Debate and discussion: Undercut the terrorists

Submitted by Anon on 27 April, 2004 - 9:00

In Solidarity 3/49 Alan Johnson objects to the arguments in my article"War on terror, war on rights" about socialists not trusting the state. They are anarchoid, he says.

The AWL is in favour of the rule of law - a society with rules which stop people from killing and hurting other people, apart from in some cases of self-defence. The police sometimes do a socially useful job, catching murderers and so on, sometimes well and at other times extremely badly. We don't scream "capitalist tools!" when the police and courts pursue child abusers, prosecute rapists and lock up murderers.

But - and this is the difference between us - we do not preach trust in the police or the state.

Even in areas like the prosecution of rape, where much has been done to reform and democratise the way the police and courts behave, we still don't preach trust in the police and courts.

If the working class now, and in the future, is to understand why the courts are bad places in general for pursuing justice, that the courts are adjuncts to a system of exploitation, then we ought not to preach trust in any part of the criminal justice system. We advocate democratic reform of the system, but also distrust.

That is the general framework the AWL holds to. It is about thinking through what is in the best interests of the working class.

A slightly tangential, but I think instructive, example. In 1987 the AWL decided we did not want to sloganise about Troops Out of in Northern Ireland. Troops Out without a political settlement would mean that the two communities in Northern Ireland would tear each other apart, civil war would escalate, and many more people would die.

Was that tantamount to preaching trust in the British troops? No. We did not advocate troops in! We wanted to emphasise working class unity and the case for a democratic solution to the communal conflict - calling for a united federal Ireland. We continued to oppose the repression of the British state - the legal framework of arbitrary arrests, searches, and a truncated judicial process under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Alan complains about my article saying "there is no real emergency" (with the terror groups). That was factually incorrect, he says.

Of course we don't know the extent of the true threat from terror in Britain. What we do know is that the definition of emergency used by the government, taken from the European Convention on Human Rights, does not describe the situation in Britain today. That is: "an exceptional situation of crisis or emergency which affects the whole of the population and constitutes a threat to the organised life of the community."

There can't be a intelligent person alive who is not expecting an unquantifiable massacre somewhere, sometime in the UK - probably in London. We know the jihadi terror groups are well organised and well financed. That is all very scary.

Nonetheless, would even the existence of a big layer of active jihadi terrorists in Britain, ready to perpetrate an atrocity, constitute a threat to the organised life of the community?

In 2002 the area of the world with the most terrorist attacks (with many, many people killed) was Kashmir. That communal conflict engulfs the whole of Kashmiri society. They are living in a state of emergency. Contrast this to Britain, and I think you see the difference in scale and the problem with the definition.

The Government does, from time to time but not consistently, try to tell us that we are living in a state of emergency. At other times the message is "don't panic". The point is that whatever the Government says, it is spin. They do not let plebs know the basis of their intelligence, or what they consider to be the real extent of the terrorist threat. They should do.

London has been known as a safe haven for Islamists of all stripes for a long time. Yet the raids and arrests of people under the new anti-terror legislation have visibly clawed in many innocent people in the Muslim communities. I conclude that the anti-terror legislation is about more than just dealing efficently with terrorist individuals and groups.

Alan's final complaint about the article is that it said only socialism can stop terrorism and fundamentalism. That was abstract propaganda.

The article was about the British state's anti-terror legislation, not about the circumstances that give rise to, succour and perpetuate this kind of political ideology, or what can be done about that in the short-term. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to ask that question.

Elsewhere in the same issue of Solidarity we gave some pointers towards political change. In the editorial we argued for the rebuilding of labour movements, movements which are able to build up social solidarity.

What else?

  • Solidarity with the emerging Iraqi labour movement and its struggle for survival, against occupation forces and the internal reactionary forces in Iraq.
  • Solidarity with the secular working class forces in the Middle East - in Iran and in Pakistan for example - against capitalism and Islamic fundamentalism.
  • Genuine democratic reform in the Middle East, as opposed to the US models of continuing warlord rule in Afghanistan or the sham election processes of Saudi Arabia.
  • Peace in Israel-Palestine - for Israel to get out of the occupied territories and for two states.

Of course, even all of that would not rid the world of the splinters of reaction and nihilism. It would put us in a better position to do that.

In a real civil war against large extreme Islamist groups with a large membership we would accept civil war measures. Even then, we would preach distrust. In most circumstances, repression - even limited repression - is counter-productive.

Modern political Islamism has its roots in Egypt. It has been savagely repressed there. The result? The creation of even more reactionary and even more dangerous groups.

According to Liberty, of the people who have been arrested under Prevention of Terrorism legislation up to mid-2000 (some 7,000) the vast majority have been released without charge. Where people have been charged, the charges are in the majority of cases not related to terrorism. Almost without exception those people could have been arrested under ordinary criminal law.

Both recent special "anti-terrorist" legislation, and the old "prevention of Terrorism" law from 1974, create a special two tier system of justice. Murder, fraud, the possession of firearms and bombs, theft and illegal residence are all crimes within the existing law, what anti-terrorist legislation does is make personal and house searches and detention without charge and access to lawyers easier for the police. If there were terrorist or a bomb factory on every street in every town in Britain then the legislators might have a case. But there isn't.

Since the latest increase in search powers (under the 2001 Act) there has been a huge increase in searches (32,100 in 2002-3). Just 380 people were arrested as a result of those searches. And only 77 people have been charged under the new powers since 2001.

The heavy policing is already, rightly, causing resentment, a resentment that may well recruit more terrorists than the few the cops arrest.

As far as I can judge there is only one area of the new legislation that socialists might not oppose. Even there we would want the legislation framed differently. That is in the area of financial investigations. According to Loretta Napoleoni, in Modern Jihad, the jihadi terrorists draw huge funds from charitable donations, arms and drugs smuggling and money laundering. But for the police to do an efficient job they would have to have some control over some big banks and the Saudi state!

Meanwhile socialists and working class organisations in places like Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia attempt to defend themselves from Islamic fundamentalists. The roots of our problems in the UK and theirs in those Muslim countries are surprising similar - the crisis of working class political representation.

In the UK, for many years the labour movement has significantly failed to organise young people, still less reach out to black and Asian workers or unemployed youth in Britain's cities. We are back to making propaganda for politics in the class struggle. Unless we can revive the labour movement, more young people will be alienated.

There is a lot to be said for abstract socialist propaganda! It is possible to convince young, disillusioned Muslim youth about a different vision of a better world, an equality that is not based on an enlightened elect conquering and suppressing unbelievers. Democracy does not have to be about an emptied-out shell of meaningless political slogans that have no connection to real lives.

A bigger socialist organisation - one the size of the SWP - but with principled politics could win many Muslim youth away from the Islamists. Sadly, as we know, that process is not going to start with the SWP. It has to start with people like us. And we will have to find a way to do that.

Rosalind Robson

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