Claims of MI5 blackmail suggest that for Muslims, the presumption of innocence is no longer a right but a privilege
It recently emerged that MI5 has been busy - not encouraging Muslims to work in concert with the authorities to root out extremism, but "blackmailing" Muslims to provide intelligence. This is a truly disturbing development, but one sadly stemming from a wider misguided strategy of engaging with the Muslim community.
Commentators - including Zin Derfoufi who wrote on this topic earlier in the week - have failed to appreciate the severity of these latest allegations or have drawn inappropriate comparisons with previous issues engulfing the Muslim community. Let there be no ounce of doubt. These allegations will cause the gravest level of discomfort amongst Muslims - more than any other issue past - and rightly so. It frankly beggars belief.
Young men say they were detained by MI5 agents simply by virtue of the fact that they were Muslim. They say they were then threatened that unless they provided intelligence for the security services they would face entirely false accusations of extremism. Over a period of 18 months they claimed to have been harassed by taunting phone calls, including one saying: "If you don't want anything to happen to your family you will co-operate." On one occasion a MI5 agent rang one of the men at 7am to congratulate him on a baby girl when the man's wife still seven months' pregnant - the couple had told the hospital they didn't want to know the sex of their child. One man said that his house was entered by a man dressed as a postman - who, in fact, turned out to be an MI5 officer - with access to his house. He said he was told: "If you do not work for us we will tell any foreign country you try to travel to that you are a suspected terrorist." None of the men have ever been arrested any terrorism-related offence.
Many of those who commented on Zin's article cited cases of when they were searched and detained and were entirely content. I am too. But there are boundaries. And these boundaries have now been grossly breached. Dicey's classical conception of the rule of law dictates rule by law alone; a man may be "punished for a breach of law, but he can be punished for nothing else". Yet the definition may well now have an extra addition, "save for Muslims". The rules now appear to be: if you are a Muslim, accept that you are a terror suspect, accept infringement of your liberties, accept being treated differently - prove that you are one of us. For Muslims the presumption of innocence is no longer a right but a privilege.
What is most concerning is that it appears Jacqui Smith was aware of these serious allegations as long as nine months ago but did nothing. She will no doubt, as usual, claim that it was an operational decision made without the interference of her department. But it will fall on deaf ears. With a summer cabinet reshuffle looming, her actions or lack of them in these unprecedented allegations may well prove fatal for an already beleaguered home secretary, who will now have the Muslim community asking serious questions about her judgement and why she failed to act.
The true significance of this development is lost without mention of the backdrop. The government's Contest 2 strategy has achieved unequivocal condemnation from Muslim leaders across the spectrum for its baseless approach. It criminalises that which is perfectly legitimate and within the confines of the law. Suspicion about the real motives of our government has spread deep into the Muslim community and particularly affects those most vulnerable to radicalisation, young Muslims, who are, at present, facing an identity crisis.
More than ever before, the government desperately needs to command the full support, confidence and, most importantly, the trust of the Muslim community - which they have at present unquestionably lost. Perhaps the reaction of the British public to the headlines engulfing Westminster in the last couple of weeks can teach a few lessons. And equally the response of the political elite illustrates that where there is complete lack of trust and confidence, it calls for bold action and a radical shift in policy.
But the story will reverberate strongly into the homes of every Muslim with mounting disbelief and deep distrust about the direction of our country's policy on engagement and counter-radicalisation. This descent to nowhere will only be counter-productive.
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