Beyond the politics of fear - a response to the London bombings


Written as the clearing up, forensic work, medical treatment and mourning continued in the aftermath of the terrible bomb attacks against London on 7 July 2005, this paper considers the appropriate response by policy makers in government and civil society.

Even as the clearing up, forensic work, medical treatment and mourning continues in the aftermath of the terrible bomb attacks against London on 7 July 2005, policy makers in government and civil society are necessarily required to think about the response to these awful events.

One of the few consolations of tragedy is that it provides an opportunity to stop and reflect about fundamental issues as well as immediate steps. As a Christian think tank concerned specifically with the intersection of public policy and theological understanding, Ekklesia sees its role as highlighting not just 'the religious dimension' of the situation, but the character of the underlying moral and political choices which have to be faced.

1. It is important that Britain's politicians should avoid framing their response to these tragic events in the language of a 'war on terror'. Such rhetoric merely serves to cloud complex issues. It imports revenge and violence as part of the solution, when in fact they are part of the root problem. Insurgents believe that politics grows out of the barrel of a gun. By contrast, practical politicians should be clear that terror cannot be defeated by military means. Its resolution can only be moral and political. As even US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld has admitted, we lack the metrics to know whether a 'war on terror' is being won or lost. Such terminology rapidly descends to the phantasmagorical.

2. Modern insurgency is asymmetric. It operates across conventional borders and depends upon small networks of highly motivated, discontented people who see themselves acting according to different standards to those they attack, and who consider themselves otherwise disenfranchised within wider political systems. In the understandable rush to condemn what they do, it is important not to reinforce these perceptions. Dialogue with those who perpetrate acts of terror is probably not possible in the short run, but dialogue with those who back and reinforce them is absolutely essential. Conversation should not be confused with consent, nor talking with betrayal. What those who use armed means rely upon is an armed response. From their point of view it legitimates their actions and motivates recruits. We should deny the further oxygen of militarism to those who maim and kill.

3. The role of individuals, civil society and religious mediators is of crucial importance in facing insurgency and terror. Back in March 2005 Ekklesia reported on the work of former senior MI6 officer Alistair Crooke, who achieved an historic first by establishing an informal meeting in Beirut between satellite American security, military and diplomatic experts and significant figures from Arab and Muslim groups classified as banned terrorist organisations in the USA.

4. The search for sustainable security beyond conflict and violence involves risk. But the risks involved in conversation are small compared to those of military adventurism. Experience clearly demonstrates that the difficult path away from both independent and state terror in places like Kenya, South Africa and Northern Ireland has always involved dialogue with enemies. The new globalised face of insurgency adds immeasurably to the challenge involved, and requires much more direct investment in independent agencies with proven capacities in mediation and non-violent conflict resolution. But it is not beyond our capacity.

5. It easy to pontificate on the 'causes' of events like the London bombings, but it is much more difficult to face up to the complex intertwining of factors. The British government says that these actions are an 'attack on our way of life' (Tony Blair) and are highly likely to have been carried out by internal and/or external sympathisers with the shadowy Al Qaeda network. The latter is likely to be true. The former is far more questionable. Throughout the Arab world opinion surveys show that democratic institutions, human rights and civic freedom are seen as goods, and are associated with the West. But the actions of Western governments in what is seen to be the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, denial of justice to the Palestinians, and support for autocracies across the Middle East for many years are the major sources of discontent for a large majority of people. They breed the anger that in turn produces an unaccountable minority willing to use terror tactics.

6. Western commentators and politicians similarly find it very hard to face up to the undeniably religious character of this conflict, even though they helped to generate it. Post 9/11, the US administration and its allies used reckless language about a 'crusade' against its enemies, reinforced and employed the dubious concept of a 'clash of civilisations'. What they have failed to appreciate is the concomitant extent to which American-led foreign policy is overwhelmingly seen by Muslims as an assault on the Islamic world involving a huge degree of indiscriminate slaughter (far greater than that created by insurgency), the reduction of international law to Western self-interest, and the humiliation of Muslims in places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. We may argue about such judgments. What is beyond doubt is the loathing they have engendered.

7. Mike Scheuer, who headed the CIA's Bin Laden Unit from 1996-2000, points out that all 23 countries named as targets by Bin Laden and his deputy Zawahiri as a result of their involvement in Iraq have now been hit. Without a major change in Western attitude and policy the global insurgency cannot be isolated and tackled, as he says. Such analysis is routinely dismissed as defeatism or negativity by American and British government spokespeople. It is not. The rigorous pursuit of a bipartisan solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dialogue rather than diatribe with Iran and Syria, equanimity in standards of human treatment, and a return to international law in matters of military intervention are not concessions to terrorists. They are essential components of a workable world system. Similarly, the multilateral institutions of global governance (both formal and informal) need to be opened up to include India, China and the Muslim world.

8. It is inevitable that in the wake of bombings in Bali, Morocco, Turkey, Madrid and now London, both local and global security measures will be increased. But as the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 illustrates, legislation hurried through in the face of emergency situations can be severely deficient. Detention without trial and due process feeds the conditions it claims to combat. Lord Carlile of Berriew, the Liberal Democrat peer who has been given the job of being an independent scrutineer of such legislation, has said as much himself. A much wider panel of civic and political representatives, including human rights organisations, needs to be established to ensure that security legislation is fair, proportionate and as transparent as possible.

9. Ekklesia has already spoken out against the denial of rights to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers perpetrated by current government policies, sadly with wide endorsement or collusion across the political spectrum. It is important to remain vigilant against the further denial of rights in the name of emergency powers. Christians have a special duty to stand with the marginalised, the disempowered and the oppressed.

10. The media has a particular responsibility for careful, balanced and accurate reporting at the current time. The week before the London bombings, some 200 people were killed in Afghanistan. Every day, the insurgency in Iraq is claiming lives, sometimes dozens or scores of them. Though it is right and appropriate that our domestic press, broadcasting and web casting should focus on the suffering of those caught up in this latest tragedy, we should not narrow our vision. Rather, this is a moment for broadening perception and understanding. Overcoming religious stereotypes is an important part of that process, as is learning to view the world through the eyes of apparently incommensurate others.

11. In the aftermath of the London bombings, it is encouraging to see how the different faith communities have been prepared to speak and act together. This should not be a one-off response to these awful attacks, but a move towards ever-deeper relationships. As the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has pointed out, differences within and between religions are significant. So are the differences between those who emphasise the positive features of religion and those who take a critical or anti-religious stance, we should add. We should not ignore these. Rather, we must be willing to face them positively.

12. Ekklesia is especially concerned to see, and to contribute to, a more honest, open and rigorous conversation about the religious roots of war and terror. It is right to say that those who plant bombs to kill civilians are a tiny and unrepresentative group of people associated with the Muslim community. Christians have a significant responsibility to resist discrimination and hate speech against their Muslim neighbours based on allegations to the contrary. But all faith communities (including Christian ones) should acknowledge that there are texts, traditions and historical realities which point to a deep and uncomfortable connection between conventional religious faith and the unacceptable use of violence. How we handle and interpret them is of enormous significance not just to our own integrity but to the wellbeing of humankind. It is a primary theological task.

13. In associating with the actively non-violent strands of Christianity (exemplified by the Historic Peace Churches, but also seen as a vital minority tradition among Catholics, Protestants and others), Ekklesia believes that the churches in Britain and Ireland are offered, in the aftermath of the tragic events in London this week, a major opportunity to clarify their rejection of violence as a political method. So far participation from these islands in the World Council of Churches’ Decade to overcome violence: Churches seeking reconciliation and peace (2001 - 2010) has been minimal. It would significantly enhance the integrity and witness of the Christian community if it was able to make this a priority, and to do so in conversation and cooperation with other faith communities – as they too are encouraged to discover and renew the sources of overcoming violence within their own traditions.

14. In Britain the great majority of Muslims and Christians opposed the use of pre-emptive military force as a solution to the deep problems of Iraq and Afghanistan, pointing out that the longer-term consequences of this approach would be deep and disturbing. Similarly, the overwhelming number of Muslims and Christians reject both the tactics of terror and the reactive politics of revenge. It is up to people of faith to persuade governments and civic communities to develop policies which move away from reliance on force as a means of conflict resolution, and towards frameworks for building a just peace.

15. From the Christian perspective, our vision is one of communion and sharing in God's peaceable kingdom. By seeking to follow the crucified and risen Jesus in a violent world, we recognise both the realities and contingencies in which we are immersed, but also the call to model a faith rooted in the power of love overcoming the love of power. For the community that wishes to be identified with the way of Christ, the one that calls itself ‘church’ (ekklesia) because its public space is structured on relationships and principles inimical to violence and injustice, what is seen as possible ought to be far greater than that delineated by realpolitik. But it cannot be less substantial. What is required right now is a politics of hope to overcome the politics of fear.