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It’s quite rare that a leading politician issues a speech which is so magnificently factually wrong as the one Nigel Farage delivered last night.
Hilariously, Ukip sources were spinning the event as “the most important intervention from a mainstream politician in the UK on the subject of Syria and the UK’s security situation”. In reality it was a pub rant of precisely the type you would expect.
At its heart were three key falsehoods, on which the Ukip leader either knowingly misled his audience or was simply too ignorant to understand himself.
Firstly, he laid the blame for the Paris attacks at the door of refugees despite there being no evidence for doing so; secondly he seems to have fundamentally misunderstood France’s entire approach to immigration, and finally he misrepresented the Muslim response to the attacks.
Refugees to blame for Paris
Ukip have wasted no time blaming refugees for Paris. Their senior figures were doing iton the night of the attack and the next night. Online they have been supporting every half-baked fantasy about the identity of the bombers.
Yesterday, Farage said the attacks were what happened when you “invite hundreds of thousands of people into your country with no thought for security checks”. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker was “dangerously complacent” about the risk of extremists arriving from Syria. “I have tried again and again and again over the course of the last few months to argue that we must not let our compassion imperil our civilisation,” he said. And now look: he’s been proved right after all.
Except of course he hasn’t. Anti-refugee politicians and journalists are obsessed with the Syrian passport of 25-year-old Almohammad Ahmad, which was found at the scene of the attacks. They say, predictably, that this shows one attacker at least had come over with refugees when Europe was experiencing a wave of compassion this September.
The focus on Almohammad Ahmad, who has not been confirmed as an attacker or even as being present, is curious because all those who have been confirmed so far have been French and Belgian. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged mastermind who is still on the run, is Belgian. Omar Ismaïl Mostefai, of Algerian descent, grew up in Courcouronnes, just south of Paris. Samy Amimour, was born in Paris. Bilal Hadfi, who hasn’t been officially identified yet, is from Neder-over-Heembeek, in north Brussels. Brahim Abdeslam was a French national based in Belgium.
But anyway the passport is likely to be fake. This morning it was reported that a man was detained in Serbia after he was found carrying a Syrian passport matching the same details as one in Paris. The passport is for 25-year-old Almohammad Ahmad once again, but it has a different photograph.
It is considered highly unlikely that an Isis terrorist would carry their passport on them. Isis do not believe in countries, least of all Syria. “The single most intriguing fact is that the passport was there at all,” one French official told the Independent. “It was not actually on the terrorist’s body, or what remained of it. It was lying nearby, as if meant to be found.”
It’s possible – likely even - that the passport is a propaganda device meant to trigger exactly the response from Ukip which Farage delivered last night. Either way, he has no evidence whatsoever to base his claim that the attack and refugees are linked.
But let’s Farage is right. Let’s say either that Almohammad Ahmad is one of the attackers or that an attacker used a forged passport with the name of Almohammad Ahmad to enter Europe as a Syrian refugee. What would be the most secure response to that discovery? It would not be, as Farage wants, to shut the borders. There are no borders to shut. Greece and Italy are not laying out welcome mats - they are trying to stop the boats. But they cannot, because a coastline can never be truly secure. And refugees, as we have seen in Paris on Friday night, have so much to run away from. The demand cannot be stopped. We are in control only of supply.
The solution would be to bulk verify refugees in the Middle East before then sending them to Europe. We already have the system in place to do this. The UNHCR Gateway Protection Programme identifies and screens valid refugees and then the British government can verify them in a back-up process if it chooses to. That is the only practical response: it discourages the boats and imposes our control over the identity of new arrivals. It just happens not to be a response which vindicates Farage. That is largely unsurprising.
France’s approach to immigration
There is an absolute howler of a mistake in the middle of Farage’s speech. He says:
“The thing that makes me angry about what happened in Paris is frankly the fact that it was so utterly and entirely predictable. I think we’ve reached a point where we have to admit to ourselves, in Britain and France and much of the rest of Europe, that mass immigration and multicultural division has for now been a failure.”
Farage seems completely unaware of the fact that France does not pursue a multicultural policy. In fact, many in France felt Britain’s multicultural policy may have played a role in helping radicalise the 7/7 bombers. Similarly, many in Britain felt the riots which hit the banlieues in 2005 said something about the failure of the French assimilationist model of immigration. The Paris attacks suggest they were wrong about multiculturalism’s causal role on 7/7, while the London riots suggest we were wrong about assimilisationism’s causal role in their riots.
Speaking very simply, the British system is to give groups some leeway within society to form their own cultural and social identity, while the French model demands that all individuals ascribe to French society, typically by embracing secularism in public. The best example is the French ban on the hijab in public schools or jobs providing public services – something which would be considered a grotesque invasion of privacy in British policy-making.
Farage seems completely unaware of this distinction, which has dominated discussion of France and Britain’s approaches to immigration and extremism for decades. And yet he still made a speech trying to convince his audience to accept his interpretation of events.
The Muslim response to the attacks
Farage’s errors become more nakedly cynical and dangerous when he moves on to his main topic, which focuses on the Muslim response to the attacks. Instead of saying, as most politicians rightly do, that Isis lunatics form a tiny minority of Muslims, he instead actively suggests they represent one wing of Muslim thoughts, with British identity on the other.
“It is clear that the UK Muslim population are conflicted in their loyalties between loyalty to the UK, its way of life and its institutions and what elements within their organised faith are telling them,” he said.
Ukip sources speaking to the media pointed to a ComRes poll of 1,000 Muslims for Radio 4 showing that 27% had “some sympathy for the motives” behind the Charlie Hebdo attack, 34% believed violence could be justified against those who publish images of the prophet and 11% feel sympathetic towards people who want to fight against western interests.
Ukip were less keen to mention another finding from the survey, showing that 95% of Muslims in this country felt loyalty towards Britain. That is much higher than the findings for Brits in general. A recent British social attitudes survey found only eight in ten were at least ‘somewhat proud’ to be British and even that figure masked a decline, with just 35% saying they were very proud, down from 43% a decade before.
The Radio 4 Survey also found that 93% of British Muslims believe Muslims in Britain should always obey British laws. Those saying they understood the “motives” of the Charlie Hebdo attack – as much as I disagree with them – are not saying they condone the attack, but that they understand the offence.
But the real response to Farage’s cynical opportunism is not in survey results, but from the mouths of the thousands of Muslims who went on social media to express their outrage. It is despairing that they should have to do so when I felt no need to apologise for Anders Breivik. Most terror attacks in Europe are nationalist, not religious. But those do not require the entire group to explicitly state that this was not done in their name either. Nevertheless, Muslims do, mostly because they know how people like Farage will spin events. So perhaps Farage could read their statements next time he wants to make a speech about them.
There is a reason Muslims are not in love with Isis: They are its main target. Isis is, above all, a violent repository for Sunni grievances. But if Farage does not know that France is not multicultural, it’s unlikely he understands the complex relations between Sunni and Shia which created this situation.
The Isis threat is not ideological – they are rejected by the vast majority of Muslims worldwide and exist only on the absolute fringes. The Isis threat is one of security in the West and military occupation in the Middle East. Farage, as one of the useful idiots on the hard-right who help fan the flames after an attack, gives the group far more influence than it deserves.
We don’t have all the evidence yet so it is irresponsible to come up with possible solutions, but the identity of the attackers actually points away from refugees and towards a different problem: the creation of a migrant underclass with radicalisation problems a decade or so afterwards. That’s a major issue which cannot be solved without improving the life chances and the sense of belonging in those communities. But that, of course, is adult politics for adult people. Farage won’t be interested in it.