Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Security, cohesion and globalising identity

Pauline Neville-Jones, of the Tories’ Security Policy Group, has put out an interesting paper. I was struck by this bit:

“The fact that the [7/7] bombers were born in Britain shocked us into realising the connection between security and community cohesion. The fact that the bombers were radicalised in part by events outside the United Kingdom forced us to recognise that foreign affairs have become domestic affairs. It is no longer possible to look at domestic security policy and foreign policy separately from each other.”

This says more or less same thing, and makes the same mistake, as a report from the thinktank Demos earlier this month:

“terrorism is a social and political phenomenon that needs local roots to take hold. The international network and the concept of the ‘umma’ – the global community of which every Muslim is a part – are important features of al Qaida, but distant and global concerns can gain currency only when they are able to feed off local, everyday, personal grievances, such as those experienced by Muslims in the UK.”

“While factors such as foreign policy and the Middle East are important, they will have no traction unless they can be linked to sources of grievance and anger closer to home, such as the poverty and discrimination suffered by the Muslim community in the UK.”

The Demos report’s very interesting, with a lot of information and non-hysterical discussion (which, in this context, is nice). But I think part of the analysis goes awry.

The writers are dead right (as is Neville-Jones) that foreign policy and domestic policy are interacting and conceptually blurring far more than we are used to, in large part because immigration means that more of the UK public identify and connect with countries of origin/ancestry:

“With the advent of satellite television, cheap air fares and the 24/7 global media, even poor and deprived communities are able to maintain very close relationships with their home countries in ways that were not possible even a decade ago. This makes questions of loyalty and identity increasingly complex and means that influence and power can lie far from ‘home’ and beyond the control of national politicians in the UK.”

They also take pains to distinguish, within British Muslims, between angry political radicalism (quite common) and violent extremism of the al-Qaeda sort (very rare). This is an important and sometimes neglected distinction.

These two excellent points, though, undermine their argument for their central thesis (apparently shared by Neville-Jones), which is that issues of social cohesion, poverty and discrimination as experienced by Muslims in the UK are key to motivating terrorism.

First of all, their distinction between angry radicalism and violent extremism weakens their case for the link between local conditions and extremism.

Deprivation and discrimination in day-to-day life are certainly involved in motivating non-terrorist radicalism – think of the northern ‘race riots’ in the summer of 2001. Back in those days the media talked of ‘Asians’ rather than ‘Muslims’, and foreign policy as an issue of identity-based grievance was barely on the radar. Rioting is obviously violence rather than legitimate protest, but it is comprehensible as a more extreme version of the ordinary politics of the dispossessed; it’s more intelligible as the occasional extremity of radicalism than as some sort of ‘community terrorism’.

But if, as the Demos writers correctly note, most angry, radical Muslims (whether they stop at placards and chants or allow their protests to get rough) are not drawn into the extreme of terrorism. And indeed, those very few that have gone that way (think of Mohammed Siddique Khan) have not, relative to British Muslims overall, been particularly poor, ill-educated or separated from non-Muslim society.

Secondly, the writers (again correctly) observe the increasingly quick and easy exchange of news and opinions between Muslims in the UK and those in families abroad. But this undermines the importance they attach to the connection between awareness of injustice across the umma and of local Muslims experiencing poverty and discrimination. If the identity that terrorist recruiters play on is a global Islamic one, then injustice anywhere will do. And the easier it is to get information from across the world – from Pakistan to Gaza – the less motivationally important local conditions become.

Social cohesion policy is largely beside the point as counterterrorism. I’m going to do something out of character now (and which may earn me a kneecapping from the fiskers) and approvingly quote Madeleine Bunting on this:

“It is crucial to delink terrorism from the integration and diversity agenda. They have nothing to do with each other, so nail the myth… that integration is an anti-terrorism strategy. The least integrated are isolated, non-English-speaking mothers and grandmothers - hardly bomb-making material. Conversely, integration measured in education, employment or social life is no immunisation from the appeal of Islamist extremism - as the CVs of last year's London bombers showed.
“So go back to basics and reiterate that integration is about equality of opportunity, breaking down intergenerational cycles of poverty, and harmonious social relations. These goals may - or may not, depending on international affairs - reduce the appeal of terrorism in the long run, but any serious government should be interested in them in their own right, not simply as a means to the end of defeating terrorism.”

There’s also a very practical point to add to this: policies to promote integration could be futile or even counterproductive if they appear to be motivated by a fear that Muslims are potential terrorists. That would look cynically self-interested as well as deeply (and inaccurately) insulting. In this respect, the Demos report is rather unhelpfully subtitled ‘Community-based approaches to counter-terrorism’.

But, all that said, the broad point that foreign and domestic security policy has to be done differently these days is sound. I watched the excellent Thirteen Days last night, about the Cuban missile crisis, with one government carefully calculating its moves towards another. The world’s much less like that now, and not just because of changes to the balance of state power. There are increasing numbers and types of non-state actors on the world stage, and states’ identities become more problematic as their populations change more quickly than their institutions. New realities mean that old-fashioned realpolitik won’t work.

Immigration has made it harder for governments to use raw patriotism to rally support for self-interested foreign policy, and it has contributed to a complex system of transnational relations operating in parallel with the state system. This muddies the water of international relations (as well as the distinction between domestic and foreign), perhaps to the point where there is more mud than water.

Rational calculation based on an assessment of the opponent’s intentions becomes exponentially harder as the players become more diverse, as the boundaries blur, and as the information available becomes less and less adequate. National governments are still the biggest players, by a long way, but they are losing their ability to set – or even fully understand – the rules of the game.

No comments: