News analysis

Cameron's anti-terror plan requires social revolution

British PM David Cameron looking at a computer with Ms Aysha Iqbal Patel (far left) and Ms Zahra Qadir during a workshop about ways to report suspicious online activity, at Ninestiles Academy in Birmingham, central England, on Monday.
British PM David Cameron looking at a computer with Ms Aysha Iqbal Patel (far left) and Ms Zahra Qadir during a workshop about ways to report suspicious online activity, at Ninestiles Academy in Birmingham, central England, on Monday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Fundamental changes in public housing, education needed if measures are to succeed

Britain's Muslim organisations have backed Prime Minister David Cameron's call to expose the brutality of terrorist organisations such as ISIS to prevent the radicalisation of young people.

But in a first warning of the troubles which lie ahead in implementing the government's proposed measures, organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain, the country's biggest, have expressed fears that Mr Cameron's call to promote and "enforce" British values may instead fuel prejudice and suspicion.

Human rights pressure groups have also served notice that some of the measures will be met with stiff opposition.

Mr Cameron's five-year plan to combat radicalism that was outlined this week offered several notable proposals: Parents will be able to apply to have their children's passports confiscated if they fear they will travel to the Middle East to join a terrorist group; Britain's communications regulator will be given new powers to clamp down on media channels broadcasting "hate preachers and extremist content"; the government will try to allocate social housing in a way that prevents ethnic segregation, and "integrated" free schools will be set up in ethnically segregated areas.

Some of the measures can become reality quickly, and may not require new legislation. This is the case with the move to allow parents to ask for the confiscation of their children's passports. Britain's Home Secretary already has powers to cancel the passports of people suspected of volunteering for terrorism, and allowing parents to request the withdrawal of their children's passports is not such a revolutionary idea.

But overhauling housing arrangements in order to tackle ethnic segregation will require a revolution. The provision of social housing in Britain is a matter for the local authorities rather than the central government.

Furthermore, social housing is allocated on the basis of need, and places in the queue are bitterly fought over. Any attempt to change the mechanism of allocation to create a representative racial mix of residents will not only require a fundamental change in the law, but also risks running foul of Britain's national and European human rights obligations, both of which ban discrimination on the basis of race, skin colour or religion.

Besides, Britain's social housing estates are already ethnically mixed: Recently arrived refugees from Africa mingle with second-generation immigrants from South Asia.

The only intermixing which takes place less frequently is that between immigrants and white Britons, which is presumably what Mr Cameron wants to promote. Yet achieving that will require large-scale construction of social housing in order to reduce overall house prices; the biggest racial segregator in Britain is not race, but the lack of affordable housing.

Draconian new measures will also be required to promote integration in schools. Currently, many parents try to place their children in faith-based schools because these are assumed to offer better teaching than the state-funded sector.

The government now proposes to order these faith schools to allocate at least half of their places to children who may not belong to the school's religion.

But that's likely to embroil the authorities in years of fighting with various communities, and will not get around the problem of de facto racial segregation in schools, based on the catchment area of educational establishments.

Nevertheless, Mr Cameron's strategy did serve an important purpose: that of shifting the anti-radicalisation emphasis from one which targets only the men of violence, to one which pushes for a broader integration of people and values as the only way of dealing with the terrorism phenomenon.

"Too often we have lacked the confidence to enforce our values, for fear of causing offence," Mr Cameron said. "We have to confront a tragic truth: That there are people born and raised in this country who don't really identify with Britain."

Legislation which he promises to introduce in October will make it an offence for individuals to peddle extremist views, even if no attack is planned. And the broadcasting regulator will get powers to take off air any network which does the same. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International are already warning that they will fight laws "which criminalise freedom of speech", as Ms Rachel Logan, its legal director, put it.

Opinion polls indicate that the broad British public supports such measures. Still, Mr Cameron admits that he is embarking on "a long battle of ideas". And one in which legal defeats for the government are likely to be more numerous than victories.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2015, with the headline 'Cameron's anti-terror plan requires social revolution'. Print Edition | Subscribe