe what best fits their own realities and offers them hope of a better life – in this world or the next.

What does make sense is to push the concept of “and” rather than “either/or”. In other words that you can be a good Muslim and a good citizen of the country where you were brought up; that you don’t have to make a choice between one and another. That starts in families and schools. Easily said than done, you might think, especially with the prevalence of self-appointed scholars preaching a message of extremism and – as the BBC’s Panorama put it the other night – leading people to the door and opening it without pushing them through.

In the long run the answer must surely be for governments and NGOs to encourage counter-narratives. Not middle-aged or elderly scholars speaking the language of the patriarch, but people who can communicate with the young at their level. And I’m not talking about state-sponsored stooges – the kids would see through them in five seconds. Any successful campaign will have to come from the ranks of Muslims themselves. The counter-narratives will need to make as much sense and use similar methods – video, social media and so forth – as ISIS and Al-Qaeda use. They must also challenge the interpretations on which the extremist ideology is built.

What to do about the poisonous imams who lead the lost boys to the door? If they are of foreign origin they can be deported. If they’re UK-born, not so easy. You can change the definition of hate crime in an attempt to silence them, at the risk of driving them underground. You can bug the mosques, as the Saudis have started doing, but that will only force them to find other venues. And even if you can clamp down on extremist agitators on British soil, you still have the problem of stopping those who use TV and the internet to broadcast their messages from other countries.

One thing you can do – preferably in concert with other countries, is to introduce laws that make the social media companies criminally or financially responsible for certain types of content that they inadvertently publish through their sites and fail to take down promptly. At the same time make it easier for individuals to issue “cease and desist” requests to the companies on pain of financial penalties. Yes, the devil is in the detail, and I know that there could be serious implications around freedom of expression with this approach, but again it should be possible to limit the scope of such provisions.

Next, how do you deal with ISIS and Al-Qaeda? Paradoxically, ISIS is potentially easier to deal with than the various Al-Qaeda offshoots, because it has chosen to create a state within defined areas even if those areas are continually expanding or contracting as the result of attempts by other countries to supress it. It therefore presents a defined geographical target.

On the other hand the groups in Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and Sinai are waging guerrilla war from shifting bases. They are difficult to track down and their command structures are not always clear.

In another article from the BBC, Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations and Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, argues that the appeal of ISIS is strong among the disenfranchised poor of the region, and its military success is the result of assistance from military officers from Saddam Hussein’s defeated army. He claims that its indigenous fighters are driven by social and economic motivation rather than religious ideology.

“….one of Islamic State’s most harmful lasting impacts in the region is its strategy of neutralizing or expunging civilian-driven strategies that could forge not only national but regional transformation.

Accordingly, the key to weakening IS lies in working closely with Sunni communities it has co-opted, a bottom-up approach that requires considerable material and ideological investment.

The most effective means to degrade IS is to dismantle its social base by winning over hearts and minds, a difficult and prolonged task, and to resolve the Syria conflict that has given IS motivation, resources and a safe heaven.

Indeed, there is no simple or quick solution to rid the Middle East of IS because it is a manifestation of the breakdown of state institutions, dismal socio-economic conditions and the spread of sectarian fires in the region.”

The same could be said about the Al-Qaeda offshoots, and in 2006 that approach dealt successfully – for a while – with the insurgency in Anbar Province.

The problem is that winning over hearts and minds is difficult to achieve in areas that ISIS has conquered because of its ruthless suppression of opposition. But given its stated aim of creating a global caliphate, ISIS can’t stand still and consolidate without diluting its raison d’etre. It must continue to expand, or it risks imploding for reasons I outlined in a previous post:

“His (Baghdadi’s) credibility most likely depends on being able maintain forward momentum – to expand the caliphate ever outwards. If he calculated that that ISIS had reached a high water mark beyond which, even temporarily, it could not go without risk of implosion, he might find that his creation no longer offered the same attraction to the thousands of young people who have joined its ranks over the past year. After all, a state with no enemy to conquer and no unbelievers to massacre or enslave would eventually start to feel like any other state.”

Not only that, but economic and political isolation will eventually, as Gerges argues, weaken its appeal within the Sunni tribes.

Therefore, much as governments, politicians and public opinion, horrified by events in Iraq and Syria, would like nothing more than to see ISIS crushed by military action and its leaders brought to justice or killed, a better strategy might be containment – to prevent it from expanding further and isolate it from sources of funding – thereby halting its momentum.

Critics of containment would argue that leaving ISIS in place would allow it to consolidate its hold on the territory it already controls, which in effect could create one vast training camp for violent global jihad. Whichever option the current anti-ISIS alliance selects, there’s anecdotal evidence that de facto accommodation of the nascent state is already taking place, particularly on the border with the rest of Iraq, where rumour has it that Iraqi border authorities are refusing to allow truckers passage from ISIS territory unless they have certification that they have paid a levy to the caliphate’s tax collectors.

What is certain is that military action without parallel political initiatives could well make the problem worse. It could cause thousands of deaths and yet more bitterness. Even if successful, it would cause diehard foot soldiers to go elsewhere and try again.

If political settlements – within Iraq, Yemen and Somalia, between Iran, its neighbours and the global stakeholders, between Russia and the US – were to create the conditions for economic prosperity in the areas bordering ISIS territory, they would accelerate the disillusionment of those in the territories with no ideological or religious commitment to the cause. Easier said than done, but efforts should intensify.

Last but not least, if you are Westerner, and not a Muslim, reading your paper every day and talking to your friends about the threat of Islamic extremism, listening to politicians urging extreme measures against what they believe is a Muslim fifth column in your country, it’s time to stop and reflect. If you have no personal experience of interacting with Muslim people, try meeting them and talking to them. After all, people are first and foremost people. You might be surprised at how many people don’t conform to the stereotypes.

I have employed Muslims, worked with them and have many Muslim friends, both in Britain and in countries where Muslims are in the majority – and I’m not talking about Birmingham, the city of my birth! Our lifestyles may be different in some respects, and we may not agree about some things, but isn’t that something you can say about most people you meet and befriend, whatever their religious beliefs? If you think my tone is a tad sanctimonious, consider the gesture of the people of Sydney, who reached out to their Muslim neighbours after the recent attack there.

I know this is something easy for me to say as someone living a comfortable life far away from the banlieux and the sink estates. But that was not always the case. I have lived among poor Muslims, I have seen racism and poverty at first hand both in Britain and in Muslim countries and I have encountered many people who do not blame the West for their personal predicaments and have not resorted to extremist ideologies.

There’s a commonly quoted argument that most Christians and Jews don’t take extreme action when they find their faith being mocked, and that therefore Muslims should take an equally relaxed attitude. But it doesn’t hold up when you consider that many Muslims feel that they are personally defined by their faith, and to ridicule Islam and the Prophet Mohammed is a direct threat to their identity. Maybe the cartoonists understood that, but felt that nobody should be above ridicule. Yet would those cartoonists have mocked their children or friends for being fat, for having cerebral palsy or Downs Syndrone, or simply for being less talented than them? I doubt it, because what came over in a number of the obituaries was that these were “kind people”.

Non-Muslims may feel that the Prophet does not need to be protected, and so do many Muslims. Margo Catts, who writes an excellent blog from Saudi Arabia, explores this further in her post Too Big to Hurt. Rising above insults does not make them less hurtful, but as I learned as a small child, the best way you respond to teasing from your peers is not to react – no reaction, no fun for those who would try to torment you. But that’s not how the lost boys saw it.

Ignorance, lack of education, poverty, a sense of being adrift in a hostile country with alien values may be reasons cited for the rise of extremism among young people and the attack on Charlie Hebdo specifically. But they are not excuses.

We can bomb Mosul and Raqqah into the stone age. We can lock up anyone who shows even a suggestion of views with which we disagree. We can read people’s mail and watch them from street corners. But we can’t look into their souls. And the more we isolate those who don’t look, sound, dress and believe as we do, the greater the chance that things will happen that we can’t guard against.

The problem of the uneasy relationship between minority Muslim communities and fearful non-Muslims in the West will not go away. Muslim Britons, French, Swedes and Americans are not going away. They are not “the other”. They are part of us.

As for the lost boys, there are many still out there. We need to bring them back from Neverland before they are lost forever.

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