In Ealing Southall there is one of the highest concentrations of south Asians in the UK. Though they now call Britain home there of course remains a strong connection to the countries and communities from which they or their parents came. My diaspora constituents see events in India and Pakistan through a unique lens, and many of them have a strong interest in how Britain and our allies interact with that part of the world. For the Muslim members of this community, that interest often extends to the wider Muslim world.
It is absolutely crucial that our foreign policy and counter-terrorism strategy take this connection into account. It has not always done so. The war on terror provided much ammunition for anger and alienation in places like Southall. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unfortunately fostered a perception that the west is disproportionately aggressive towards Muslim countries, while controversies over certain practices by our allies, such as the use of drones and targeted killings, detention without trial in Guantanamo Bay, the use of torture, and extraordinary rendition, have added fuel to the fire.
Unsurprisingly the former MI5 head, Eliza Manningham-Buller, has echoed these concerns. In her review of our military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, she warned that we may have ‘heightened the extremist view that the west was trying to bring down Islam.’
The way we have been doing counter-terrorism over the past decade is too narrow-minded. Attention only seems to be paid to the tactical military value of carrying out certain actions, whether they be drone strikes, indefinite detention, or other things. Not enough attention is paid to the bigger picture. We should, at every turn, be asking ourselves how these actions are being perceived and whether they are causing anger, alienation, and even radicalisation – both in places like Pakistan and also in our communities here in the UK.
Some will argue that, by doing so, we are allowing ourselves to be held hostage by extremists. It is, however, this perverse thinking that gets us into trouble. The fight against terrorism has a political dimension, the importance of which far outweighs the military dimension. Indeed, the war on terror was a political failure that exposed the limitations of military power. If we are going to defeat terrorism, we must win the political battle. This means bringing public perception and opinion into the equation.
We must also make a greater effort to communicate Britain’s foreign policy objectives to diaspora communities. We should have a two-way dialogue, on the one hand integrating people’s views into the policymaking process, and on the other explaining that counter-terrorism is not simply about attacking Muslims. Polls show convincingly that a majority of Afghans, for example, are strongly opposed to the Taliban and resent the indiscriminate violence they use against civilians. We should use this to show that British soldiers are playing a positive role protecting Afghans.
It is important to consider the potential security dividend of engaging with diaspora communities. They have a crucial role to play in spotting and discouraging people from becoming radicalised and taking up violence. With a number of British Muslims going to Syria to be trained by extremist Islamist factions, the importance of this cannot be underestimated. Muslims are ready to step up and help tackle radicalisation. Indeed, they can be powerful advocates for non-violence, but they must be given the opportunity to help shape a British foreign policy that seeks to protect and empower Muslims abroad.
I strongly believe that if we build a foreign policy and counter-terrorism strategy that command the support of all of Britain’s communities it will be much more effective. The counterproductive elements could be replaced by more nuanced political strategies that drain terrorists of their support and legitimacy, and which encourage diaspora communities to take ownership of efforts to root out extremism. The result would be a more united and secure country.
Virendra Sharma is member of parliament for Ealing Southall and a member of parliament’s Joint Human Rights Committee. He tweets @VirendraSharma
The Labour Campaign for Human Rights will hold a public event on Wednesday 19 March exploring the relationship between counter-terrorism and human rights. For more information please go to www.lchr.org.uk/events
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