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‘Intolerance, discrimination and terrorism: a theoretical re-engagement with human rights’

In May 2017 I attended a multi-disciplinary conference at the University of Gdansk in Poland. The theme of the conference was ‘Intolerance, Discrimination and Terrorism’ and was well attended by social scientists from across the world eg Australia, USA, China, Nigeria, Spain and the Czech Republic. As someone who teaches and researches human rights and counter-terrorism, particularly the balance between the two principles, this conference was an ideal opportunity to showcase my recent research on theories of communitarianism and their possible benefits for counter-terrorism thinking.

I particularly enjoyed the presentation given by Abraham Valera Laborda from the Department of Arabic, Islamic, and Oriental Studies at the Autonomous University of Madrid, ‘the clash of Islamic Movements After the Process of Political Change in the Arab World’. Abraham highlighted some real contradictions in the Arab region, particularly after the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011. Since the 1990s there has been a decline in Islamism generally, so much so that scholars have coined the phrase ‘Post Islamism’. But this has not worked for eg Hezbollah, the militant Islamist group in Lebanon, who continue to receive widespread grassroots support. How does Hezbollah therefore square its traditional Islamist power base, and its support for a political approach to ‘Shia Islam’, with its backing of a secular dictatorship in Syria?

The title of my paper was ‘Intolerance, discrimination and terrorism: a theoretical re-engagement with human rights’. According to the Global Terrorism Index 2016 significant factors causing terrorism, particularly in Europe, are socio-economic ones: inequality, youth employment and drug crime (p.5). Indeed, in Changes in Modus Operandi of Islamic State Revisited, Europol, 2016, the vast majority of terrorist attackers in Europe have been young men with a criminal past, who were not strict Muslims and only recently converted to Islam (p.8). This was therefore particularly apt at the time of the conference because it immediately proceeded the terror attack on Westminster Bridge in London. The attacker responsible, Khalid Masood, born Adrian Russell Ajao, was a Muslim convert, of African-Caribbean descent, with a history of violence spanning 20 years.

Historically, human rights are ‘negative’ ie ‘freedoms from the state’ eg ‘freedom from torture’, ‘freedom from slavery’. This reflects traditional liberal fears that the state is itself a threat to the human rights of the individual, see, for example, John Locke, The Two Treatises of Government, 1690, so individuals need protecting from it. But since the 9/11 attacks, for example, in New York and Washington, is the state still the principal threat to human rights and the security of the individual? In my paper, I argued that, following the year-on-year terror attacks in the UK and our European allies since 9/11, collectively we needed to be protected from non-state actors such as suspected terrorists, not the state, so ‘rights talk’ should move away from its traditional liberal perspectives which are excessively individualistic.

‘Communitarian’ theorists such as Amitai Etzioni eg The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities, and the Communitarian Agenda, 1993, and Rights and the Common Good, 1995, want to redress the balance between individual rights and social responsibilities, otherwise society is, and will continue to be, self-centred and driven by social interests. Noting the nature of recent Islamist terrorists in the West – many are recent Muslim converts – and the factors affecting their recruitment – inequality, unemployment, crime etc – I sought to justify communitarian thinking as a way of re-engaging with community and social groups, particularly individuals within them vulnerable to radicalisation and extremism.

Dr Ian Turner

Reader in Human Rights and Security

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