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Abu Qatada and the Balance We Must Strike

On a module I convene – Terrorism and Insurgencies – I have been discussing Islamic radicalisation. The timing could not be more apt.  As well as the issues and debates surrounding the use of evidence obtained under torture, the release of Abu Qatada  signifies a fundamental problem that not only the UK but many other liberal democracies face when it comes to threats against the state. How do we strike a balance between the effectiveness of the implementation of  laws and on their acceptability not just to the law abiding majority but also the accused minority.

We should remember that Abu Qatada has not been charged with a crime within the UK’s judicial system and yet he will be subjected to some of the harshest restrictions imposed on any UK resident (both in and out of jail) since 9/11. There is no doubting that he is not only a “truly dangerous individual” but also “a key figure” in Islamist terrorist activity. Having him behind bars would be a benefit to us all. Liberal democracies, however, are disadvantaged in the struggle against terrorism, as respecting the rights of the minority invariably means the application of measured, rule based force. As the late Paul Wilkinson put it: “by tolerating the intolerant, democracies allow terrorists to plan and prepare their strikes [whereas] by definition totalitarian regimes suppress all effective opposition within their boundaries and are entirely unimpeded by any judicial or humanitarian constraints”.

The preservation of values such as equality, freedom, justice and tolerance are not ones that totalitarian-authoritarian regimes subscribe to. As such they are able to employ harsh, unyielding forms of oppression and retribution to counter terrorist related activity; but more importantly, and relevantly, they are able to simply lock-up suspects without charge. We, in the UK tried a similar measure in Northern Ireland, under the policy of Internment. The 1971 British Army initiative undoubtedly served as recruiting sergeant; giving reason and rationale to ever greater numbers wishing to join the Provisional IRA.

Liberal democratic states have historically found themselves having to strike a balance between acceptability and effectiveness; with states asking ‘do we want to sacrifice some democratic substance in order to be effective against terrorism or do we have to tolerate a certain level of terrorism for the sake of maintaining the civil liberties and political rights which we cherish?’

An example of this dilemma can be seen in the October 2005 debate in the UK regarding the proposed extension of the period in which the police can detain, without charge, people suspected of involvement with terrorism. One of the matters considered was whether the state should introduce one law for the majority (non-terrorists) and another for the minority (suspected terrorists), who may be suspected of committing terrorist acts. It may be argued that by defending the proposed extension, the UK Government enhanced perceptions of its inability to govern within the established laws of the state. That being the case, it may also be argued that the lack of formal charges and the use of harsh unyielding curfew restrictions serves as further evidence of liberal democracy’s inability to curtail what is at heart another form of criminal activity – terrorism.

Edgar Tembo

Published inBritish PoliticsInternational PoliticsTerrorismThe Far-Right & Extremism


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