New terror law will harm race relations

New terror law will harm race relations


Written by: John Tummon

We reproduce here the letter sent by the Director of Oldham Race Equality Partnership to Tony Blair on proposed anti-terror laws and the damage they are likely to cause.

The Executive Committee of the Oldham Race Equality Partnership has asked me to write to government, local MPs and others who are in a position to affect the above proposed legislation and to set out our concerns, particularly about provisions in clauses 1, 2 and 21 which we believe will be discriminatory and / or cause further damage to race relations.

Our overall concern is that government has no joined-up strategy on the post 7/7 situation in the sense that it has developed policy on the security implications of 7/7 quite separately from considering its race relations implications. Specifically, it seems, in our view, to have given no consideration within the Terrorism Bill to its effects on race relations and, in effect, acted as if the race relations implications of 7/7 are of little comparative interest to government – when the Task Force published its report (Preventing Extremism Together), this was allowed to slip away almost unnoticed.

This is entirely against the spirit of the government’s own Race Relations Act (as amended in 2000), which requires new policies to be assessed for their impact on race relations. While this requirement does not extend, legally, to new legislation, there can be no doubt that the intention of parliament in amending the Race Relations Act was that it should guide government towards looking for the impact on race relations when it is carrying out its function of legislating.

It also flies in the face of the March 2005 recommendation of the Home Affairs Committee on Terrorism and Community Relations, that ‘the Home Office review the links between its work on community cohesion and anti- terrorism’.

The race relations implications of 7/7 have been given a much lower priority than the security implications and yet there has been no community consultation on the Terrorism Bill even roughly comparable to the visits to Oldham and other places by Hazel Blears and other ministers to hear from us on what could be done locally to reduce inter-racial tensions in the aftermath of 7/7. There has been no national Task Force with representatives of Muslim organisations and no consultative process asking us what we wanted by way of protection against bombers. The Task Force’s Terms of Reference were steered away from a definition of security which encompassed the issues being simultaneously developed, quite separately, within the Terrorism Bill.

We can see no justification for this inconsistency or for the artificial separation of community relations from security – in November, the police launched a national consultation on policing, asking the public how we want to be protected from criminals, so why is it apparently inappropriate to ask us what we want by way of protection against bombers?

This failure to consult on the race relations implications of the Terrorism Bill will lead in practice to undermining the work of the Task Force, the considerable race relations work being carried out by such as ourselves at a local level in response to 7/7 and, more generally, the work carried out up and down the country since 2001 to improve community cohesion in the aftermath of the riots of that year and the attack on New York.

Government is well aware that the British Muslim community has been increasingly alienated since 9/11 from British foreign policy in the middle east in general and the role of Britain in President Bush’s so-called ‘War on Terror’ in particular. Against the background also of the 2001 riots in Oldham, Bradford and Burnley and the consequent increase in support for the BNP among adjacent white communities, the British Muslim community has increasingly been required to demonstrate its loyalty to the UK at precisely the same time that it has felt under increasing pressure from the tone of government foreign policy statements and from sections of the white population who continue to vote in large numbers for the BNP and to carry out racist attacks on Muslim individuals as well as on Mosques.

The 6th report of the Home Affairs Committee on Terrorism and Community Relations endorsed this view in its conclusion that ‘community relations have deteriorated, although the picture is by no means uniform, and that there are many positive examples to set against our overall assessment. International terrorism and the response to it have contributed to this deterioration, particularly in relations between the majority community and the Muslim community’.

OREP works in a borough in which there can be no doubt that community relations have deteriorated as a result of terrorism AND the response to it.

More specifically, British Foreign Policy has over the past 4 years involved a military invasion of two Muslim countries, which have led to repeated allegations that British soldiers have tortured Muslims. The government has done little to prevent the United States’ unlawful incarceration of many hundreds of Muslims, including British Muslims, in Guantanamo and elsewhere. In these circumstances, and bearing in mind too the fourfold increase in stop and search operations carried out among British Asians by the police, under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, it has never been harder for British Muslims to feel British than it is right now. This response to terrorism puts a particular strain on race relations, or on community cohesion, as it is more fashionably called today. This is the context with which OREP and our partners grapple in Oldham and which makes our work in helping the borough recover from the Riots so much harder than it should be.

It is no accident that the BNP, both through its leaflets and its website, has become more and more a single-issue, islamaphobic, organisation over the past 4 years. In simple terms, the ‘War on terror’ provides a context which helps them to further deteriorate race relations whereas it harms our attempts to improve race relations.

All these processes have been accelerated since 7/7 and the Terrorism Bill is ratcheting this up still further. In particular, we wish to draw your attention to the following proposed provisions and their likely effect on race relations:

Proposals in Clause 1 of the Bill to create new offences of encouragement to terrorism and dissemination of terrorist publications are very broad in scope. Despite the government’s amendment, the crown would still not need to prove intent to incite others in order to secure a conviction. This poses a serious threat to legitimate free expression, particularly free expression within the Muslim community. The obvious concern is that people who express support for armed resistance to the occupation of Iraq – resistance that many people around the world feel is legitimate – could be caught-up in the new laws. To vocalise one’s support for the Iraqi resistance may constitute ‘glorification’ for the purposes of the legislation. Simply stating that one can understand what leads some people to become suicide bombers may also lay people open to prosecution. It is clear that Muslims feel particularly exposed to the possibility of being criminalised as a consequence of this provision in Clause 1.

It has been pointed out by the Association of University Lecturers and others that this provision would severely restrict the legitimate study of controversial historical events, terrorist activity, the motivation of those who use terrorist means and the use of violence for political ends. If, during such study, students are required to read, listen to or watch texts and statements that do indeed glorify terrorism or could be seen to encourage it, their lecturer could be committing an offence if he/she had reasonable grounds to believe that a student was likely to understand this study material as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism. The fear is that a Muslim lecturer addressing a class which included a group of Muslim students might well be targeted under this provision, whereas a white lecturer addressing a group of largely white students would not be likely to come under surveillance of this nature in the first place.

The Home Affairs Committee Inquiry already referred to these type of concerns in its observation about the existing anti-terrorist legislation that ‘we accept that there is a clear perception among all our Muslim witnesses that Muslims are being stigmatised by the operation of the Terrorism Act: this is extremely harmful to community relations……….we believe that special efforts should be made by the police and Government to reassure Muslims that they are not being singled out unfairly’.

Instead, Hazel Blears’ comments to the Committee confirm the perception of stigmatisation among Muslims. She said that ‘the threat is most likely to come from those people associated with an extreme form of Islam, or who are falsely hiding behind Islam. It means that some of our counter-terrorism powers will be disproportionately experienced by the Muslim community. I think that is the reality and I think we should recognise that. If a threat is from a particular place then our action is going to be targeted at that area.’ (Our emphasis).

Hence the fears that Muslim lecturers, alongside Muslims active in protests against the government’s Iraq policies, will be disproportionately targeted for surveillance, arrest and detention without trial under the provisions of the Terrorism Bill.

It is already a criminal offence to:

  • ‘encourage, persuade or endeavour to persuade any person to murder any other person’
  • ‘counsel or procure’ any other person to commit any indictable offence
  • ‘solicit or incite’ another person to commit any indictable offence
  • incite another person to commit an act of terrorism wholly or partly outside the UK
  • conspire with others to commit offences outside the UK
  • invite support for a proscribed terrorist organisation

Is this not sufficient to protect the public? What sort of people who constitute an actual terrorist threat could be apprehended by widening the net in the way proposed in Clause 1? Our concern, based on ministerial comments such as the above, is that the sort of people who will be targeted will be Muslim activists and academics, many with a lot of credibility and support within the wider Muslim community either nationally or locally, and that the campaigns which will inevitably arise in their support will further polarize the Muslim community in places like Oldham from adjacent white communities, who get their information about race relations almost exclusively from a tabloid press which frequently reports such matters in a way which plays into the hands of more overt islamaphobes on the far right. This is the kind of development we refer to through when we say that the legislation will ‘ratchet up’ the problematical race relations which we are already grappling with.

Similarly, a ‘terrorist publication’ is defined under Clause 2 to include any item which contains ‘information of assistance’ to someone planning a terrorist attack, meaning presumably that an A-Z map of Oldham and Rochdale may be a ‘terrorist publication’ for the purpose of this offence. The clause provides that a person may be guilty of disseminating a terrorist publication merely by making such a publication available in the knowledge that someone somewhere may regard it as useful for terrorism. It is enough under the provisions of the Bill to be simply ‘reckless’ as to whether members of the public who see or read such a publication would understand it as such, regardless of whether the publisher of the statement foresaw any risk that it would be. It is also irrelevant, under Clause 2, whether any person was actually encouraged to attempt or to commit an act of terrorism as a consequence of what was published; instances in which no-one was will not count as a defence. This is a recipe for witch-hunting.

Crucially, it is likely in practice that it will be considered ‘reckless’ to circulate some documents among Muslims whereas it will not be regarded as ‘reckless’ to circulate the same documents among non-Muslims. For anyone to email a copy of an article from Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s website may place them in breach of Clause 2 if those receiving it believe that it glorifies those who die fighting against injustice; in practice the test of ‘recklessness’ is likely to differentiate sharply between Muslim and non-Mulsim recipients of such an email.

Extension of the grounds for proscription in Clause 21 will criminalise membership of non-violent political organisations on the basis of their opinions. If Hizb-ut-Tahrir is to be proscribed for speaking out against British foreign policy, which some ministerial comments suggest to be government’s intention, then what of the 2 million British people who have marched against the invasion of Iraq, including members of OREP’s staff and Executive Committee? If Hizb-ut-Tahrir is to be proscribed for criticising despotic rulers throughout the Muslim world, then how will the government deal with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other NGOs who routinely condemn these regimes? If it is for calling for the uniting of Muslim lands under one Caliphate that Hizb-ut-Tahrir is to be proscribed, then how will the government deal with other Muslims in Britain who share this belief? There is not one instance to date in British history of a non-violent group ever being proscribed. Even Sinn Féin, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, was never proscribed, despite the belief within successive governments of the day that is was operationally linked to the Irish Republican Army.

To proscribe Hizb-ut-Tahrir would therefore be to follow the tradition of dictatorial regimes around the world which do not tolerate political dissent and proscribe non-violent organisations with alternative viewpoints. This is not only fundamentally undemocratic but it runs the serious risk of adversely affecting race relations, in that it will be seen by the Muslim community as aimed at Muslim-based organisations at a time when their own concerns about the activities of the British National Party are frequently brushed aside by public agencies on the grounds that the BNP is a legitimate political party. This lack of even-handedness can only play into the hands of the very organisations and ideologies against which this proposal is aimed, who will be able to portray it as an attack not on Hizb-ut-Tahrir or even on their aspiration for a Caliphate but as an attack on the Muslim ‘Umma’, which is a key concept for all Muslims.

Overall, the view of OREP is that Clauses 1, 2 and 21 of this Bill will harm race relations and thereby undermine other aspects of the government’s response to 7/7. Kofi Annan, the UN’s Secretary General has taken the same view of overly-expansive anti-Terrorist measures – ‘compromising human rights cannot serve the struggle against terrorism. On the contrary, it facilitates achievement of the terrorist’s objective – by ceding to him the moral high ground, and provoking tension, hatred and mistrust of government among precisely those parts of the population where he is most likely to find recruits. Upholding human rights is not merely compatible with a successful counter-terrorism strategy. It is an essential element in it.’ So is upholding the conditions in which good race relations can flourish.

Consequently, it is unrealistic for the government to pass the Terrorism Bill in its current form and expect any significant cooperation from Muslims by way of providing community intelligence information about people who might be involved in actively supporting terrorist attacks. It will simply be a waste of time for the police to create new community cohesion posts within Special Branch for the purpose of facilitating this intelligence, which has just been done in the North West of England. Like the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, British Muslims have a different identity to the majority community and are discriminated against in employment to the extent that they are virtually absent from whole sectors of mainstream employment. In the case of Muslims in Oldham, this means being consigned mostly to marginal self-employment as taxi-drivers, take-away workers and off-licensees, too alienated and lacking in trust for the police to bother reporting racial attacks against themselves and, just like the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland, highly unlikely to ‘shop’ one another in an atmosphere which allows for extended internment without trial or recourse to effective legal advice.

OREP agrees with others that an appropriate strategy would to increase the resources available to the police and security services to focus on apprehending those who are actually committed to carrying out terrorist outrages rather than criminalising ever-widening circles of people and communities around them. There have been a number of well-publicised security blunders in respect of the threat which this bill seeks to address and dealing with any resourcing or structural issues which have contributed to these blunders would seem to offer better protection to the public than the Terrorism Bill as it stands.

Those of us engaged in trying to improve race relations have watched while British Foreign Policy initiatives have put an enormous strain on race relations. We have watched and listened to the increasing alienation of young men who feel keenly the suffering of the Muslim victims of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have become angered by reported atrocities from Abu-Graib prison to Guantanamo Bay. This ‘War on Terror’ is making it harder for me, my colleagues and OREP’s partners to do our jobs than it should be.

For all the above reasons, our considered view is that, if the Bill goes ahead with these clauses in it, race relations in places like Oldham will, in effect, have been subjugated to the overriding priority of the ‘War on Terror’.

We therefore ask government to re-think the relative importance of its domestic and foreign policy objectives, to give race relations the importance it merits in practice, to carry out what amounts to an impact assessment of the Terrorism Bill on British race relations and to withdraw those clauses which will cause foreseeable harm to race relations.

Related links

Download a copy of the letter from Oldham Race Equality Partnership (word file, 413 kb)

Campaign Against Criminalising Communities

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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