Our double standards on terrorism
Muslim terror suspects are condemned on the basis of secret evidence, while far-right terrorists are treated with kid gloves
The Guardian's Slow Torture series rightly highlights the government's powers to impose a wide array of illiberal and often draconian restrictions on Muslim terror suspects, without a proper trial and often on the basis of secret evidence.
In contrast however, there is a growing group of terrorists who are treated with kid gloves by the British state and by the media – white terrorists of the far-right, neo-Nazi variety.
Take Neil Lewington.
Neil who? You may not have heard of Lewington, who was found guilty of a range of terrorism and explosives offences earlier this week, and described in court as being on the cusp of embarking on a campaign of terrorism against those he considered "non-British" via the use of "tennis ball bombs". During his trial there were no BBC or Sky News reporters camped outside the Old Bailey, as there so often are for similar trials involving Muslim suspects – and BBC News at Ten chose to entirely ignore the guilty verdict on Wednesday, as did Channel 4 News. Not a single national newspaper splashed the story on its front page on Thursday morning, the Times, for example, burying it on page 23.
Why the double standard? Is it because far-right terrorists tend to be loners and misfits, unconnected to wider terrorist conspiracies or networks? If so, how do we explain the treatment of Kamel Bourgass, a loner and misfit whose case was nonetheless blown up into a vast, complex and dangerous al-Qaida plot to poison the Tube with ricin in 2003?
The reality is that far-right extremism is no longer dominated by loners. The Met police has warned of how organised neo-Nazis may be plotting a "spectacular" terrorist attack in Britain to try and fuel racial tensions – and recent police raids on a network of alleged far-right extremists uncovered 300 weapons and 80 bombs in the biggest seizure of suspected terrorist materials in England for over a decade.
Yet the press continues to turn a blind eye, preferring to focus on dastardly Muslims – and so too does the British state. As I argued in a column for the New Statesman last week, compared to Islamists, who have been subjected to a battery of punitive and illiberal measures – from detention without charge to control orders to secret evidence – white supremacists seem to be given preferential treatment by our criminal justice system. Former BNP activist Robert Cottage, arrested in 2006 in possession of the largest amount of chemical explosive of its type ever found in this country, was charged under the Explosive Substances Act 1883, not the panoply of modern anti-terror laws now at the disposal of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. Neil MacGregor, the self-professed white racist who threatened to blow up Glasgow Central Mosque and behead a Muslim each week until every mosque in Scotland was closed, was tried in a sheriff's court, rather than the high court where such cases normally go, and on the ludicrously lenient charge of breaching the peace.
So how do we ensure parity in the treatment of terror suspects, be they brown Islamists or white supremacists? A simple first step would be for police forces across the land to follow the lead of Hampshire Police which this week suspended its use of stop and search powers under section 44 of the Terrorism Act, after figures showed no arrests in connection with terrorist activity were made despite over 3,400 stops.
Victims of stop-and-search tactics are disproportionately black and Asian and the method itself tends to be, in the words of a Metropolitian Police Authority report only a few years ago, "influenced by racial bias". But the growing and undeniable terrorist threat from the far right makes a nonsense of the case for any form of racial (or religious) profiling in counter-terrorism policing, be it stop-and-search or simple surveillance.
The noxious Hazel Blears, in an earlier but equally controversial guise as police minister in 2005, warned that counter-terrorism powers would "be disproportionately experienced by the Muslim community". Only last month, Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of terror laws, rebuked the police for allegedly trying to "racially balance" stop-and-search figures, warning it would be wrong for officers to stop and search blonde women who do not fit the terrorist profile.
This is preposterous – if the Met's warnings are correct and the next terrorist "spectacular" comes from neo-Nazis, how will Lord Carlile then justify having let dangerous and extreme white people, blonde or otherwise, escape the attention of the authorities? The double standards in our anti-terror laws, and the relentless and discriminatory focus on Muslims, means we are in danger of catching the next Mohammed Siddique Khan but letting the next Neil Lewington slip through the net – with catastrophic consequences for us all.