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Maajid Nawaz

By Maajid Nawaz, Chairman, Quilliam and Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate, Hampstead & Kilburn 

The speaker at the Copenhagen event on free speech had just reached her point, claiming that too many people are ready to declare “we believe in free speech …but” when chillingly, at that precise moment, a jihadist terrorist chose to open fire upon the unsuspecting crowd. 

In his poem ‘Invictus’, English poet William Henley wrote: “Beyond this place of wrath and tears, Looms but the horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the year, Finds and shall find me unafraid.”

In their quest to distort values of freedom, fear is a well-known tactic used by jihadist terrorists and their primary weapon in what they perceive to be an inevitable war between Islam and the West, between Muslims and non-Muslims. And it is precisely this ability of theirs to foster fear that we must conquer as the risk of ‘homegrown’ radicalisation in Europe increases. 

On Saturday, a Danish Islamist gunman of Palestinian-decent, Omar El-Hussein, entered a cafe in Copenhagen where Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks was attending a free speech forum. In years gone by, Vilks has gained notoriety – and numerous death threats – for his depictions of the Prophet Muhammad as a roundabout dog. In the shootout that ensued, two people were killed. 

It later transpired that Danish intelligence (PET) were warned by prison officials about El-Hussein, who further radicalised as he served time in prison for a stabbing. It has been widely reported that he loved to discuss Islamist ideals, was motivated by grievances stemming from the Israel-Palestine conflict and was not afraid to voice a ‘hatred’ for Jews.

This is not a unique case – the combination of grievances, identity politics and the Islamist ideology is all too common; jihadist violence as tool, increasingly so. 

The fact that the second site for El-Hussein’s attack was a batmitzvah party hosted inside a Copenhagen synagogue, is worryingly familiar in light of the attacks in Paris at the beginning of the year. Both attacks involved the murder of individuals accused of blaspheming Islam, then followed by attacks on those of the Jewish faith. The particular group affiliation of these attackers is primarily a law enforcement concern; their common motivations are more important to us all in attempting to understand the attacks and improve our civil society response.

That the danger we face from radicalisation in Europe is seemingly on the rise presents us with, among many others, two questions. First, how can we hope to foster a counter-narrative to help stop criminals finding extreme ideologies – be it Islamism or far right extremism, violent or otherwise – appealing? Second, how can we use the democratic institutions upon which our societies are built to unite communities and transcend religious differences? 

In dealing with the former issue, it is imperative that governments look towards ameliorating the thorny question of prisons being such fertile ground for extremism, the ironically ungoverned incubators that introduce Islamist extremists and common criminals, and act as a net exporter of terrorists, need urgent attention. This must involve mentoring programmes of substance, not symbolism, that operate both during and after the prison sentence.

Further, efforts to reintegrate individuals into mainstream civil society must be increased. To tackle the Islamist ideology and narrative in its entirety, we should move beyond immediate threats and start setting an agenda for the future. One of the key arenas in which this must play out is the justice system, where we need a clear comprehensive strategy to deal with their increased workload, stemming from an overly “law and war” approach.  

Amid these circumstances, it is important for France, Denmark, and the rest of Europe to protect its communities that are most at risk. Besides disrupting extremism threats and organizations, enforcing anti-terrorism legislation and monitoring those who are suspected of travelling to join jihadist groups, a long-term strategy must be formed, one that has as its primary objective the promotion of community cohesion. Civil Society resilience must not only be encouraged, but facilitated as well. Governments should look more to integration between diverse communities, rather than pursuing reactive policies alone. 

Tomorrow evening I am due to speak at London’s Central Synagogue about the rise of anti-Semitism across Europe and our need to reiterate ‘Never Again’.  Let us not feed into the hysteria that is likely to result from these attacks and give terrorists their chief desire, fear. Copenhagen’s Chief Rabbi Jan Melchior said on Monday: “We will not let terror dictate our lives. We will continue living as Jews here in Denmark and everywhere else in the world.” Let’s follow his brave example. Let us refuse to be cowered. Let us remain free. 

READ Maajid Nawaz’s previous JN post: OPINION: Palestine must be free… from Hamas – CLICK HERE