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Manchester attack: an act of "sick cowardice" indeed!

There are perhaps no words to better describe the despicable terrorist attack on the concert for youngsters in Manchester, England, than those used by British Prime Minister Theresa May, who labeled it an act of “sickening cowardice.”

While Daesh was quick to claim responsibility for this horrendous attack, the British police identified the suspected suicide bomber as Salman Abedi; the ongoing investigations will show whether or not Abedi — who is British from Libyan origins — worked alone or was part of a bigger terror cell. 

Saudi Arabia led the Muslim countries’ condemnations of the attack — and there should be no doubt that there is no sane human being on the face of this planet who wouldn’t denounce the cruel act of mass murder against innocent children.

The incident in Manchester does, however, lead to very important questions — which coincidentally were all raised by UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed a few days ago in Riyadh, where he took place in a Tweeps 2017 panel discussion. 

Debating the usage of social media by extremists, the UAE minister warned that the “voices we hear calling for murder and shedding blood and stealing the wealth of people are in London, Germany, Spain and Italy.”

While calling upon Western countries to address the problem of terrorism within their own borders, Sheikh Abdullah added: “There will come a day when we see far more radicals, extremists and terrorists coming from Europe because of (a) lack of decision-making, and trying to be politically correct.”

As a former Londoner myself I truly subscribe to Sheikh Abdullah’s argument. Living in the UK for nearly a decade, I witnessed first-hand how the British authorities unwisely tolerated intolerance. The classic example was the curious case of Abu Hamza Al-Masri, the infamous hate preacher of Finsbury Park Mosque, who blatantly advocated extremist ideas, radicalizing young British Muslims… and managed to do all of this right under the noses of MI5, the Security Service and the Metropolitan Police, which instead of arresting him, sent forces to protect his rights of freedom of speech.

Living in the UK for nearly a decade, I witnessed first-hand how the British authorities unwisely tolerated intolerance.

Faisal J. Abbas

Of course, Abu Hamza now rots in a US prison serving a life sentence — but that only happened after the damage was done. Abu Hamza is only one of many hate preachers who were allowed — intentionally or unintentionally — to operate for many years. (Abu Hamza later made unconfirmed claims that he was recruited by British intelligence and used to keep directing radicals abroad and off British streets). 

The likes of Abu Hamza and the mosques that hosted them were certainly a problem in the 1990s and early 2000s. But today the damage is much bigger and harder to contain due to social media — particularly in an advanced country like the UK, which has a 92 percent Internet penetration rate and over 80 percent smartphone penetration. We must acknowledge that unless parents, schools, authorities and social media platforms work together, radicalization in European countries will continue and there will be nobody to blame but themselves. 

UK laws must clearly distinguish between what is considered freedom of expression and what are blatant calls for murder. Similarly social media platforms should immediately deploy measures to remove any material suspected of being terrorist propaganda, and stop arguing whether or not this would deprive users’ rights to express themselves. There is no discussion of such issues when it comes to removing pornography or material that infringes copyrights; likewise, there should be no question that Daesh beheading videos or recruitment messages should be immediately removed. 

As far as Muslim countries go, there were many recent initiatives that will all be very helpful, such as the recently launched “Etidal” center in Saudi Arabia, which focuses on spreading moderation and countering terrorism. There were also calls by Sheikh Mohammed Al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, for Muslims in non-Muslim countries to abide and respect laws and constitutions of these countries. There is also the Islamic Military Alliance to combat terrorism, which is also headquartered in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia, like many Arab countries, has very strict laws when it comes to its own citizens getting involved in terrorist activities, promotion or financing — with potential punishments including the death sentence for those proven guilty of such crimes. 

But unless Western countries decide that there should be no tolerance for intolerance within their own borders, there is very little that such initiatives can do to help fight the scourge of terrorism.  

• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News. He can be reached on Twitter @FaisalJAbbas