British Muslims were strongly opposed to the Iraq War, as I remember from being in the Commons at the time. Do they take a different view of British missile strikes on Syria - and on military intervention more broadly? I spoke earlier today to Mohammed Amin, the Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum and a frequent contributor to this website (see here, for example), who doubts whether this is the case, though he stressed that he has neither been canvassing opinion nor seeking views. "British Muslims' view of the Iraq war tended to be that it consisted of western non-Muslims bombing Iraqi Muslims, and there's no reason to think that their view of intervention in Syria would be different," he told me.
None the less, there is an important difference between Syria now and Iraq pre-invasion. Saddam maintained his grip on the latter until the country was invaded. Assad has lost his hold on parts of Syria, which is engulfed in civil war - one, furthermore, of an increasingly sectarian nature. On the one side are Shi'ite Muslims, some better-off Sunnis, most Christians and the ruling Alawite clans; on the other are Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, many poorer Sunnis and democratic liberals. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are among the Sunni countries backing the opposition; Shi'ite Iran is the main Muslim supporter of Assad. There are some signs that this polarisation between the two Islamic traditions is being felt in Britain.
"Well done, Mrs May," says the Express this morning. "Well done, Mrs May," echoes the Mail. (Or perhaps it's the other way round.) "The best Home Secretary in years, declares the Sun. The Times (£) is more restrained: "Abu Qatada’s scrupulously legal expulsion shows the vitality of democratic values," it says. The Guardian's Patrick Wintour reports that "calmness, sheer determination, thoroughness and prime ministerial were among the many plaudits being sent [May's] way". The editorial praise would have been mirrored by front page headlines had not the terror suspect been flown out of Britain in the early hours of Sunday morning, too late for that day's papers, and had Andy Murray not scooped Wimbledon yesterday.
None the less, the explusion of Qatada has been a political coup for the Home Secretary. It follows falls in both gross and net immigration; a drop in the crime figures - despite the spending scaleback - and the (admittedly shaky) introduction of police commissioners. All this has been managed from a department notorious for shredding the Secretaries of State who run it. Charles Clarke resigned after the bungled release of foreign prisoners. David Blunkett was forced out after a rumpus about his nanny's visa. Jacqui Smith wished afterwards that she had had "training" for the post. John Reid branded the department over which he presided "not fit for purpose". How has Mrs May flourished, at least to date, where her predecessors failed?
By Andrew Gimson
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The Home Secretary’s statement on the deportation of Abu Qatada is a model of its kind. Theresa May conveys steely determination undiluted by any resort to vulgar rejoicing. She is “glad”, but recognises that we still need “to make sense of our human rights laws”.
Not the least of the merits of this statement is its concision. It is only half a dozen sentences long. Here it is in full:
“Abu Qatada was deported today to his home country of Jordan to face terrorism charges.
His departure marks the conclusion of efforts to remove him since 2001 and I believe this will be welcomed by the British public.
I am glad that this government’s determination to see him on a plane has been vindicated and that we have at last achieved what previous governments, Parliament and the British public have long called for. This dangerous man has now been removed from our shores to face the courts in his own country.
I am also clear that we need to make sense of our human rights laws and remove the many layers of appeals available to foreign nationals we want to deport. We are taking steps – including through the new Immigration Bill – to put this right.
Abu Qatada could have launched a last ditch legal appeal, rather than get on that plane from RAF Northholt. Why didn't he? Perhaps life in Belmarsh was proving unpleasant. Perhaps he and his family were slowly ground down by all the negative publicity and its consequences. Perhaps he simply thought he'd lose in court. But whether so or not, he and his lawyers must certainly have been persuaded that he will now get a fair trial in Jordan. And the factor that would have made the difference in this calculation would have been the new treaty between Britain and Jordan, drawn up after months of toil by James Brokenshire and Theresa May.
This is a huge moment for the Home Secretary. She has already notched up Abu Hamza on her office wall. Now she can add the name of Abu Qatada, one of Al Qaeda's most senior players. The Government's critics will say that we shouldn't be in the ECHR at all and that, were we not, Qatada would have been forcibly deported many years ago. They are undoubtedly right on the first point, and probably so, too, on the second, since our courts have twice upheld efforts to expel him. But they are missing an important point. The word on the street is that Britain's politicians are lost amidst a swamp of human rights laws - to the scorn of benefit-claiming terrorists.
Such is the harm that Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller are doing to the struggle against Islamist extremism that they might as well be paid by the Muslim Brotherhood. Although their views and outlook are not identical, both are either incapable or unwilling of making the vital distinction between Islam and Islamism - and thereby damage the combat with the latter. Indeed, both are not so much toilers in the field as in guests in the TV studio: part of our old friend the right-wing light entertainment industry.
That said, there's no intrinsic reason why members of the right-wing light entertainment industry should be banned from Britain by Theresa May. Spencer and Geller have the Home Secretary's letter explaining the reasons for barring him up on their websites. She explains that both have brought themselves "within the scope of the list of unacceptable behaviours by making statements that may foster hatred that might lead to inter-community violence within the UK". In short, she is saying that they are extremists.
I am the last person to deny that extremism is the soil from which violent extremism grows - which is why government should set out clear criteria for dealing with it. Much though I detest Spencer and Geller, neither fall foul of those I set out on this site recently. Neither oppose western liberal democracy. Neither support attacks on British troops. And neither back the deliberate targetting of civilians (at least, as far as I know). Furthermore, supporters of free speech should be deeply uneasy about May's use of "may" (small m) and "might".
Incitement to violence is one thing; remarks that may lead to hatred which might lead to violence are another. And although May has cracked down on hate preachers who have made remarks that may lead to hatred that might lead to violence, it can be argued that some are still slipping through the net. I see that the Commentator has raised the case of Muhammad Al-Arifi. But what swings the balance of the argument in favour of May's decision is the intention of Spencer and Geller of speaking at an English Defence League rally in Woolwich.
The EDL is hopelessly compromised by thuggery and violence: indeed, both are intrinsic to it. I suspect that in the Home Secretary's judgement Geller and Spencer's intention of speaking at the Woolwich event made incitement to violence probable. It will be claimed that this is an insufficient grounds for banning either or both. But neither are British citizens. May is under no obligation to admit them. She is entitled to consider the public interest in doing so - or the lack of it, as in this case.
But there is a sting in the tail. It was not in the public interest to let Abu Qatada into Britain, either - and his case is far worse than that of either Spencer or Geller, neither of whom are terrorists. And it is not in the public interest to keep him here. While there is no guarantee that withdrawal from the ECHR would provide a cure-all for his case, it's worth noting that our courts have twice gone along with efforts to deport him. If the Government is to ban the specks that are Spencer and Geller, it must expel the beam that is Qatada.
William Hague was dispatched into the television studios yesterday to dismiss as "nonsense" claims that GCHQ has been seeking to circumvent the law by using data gathered by foreign intelligence systems, and will make a Commons statement about the matter later today. A central question is whether GCHQ has been making a indiscriminate trawl of information - of the kind that has led critics of the Data Communications Bill to dub it a "snoopers' charter" - or whether it has been carrying out targeted searches for information (an activity which even as dedicated a civil libertarian as David Davis indicates should be permissible).
Today's Times editorial calls on the Foreign Secretary to clarify everything and anything he can - "how concerned the United Kingdom is about the potential of its citizens’ data being scrutinised by another country", what the case is for the Data Communications Bill, whether allegations that GCHQ have circumvented the law are true or false. "The tightrope between public confidence and public safety is one that must be walked," it concludes, and Boris Johnson's message is no different: "There is a trade-off between freedom and security, as Barack Obama rightly says; between the citizen’s right to total internet privacy, and the duty of the state to protect us all from harm."
There is little else to be said once that inevitable conclusion has been reached, but the London Mayor does a marvellously entertaining job of it, as he does each Monday morning. His party trick is to haul an anecdote into each column to illustrate his central contention: today, it is being hacked while in China. "I am afraid I just forged on with whatever I was doing, and it may be that the moles are still there in the innards of my laptop, secretly relaying useless information to their masters". As he says, "I have never trusted the security of the internet, or emails, or indeed texts – because it [is] that any data you sent to some server or database or gizmo [can] no longer be in any sense private." Nothing can change that, whatever Hague says today.
It would be an exaggeration to write that every Conservative born into the world alive is either a Little Authoritarian or a Little Libertarian. But how much of one? The result of our last monthly survey question about the Communications Data Bill (a.k.a the Snooper's Charter) may point towards an answer.
That last fifth of Tory respondents is quite a big slice of the whole, and is a reminder that all Conservatives don't come down on one side of the fence or the other. Since compromise with our Coalition partner isn't always a popular option with party members, the figure indicates that a significant percentage of them find it hard to make their minds up about the bill.
However, the remaining three-quarters or so seem to have made their minds up. And I think the results point towards a general truth - namely, that regardless of whether one agrees with them or not, libertarians make a lot of noise in proportion to their number.
Perhaps the Woolwich horror has had an impact on the figures. However, the proportions certainly wouldn't justify any claim that Conservative members are lined up to support the bill: compromise is perhaps where the Home Office is heading in any event. Over 700 Tory members responded to the survey - as did over 1400 readers in total.
Theresa May has criticised universities for complacency in tackling radicalisation towards extremism on campus. Mustafa Field of the Mosques and Imams Advisory Board has said: "We are...having hate preachers walking into university campuses and there's not enough work being done around that." Boris Johnson wrote in his Daily Telegraph column this morning that "universities need to be much, much tougher in their monitoring of Islamic societies. It is utterly wrong to have segregated meetings in a state-funded centre of learning. If visiting speakers start some Islamist schtick – and seek either to call for or justify violence – then the authorities need to summon the police."
I am not so cynical as to write that much is said about extremism but nothing is done. Theresa May has keep a lot of hate preachers out of the country, starting as she meant to go on with Zakir Naik. The Times suggested behind its paywall on Saturday that counter-terror co-ordinators are already gathering information on radicalisation towards extremism on campus. There is progress. But I am concerned about David Cameron's measured reaction last week degenerating into a "crackdown" (with the attendant risk of the return of the "Snoopers' Charter"). Let me be clear: I'm all for extremist preachers being kept off campus, websites being shut down, extremism being tackled in prisons, Anjem Choudary's benefits being stopped (why is he still getting any?) and so - a real crackdown.
But when one reads of the Prime Minister's new Ministerial task force - TERFOR - producing initiatives on "disrupting extremist activity" and "challenging poisonous activities", it's worth remembering that John Reid set up the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) in to do precisely that under Labour - as long ago as 2007. In short and despite advances, there is a pattern. An outrage happens. Ministers promise action. Memories start fading. Newspapers lose interest. Officials resist action, as in the case of Cameron's Munich speech. So do politicians (in some instances). It's two steps forward and one step back, and that's if we're lucky. If we're unlucky, we have what Andrew Gilligan has called the Government being tough where it should be liberal, and liberal where it should be tough. In other words, questionable groups get favours from Ministers while innocent citizens have their freedoms compromised.
I have a simple test. On the one hand, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) has been condemmed by Theresa May and Nick Clegg, two of the most senior Ministers in government, for failing to “fully challenge terrorist and extremist ideology”. (May ordered civil servants to withdraw from a FOSIS graduate recruitment fair.) On the other, Sayeeda Warsi attended a FOSIS event in the House of Lords and, according to Gilligan, "supported claims by FOSIS that extremism was “no more prevalent” in universities than in any other parts of society". Can Ministers please get their ducks in a row? "You say I am repeating/ Something I have said before. I shall say it again./ Shall I say it again?..."
Reflect for a moment on the absurdity of the idea unpacked in that last sentence. The minds of both men were not in healthy condition before the murder. They were made sick long before it by the virus of Islamist ideology. In other words, extremism is the soil from which violent extremism grows, and ideas have consquences. To say that extremism leads to violent extremism ought to be no more controversial than to say that violent storms lead to flooding. But for all its good intentions and despite some solid work, the Government isn't facing up fully to this obvious truth.
Eric Pickles as good as admits it in his article in today's Sunday Telegraph. "As we reflect on the events of this week, there is no doubt that more can and will be done by the Government to challenge radicalisation and extremism," he writes. The Communities Secretary knows well that a counter-extremism strategy has been due from CLG for well over a year. What reference there is in it to his Department's Integration Strategy was inserted at a late stage. I wrote last year that "more details will be published in due course". Over 18 months later, we're still waiting.
Tony Blair responded to 7/7 by rushing out a twelve-point plan which his Home Secretary hadn't had proper sight of, and which the Labour Chairman of the Home Affairs Select committee called "half-baked". Much of it was never implemented, which was just as well, and its most startling feature was immediately dropped - new powers to close mosques (as if that would have helped). One of its main proposals was to hold suspects without charge for up to 90 days. This was red top government: the then Prime Minister was running the country as if he were a tabloid editor.
David Cameron responded to the murder of Lee Rigby by saying that he is "not in favour of knee-jerk responses. The police have responded with heightened security and activity - and that is right. But one of the best ways of defeating terrorism is to go about our normal lives." He also confirmed that the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Intelligence and Security Committee will examine why the suspects weren't fully investigated - despite being known to the police and security services. (The independent coroner's inquiry into 7/7 didn't open until 2010.) This style of government was presumably what Cameron meant - though he cannot have foreseen the terrible circumstances - when he said in opposition that politics shouldn't be a branch of the entertainment industry.