Three ways to make us all Safer
It is four weeks since bombers indiscriminately killed and maimed ordinary Londoners. Protecting London from terrorists requires the best possible policing - which, in turn, needs the greatest possible flow of information from all communities. It also demands that we shrink the pool of the alienated that bombers draw on by treating all communities as equal parts of British society - not only theoretically, but also in reality. And it means withdrawing from Iraq. All are interrelated.
Acceptance that the invasion of Iraq increased the likelihood of a terrorist attack on London now extends far beyond the usual suspects - from Guardian writers to MI5, Douglas Hurd, the Daily Mail, the Spectator, and a majority of the British public. Jack Straw has also acknowledged this debate. If the invasion of Iraq had been justified, it would be possible to argue that we must bear the sacrifices necessary to achieve just outcome. However, it is evident that the war in Iraq was not justified. It has made the situation worse. The illusions with which it was launched are collapsing.
The reason the US is not able to stabilise Iraq is related to the same critical issue that affects policing in Britain: information. Which is simply another way of saying the attitude of the population.
US forces are ineffective because the great bulk of the population will not give them intelligence voluntarily. Therefore elements within the US military are led to resort to ritual humiliation and torture. This does not yield remotely sufficient information. Therefore US forces are led to relatively blind strikes against those opposing them - inevitably killing innocent civilians. This, of course, has the effect of alienating the population further.
The Iraqi people see US policy in practice. Successive US administrations showed no interest in Iraqi democracy - so long as Saddam Hussein gassed Iranians, Kurds or other US opponents he was supplied with weapons and other support. Only when he struck a US ally was he opposed.
After the 2003 invasion, when US troops were deployed to protect the oil ministry while looting gripped Iraq, when key reconstruction contracts were awarded to US companies, Iraqis understood what was in store for them. US forces cannot win over Iraq's population because the formally stated democratic goals of the forces have nothing to do with the actual policy pursued.
That is also why al-Qaida, previously without a presence in Iraq, now has a strong base there - damaging the fight against international terrorism.
Nevertheless, I want to make the point to some opponents of the war. It is not a policy simply to explain to people: "You are dying because Britain is in Iraq." The bombers came to kill indiscriminately. As one Londoner put it to me: "I am a Muslim and scared - and my first fear is being blown up." I supported action against the Iraq war and I support measures to stop Londoners being bombed.
Right now, only the police can stop bombers. Anyone who tries to avoid this is not dealing with what are literally life and death matters. But the police can only be effective if they get community cooperation. Opponents of the war should continue to oppose it. But they also have to say to London's communities: "Cooperate with the police to catch terrorists" - and explain that the quality of information the police get will be decisively affected by the degree to which communities are treated with respect.
Which leads directly to the question of whether Britain should ban Sheikh Qaradawi - a matter with major consequences for the treatment of Britain's Muslim community. Last week, Jonathan Freedland honestly reported on these pages that Qaradawi utterly condemned the London bombings. However, many have suggested that Qaradawi should none the less be banned because he says Palestinian suicide bombing can be justified under Islam in the specific conditions of the Israel-Palestine conflict. I am utterly against both suicide bombings and Israeli killing of civilians - I didn't oppose capital punishment decade after decade to turn round and say it's all right when suicide bombers blow people up.
But if supporters of the Palestinians should be banned on the grounds that Palestinians kill civilians, then consistency would require banning Israeli leaders, who have been responsible for killing several times more Palestinian civilians. Someone advocating that both Sharon and Qaradawi be banned would be wrong, but at least they would be consistent.
Consider the consequences of a ban on Qaradawi for relations with the Muslim community. My political record makes clear that I totally disagree with Qaradawi on gay rights and many other questions. Nevertheless, he is one of the world's most eminent Muslim religious leaders. It is impossible to say that Britain's Muslims should be treated with respect but that their religion's most eminent representatives must be banned. Imagine how the Jewish community, many of whom do not agree with the policies of Israel's government, would react if Israeli leaders were banned because of military actions that have killed thousands of Palestinian civilians.
Every major British Muslim organisation - even those disagreeing with him, such as Imaan, the organisation of lesbian and gay Muslims - believes Qaradawi should be admitted. Whatever his individual views, he is seen as a moderate and is fiercely opposed to al-Qaida. Those believing he should be banned give lip service to treating Britain's Muslim community with respect but in practice deny it. Not only is that wrong itself, but it will increase the number of alienated fanatics.
As only dialogue and negotiation will end this cycle of violence, I favour banning neither Israeli leaders nor Qaradawi. I don't believe there is any prospect of achieving a lasting peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict until all sides come to terms with the horrors they have perpetrated. The injustice done to the Palestinians does not justify the actions of a suicide bomber. But neither can anything justify the killing of civilians by Israeli forces.
The London bombings, demand clear thinking, not rhetoric. People's lives depend on the decisions made. These must be for every community to aid the police in preventing attacks; to treat Britain's Muslim community with respect, both because it is right and to shrink the pools terrorists operate in; and for Britain to withdraw from Iraq.
Ken Livingstone is mayor of London; you can donate to the London Bombings Relief Charitable Fund online at:Redcross.org.uk
This article was first published in the Guardian.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005