In 1961 they built a wall.
Concrete, metal and wire were used to create a barrier between two diametrically-opposed worlds: one of capitalist and democratic freedom; the other of communism. Over the course of the Cold War, 5,000 men, women and children climbed the wall to escape from East Berlin. Some failed, some were killed, but the wall was not enough to dissuade people from the idea that life could be better in the West.
Western culture – through films, media and even jeans – began to permeate the wall. West Berlin became a showpiece of what could be achieved, a symbol of freedom. The absolute confidence the West had in their own ideas could not have been in greater contrasted with the defensive wall built by the Soviets. Eventually, as thousands of East Berliners marched on the wall in 1989, it fell.
Every time a person climbed the wall, they proved how an idea could not be stopped by concrete blocks or communist bullets. Threat of death and injury did not stop them because ideas are arguably the most unstoppable force we know of.
How, then, can we hope to stop people leaving to fight for Islamic State (IS)?
Over 700 people have now left the UK to fight for IS. Most recently three Bradford sisters are feared to have travelled to Syria with their nine children. Why have so many people rejected Western values of freedom, democracy and equality and chosen to fight for a group so synonymous with violence and hatred? Online propaganda and targeting on social media has led to the corruption of young, impressionable British citizens. Yet all of those who have left have adopted the advertised ideology of IS and simultaneously rejected the ideas and values of the West. Put simply, they feel that they are on the wrong side of the wall.This is not a UK phenomenon. 25,000 global citizens have joined Islamic State and accepted their ideology. In this new clash of ideas, the battlegrounds are in cities, towns and streets all over the world.
Airstrikes will not win this battle. A military ground campaign could take back the land held by IS fighters, but it will not take back the minds of those who now fight for it. The UK Government’s anti-extremism policy falls largely under the Prevent programme. Designed to tackle the root causes of all types of violent extremism, Prevent has been accused of isolating, vilifying and even spying on Muslim communities. Following the election, the Government has toughened its stance on individuals who, while not promoting violence, do subscribe to an Islamist ideology.
And while IS parades its victories, ideas and advances on social media channels, the UK plays defensively, taking down online content, banning groups from universities and placing young people ‘at risk’ to extremist ideas on Government programmes.
John F Kennedy once stood tall in Berlin and declared that “democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in”. Today there are clear fractures in British society. Individuals are leaving to join IS, communities have become guarded and many feel that multiculturalism has failed. The ideals that inspired people to climb the Berlin Wall are no longer inspiring British citizens. Nationalists condemn the death of ‘British values’ while young Muslims identify more with a foreign movement. In creating laws that infringe upon the freedoms of individuals, in building walls of suspicion between communities and in building security measures aimed at stopping IS supporters leaving or returning, we are not combating this toxic idea with the only thing that can beat it: a compelling counter-narrative.
When did we get so insecure in what we believe in that we retreated from contesting the battle for ideas in the open? We arrest people who try to express the virtues of an Islamist society. We shut down their freedom to express their principles and try to smother their ideas. But arrests have never beaten ideas. Now more than ever, it is time to talk about what British and Western values mean to us, and use them to challenge ideas that threaten our freedoms. There is an identity deficit inflicting the UK, and the threat of IS has shown us how important it is to re-establish what ideas captivate us.
In 1961 they built a wall. In 2015 we cannot resort to building another.