When confronted with a very difficult problem, it's common to act out of pure desperation, like the drivers on 'America's Wildest Police Chases' who can't pull over because they've just chugged 16 Buds, have a kilo of crack cocaine in the trunk and an illegal firearm under the passenger seat, prompting them to drive the wrong way up the interstate because there simply isn't *anything* left to do.
And so it is with terrorism. Despite the success by the security services in preventing the (alleged) airline bombings, the powers-that-be are still looking utterly bewildered by terror in general (months on, can anyone explain what the point of the 'terror threat level' is?) and Muslim extremists in particular. And thus we have another idea born out of desperation: talking to 'the Muslim community'.
This week John Prescott joined meetings chaired by communities secretary Ruth Kelly with Muslim 'leaders'. According to the government, issues covered included extremism, the role of women, young people and imams. Meanwhile Sir Ian Blair, head of the Met and the Foghorn Leghorn of law enforcement, said: 'When will the Mus... I say, when will the Muslim community in this country accept an absolute, undeniable, total truth: that Islamic terrorism is their problem?' Yes, perhaps the Commander in Chief of UK Muslims should send orders to Yorkshire Regional Muslim HQ, where a despatch rider can be sent out to the Muslim Command (Dewsbury) telling them to call a ceasefire.
And this is kind of the problem. There's something depressingly futile about this focus on 'the community'. We've heard it a thousand times before in the context of Northern Ireland, e.g. 'Father Thomas McIntyre today called for calm in the Republican and Loyalist communities after a father-of-three was shot dead in West Belfast....' Whatever community leaders might say, no matter how sensible, it's not going to cut much ice with IRA gunmen retrieving weapons from an arms cache in preparation for a retaliatory shooting.
Appealing to 'the Muslim community' is much the same. By the time you're seriously contemplating blowing up an airliner, you're probably quite far outside the influence of everyone except your terrorist mates. There's also a weird assumption that Muslim A knows exactly what Muslim B is doing, and while many Muslims do indeed have strong ties to their own 'community' via their religion, why should we expect 'the Muslim community' to have some magical ability to know when someone is a terrorist? All the actual and alleged home-grown terrorists seem to have shown few outward signs of being terrorists - or indeed merely terror-curious.
What the government and Ian Blair are particularly asking 'the Muslim community' to do is intervene before young people become involved in extremism. But again, there's an assumption that grown-up Muslims are able to spot the signs of creeping radicalism in young Muslims (Muslings?) and somehow put them on a better path: 'Here, watch this copy of "Diff'rent Strokes". It's all about tolerance and accepting people for who they are.'
You get the feeling that the government has no real strategy, just a woolly faith in the power of dialogue. Integral to the whole issue of engaging with 'the Muslim community' is what Muslims actually think, something that is far from clear. The assumption has broadly been that the vast majority of Muslims are opposed to terrorism - certainly in the UK. But recently Channel 4 commissioned a survey of around 1,000 Muslims for its show 'What Muslims Want'. Some of the findings, if accurate, are a little bit disturbing.
Almost one in four British Muslims believed that the London bombings were justified because of UK support for the 'War on Terror', including the invasion of Iraq. Another 45 per cent believed 9/11 was a conspiracy by the American and Israeli governments, a figure that was double the number who believed it wasn't a conspiracy. Another 30 per cent said they would prefer to live under Sharia law than UK law.
What to make of all this? It always pays to be a bit sceptical of surveys, because so many are so obviously wrong. To be honest, we find it hard to believe that 45 per cent of Muslims are thick enough to believe that 9/11 was a conspiracy. If so, the average mosque would need signs saying 'Open door before attempting to pass through doorway'. We also suspect that a lot of people who believe in Sharia law probably have in mind less extreme versions than that practised in Saudi Arabia, which is the popular Western view of Islamic law.
As for believing 7/7 was justified, it could be that people are making an abstract judgement, based roughly on the logic that 52 killed in the London bombings is a fraction of the death toll in Iraq. But if these figures are broadly true, then a large minority of UK Muslims hate living in a secular, liberal democracy, believe in patently ludicrous conspiracy theories and don't have a huge problem with living in a tit-for-tat cycle of violence where everyone is a legitimate target for events taking place halfway across the world. (It is, however, worth pointing out that there's a big difference between having questionable views and acting on them.)
The upshot of all this is that there isn't very much to talk about with 'the Muslim community'. The majority of Muslims oppose terrorism; those that don't are unlikely to be swayed. (And the government has no real concessions to offer where there *is* a genuine grievance, e.g. the occupation of Iraq.)
It's even possible that Ruth Kelly's dialogues could be counterproductive. The government may think it's opening a dialogue, but what it's also doing is reinforcing the view that supporters of Islam have some particular claim over what goes on in the UK. They don't, at least not any more than Christians or Jews or atheists or Wiccans. (And there's a chilling thought - living under Wiccan law. You'd probably have to worship twigs four times a day, or something.)
We can't imagine there'll be a great deal of straight-talking at these meetings. Which is a shame, because Muslims shouldn't be placated over some of the more dubious views that some, or many of them, hold. Instead of meetings with Ruth Kelly, herself a member of a weirdy religious sect, the government might do better to try and set the agenda by pointing out some uncomfortable truths:
- Islam is one of many religions, all of which are essentially made-up. Muslims don't have any particular right to be offended by secular society, whatever its shortcomings.
- Has it occurred to moderate Muslims that by constantly promoting Islam and making demands on the basis of their religion, that they might actually be promoting the cause of extremists?
- Can Muslims who think the London bombings were justified explain the moral framework that in some way makes UK citizens responsible for wars in Iraq or the Lebanon, both of which most are opposed to?
- 9/11 was not a US or Jewish conspiracy. Anyone who believes it was is an idiot. That's really all there is to it.
Or is it?