John Jenkins: The UK still has much to learn from our European allies on dealing with Islamism

8 Jan

Sir John Jenkins is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange. He is a former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and co-author of the Government’s Muslim Brotherhood Review of 2015.

So Brexit is done. Well, sort of done anyway. But as some people are keen to point out, a lot still needs sorting out as we rebuild our institutional relationships and capacity outside the EU.

My colleague, Richard Walton, has already written for ConservativeHome about police and security cooperation in the new era. I share his hope that our relationships with European partners in this area will remain robust. As liberal democratic states confronted by similar threats, we have a strong shared interest in ensuring this happens.

And one of the main threats is that from Islamism. Some people like to claim that right-wing extremism (RWE) or white supremacism are analogous. It may indeed be the case that they are on a rising trend, albeit from a low base. And recent scenes from Capitol Hill are undeniably disturbing. But if you look at the data for terrorist attacks within Europe, the claim is seriously misleading.

According to Europol’s latest report, in 2019 ten people were killed and 26 injured as a result of Islamist violence within EU member states (including the UK); one person was injured as a result of right-wing violence (RWV). If you include the 17 EU citizens killed in the April 2019 Islamist attacks in Sri Lanka the figures look even starker. Even if you include plots that were disrupted before coming to fruition, in the same period there were 21 cases of planned Islamist violence, compared to 6 attributable to RWE.

In terms of terrorism arrests, Europol’s data for 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 show that across EU member states, there were 3,057 Islamists arrested on terrorism charges, against 108 right-wing extremists.

As I have argued in detail in a recent paper on Islamism for Policy Exchange, organised Islamism is a 100-year old sacralised social movement with global reach and an ideology that is designed to mobilise a range of ethno-confessional grievances in the pursuit of sometimes violent but always socially revolutionary change. The Cameron government took the threat seriously, because the Prime Minister himself understood the dangers. There are encouraging signs that the current Government is also beginning to understand them.

But we need constantly to guard against the risk of institutional complacency and inertia. In the last seven months of 2020, the UK experienced four Islamist attacks (including – as we now know – Reading). These won’t be stopped by piecemeal policy, police or local authority engagement with problematic Islamist actors who want the entire PREVENT programme scrapped, or the sort of inertia that seems to have contributed to the catastrophic security failure at the Manchester Arena in 2017.

Instead we might try to learn from what is now happening elsewhere in Europe, in particular from France and Austria, where the horrific Islamist attacks in the second half of 2020 have given new urgency to EU efforts led by Emannuel Macron and Sebastian Kurz to address not just the epiphenomena but the roots of the Islamist threat we collectively face.

I and others have consistently argued that this threat is not simply one of violence. It is ideological, representing a powerfully sustained challenge to the very basis of the modern, liberal democratic state. And – as I and a colleague have just discussed in another new paper for Policy Exchange – both Austria and France (and to a certain extent Germany) offer important examples of how democratic states can try to address it.

There are good reasons for this. In Austria, for example, an activist Islamist presence dates back several decades, starting with Arab exiles and Turkish-based organisations and individuals, often with worrying links to jihadi networks in the Balkans, Chechnya, and the Middle East. The Austrian authorities have built a capacity to monitor both violent and non-violent forms of Islamism.

But there are gaps, and the current Chancellor has made the effort to fill them a key part of his policy platform – reinforced in the wake of the 2 November 2020 terrorist attack in Vienna. This has placed a premium on tackling Islamism as an ideology.

His government has announced new measures specifically targeting this ideology. These include a move to make adherence to political Islam a criminal offence; the closure of Islamic religious and cultural associations; the introduction of an imam registry; the tightening of existing legislation governing the establishment and conduct of NGOs – including, but not limited to, external funding; increased sentencing tariffs for the use of prohibited symbols; and improved coordination and data exchange between law enforcement agencies and the bodies overseeing associations and self-governing religious bodies such as the IGGÖ (the Islamische Glaubensgemeinschaft in Österreich – the Islamic faith organisation officially recognised by the government).

In all this, Kurz has sought to underline the primacy of Austrian law. As in Germany, where the 1948 Grundgesetz (Basic Law) identifies a series of fundamental rights which define a self-consciously liberal democratic order, Austria’s federal constitution and the Basic State Law already contain provisions regulating the separate spheres of state and religion.

Other laws define certain political and ethical boundaries in more detail: notably, the 1947 Verbotsgesetz (Prohibition Act) and the 1912 Islamgesetz (Law on Islam), revised in 2015. The former criminalises the promotion or dissemination of National Socialist activity and ideology and also various forms of antisemitism. The latter provides a legal basis for the governance of Muslim affairs by certain self-regulating bodies, which in practice means the IGGÖ. It stipulates a range of rights but also obligations, most notably acceptance of the precedence of national over Islamic law; and a positive approach towards society and state.

In France, Macron has taken a similar line, bolstered by public outrage at the gruesome murder of Samuel Paty and the assault on Christian worshippers in Nice in October. As in Austria, pressure for a more coherent and comprehensive approach has been building for some time. If you look back at the French concern about ‘Londonistan’ in the 1990s, the disturbing 2004 report on Islamisation in French schools by Jean-Pierre Obin, the then Inspector-General of Education, or the report by the French Senate last summer on Islamist radicalisation more generally, you can see a trend.

Like Kurz, Macron – for all the ill-informed criticism from some US and British journalists and the usual self-serving apologetics of Islamists and their sympathisers – has hit on something important. Both of them identify the supremacy of secular national law, with its roots in 2000 years of European history, as a fundamental principle. In addition they are seeking agreement for practical and coordinated law enforcement measures across the EU – in particular for more effective control of the Schengen borders, better data exchange, restrictions on returning foreign fighters, and the diminution of terrorist content on social media.

And all this is reflected in an increasingly rich public debate not just in the populist press, but across the Franco-German linguistic space: on Deutsche Welle or the ÖRF and in the philosopher-haunted pages of Le Monde, Le Figaro, Die Welt, Die neue Zürcher Zeitung or Die Frankfurter Allgemeine.

No one is claiming that the Austrian, the French or indeed the German way of addressing threats to the legitimacy of the liberal democratic order is perfect. Many critics have in particular questioned the sense or practicality of outlawing Islamism. But each country offers an important case study of ways in which the liberal state can start to build public support to counter those who deny the fundamental principles on which it has been built, all first recognising that it cannot simply be neutral in the face of that challenge.

That’s an impulse we seem sometimes to have lost in this country over the last decade. Now that we’re outside the EU it might be easier to recognise what unites us – and act on it. As a newly sovereign state, we should not be embarrassed to admit that we can and should continue to seek lessons for our own public policy from European partners. After all, we may still have something to learn.