Britain is showing resilience after Paris - for now
ISIS, like al-Qaeda, is more than happy to suck in western forces into a long protracted war in the Islamic heartlands
Auditing the impact of the Paris attacks with only a dozen days past is more an anecdotal and impressionistic exercise than a scientific analysis. In Britain, a country that has had a long history of terrorist attacks, there is a grim, sober atmosphere. People are resilient, not allowing the threat to change their lifestyle, but they are also alarmingly aware that after Paris, London could be the next pit stop for this latest extremist round of outrages.
The security services say that so far they have prevented seven attempted attacks in the UK this year. Britain is on its second highest security alert level. The government has reacted by increasing its funding for the security services.
There is heated debate about proposed police cuts and also increased intercept powers for the security services.
And as part of the standing shoulder to shoulder with France, David Cameron wants Britain to fly side-by-side with it over Syria whilst bombing ISIS. A vote is expected within weeks on this issue as the government looks almost certain to win the Parliamentary approval that is has been seeking for months. What Britain will add to the bombing frenzy over Raqqa is precious little, but being left out is politically and diplomatically unacceptable it seems. There are sensitivities over accusations that Britain will not share the burden.
The politics have then largely taken a well-worn path - no panic, stand in solidarity with our friends, show revulsion for our enemies and pledge increased resources for the security services.
As with other states, nothing must have surprised the authors of the Paris atrocities. In public, the standard rulebook has been followed. One aim will have been achieved if Britain does join the attacks in Syria – ISIS, like al-Qaeda, is more than happy to suck in western forces into a long protracted war in the Islamic heartlands.
But for ISIS, sparking tension, division and fear are their primary desired ambitions as part of a self-reinforcing strategy that will increase their support in Europe. Will societies in Europe play ball and react by turning on Muslims and refugees? In Britain the reactions are mixed.
To an extent in the immediate aftermath of such atrocities there is always an initial spike. One anti-racist group reported a 300% spike in anti-Muslim attacks in Britain since Paris. This extends a worrying long-term trend where anti-Muslim attacks have been rising year-on-year. Most of the attacks have been on Muslim women, largely because they are more vulnerable and typically identifiable because of the veil. The most serious was a mob assault on a takeaway in Scotland.
The political classes have largely not gone down the racist Republican route as seen in the United States. Still, few prominent politicians have dared publicly criticize the likes of Donald Trump and Ben Carson - after all, what would they do if one of them actually became the 45th President?
Sadly Britain has according to the polls joined others in becoming less accepting of taking in refugees. In early September calling for support for the refugees was all the rage. Now, opinion polls show that only 20% would support taking in more refugees down from 36 percent in early September. They have little – the government’s refugee resettlement program is only for 20,000 over 5 years.
ISIS, like al-Qaeda, is more than happy to suck in western forces into a long protracted war in the Islamic heartlandsChris Doyle
Another reaction to Paris would appear to be increased desire for Britain to leave Europe. Support for staying in dropped 7% with a majority now wanting ‘Brexit.’ Some feel that the attacks have shown how vulnerable the EU is.
The far right in the form of UKIP tried to profit on their twin aims of getting out of Europe and bashing immigration. A UKIP leader as the Paris crisis was unfolding could not wait to make the case on Twitter that “France closing borders imply terrorists are not 'home grown' but incomers taking advantage of current migrant crisis?” Its leader Nigel Farage declared “We have a fifth column”, resurrecting a line he used after the Charlie Hebdo attacks to much criticism. One UKIP candidate called for mosques to be closed and the hijab and burka to be banned but these do still appear to be fringe views. UKIP’s poll ratings have not shot up so far.
But it is perhaps in the media that the most worrying signs have surfaced. The Daily Mail published a widely slammed cartoon that depicted bearded and veiled refugees entering Europe with guns and rats.
Yet it was a headline in the most widely read paper of all, the Sun, that perhaps stirred things up most. The Rupert “all 1.6 billion Muslims are responsible for extremism” Murdoch-owned tabloid carried the findings of a an opinion poll it commissioned that the paper claimed showed that 20% of British Muslims had “sympathy for Jihadis” - one in five of Britain’s 2 million Muslims.
A survey to scare the masses, not least as the majority believe that the number of Muslims is more like 20% of the population than the actual 5 percent.
But it was hugely and deeply flawed. The question was not about sympathy for Jihadis but “sympathy with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria”, clearly a totally different issue given the numbers who left to fight the Syrian regime. A survey of the whole British population showed average support for fighters in Syria to be at 14 percent. Still, the damage may have been done.
Overall, Britain has not journeyed very far down the path of scaremongering and scapegoating. Community tensions are minimal considering and there are also heartening stories like when a Muslim woman was defended from assault by a crowd of Newcastle football fans. The reality is that British Muslim communities are largely far more integrated than their French and Belgian counterparts and perhaps better able to whether the storm.
But will this be the case in the event of an ISIS horror in Britain? That will be the true test of community cohesion and political leadership.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.