Last week, I argued against joining in the Syrian war but promised a separate piece on domestic terrorism, which you’ll find below. I’m glad to see signs of MPs thinking carefully, before this week’s vote. Cameron presented his case to the Commons in a calm and non-partisan way and has convinced many Labour MPs, and Corbyn has put the alternative case equally soberly (see http://new.spectator.co.uk/2015/11/jeremy-corbyn-is-more-sensible-about-syria-than-david-cameron/ for a Conservative view of his position). Both deserve a hearing: ultimately, we need to decide this issue separately from the day-to-day party political stuff. But I still think personally that the project is fatally flawed by the absence of a credible plan for what we hope to achieve in Syria.
On domestic terrorism in Europe, the Paris attacks, like the 7/7 attacks in London, are a reminder that there are people who are perfectly willing to kill as many civilians as they can in pursuit of religious craziness. It doesn’t matter what your faith is (if any), how you vote or whether you have any view on the Middle East – if you happen to be around when they start shooting, you’re a potential victim. I don’t agree with those who say they are motivated by this or that Western policy – the terrorist position is not as rational as that.
It’s important to stress, though, that this is not only insane but very, very rare. Paris, 7/7 and 9/11 were all horrific, but they are so familiar because they were exceptional. There are not many people who are quite that fanatical, and they tend to stand out, enabling the security services to do a generally effective job. The danger from terrorists in statistical terms of walking around in London or Paris or Brussels is negligible. It’s horrible, but it’s literally the activity of a lunatic fringe. I don’t say that just to offer reassurance, but to note that we shouldn’t rush into changing our society in fundamental ways because we think that the terrorist threat justifies everything.
What about wider sympathy? Do the madmen swim in a sea of people who passively support them? Do Muslim Britons think differently from non-Muslim Britons? There is some polling on this – not about the terrorism itself, but about people who go to Syria to fight on one side or another. The pollster Survation did a survey on this. They say:
“A clear majority of British Muslims, 71%, say they have “no sympathy with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria”. 5% had “a lot of sympathy” and 15% had “some sympathy”. These figures represent a significant drop in sympathy since March, from 8% and 20% respectively. In total 8% fewer Muslims have any sympathy for Muslims leaving for Syria than they did in March. Interestingly, when we polled the remainder of the British population in March, 4% of non-Muslims expressed “a lot of sympathy with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria” and 9% expressed “some sympathy”, suggesting that attitudes held by the Muslim and non-Muslim populations are not that different.”
Survation has complained to the Sun, which wrote up the survey as “20% of Muslims support ISIS”, which is wildly misleading, since the survey didn’t ask about ISIS and a lot of people fighting in the Syrian quagmire are not in ISIS (according to Mr Cameron’s controversial estimate, 70,000 are fighting against both ISIS and Assad).
So if the terrorists are both rare and isolated in both Muslim and non-Muslim circles, do we need to do anything? Yes, I think we do. I’m more open now to intelligence-gathering of a kind that in normal times I’d resist – for instance, I think it’s of legitimate interest to the security services if someone repeatedly visits extremist websites or corresponds with known extremists, and I’d accept that they should be able to monitor it. Sometimes, there will be a perfectly legitimate explanation – journalistic research, for instance – but in the current situation it’s reasonable that a closer look should be taken. This should be subject to independent review, to ensure that the power is not used disproportionately.
It’s important, too, to encourage active support for counter-terrorism. If you had reason to think that someone you knew was planning to help terrorism, you shouldn’t just shake your head dubiously: you should report it at once. Schools, religious leaders and politicians can all play a part in encouraging this, while separating it clearly from hassling people who simply have a different religion. We do not have a problem with people peacefully attending mosques; we have a problem with terrorism.
Terrorists would like everyone to see the situation as Muslims vs everyone else. We need to be careful not to feed that idea, because the reality is different: it’s terrorists vs everyone else. If we work together, calmly and proportionately, they will be defeated.