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Social cohesion can defeat terror

20 November 2015

Community-building undermines extremism: churches can help here, says Alan Billings


Solidarity: a vigil after the Paris attacks, at Birmingham Cathedral on Sunday

Solidarity: a vigil after the Paris attacks, at Birmingham Cathedral on Sunday

I WILL be spending time with senior police officers over the coming weeks, thinking about the terrorist attacks in Paris last week. There may well be implications for policing in this country. If there are further ways of protecting people here from this sort of outrage, then those ways must be found and financed. This will not be easy, because resources are so stretched, but keeping people safe is the first priority of any police force.

One thing already seems clear, however. Any response has to go wider than the police or security agencies, important though they are. There is something here for all citizens to reflect on, including the Churches and other people of faith.

In the first days after the attacks, several commentators suggested that they marked a new phase of terrorist activity, because they were indiscriminate and random. Comparisons were made with the shootings at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo earlier in the year, which were targeted at journalists and cartoonists (News, 9 January).

I disagree. There was nothing random or untargeted about these new outrages. It is true that particular individuals were not singled out, as with the Charlie Hebdo staff. In that sense, the victims were randomly selected. They just happened to be there that evening. But the venues were deliberately chosen.

The targets — people at restaurants, a concert, and a football match — were everything that the Islamic State terror group detests. Here were people in a free and secular society enjoying an evening out together.

By “secular”, I mean a society that is not under the dominant influence or control of a particular religion or ideology. It is the plural and secular nature of our society that the jihadist finds so abominable. France, with its idea of laïcité, makes that more explicit than most.

In urban centres across Europe, every weekend, you will find men and women, young and old, of all ethnicities and faiths, mixing freely together, enjoying one another’s company, and exchanging views. This was the target.


IF THAT was the target, the desired outcome from the attacks is not hard to see. The aim of the terrorist is to undermine the plural society by threatening its cohesion. Islamic State wants to destroy who and what we are indirectly, first, by making us afraid, and, second, by getting us in our fear to turn against one another. In this way, we do the work of the jihadists for them. The calculation is that if we are to crumble, we will crumble from within.

In fact, this began to happen almost immediately, as some comments on social media revealed. Blame began to be shifted from the perpetrators and on to people of the Muslim faith in general. Perhaps all Muslims were somehow responsible. If we got rid of them, we would get rid of the problem.

We can see how quickly in people’s minds the links begin to form between acts of terror and fear of a particular religion, particular ethnicities, immigration, refugees, and asylum-seekers.

Then there was a further development. Soon, the problem was located not just in one religion, or one perverted form of it, but in all religion. On the day after the killings, the media were reporting that a man in the centre of Paris was singing John Lennon’s “Imagine”. In that song, Lennon invited the listener to imagine a world that was at one and at peace because the things that divided people were gone and that included religion.

“Imagine”, however, is fanciful and naïve, offering no practical guidance. If cohesion can be achieved only by eliminating difference, religion is not the only difference between us. Getting rid of difference is an invitation to a never-ending and destructive quest.


IF THE plural society is the target, and undermining it from within by fomenting division between citizens is the means, we can see what part of the answer to the terror threat has to be, and why it involves more than policing.

The antidote to the terrorist is a cohesive society. The stronger the bonds between different parts of the community, the more difficult it becomes to undermine from within.

Since last weekend, however, many Muslim communities in Britain are feeling anxious again. Hate incidents have occurred. There are always those who will be only too ready to capitalise on fear, and make the links outlined above between the faith of Muslim citizens and the terror we have seen on the streets of Paris. If that is allowed to happen, many ordinary Muslims will simply withdraw and disengage. Others will become angry and resentful.

This is where the Church can play a pivotal part, particularly the traditional parish church. Parish churches and their clergy are trusted. We should not exaggerate this, but neither should we play it down. Many have already made strong links with their local mosques and Muslim communities, as they have made links with other groups in their neighbourhood. Where they have, this is one of those moments when the contacts need to be renewed, and support given.

This can be done in many ways. I have spoken at Friday prayers in the mosque. Congregations have visited mosques and shared food. There have been gatherings where representatives of all sections of the community can offer support and show solidarity. Most police forces have senior officers who will be only too willing to come and give reassurance that fears will be taken seriously and support given.

If the present threat from Islamic State and those who think like it is to be defeated, it will not be by police action alone. It cannot be by police action alone. But it will be by building cohesive communities that know and trust one another. That is a challenge to the parish church; but parish churches understand well that a community that is divided against itself cannot stand.


Canon Alan Billings is the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire.

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