This website is dedicated to content about the Qur’an, so an article about the London bombings of the 7th/July/2005 may not look appropriate. However, there are two reasons that make me think that this is still the right home for such an article. First, terrorist atrocities such as those committed in London are often made, unfairly, to reflect on Islam and Muslims. Second, the carnage in London places a duty on Muslims, particularly in Britain, to contribute to the debate to understand and stop such acts.
It Is Not Islam
I should start first by stressing that Islam is a peaceful religion and is in no way responsible for any act of terrorism. Many people have already spoken and written extensively about this, and I myself have also contributed a book about the concept of Jihad in the Qur’an after the terrorist attack on New York and Washington in 2001. I would like here to only stress that any objective observer can only conclude that linking Islam to terrorism is attributed to one or more of the following causes:
1) Ignorance of Islam — both its history and thought.
2) Ignorance of ancient and modern history of human violence — both religious and non-religious.
3) Outright hostility to Islam for various reasons.
4) Inability to properly establish logical links between causes and effects.
If the 1st, 3rd, and 4th points may be contentious for one reason or another, the 2nd surely calls on an objective judge: history. The history of religious and secular violence shows that there is no justification to single out Islam and accuse it of being a violent religion.
The Myth of Their Hatred for “Our Values and Way of Life”
If Islam is not the cause, then what drove those individuals to carry out outrages such as the 11th of September attack that killed almost 3,000 innocent people? More intriguing is the case of the London bombers. What motivated individuals who were born, brought up, and educated in Britain to kill scores of innocent people in the capital of their country?
This, it goes without saying, is the one question that just about everyone in Britain, and many more elsewhere, have been asking. Prime Minister Tony Blair was first to offer an answer. In his first comment three hours after the attack, he accused the attackers of seeking to destroy “our values and our way of life”, and later on the same day he promised that the British people “will hold true to the British way of life.” The inaccurate and misleading nature of this fantastically rushed explanation of the terrorists’ objective is very reminiscent of the weapons of mass destruction argument that Blair used to take Britain into Iraq.
Blair’s quick movement to position the terrorist bombings as an attempt against our way of life and values is understandable, but not excusable. Anyone with common sense almost immediately thought of the Iraq war and how much it might have contributed to the perpetration of this carnage. This is a major problem for Blair, because before his adventure in Iraq the Prime Minister claimed that the country needed to go to war because Britain’s security was at stake because of Iraq’s WMD — an argument that he never abandoned even after he himself accepted that those weapons were a myth. He then kept on insisting that this war has made Britain, and the whole world, more secure. Even those who believed him until now would find it difficult to continue to do so — certainly not when London’s streets start to bear chilling similarity to those of Baghdad. Blair had to move quickly to blame the London bombings on something else, to avert any link between them and the Iraq war.
Because of his Iraq adventure, Blair is now part of the problem of terrorism that the country is facing. He is in no position to be part of the solution. He confirmed this by blaming the bombings on the attackers’ hatred for our way of life and values. A different Prime Minister would have certainly found himself in a much better position to respond to the London bombings rationally, without fearing that his own credibility would be at stake if he applied common sense when discussing the causes of the problem. This danger of terror on British soil is in need of real leadership, and Blair’s recent history would just not allow him to act as a genuine leader. Instead of leading the nation in a difficult time, he chose to mislead it, again.
Blair’s fundamental problem here is the same one he had when he was building a case for joining the USA in their war against Iraq: he set out to challenge facts with fallacies. Lies and unsubstantiated claims may be maintained for a long time, but they will have to bow down one day to facts and reality. In the case of the Iraqi WMD, this has already happened. Blair’s poor dismissal of the role of the war on Iraq in what happened in London is equally doomed, with experts and non-experts alike taking the common sense view that the Iraq war has played a significant role in what London suffered.
The suicide bombers in Palestine have been killing themselves and Israelis not because they do not like the Israeli lifestyle. Bin Laden and his followers never said that they bombed and will continue to bomb America because the American electoral college system is not to their liking. The terror that is infesting Iraq now is not the result of the terrorists’ objection to the democratization of Iraq. Similarly, the Leeds terrorists did not blow themselves and tens of people up simply to protest against our food, drink, cinemas, and other aspects of our lifestyle. None of these and similar terror groups were formed and continue to operate around the agenda of changing the British or American way of life.
The number of people who attempt to commit atrocities in the UK is very small in comparison with those who travel to get involved in violence in the places of violence, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, and Palestine. This clearly shows the cause and objective of these acts of violence. Angry young people do not go to fight in Iraq in order to change the British way of life. The intelligence of the British people certainly deserves more acknowledgment and respect than Mr Blair’s argument shows.
What do Iraq and Palestine in particular have in common that can be linked to the two of them producing the largest number of suicide bombings and other forms of savageries? Certainly, not a like or dislike to particular form of democracy or a specific way of life, but a well known source of violence called occupation. The overwhelming majority of attacks in Iraq are targeting foreign troops and Iraqi policemen and army personnel who are considered as collaborator with the occupier. Of course, in the lawless state that Iraq has become and it being on the brink of civil war, ethnic and religious tensions have also flared up and have become a significant factor in the cycle of violence. The atrocious violence in Iraq has nothing to do with how Londoners live in their city. It has a lot to do, however, with the decision of London politicians to invade and occupy Iraq.
British ministers have been warning that any attempt to understand the terrorist bombings in London in a way different to Mr Blair’s explanation, is to play in the hands of terrorists. There is also the suggestion that linking the bombings to the Iraq war is to somehow justify the atrocities. None of these claims is true. Understanding the causes of violence does not mean condoning it or doing what the terrorists want us to do. It is the sensible response of any intelligent person to find a solution to an extremely serious problem.
It is so arrogant and patronizing of Blair and his government to use such a preposterous and intimidating approach to prevent people from thinking about the causes of terrorism. These politicians have abandoned their responsibilities at a time of crisis in order to protect their political careers; nothing more and nothing less. The country will certainly continue to try and understand what happened and its causes.
Extending the Myth with the “Evil Ideology” Claim
The Prime Minister argued on the 16th/July/2005 that these terrorists are driven by an “evil ideology”. Any ideology that permits the killing of innocent people is surely evil, but Blair’s use of the term “ideology” has other, subtle goals. By blaming an ideology, Mr Blair attempted to isolate this terrorism from anything that has been happening in the world, in particular in Iraq, and position it as a fundamentally religious problem. He would like us to believe that the problem is one of a perverted understanding of Islam that is being used to force us to change our way of life. He can, thus, claim that the solution is simply to tackle this interpretation of Islam. This terrorism, according to Blair, is a localized problem that exists within Islam and the Muslim community and there is no need to consider any other external causes. This is simply absurd.
To his credit, Blair did emphasize that this ideology is as distant from Islam as the Irish Christian terrorism from Christianity, but his analysis all but nullifies such a passing, fair remark. His explanation makes this terrorism a completely Islamic problem, and Muslims are mainly the ones who have to sort it out. This convenient and overly simplistic view of what lies behind the London bombings will not help much in addressing the problem. By framing the problem as completely Islamic — in order to avoid talking about significant contributory factors, such as the Iraq war and Western foreign policies in general — Blair has attempted to distract attention from finding a fundamental and genuine solution.
Islam has had minorities of followers develop extremist ideas and interpretations. But all religions share with Islam this phenomenon. To talk about an “evil ideology” only when the terrorists call themselves Muslims or when they commit their crimes under the name of Islam is to implicate Islam.
The fact is that any act of terrorism and genocide could be linked to an ideology. The terrorism of the Irish Protestants and Catholics may be linked to ideologies. The acts of terrorism, genocide, and ethnic cleansing that were committed by Christians, with the well known backing of the Church, in the former Yugoslavia, which resulted in the killing of tens of thousands of Muslims may also be linked to an ideology. The decades long killing of numerous Palestinians and the systematic stealing of their lands by Jews who descended on Palestine from all parts of the world may also be associated with an ideology. The violent policies of the fundamentalist Christian US administration in Afghanistan and Iraq that have led to the death of numerous people, and the keenness of these fundamentalists on making sure that Palestinian territories remain in the hands of its usurpers, also have ideological dimensions. Apart from the people who perpetrated any of acts of violence above, almost everyone else would consider such ideologies to be evil.
Another fundamental flaw in Blair’s analysis is the claim that terrorism by Muslim individuals is causally linked to an evil ideology. In other words, it is this “evil ideology”, whatever it is, that caused those terrorist atrocities. True, terrorists have their own perverted version of Islam that gives them the right, or even imposes on them the duty, to behave in this brutal way. The same holds true for terrorists who act under the name of Christianity, Judaism, and other religions and thoughts. But these ideologies are formed and sought in order to provide religious and ethical backing to their respective campaigns of terror. These ideologies are not the causes of terrorism, but they are used by terrorists to add legitimacy to their violence. The real causes of terrorism are responsible for making such ideologies needed, sought, and popular among the individuals and groups that adopt them. Fighting an ideology will not defeat the causes of terror it is associated with. Even its intellectual defeat can only trigger the emergence of a new ideology to support the violence.
Blair is wrong in both assumptions of his claim. First, the terrorism that is perpetrated by people who label themselves as Muslims is not the only form of terrorism that may be linked to an ideology. Such an ideology, I must also stress, has nothing to do with Islam. Second, this terrorism is not caused by its associated ideology. While the latter is used by terrorists to legitimize their violence, it is more of a result than a cause.
Blair’s claim that the recent terrorist acts in London and elsewhere are all about a bunch of disaffected Muslims getting their religion wrong is a poor attempt to protect his personal standing, rather than a genuine attempt to solve an extremely serious problem. We need serious efforts to identify and understand the causes of terrorism. We have to resist the manipulative attempts of politicians, such as Blair, and the media to equate the attempt to understand terrorism with justifying it. This is essential for finding a solution.
The Real Drive of Terrorism
The main drive for the London bombers, and other related terrorist acts, is a deep sense of anger and frustration at the role of the West in the injustices and grievances that Muslims have been facing in a number of places in the world. This has received recently a big new momentum and efficacy by the war on Iraq. These feelings, but not the violent actions, are normal human reactions to injustice, humiliation, occupation, murder, and various other forms of human suffering. The overwhelming majority of people who have these feelings do manage and control them properly. But in some individuals they develop into a strong desire for violent action, to inflict revenge, impose their idea of justice, or achieve similar objectives.
Terrorists, such as the London bombers, conflate completely different places and fail to deal with the stark differences between them. In Britain, where they physically live, they experience peace, safety, respect for human rights, and very high living standards. In the other places where they are only mentally present, it is war, death, oppression, extreme violation of human rights, and a very poor quality of life. Convinced, rightly or wrongly, that Britain is at least partly responsible for the blights of the Muslims in those places, and failing to manage that anger and channel it in a positive way, the terrorists end up trying to make Britain live the same blight of those countries. Instead of acting to spread peace and prosperity from Britain to those blighted places, the terrorists import from there war and devastation to Britain. There is no justification for this criminal behavior; but living in denial of the causes of such crimes is also unjustifiable.
The failure of an individual to manage anger and pain is not restricted to this specific case of terrorism, nor even to terrorism only. This is a common human failure that can occur to various individuals and can be witnessed in a variety of circumstances and contexts, leading at times to homicide, suicide, or both, as in the case of suicide bombing. An existing ideology is called upon, or a new one is invented, to justify the irresistible desire to commit violence. The ideology is not the cause of the violence, but it acts as a facilitator, as it helps the terrorist get rid of any internal tension that he may feel between his inclination to take deadly actions and values that he holds or is told that he should hold that denounce such acts. By relieving him from this pressure, the ideology makes it easier for the would-be terrorist to become one.
Is this more likely to happen to Muslims, in which case there would be a case for looking more carefully for a special ideology? Certainly not. Circumstances similar to those that recruited terrorists such as the London bombers have led and can lead to violent actions by individuals and groups of various beliefs and ideologies, and even to wars involving whole nations. It is ignorance or double standards that suggest that some Muslims, as opposed to non-Muslims, are particularly violent or prone to violence. Decades long of extreme miseries, such as those of the Palestinians, can lead to violence regardless of the beliefs or nationality of its victims. This is how the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, articulated this fact on the 20th/July: “Under foreign occupation and denied the right to vote, denied the right to run your own affairs, often denied the right to work for three generations, I suspect that if it had happened here in England, we would have produced a lot of suicide bombers ourselves.” This is the reality that undermines any attempt to link terrorism such as we recently saw in London to any particular ideology, or to the even more absurd suggestion that those terrorists are against “our values and our way of life”.
In fact, we do not need to think of any hypothetical scenario in order to put the London bombings and other terrorist acts committed by Muslims in perspective. While the suicide bombers in Palestine have caused a large number of innocent casualties, the number of innocent Palestinians killed by the Israeli army and armed settlers living on stolen land is manyfold that number. Every time a suicide bomber kills Israelis, more Palestinians are killed by the Israelis, more are made destitute in the occupied lands, and more suffering is added to people who have already been living as refugees in their own country for decades. Yet despite the disproportionate use of firepower, and the fact that the Israelis use even air force against what are effectively refugee camps, Mr Bush, Mr Blair, and other Western leaders are completely obsessed by suicide bombers, and utterly unwilling to acknowledge that this violence is actually much less devastating than the organized violence by the state of Israel and its advanced weaponry.
It is revealing that suicide bombing is particularly condemned and explicitly considered as worse than any other form of violence. True, the police and the army find suicide bombers more difficult to guard against and control, but unarmed civilians living in refugee camps are certainly even far more powerless toward army helicopters and war airplanes. Western politicians and media resent suicide bombing more than any other form of killing for two reasons. First, it is frustrating, because it is difficult to control, and deprives people the satisfaction of applying justice to the bomber. Second, it allows politicians and media to easily reject the violence of particular groups of people, but not the others; it allows the rejection of terrorist acts committed by Palestinians, but not those committed by Israelis. Ken Livingstone has noted that: “If a young Jewish boy in this country goes and joins the Israeli army, and ends up killing many Palestinians in operations and can come back, that is wholly legitimate. But for a young Muslim boy in this country, who might think: I want to defend my Palestinian brothers and sisters and gets involved, he is branded a terrorist. And I think it is this that has infected the attitude about how we deal with these problems.”
Advancing his theory that the terror of the London atrocities was ideology driven, Blair dismissed the almost universally held view that the Iraq war has played a role in this carnage. He argued that terrorist attacks such as those of the 11th/September/2001, and earlier atrocities, happened well before the Iraq war. It is amazing that the Prime Minister should resort to such a lame argument. Mr Blair is certainly aware that the Palestinian tragedy started almost 60 years ago; the deployment of American troops in Saudi Arabia that enraged many Muslims happened in 1990; this deployment was followed by a devastating war on Iraq; and this war itself was preceded and followed by brutal sanctions that went on to last for 13 years that killed countless innocent people. If the bombardment of Iraq in the gulf war lasted for about 45 days only, the other issues have gone on for years. The recent war in Iraq is only one other instance of a Western foreign policy that has been causing havoc in parts of the world. Additionally, Mr Blair surely knew that Bin Laden himself and his movement are both the creation of Western governments and intelligence agencies. Al-Qaeda is not the product of an ideology, but the illegitimate child of an irresponsible foreign policy.
The British Muslim and Britain
Whenever an atrocity is committed by Muslims, Muslims everywhere, and particularly in the West, are put under scrutiny, and probing and accusatory questions get asked: Do they really renounce violence? Is their Islamic identity in conflict with their national identity? Do they have real allegiance to their countries? And so on. No surprise, then, when the London bombings took place, these questions came to the front again. This is a failure of the media and politicians to separate between the many millions of Muslims and the few individuals who committed those crimes. The whole of the Muslim community is put on the back foot, and they have to confirm once again their identities, beliefs, and the fact that they are different from the terrorists and more like their compatriots. This is indeed a unique treatment.
For instance, when a black person is attacked or killed by racists, we do not see all white British people looked at suspiciously and asked to explicitly renounce racism. When Christian Serbs slaughtered thousands of unarmed Muslims, Christians in Britain were not put under pressure to come out and renounce this act of genocide. White people are not responsible for the racist actions of a small minority of them, and Christians in Britain should not be made to apologize for crimes committed by other Christians elsewhere. Similarly, British Muslims should not be made to stand trial for atrocities committed by Muslim individuals, whether in Britain or elsewhere.
Because of his interest in the affairs of Muslims elsewhere, the average British Muslim follows closely the news of the Muslim world and what is happening to fellow Muslims. He may not be an Afghani, Bosnian, Chechen, Iraqi, Kashmiri, Kosovan, or Palestinian, but he would be very interested in the state of his brothers and sisters in those and other places. This makes the average British Muslim far more knowledgeable about the affairs of these countries, including Britain’s foreign policies toward them, than the average British non-Muslim person.
There is nothing wrong in the British Muslim being interested in the welfare of Muslims elsewhere. It is, after all, a Muslim’s duty to be concerned about the welfare of all people everywhere – regardless of colour, race and religion. Moreover, it is not wrong for people to have a keen interest in the quality of life of people elsewhere, particularly if it was poor. The average British person would certainly be very interested in what happens in America, France, or Germany, if the people there faced any serious plight. The sympathy that the British, and people from around the world, showed for the Americans after the attack on New York and Washington is an example of this. Many people in Britain expressed their condolences and solidarity with the American people in various ways. No one can suggest that this sense of sympathy with the people of another country is non-British or wrong. Some British people even felt it imperative that Britain should join the so-called war on terror. Another more recent example is the phenomenal response of the British people to the victims of the Tsunami disaster. There are numerous examples that show the keenness of the British people on helping other peoples and nations.
If helping and caring for those who suffer injustice and degradation is what Britain is supposed to stand for as a bastion of human rights, democracy and freedom, then surely caring for Muslims in other parts of the world is perfectly British. In fact, standing up for justice is the patriotic thing to do for the welfare and future of this country. It is also the Islamic thing to do. Muslims are always required to stand up for justice, and Islam totally rejects any politics of identification. Muslims must always take the side of the weak and the oppressed, whatever their faith.
It is, therefore, perfectly British for Muslims in Britain to follow the news of Muslims in other countries and sympathize with them. The plights of many Muslims have been going on for decades. Keeping a close eye at what is happening to Muslims anywhere in the world has become very easy in this age of communication, although the experience itself has never been an easy one. Watching, hearing, or reading everyday about the killing of scores of innocent people, the driving of families from their homes, the humiliation of fellow Muslims, and similar serious mistreatments are very painful. These kind of sufferings call for sympathy for their victims regardless of their identity. What makes this sense of pain even worse for British Muslims is that Britain, their own country, is involved directly or indirectly in those plights.
Additionally, the Muslim in Britain is always made to feel that his country does not want to know about those tragedies. The British media is so biased and unfair in their coverage of events in places such as Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq that the British Muslim is forced to feel at times a sense of alienation. He loves Britain, but not its bombing or invasion of Iraq, or its role in imposing sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of powerless people. He loves Britain, but resents how the British establishment honors Israeli politicians who have been ruling, brutally and by force, a land stolen from its people. The British media and politicians recently cried their eyes out for the Zimbabweans who were bulldozered out of urban slums by Robert Mugabe’s eviction campaign. Evicting Palestinians, demolishing their homes, and stealing their lands have been Israeli policies for decades, but most of the media and politicians are just not interested.
There is also Britain’s support for oppressive Middle Eastern regimes that rule against the will of their people and the interests of their countries. When Britain takes a stance against a dictator it is not because of his dictatorship, but because he is considered to have interests that are not compatible with Britain’s. Saddam Hussein, who was completely demonized after his invasion of Kuwait, used to be a useful friend and ally during the Iran-Iraq war.
This is why the average British Muslim has an element of identity crisis. He is British and Muslim, but at times he struggles to harmonize both identities. The role of his country in some of the tragedies of his Muslim brothers and sisters elsewhere attempts to redefine Britishness in a way that puts it in conflict with his Islamic identity. British Muslims are keen on both identities, but many would find it at times difficult to maintain a complete harmony between the two. This results in a more complex and less harmonious identity, and a rather confused self-image.
But why would the British Muslim expect his country to behave differently? What makes him think that Britain must change some of its foreign policies to be more in line with his views as a Muslim? It is Britain’s declared principles and values that justify these expectations. Britain has one of the greatest democracies in the world. It is indeed something that every British should be proud and feel privileged to be part of. Britain is expected to stand with the oppressed, against the oppressor; support justice, and fight injustice; and promote freedom, and oppose dictatorship. Muslims who are suffering oppression and injustice in various parts of the world are entitled to, at least, moral support from Britain. This is what the British Muslim expects his country to do, because this is what Britain stands for. He cannot understand how Britain can become among the causes of the suffering of his brothers and sisters.
Resentment to their country’s role in Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq is not the feeling of Muslims only. Millions of British non-Muslims share this feeling. Anyone who knows enough about what a big tragedy Iraq has become and how Britain was dragged into an unwarranted war sees a complete detachment between his government’s action and Britishness. Anyone who knows the ongoing tragedy of Palestine would not accept that Britain’s relevant policies reflect the British values. Many of these people would tell you that the role that Britain has been made to play is incompatible with what it stands for, and that they completely dissociate themselves and their country from that role. Muslims may feel stronger about these ongoing tragedies, but both camps share fundamentally the same feelings.
This deep sense of betrayal is not something that can surface only when Muslims are at the receiving end of Britain’s foreign policy. If Mr Blair decides tomorrow to march troops to another, non-Muslim country and start a war that consumes so many innocent lives, both Muslims and non-Muslims would again stand against it. This response would not be only in defense of potential innocent victims that we do not know, but it would also be to defend Britain against the way it has been abused by politicians and their supporters in the media.
What does this tell us? Britain suffers from an identity crisis, whose effect can be seen on its Muslim citizens. This modern, democratic state which has great respect for human rights, freedom, and democracy pursues at times foreign policies that go against its very principles and values. Its long history of support for Israel, for instance, does not reflect the good values that this country stands for. Even after sixty years of continued Israeli oppression and persecution of the Palestinians, occupation of their lands, eviction of millions of them from their homes and turning them into refugees in their country and other countries, Britain is far more friendly with the Jewish state than the Palestinians. Britain was happy to go to war with Iraq because of WMD that did not exist, but it never broke its silence on Israel’s growing pile of nuclear weapons. It has also always shied away from directing any substantial criticism of Israel’s prolonged history of aggression. If the British media would cover the suffering of Palestinian victims in the same way it covers Israeli victims, there would be hardly any time or space left for any other news. It is fascinating to listen to British politicians discussing the violence in Palestine in terms of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli actions.
Britain’s foreign policy in the Middle East still reflects, at least partially, a very different Britain — one that is more reminiscent of the colonial empire and its Judo-Christian heritage. The stark conflict between this Britain of the past and the modern, democratic, secular, and just Britain reflects a dichotomous identity. This identity crisis has been further deepened by Britain’s unconditional association with a USA that, while claims to be the beacon of democracy, is led by a self-righteous Christian fundamentalist administration that has its own agenda. Blair’s near blind following of Bush has added more negativity to Britain’s image in the world and in the eyes of many of its citizens.
Nothing can better illustrate the schism in Britain’s identity than the fact that Britain is also a great country for Muslims to live in. Britain is not perfect, but there is no another country, whether Muslim or not, that treats its Muslim population better than Britain. This fact also points to one aspect of the stupidity and detachment from reality of the terrorists who targeted their capital. The welfare that Britain has offered them, and the freedom that it has generously given them to practice their religion, are not privileges that they can find easily elsewhere. Are Muslims in Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia or any other Islamic country treated better by the state than Muslims in Britain? The answer is a firm no. While it is true that Britain has double standards when it comes to its foreign policy, British Muslims who wage war against Britain because of these double standards are themselves practicing the same, simply because Britain remains a much better country for Muslims to live in than any Islamic country.
The Way Forward
As we have seen, the problem of terrorism in Britain can be simply described as a violent reaction by some Muslim individuals to Britain’s foreign policy in Muslim countries. Any solution has to consider both elements: the angry individual and Britain’s foreign policy. The attempt of politicians and the media to put the onus on finding a solution on British Muslims, and on them only, is both unfair and misguided. The British Muslim community can and must play its role in fighting any extremists within it, but it just cannot prevent individuals who are bent on terror from committing crimes. Additionally, it is not only the Muslim community, but the state also needs to take action to resolve the problem of terror. This action revolves around a number of issues.
Preaching Hatred and Violence
Within their societies, Western countries need to take effective action against those who preach messages of violence and hatred, such as those who do this under the name of Islam. Such individuals take advantage of the disillusion and anger of some young Muslims to provide them with the final push they need to turn to violence. They mentor and manipulate their victims.
However, most people find it difficult to understand why there are individuals preaching death and hatred in Britain with almost impunity. Whenever a terrorist act is committed, a new TV program on terrorism is produced, or a new media report on related issues is released, we find ourselves suddenly watching video and listening to audio recordings of public and private meetings, in Britain, held by British and non-British individuals preaching the worst messages under the name of Islam. You get the impression that these preachers seem to have a freehand in the country to say what they like. The British people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, have the right to ask why we have to be reminded each now and then of the presence of those preachers, and be given, in the course of this reminiscence, the impression that the country is powerless to do anything about them. The fact that there is material evidence on messages of violence and hatred that extremists have been preaching freely not only in private but also in public can only point out to a major failure of our law makers in their duties.
Recently, the Government gave itself the undemocratic power to lock up terror suspects indefinitely without putting them on trial, yet apparently it is still powerless in dealing with people standing on the street, in public, preaching the killing of others. Instead of taking the more difficult but proper action of enacting laws that can tackle the problem, politicians chose the easy option of replacing trying with sentencing. The Government would say that even this law has proven insufficient, but that is simply because it is the wrong law; it is a law to suspend the rule of law.
The Prime Minister, backed by cross-party support, has already signaled his intention to introduce new legislations to extend current laws to criminalize activities such as indirectly inciting terrorism. Clearly, the country does need laws to protect its citizens, but rushing laws quickly and shortly after a terrorist attack might well result in flawed legislations that unnecessarily infringe civil liberty, or allow prejudicial treatment of Muslims in general or particular ethnic groups within the Muslim community. The last thing we need is legislations similar to the American Patriotic Act which, while supposed to target terrorism and terrorists, has been used against people who oppose some US policies, particularly those who oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Fortunately, Britain has a far more politically aware population than the USA, but considerable care and vigilance would be needed as recent history has shown that British politicians can take the country in a wrong direction and against the will of its population.
Muslims have an equally important role to play in ensuring that preachers of violence, whether British or not, are held fully accountable for their words and actions. Muslims must take part in exposing those individuals, isolating them, and helping in bringing them to justice. It is a Muslim’s religious duty to condemn other Muslims who act in an oppressive, unjust, or violent manner, and not to excuse their behaviour or take their side merely based on the fact that they are “Muslim brothers”. This is one Qur’anic verse that commands the Muslims to support justice unreservedly:
O you who believe! Stand firmly for justice, and be witnesses for Allah, even if against yourselves, your parents, or your kin. Whether he is rich or poor, Allah will take care of him. Therefore, do not follow your low desires, lest you deviate; and if you swerve or turn aside, then surely Allah is aware of what you do (4.135).
While new legislations might well drive such preachers underground, Muslims still need to show vigilance and be alert to the possible presence of such people among them. Britain has always been sensitive to ethnic and religious minorities, and it would help considerably if Muslims themselves took an active role in helping law enforcing agencies bring to justice extremist preachers. The preachers of violence are enemies of the religion and the Britishness of the British Muslim.
The Failure of Violence
Terrorists believe that their violent actions help oppressed fellow Muslims, and they often claim that Islam backs their action. In response to this, Muslims need to emphasize that the terrorists are wrong on both scores, and this is not difficult to show. The killing of innocent people has nothing to do with Islam. The Qur’an, the history of the Prophet Muhammad, and the history of Islam in general show that Islam always supported peace and never advocated the killing of the innocent.
With regard to the terrorists’ claim that their atrocities help Muslims, this is also so easy to refute. Just look at who suffered the most from the 11th/September attack in the USA. The “war on terror” that followed has so far claimed the lives of so many thousands of innocent Muslims. The Western media has done very little to inform people about how many whole families in Afghanistan and Iraq were bombed in their own homes, how many people were maimed, how many were made destitute, and how the lives of millions have been made a total misery. Even Muslims elsewhere, including those living in the West, have had to suffer consequences of that one act of terrorism, as they started to be treated with much more suspicion and prejudice. No one paid for the savagery of the 11th/September more than Muslims. Hammering this message home will undermine the argument of using terrorism to support any cause of Muslims anywhere.
Terrorism has targeted innocent people, but the response of the West has also ruined the lives of innocent people. No one comes out of this cycle of terror and death with any credit. Bush, Blair, and others involved in the ongoing “war against terror” are at pain to point out that their war is the right response to terrorism. The high death toll of innocent people, the destroyed lives of millions, and the destruction of whole countries are some of the facts that ridicule their extraordinary claim.
It is also a fact that Muslims have been the main victims and losers in any terrorist act that is committed allegedly to support them or under their name.
The Potential of Democracy
The alternative to violence is democracy. In order for democracy to work, people must engage in it, and for this to happen people need to believe in its effectiveness. They need to believe that democracy is a powerful vehicle for change and achieving their goals. People also need to learn how to use democracy. Many Muslims in Britain lack faith in how much they can achieve through democracy and the skills to use it.
It is not difficult to see why many Muslims in Britain have little faith in what democracy can do for them. British Muslims have grown to over 1.6 million, yet they have had little influence on issues that are very close to their hearts, such as Britain’s foreign policy in the Middle East. Islamophobia in the media today might be even worse than it ever was. There is the feeling that the establishment is just too difficult to change, and that British home and foreign policies are set to be the same regardless of Britain’s significant Muslim population. It is very difficult indeed to see what real difference Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims have made to Britain’s foreign policy. Muslims do feel that they are being told how they should become part of British society, but without being allowed the right to contribute to what this society stands for.
This lack of faith in what they can achieve through democracy is also related to the Muslims’ limited experience with democracy, engagement in it, and use of its institutions. A lot of first generation British Muslims originally came from countries that are or were under outright dictatorship or have a façade of democracy. It is only in Britain that they experienced real democracy.
British Muslims need also to develop the skills and knowledge needed to fully engage in British democracy and develop representative organizations that integrate well with British democratic institutions and allow them to express their needs and views. This way Muslims can ensure that their voice will be heard and be effective. It is true that democratic and political processes can take time to deliver results, but they can achieve a lot. It is vital to develop a strong and effective Muslim vote.
It is essential that British Muslims, particularly the young generation, believe and feel confident that they can change Britain’s foreign policy through democratic means and institutions. Any anger they may have at such policies would then result in positive, constructive, and peaceful actions. This would also close the door to manipulators who try to take advantage of the inexperienced youth and their anger.
In conclusion, the British Muslims are at the center of a faith related problem. But the faith in question is not, as many think, Islam. It is faith that British Muslims need to have in Britain, and faith that Britain needs to have in its Muslims.
Copyright © 2005 Louay Fatoohi
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