Remarks by Niccolo Milanese in Lisbon on December 4 — The roundtable on ‘Counter narratives and community-based approaches to preventing and combatting radicalisation’ was celebrated at the Conference of North South Centre and Council of Europe.
A year and a half after the London bombings of the 7th of July 2005, Demos think tank in London published a report called ‘Bringing it Home’ analysing the failures of the counter-terrorism response of the British state, and advocating for a ‘community-based approach to counter-terrorism’. Now, less than a month after the second terror attacks in a year in Paris, it seems important to re-emphasise the conclusions of the report on why communities need to be at the heart of counter-terrorism response because the response of the French state seems to be falling for some of the same errors as the British. Following this restatement about the response of the state, I will introduce a role for civil society organisations, as well as adding crucial complications the terms of the discussion which lead to a need to reconceptualise our political vocabulary as well as institutions. Of course, particularly sensitive in all of this is the question of how ‘communities’ are defined or identified.
The authors of the Demos report identify four reasons for a community-centered response:
- Communities are crucial sources of information and intelligence. There is often no warning of terrorist attacks, and so tip-offs and clues coming from communities are essential for state authorities to identify imminent risks.
- Communities engage in self-policing. Often communities themselves can deal with those individuals who are in a process of moving towards violent radicalization before they reach the stage of planning terrorist acts.
- Communities need to take a lead in dealing with social grievances, which may be behind the resentment that fosters terrorism or violent extremism acts. Although the state clearly has a role and a responsibility, the communities themselves also need to take a lead in addressing these grievances.
- It is impossible for the police to guarantee security over the long term without the consent of communities. Actions of the police which break down trust and undermine consent make effective policing impossible, and create a situation of a war between the state and community. This is arguably what many terrorists are seeking to provoke.
These four arguments give compelling reasons why counter-terrorism needs a particularly community-centred and sensitive approach, and why more top-down forms of policing are likely to make the situation worse rather than better. It is also clear from the four reasons that the police, or the state, cannot do all the work itself. A community-centred approach will only work if there are receptive and cooperative actors in the community, and this is likely to involve the strong engagement of civil society representatives in the broadest sense as leaders and crucial interlocutors, whether they be teachers, religious leaders, civil society organisations, citizen media or others. Identifying those interlocutors amongst civil society who can play this mediating role is one of the main challenges of the state; and engaging in this mediating role whilst maintaining the trust and confidence of the communities they are ‘representing’ is a significant challenge for individuals and organisations from civil society who are engaged.
This role of mediation is particularly difficult because, as the third of the reasons listed above suggests, ‘communities’ in the broadest and vaguest sense are primary spaces of politicization and socalisation. This means that communities are spaces in which contestation is possible, and this should include contestation of the state and its policies. Here I have a problem with the title of this conference, which conflated ‘radicalisation’ and violent extremism. I am in favour of what could be called ‘radical politics’, where that is understood to mean people acting politically on the basis of strongly held views which may be highly critical of what they see as injustices in contemporary society. Indignation is arguably one of the primary political emotions, which we should not aim to eradicate, but rather to channel into constructive political activity aimed at changing society for the better.
Civil society playing a role of mediation between the police and the community with the intention of identifying risks of violent extremism are caught in a tension with their role as organisers, leaders and representatives for political contestation and critique. A division of roles between different kinds of organization is of course possible, but it is likely to be those organsiations and individuals most in contact with the critical parts of communities which are most aware of those individuals who may take contestation through violent means.
The only way to make this tension manageable, and thus keep a community-centred approach to counter-terrorism possible, it seems to me, is to guarantee the civic space of free political speech and organization. If it becomes impossible to publically contest the state’s policies, it also becomes impossible for community leaders to play a role mediating between society and the state for the purposes of guaranteeing security. In fact, the state and the society have to work together to guarantee a safe space for political contestation. And this safe space for democratic political contestation is precisely the alternative to terrorism. Maintaining this democratic civic space open is one of the key areas where the current French government response is failing dramatically and potentially catastrophically with the state of emergency and banning of all public gatherings asides from those in mourning of the deaths from the terrorist attacks.
If aiming to silence dissent is one risk of a heavy-handed security response, a risk of the community-led response is to focus only on highly local issues. Particularly in Europe’s big cities, but in reality everywhere, the local is also transnational. An individual’s political frustrations in London or Paris could be highly caught up with their sense of injustice about what is happening in other parts of the world, perhaps for reasons of personal links to those parts of the world, but not necessarily. Not only do political causes and organisations act beyond borders, but the very terms in which individuals interpret injustices around them at a very local level can be derived from geopolitical conflicts. The war in Iraq and oppression in Palestine are very obvious examples of geopolitical conflicts which can dominate the political imaginations and comprehensions of individuals at all levels. Without understanding these geopolitical dimensions of local politics and lived experience, it is impossible to understand what is happening in communities, at the local level, or in the lived experience of citizens.
A connected danger of the political response to counter-terrorism where a community-based approach is advocated is to try to identify specific ‘communities’ in territorial terms to prioritize funds and attention. Although giving certain deprived neighbourhoods more funding and attention is all to be welcomed, there is a risk of being trapped by a territorial focus into ignoring the ways those neighbourhoods interact with the rest of the social and political space at local, regional, national and global levels. Reifying ‘communities’ in this way by trying to chart them on maps serves only to ignore the dimensions of the problem.
A ‘community-based approach’ may also make it sound like the only ‘communities’ on which the approach needs to be based are those where terrorists may be living, wherever that may be. In reality this kind of logic makes the same mistake of reifying communities, trying to identify those which are ‘at risk’ and those which are ‘safe’. Such an approach at a general level is dangerous and ultimately wastes resources where it seeks to economise them. In reality, the whole political community needs to be addressed. The ‘narrative’ told about terrorism and the response to it needs to emphasise that there is no 100% secure response: that the state cannot totally guarantee security against terrorism without depriving its citizens of all fundamental liberties. Of course, everything needs to be done to fight terrorist organisations, their means of communication, financing and supply. But politicians need to emphasise that the state cannot totally rule out the possibility for terrorist acts to take place, and nor should it. The attempt to reassure citizens by emphasizing the strength of the state, while surely justified up to a point, always risks leading to a reinforcement of far-right demands for reinforcing the state further. Since we do not, and do not want, to live in an omnipotent state, communities have a crucial role in counter-terrorism, which is another way of saying we all have our responsibilities, and we need together to have the courage to live up to them.