British society has become increasingly and richly diverse in recent decades. Mostly, people live in harmony, co-existing free of overt tension.
Yet, as an active politician for the last 25 years, I have always been conscious that a minority was not reconciled to Britain’s multi-culturalism. Far right movements never disappeared and found political expression in the British National P arty and the UK Independence Party, amongst others.
In comparison, until recently, Britain’s immigrants were rarely, if ever, sources of extremism. Tensions tended to be within and between immigrant populations. But with the rise of globalised violent extremism, especially from several Muslim countries, tiny numbers within Britain’s immigrant populations have become radicalised, with larger numbers becoming disaffected.
This radicalization has been catalysed further by various foreign policy decisions, above all Iraq, and by the internet and social media.
A vicious circle of mistrust has developed, only partly fuelled by irresponsible and reckless Islamaphobia in the mainstream media. As a result we see less dialogue rather than more.
As a local MP, I get to know people from many backgrounds and faiths. As I help individuals in my advice surgeries or visit our local mosque, it’s been deeply distressing to see this increased alienation and distrust. As a Christian, called to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’, this is one of the most backward steps I’ve seen in my lifetime.
The most striking example from my local work involved Guantanamo Bay. Bisher Al-Rawi, a Muslim man from New Malden on business in Africa, was illegally rendered by the CIA to Guantanamo, via a period being tortured in prison at Bagram Airport, Kabul. It took more than four years of hard work to get him released – including two trips to Washington. He was never charged with any offence.
This human rights work wasn’t universally supported in my constituency or in the media. I was attacked in The Sun, in an article with gross factual errors.
To counter extremism we must work with communities not against them. Help them build resilience to the invidious forces of radicalisation. Empower them to integrate.
The Government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy – aimed at stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism – is well-intentioned and has some effective elements. Yet the way it has been implemented has created resentment and distrust, and it is now ripe for reform.
Liberal Democrats talk about ‘engage’ not ‘prevent’. We argue for dialogue to build trust. We demand that politicians and newspaper editors alike take greater care in their choice of words.
To win hearts and minds, we have to move beyond the images and stereotypes, and see the person. We have to challenge ourselves.
Photo by Yee-Liu Williams