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Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > UK: INHUMANITY AND REDEMPTION: Lessons from London Bridge

UK: INHUMANITY AND REDEMPTION: Lessons from London Bridge

Thursday 12 December 2019, by siawi3



Kenan Malik


This essay, on the debate about deradicalisation and redemption in the wake of the London Bridge terror attack, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the shooting dead of rape suspects in India.) It was published on 8 December 2019, under the headline ‘Redemption defines a civilised society. We must not forsake the idea’.

Can terrorists be deradicalised? Do all offenders, even those who commit the most abhorrent of crimes, deserve a second chance? Those two key questions remain at the heart of the case of Usman Khan, the London Bridge killer.

In the immediate aftermath of the recent terror attack, and against the background of the election campaign, the debate centred largely on operational issues. Boris Johnson made much of the early release of Khan, which he blamed on the last Labour government. Labour highlighted cuts in the prison and probation services, which, it suggested, had led to a failure of rehabilitation and of monitoring.

The debates around both sentencing and funding are important. The horrific case of serial rapist Joseph McCann reveals their wider significance with the criminal justice system. McCann was released from prison in error largely because of failures within the probation service that many attribute to budget cuts and staff shortages.

Yet even had Khan served a full 16-year sentence, he would still eventually have been released and we might well have had this same debate eight years down the line. And however well funded the prison and probation services may be, the question of whether ‘deradicalisation’ programmes work, and whether terrorists deserve a second chance, remains.

The responses to these deeper questions are, though, as polarised as those to the operational issues. For some, deradicalisation programmes are an essential component of any coherent response to terrorism. For others, they reveal the naivety of liberal criminology. For some, all offenders can be rehabilitated; this is broadly the message of Learning Together, the Cambridge University programme that brought together academics and inmates for research and rehabilitation. Khan had been invited to a Learning Together event and the two people he murdered, Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, were an organiser and a volunteer for the programme. For others, those murders expose the failure to recognise the unique challenges posed by Islamist terrorists.

Deradicalisation programmes have been pursued for more than 20 years and in at least 15 countries, from Denmark to China. They range from authoritarian attempts at ‘brainwashing’ to initiatives more akin to individual counselling.

In Britain, the main programme aimed at ‘extremist offenders’ is the Healthy Identity Intervention (HII). It ‘encourages and empowers participants to disengage from an extremist group, cause or ideology’ and ‘to “move on” with their lives, embrace new commitments and feel empowered to “walk away”.’

Khan is reported to have taken part in an HII programme, though his solicitor has claimed that he was unable to get ‘intervention by a deradicaliser‘. Whatever the truth, is there any evidence that such programmes actually work? Not much. Few experts can agree on what deradicalisation means and, as John Horgan, one of the world’s leading researchers in the psychology of terrorism, observes: ‘There’s paltry evidence to suggest that people stay out of terrorism because they have been taught to ‘think different’ about the legitimacy of their views.’

It’s not surprising that there’s so little consensus about deradicalisation when the idea of radicalisation itself is fraught. Most of the popular explanations about the causes – from the nature of Islam to western foreign policy – are false, while more complex understandings of why some individuals are drawn to jihadist groups are rarely absorbed by politicians. It’s difficult to slay a dragon if you don’t know what a dragon is.

What of the argument that certain individuals are so corrupted that they can’t be redeemed, nor should society seek to do so? It is true that those who might indiscriminately bomb cafes or mosques, and whose aim is simply to sow terror, are morally different from burglars or fraudsters. Many jihadists, I have suggested, inhabit a different moral universe, in which they can commit the most inhuman of acts and view them as righteous.

The possibility of redemption is, however, defined not by the nature of the crime committed but by the fact we are human beings, and moral agents, and as such can change ourselves. It does not mean that everyone is capable of redemption. But neither does it mean that even those who have carried out particularly heinous acts are incapable of change.

There is little evidence that deradicalisation programmes work. But to acknowledge the possibility of redemption is the mark of a civilised society. Not to do so would be to take a black-and-white view of human nature uncomfortably close to the worldview of someone such as Usman Khan.



Lessons from London Bridge

Tarek Fatah

December 4, 2019 4:11 PM EST

Photo: A member of the public writes condolences on London Bridge in memory of the victims of last weeks attack in central London on December 12, 2019. DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP via Getty Images

By now most of the world knows of Usman Khan, the man who stabbed 25-year-old Jack Merritt and 23-year-old Saskia Jones to death during an event meant for prisoner rehabilitation.

The fact that Khan was a convicted jihadi terrorist who had been released from prison for supposed rehabilitation added to the disbelief among ordinary Britons.

But that was not all. The Daily Mail reveals that Khan was just one of the nine terrorists who were convicted and jailed in 2012 for plotting to blow up the London Stock Exchange and assassinate the then-mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and was subsequently freed.

There is something else that leaps at you when studying terrorist actions and plots in the U.K. The names suggest that almost all of the men who have carried out terror attacks in Britain are British-born men of Pakistani heritage, more specifically with potential links to Pakistan’s Punjab province.

In the July 7, 2005 terrorist attacks across London, the four suicide bombers were identified as Mohammad Sidique Khan, Shehzad Tanweer, Hasib Hussain and Germaine Lindsay. The first three were British-born sons of Pakistani immigrants while Lindsay, just 19, was a convert born in Jamaica.

In 2003, when two Britons were involved in a terrorist bomb attack in Tel Aviv, it turned out that both men were of Pakistani Punjabi ancestry. Asif Mohammed Hanif, a 21-year-old university student from west London, blew himself up outside Mike’s Place on the Tel Aviv beach promenade while Omar Khan Sharif, a 27-year-old from Derby in the English Midlands, fled the scene after his explosive belt failed to detonate.

Similarly, the members of the Al Qaeda-inspired gang who plotted to blow up the London Stock Exchange and kill Johnson included Mohammed Chowdhury, Mohammed Shahjahan, Shah Mohammed Rahman, Mohibur Rahman, Gurukanth Desai, Abdul Malik Miah, Nazam Hussain, Usman Khan, Omar Sharif Latif. Oher than one convert, all names suggest Pakistani heritage.

Way back in 1993, it was Ramzi Yousef, a Pakistani who was convicted and incarcerated as one of the main perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

So is there anything to make of so many Pakistani Punjabis filling these ranks? After all, there are close to 300,000 Arabs in the U.K., half a million Turks and close to 70,000 Iranians, Indonesians and Somalis – all Muslims — whose names never seem to appear in the list of those who desire death for themselves and their British neighbours as well.

The distinction that misses almost all Western observers of this bizarre phenomenon is that while the Turk, the Arab and the Iranian have distinct national cultural identities that predate or override their Islamic persona, the Pakistani Punjabi experience typically denies even their own mother tongue or 5,000-year heritage. They deny their past, thus becoming empty vessels in which pan-Islamism or fake Arab or Turco-Persian name and identity find a hospitable environment.

This empty vessel can thus, in some cases, turn into a perfect receptacle in which a jihadi death cult-like dogma finds easy room to germinate hatred towards themselves and of course the other — the infidel.

As long as the world does not recognize this malady of an identity crisis, we should prepare for more attacks despite our best efforts to appease rather than combat the evil.

Beware of those who play the ‘Islamophobia’ victimhood card for they may be unwittingly facilitating a grievance culture embedded in the toxic mixture of a lack of identity and a contempt for one’s mother tongue.