Thursday, 1 November 2007

MOAZZAM BEGG ON IRISH 'TERRORISTS'

Never Talk to Terrorists

05/11/2007
Moazzam Begg

Today's approach to terrorism in the UK as a relatively new phenomenon
ignores crucial lessons that should have been learned from Northern
Ireland. Earlier this year, I was greatly honoured by the people of
Derry to help formerly open the Free Derry Museum. The Museum was
established by relatives of the people killed on Bloody Sunday, who
have yet to receive justice for what happened to their loved ones. I
was asked to address an audience which included the most well-known
leaders of the Republican movement. But the forgotten lesson of Bloody
Sunday is why over 25,000 protestors had been marching peacefully that
fateful day. It was because of internment. It was because people had
had enough of seeing their relatives imprisoned without evidence,
without charge and without trial. They were sick and tired of being
dehumanised. But the ensuing British Army action was to cause the
greatest recruitment drive the IRA had seen in decades and an
unprecedented bombing campaign on the UK mainland.

The biggest internal revolt ever faced by the present Labour
government was when it attempted to increase detention without charge
for terrorism suspects from 28 days to 90 days. Despite this huge
defeat, government bills resurrecting the same argument continue to
materialise, only with an auction-like reduction in the bid to 56 days
instead. But two months or three would be a sentence no sane person
would be willing to serve or accept - especially without charge or
trial.

The last time people were detained in this country for significant
periods in this manner was during internment in Northern Ireland. And
that became, unsurprisingly, the catalyst for bringing terrorism to
our doorsteps.

Some people have been held in this country - without charge or trial -
either awaiting extradition to countries known to practice torture,
or, under anti-terror measures for up to seven years. Several of these
people, who were granted asylum in the UK, having fled the oppression
in their own countries, are included amongst them. Some were held for
so long and in such dire conditions that they opted to voluntarily
return home and face possible torture and arbitrary imprisonment.

The argument about foreign policy affecting the radicalisation of
Muslim youth no longer holds true of itself, even though intelligence
services and think tanks advised the government that the invasion of
Iraq would increase the likelihood of terrorism in the UK. But now
internal policies, created in the light of reactions to the invasion,
along with new attitudes, are exacerbating hostility both towards the
Muslim community and eliciting it from them.

In addition to new legislation in this country, which includes
increased police powers of stop and search, stop and question, an
accepted shoot-to-kill policy and increased surveillance, media
onslaughts, the rise of the extreme right, insensitive statements by
government ministers and open season on all things Muslim has forced
many to find strength in their own communities, neighbourhoods and
faith. After Jack Straws negative comments on the niqab (face veil)
sales of this item went up ten-fold, conveying a metaphorical, but
clear middle finger to the Commons leader and his opinion.

At the Derry meeting I spoke of how Muslims in the UK were openly
targeted, vilified and demonised as 'terrorists', and how I felt
dejected by this. A Sinn Fein leader took my hand and said, 'Don't
feel dejected. Some of us know what it's like to be a criminalised
community. Be strong, persevere and it will pass.' A few weeks later,
this one-time commander of the redoubtable IRA Provos was shaking
hands with Prime Minister Blair as he took his historical place as
First Minister for Northern Ireland. I believe all-inclusive dialogue,
a lesson learnt the hard way in Northern Ireland, is the only way to
achieve the peace people claim to be working for. But it was the
ironic words of Blair I still can't fathom: 'We will never talk to
terrorists.'

An edited version of this article is due to appear in the Oxford Forum
magazine, a termly publication at the University of Oxford.

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