It was a relief to be back in London after the Isis attacks. My other home town is Paris, and I had spent much of the previous week beset by mourning friends and false alerts. But, as I sat down to dinner at a neighbour’s place, my host seemed worried. “Look through the window,” he said, gesturing at the street. “It’s been there for weeks.”
He was pointing at a car — its rear window, to be precise — through which you could see a black flag bearing white Arabic lettering. An internet search reveals that the words are harmless enough: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.” Yet, since this particular flag has become fashionable among the jihadis of Isis and al-Qaeda, the words have taken on a sinister connotation.
One week after the shootings and bombings across the French capital I was in no mood for complacency, so when I got home I called the UK antiterrorist hotline. It was about 1am.
A knowledgeable gentleman picked up. He took a few details and promised to note them down. “But I would like to manage your expectations,” he added with care. “You won’t find this flag removed tomorrow.”
Why not, I demanded. “This is a free country, sir.” But the freedom to incite violence? “Everybody has the right to express an opinion,” he said, explaining that people who wave a particular flag do not have to agree with everything done by everyone else who waves it. And then, politely but firmly, he bade me goodnight.
At first I was enraged. Most weeks, you are more likely to find me explaining the concept of liberty to undergraduates than taking lectures on that very topic from a police officer. This week was different. More than 100 of my compatriots had just been killed, more than 350 injured.
The dead were not yet buried, scores of survivors were still in hospital — and here I was, in Britain, a country that had sworn to be France’s ally, being told by the authorities to tolerate the enemy’s flag right under my nose.
Which only goes to show that liberty is a demanding creed. Just a few days earlier I had told my students to embrace John Stuart Mill’s radicalism: everything should be openly discussed so anything can be firmly refuted. Offence and disrespect, I had said, should be tolerated so long as they do no direct harm. And here I was, falling into the trap Mill had warned of, phoning a government hotline to ask for a flag to be removed.
It is to Britain’s credit that, while pursuing a counterterrorism strategy that is said to have foiled seven plots this year, the country has not lost its nerve. After an incident this year near Westminster, Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, made clear that the Isis flag was not illegal and would not become so, however despicable the acts committed under its banner.
The country that gave us the principle of habeas corpus sticks staunchly to the rule of law, even as France prepares to ask for opt-outs from European human rights legislation. Let us hope this attitude — a deep-seated respect for the rights of the individual — will remain unchanged now that the UK has decided to join the coalition against Isis in Syria.
Scholars in Islamic studies have since told me that the flag I saw, while strongly associated with jihadis, is also used by groups that observe a strict interpretation of Islam but have no intention of disrupting civil order. Clearly the matter is complex. The most counterproductive thing to do would be to send in the police and try to defeat beliefs with force.
I now know what I ought to do: go and talk to the car owner next door. See what he thinks of the attacks. Discuss, engage, react. Try to build bridges between people in a dangerously polarised world.
The writer is president of GenerationLibre, a Paris-based think-tank
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