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Laws for all not just Muslims

25th Aug 2017

As a ‘top league criminal silk,’ Max Hill earned a reputation as a very methodical, precise and thorough advocate. His experience comes from prosecuting many of the most significant terrorism trials of the past decade, including being instructed in the last IRA case in the UK – and a series of al-Qa’ida and Daesh-linked trials. His appointment as the Government’s new Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation is welcomed.

Since taking over from David Anderson in March, Hill appears to have taken up the mantle with the same verve and commitment, being heavily involved in a report to Parliament prior to the summer recess. This report crucially followed an unprecedented series of terrorist attacks in Manchester and London and involved the new reviewer travelling across the UK to take sounding at meetings organised to promote greater understanding and confidence between diverse grassroots Muslim communities and the wider society.

His findings (see page 3) are far from insignificant. Most notably, there was an underlying conviction that the Government does not appear to listen. Hill said that it was perhaps difficult for him to judge whether and to what extent there have been “previous failings” to take into account the strong local voices but that “if too little has been done to listen to local voices, now is the time to put that right.” He urged all who read his report “to act on what they find and to encourage ever greater participation” with Muslim representatives and community leaders who he had been talking with.

Not for the first time, the British Government has been warned to start to build more meaningful relations with Muslims instead of driving them away from authorities seeking to protect the UK. “The need to address the feeling of lack of engagement with these communities needs urgent attention.” The Independent Reviewer called for a “more proactive role” to be taken by Government “at all levels to address wider concerns, and thereby to avoid the perception of engagement with these communities only when things have gone wrong.” His conclusion echoed the findings of a two-year report entitled ‘Missing Muslims: Unlocking British Muslim Potential for the Benefit of All’ carried out by the Citizens Commission on Islam, Participation & Public Life, which The Muslim News reported on last month.

Hill, in particular, took aim at calls that have become so routine from senior politicians and most recently include Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, for Muslims to somehow to “do more” to fight extremism. Not only this there were also unusually similar calls from the President Jonathan Arkush of Board of Deputies of British Jews who called on Muslims to “stand up and be counted” after the London attacks and Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who disingenuously gave the completely wrong impression that terrorist attacks have something to do with Islam.

“Many in the Muslim communities are already doing a great deal and if they could be doing ‘more’, no one appears to have made clear what that means,” the Independent Reviewer pointed out in the foreword to his report. “Mosques and Muslim community centres feel under pressure to denounce terrorist attacks, even when the perpetrator/s come from entirely different parts of the country. Several participants expressed to me their sense that, were they to fail to issue messages denouncing every act of terrorism, they would be blamed for being complicit in those acts.” What was not said was that some of the suspects were already reported to authorities before the attacks yet nothing appeared to have been done.

During the roundtable meeting, the senior barrister said that he found the strength of feeling around the lack of meaningful engagement from the central or local government was “palpable.” Many amongst those whom he met “feel that the only engagement appears to be around security issues, whereas Government and Police work in fighting extremism and radicalisation appears misunderstood or ignored.” The need to address the feeling of lack of engagement with these communities “needs urgent attention. A more proactive role ought to be taken by Government at all levels to address wider concerns, and thereby to avoid the perception of engagement with these communities only when things have gone wrong.”

In just a few pages, Hill also stressed that the focus on countering violent extremism has ramifications when and if that focus allows attention to stray from other important matters where communities require support. “Participants shared their view that support towards housing, health, education, employment and general crime remain significant concerns, yet they often feel that these are secondary to the preoccupation with countering violent extremism. Unfortunately, he said such issues were beyond his direct remit as Independent Reviewer, but that it “is troubling to hear such concerns being voiced repeatedly.”

Many participants at the meetings were preoccupied with the legal provisions which empower officers to stop travellers at border controls nationwide. Views on these legal powers, necessary in order to exercise a measure of control over those who enter this country, are “symptomatic of the general view often expressed to me, namely that there is ‘one law for Muslims, and another for the rest’,” his report said. In a discussion, he found the damning conclusion that “many were confused as to the reach of our legislation, and found it hard to accept that legislation is intended for all citizens and not just for one segment of society.”

The confusion extended to strong views on the use of the Terrorism Acts to bring criminal charges in some instances but not in others. As an advocate he suggested that it was a feature of modern times that there was a raft of terrorism legislation, which sits alongside general statutory and common law offences but that it would be ideal to do away with specific terrorism laws, in order to deal with all cases and all offenders under general criminal laws though he did not envisage that happening in the near future. Meanwhile, Hill believed that more must be done to dispel the belief that our laws are deployed in an unequal fashion, whether for ‘port stops’ under Schedule 7 or for specific criminal offences.

As would be expected one recurring issue that the Government continually refuses to play down and overlook if the failure of the ill-conceived Prevent Strategy although again this was outside of the official remit of the Independent Reviewer. He did mention that this did not stop participants from raising this issue, without fail, at every meeting. “As my predecessor previously raised, Prevent remains a source of grievance for many in the community as what some still believe to be a programme aimed at ‘spying’ or specifically targeting British Muslims,” he raised in his report. “Calls for a full review of Prevent similarly came up, again without fail at every meeting. I heard various examples of how it is having a chilling effect in different contexts and adds to a strong sense of grievance.” Hill warned that to allow such feelings to fester “may well prove counterproductive in the context where a programme like Prevent needs to succeed – and where our police and intelligence services need the full cooperation of communities in rooting out extremism and detecting nascent plots.”

Throughout the forward to his review, it was a common theme about the constant refrain from the majority was that there is a feeling of ‘consultation fatigue’ in the minds of many. “They mean to convey their sense of frustration that not enough has been done to listen to local voices, not enough done to allow local communities to play their part in providing solutions to the problem of terrorism emerging from within those communities.” Although he accepted that it was perhaps difficult for him to judge whether and to what extent there have been previous failings to take into account the strong local voices.

Rushing his report out before the summer recess, he said he thought it right to publish it without delay. He commended his report and hoped it would be a “significant step in the right direction.” But whether the Government is listening must remain doubtful.

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Over 120 people attended a landmark conference on the media reporting of Islam and Muslims. It was held jointly by The Muslim News and Society of Editors in London on September 15.

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