It is entirely right that people should be concerned about the potential for a ‘backlash’ against the Muslim community in Britain, a fear that would certainly rise further if it were to be discovered that the perpetrators of Thursday’s atrocities turn out to have been based in the UK or even British citizens.
It is also entirely right that a great deal of effort is now being taken to emphasise to the public that the vast majority of British Muslims are opposed to terrorism, were appalled by the attacks in London and indeed were among the victims. In such a context the swift response of the Muslim Council of Britain in issuing its condemnation was wise and welcome.
It is understandable that many Muslims tire of having to issue such condemnations. It is indeed true, as is frequently pointed out, that no-one asked Christians to denounce the acts of Milosevic in the Balkans because no-one drew a link between those atrocities and the religion of the Serbs – even though many of the war criminals on the Serbian side made frequent reference to the defence of their Orthodox Christian tradition from Bosnian and Kosovan Muslims as a motive for their actions.
Also beyond dispute is the point made by Karen Armstrong in the Guardian today that “We rarely, if ever, called the IRA bombings “Catholic” terrorism because we knew enough to realise that this was not essentially a religious campaign”.
Armstrong goes on however to err in her analysis of Islamist terrorism (a phrase she aims to eliminate from our vocabulary) by suggesting that religion has little or no role in the campaigns waged by Bin Ladenists. And here we get to the root of a tricky problem for those who believe we must defeat the followers of violent Jihad – given that the terrorists have been born out of a faction of Islamic thought, define their struggle as a religious duty and their goal as a religious/political one how how should British policymakers and progressives approach that religion? More importantly how should the followers of that religion act to isolate and defeat the terrorist element?”
Analogies are rarely perfect but Armstrong’s use of Northern Ireland raises the obvious point that within the Catholic or nationalist community there were political forces who not only rejected IRA terrorism and the entire notion of Republican ‘armed struggle’ but actively opposed it and made that opposition a central part of their political appeal. I am thinking here of the SDLP, those involved in the peace movement and those on the left who stuck to the idea that the working class of both religious communities would be better served by unifying around secular demands.
There was, within those forces, still room for a critique of British policy in Ireland, still room for an expression of the goal of a united Ireland, still room for a historical analysis of the conflict which did not put all the blame for ‘the troubles’ on the Republicans but none of which weakened or compromised in any way a hostile opposition to the IRA and its apologists.
A similar process occurred on the far left in Italy. There were some communists who saw the murderous actions of the Red Brigades merely as a tactical error and those who carried out the crimes as ‘comrades who have erred’. Their primary mistake was to have adopted ‘armed struggle’ as a method when the correct line was to focus on mass struggles through trade unions and the political process. Through a process of argument and re-positioning this view was widely defeated and the terrorists were named as such and regarded as enemies of democracy and indeed enemies of the left. None of this involved anyone on the far left abandoning their critique of capitalism and their view of the necessity of socialism. It meant drawing a clear line between the democratic left and the terrorists. It meant being prepared to link arms with their political opponents in the centre and the right in opposition to terrorism.
What is surely needed now from Muslims is more than just a rejection of violent Islamism but a clear opposition to it. It is not enough to regard the terrorists as ‘brothers who have erred’ and simply reject their tactics – there needs to be an active opposition from mainstream Muslims to the Jihadists in the UK, their supporters and apologists. It is not enough to merely state that ‘these people are not Muslims’ because terrorism is contrary to their philosophy of the ‘religion of peace’ – just as it was not enough for Catholic priests to reject the religiosity of armed struggle and communists to point out the un-Marxist nature of armed struggle against a democratic state.
None of this, of course, would involve any weakening of the Muslim faith on the part of those who would make up an active opposition. None of it would necessitate silencing criticisms of British foreign policy, support for a Palestinian state or other issues that may be of concern to Muslims. It requires only a clear, ideological opposition to Islamism and a commitment to democracy.
It is for British Muslims themselves to define, create and carry out this opposition and that will surely involve the creation of a positive alternative which brings all active Muslims into the political mainstream – a discussion needs to be had about how that can best be done. But what is without doubt a necessary first step is a recognition of the problem.
According to The Sunday Times:
A joint Home Office and Foreign Office dossier — Young Muslims and Extremism — prepared for the prime minister last year, said Britain might now be harbouring thousands of Al-Qaeda sympathisers.
Lord Stevens, the former Metropolitan police chief, revealed separately last night that up to 3,000 British-born or British-based people had passed through Osama Bin Laden’s training camps.
The Whitehall dossier, ordered by Tony Blair following last year’s train bombings in Madrid, says: “Extremists are known to target schools and colleges where young people may be very inquisitive but less challenging and more susceptible to extremist reasoning/ arguments.”
Whether Lord Stevens is accurate in his alarming estimate of the numbers is largely irrelevant to this argument. If it is just a third or a sixth of that amount it changes little other than scale. The problem exists and needs to be actively dealt with. Whether or not these individuals were responsible for Thursday’s atrocities is also besides the point in the larger analysis. They need dealing with in any case.
But there is an understandable desire to wish this wasn’t the case and therefore to play down or even deny the problem – and it is by no means only Muslims who engage in this self-delusion. The genuine concern about backlash and the revulsion at the term ‘enemy within’ causes many non-Muslims to try and airbrush UK based followers of violent Jihadism out of the picture or to transform them into some sort of ‘inevitable response’ to grievances, a phenomenon that will disappear if only we eliminated the ‘root causes’.
There is no ready-made solution to the problem of domestic supporters and members of pro-terrorist Islamist groups. It involves intelligence and police work to deal with those already caught in the web. But it also involves an intelligent political response at a grassroots level – in communities and inside mosques – to halt the recruitment of further foot soilders.
For anti-fascists the response should be, first of all, to recognise that the problem exists and to oppose it. To take on and defeat the arguments of those on the far-right who would put blame, guilt and responsibility on all Muslims and all immigrants and also those on the left who pretend there is no problem or who fail to understand the ideology.and organisations that we are up against. To support Muslim initiatives aimed at isolating and defeating the influence of Jihadist organisations and assist in the building of a positive, democratic alternative.
For the left, it would be a good start if we could return to a politics that does not define communities primarily by religion – an approach which has done no favours to the goal of integration and which has weakened secularism. We also have our own positive alternative to offer and it is one that is open to all and based on a universalism which stands firmly against ethnic and theological separatism – as well as fascism.
Your comments are welcome.