16 February 2012

“Government would be right to deport Abu Qatada”

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The government is right to want to deport Abu Qatada. He is a threat to community relations in Britain. The Home Secretary is right to want to use her powers to exclude him, say Shamit Saggar and Sunder Katwala.

Qatada is a Jordanian citizen, previously convicted in absentia for terrorism, so Jordan’s unwillingness to cooperate presents real difficulties. But the European Court of Human Rights overstepped the mark by ruling that Qatada will never get a fair trial in Jordan. Never is a long time, and UK ministers are working diligently on ensuring that assurances and legislative changes in Jordan are credible so that Qatada can be deported.

Human rights matter, but it will also become very difficult for the defenders of human rights to secure public confidence in important supranational protections if they are interpreted in a way which would appear to offer no sensible or publicly legitimate solution to the problem of an unwanted and dangerous foreign national. So the court should be open to real efforts from the UK government to square the circle – for example by seeking forms of supranational scrutiny of assurances secured from Jordan.

If Qatada cannot be deported, we would welcome criminal charges being brought against him. But he does not belong in a British prison if these do not result in a conviction. Prisons are for criminals, and not for those who have not been tried and convicted. The rule of law is the central principle of British justice – and there are important consequences of overturning this.

The Qatada case highlights a difficult issue for both government and civil society – of how to respond to political dissent. This government’s revised counter-terrorism strategy emphasizes an ideological battle of core ideas with extremist ideologies. This is a laudable move, in that it draws a value-based boundary which does not pretend that all radicals can be included in a big conversation with government. It is equally important to recognise that effective anti-radicalisation strategies depend on the lead coming from within, supporting the efforts of British Muslim voices who want to protect the broader social reputation of the whole community. If tackling extremism means that the lead should come from within communinities, then we have to be prepared to permit dissent that does not infringe
UK laws.

Locking up Qatada without a trial or deporting him without legal authority looks like government policing dissent. That would be an own goal and a gift to impressionable hotheads which would risk undermining the government’s long-term counter-radicalisation efforts. It would be exploited by those seeking to mobilise radicalism, presenting a ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative whose core claim is that British Muslims are not treated as full and equal citizens in British society.

The government – and British society as a whole – has a central interest in undermining such ‘clash of civilisation’ narratives. There is good evidence that clear majorities both of British Muslims and of British citizens as a whole reject them – but episodes like the Qatada case offer opportunities to extremists on both sides who have an interest in reinforcing that polarization. If Abu Qatada offers an unwelcome threat to British society as a whole, then British Muslims face a double danger. They are subject to the same security risks as everybody else, but are also on the receiving end of the “preacher of hate” imagery which risks dominating media and public perceptions of the whole community.

That is why the government’s efforts to secure his removal from Britain, within the law, matter.

Shamit Saggar is Professor of Politics at Sussex University and a trustee of British Future. He is the author of “Pariah Politics: Western Radical Islam and What Should be Done”; Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future.

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