Knee-jerk legislation is not the answer to Islamist extremism

Rushed legislation is effective only in so far as it is immediate - it cannot tackle the underlying causes of crime.

Rushed legislation is effective only in so far as it is immediate – it cannot tackle the underlying causes of crime

In recent years dogs, hooligans and Muslims have all been subject to emergency ‘knee jerk’ legislation – a truncated parliamentary timeline justified on the grounds of a real threat to society, national security and a disruption of the social order.

Rushed legislation is effective only in so far as it is immediate, like thrusting a dummy into a crying baby’s mouth and instantly pacifying the recipient.

But what it fails to do is look at why the baby is crying in the first place.

John Major’s government passed the Dangerous Dogs Act in 1991 because of the national outrage and media frenzy surrounding pit bulls mauling children in parks.

As a result, it became illegal to have a dog that was out of control in a ‘public place’.

The public at large was pacified and the government appeared as though it had been proactive. However, because of the immediate and literal nature of the Act, it failed to cover attacks in a ‘private place’.

This meant that a dog that attacked a postman delivering a letter or a child retrieving a ball from a neighbour’s garden fell outside of the jurisdiction.

Brice Dickson, Professor of International and Comparative Law at Queens’ University Belfast, argues that legislation “pushed through parliament in an emergency tends to be bad legislation because it is ill-considered”.

In this case the Act focused on ‘dangerous dogs’ in public, rather than focusing on ‘dangerous owners‘ everywhere, which would have made much more sense.

The Football Disorder Act 2000 was rushed through parliament in the wake of national embarrassment at the violence of British football fans during Euro 2000.

Football hooligans could be banned from travelling abroad and the police were given the power to seize the passports of ‘hooligans’ for up to five days before an international fixture.

In terms of civil liberties, this was a draconian measure as it prevented free movement within the European Union. In terms of practical application of the law, there was some discussion at the Hansard stage of the bill and later taken up by ministers about whether a tattoo of the Union Jack might result in a travel ban.

Baroness Royall conceded that one of the major difficulties with rushed legislation is that “there is not as much time for scrutiny”.

With relatively straightforward issues such as dangerous dogs or hooligans the ‘knee jerk’ legislation falls short of being fit for its purpose and results in criticism, uncertainty and eventually a timely redraft.

These issues are straightforward in that endless inquiry and serious international academic study is not required to get to the root of the cause.

This is in contrast to the highly complex, very new and challenging nature of Islamist extremism, which gives rise to more grave, if not dangerous repercussions to knee jerk legislation.

Sixty-three days after 9/11 the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 was passed, denting the centuries-old Habeas Corpus principle.

The Act was criticized by Liberty who said there was “no apparent need for an immediate legislative response”, because The Terrorism Act 2000 had already cleaned up and consolidated the existing terrorism laws.

Then there was the Terrorism Act 2006, which came about after the London bombings in 2005. The Counter Terrorism Act 2008 suddenly included an anti-money laundering clause.

The other problem with an expedited approach to producing statutes is that it does not leave time for existing statutes to mature, or set enough precedence for sensible modifications.

Islamist extremism is unique and chameleon-like in its nature. It is gathering momentum in different stratified segments of the Muslim society. This is reflected in the way the media shifts its lens in trying to keep up.

At first it was the mosques that were preying on young non-integrated males. Then it was educated, integrated Muslims going abroad to fight President Assad’s regime in Syria. (Talk of banning their return does not take into account the fact that they are valuable intelligence).

Then the media highlighted the dangers of online radicalisation, resulting in the introduction of emergency data laws. And whilst the glare of the lens remained on young males, girls suddenly appeared to be threatening to flee to Syria as ‘Jihadist brides’

The law should not, and cannot, match the constantly changing nature of extremism with sporadic and ‘knee jerk’ legislation. When rushing, it cannot legislate correctly in areas it does understand, so it stands to reason that it cannot quickly make correct legislative decisions it areas that it does not.  

And what the law needs to understand is that there is a whole plethora of types of Islamist extremism: the teenage girl infatuated with an image of a ‘bad boy,’ the angry male in prison, the loner with mental health problems. It can never be exhaustive; who knows what story will unfold about the British male beheading his fellow westerners?

The media has been accused by some of an anti-Muslim rhetoric in its reportage. The legal system does not need to join in by churning out anti-terrorism laws, further isolating British Muslims at a time when they should be actively encouraged to partake in the legal and political system.

The law should be a steadfast and immovable actor until it knows exactly which way to go. Immediate pacification did not work in the case of hooliganism and dogs; in the infinitely more complex area of Islamist extremism, it has no chance.

Nazish Khan is a playwright and journalist and works with Quilliam

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