It’s the Foreign Policy Stupid – Part 1

And here as mentioned in my last post is the first thing that I put on the blog. Six years on I don’t know how relevant it is; maybe it just has historic interest. Nevertheless I still like it, I made my argument quite well here.  — AFK 1/3/2013

It’s the Foreign Policy Stupid – Part 1

“We conclude that the war in Iraq has possibly made terrorist attacks against British nationals and British interests more likely in the short term.”
Second report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Foreign Policy Aspects of the War Against Terrorism, Session 2003 -2004

“I will condemn what happened in London only after there is the promise from Western leaders to condemn what they have done in Falluja and other parts of Iraq and in Afghanistan.”
Dr Imran Waheed, spokesman for Hizb ut-Tahrir

I’m sick of all these commentators trying to deny that there is a substantial link between British and American foreign policy (FP) and the growth of extremism, especially amongst British Muslims. In a lot of cases, yes, I can understand why they would want to reject the FP hypothesis: its implications are deeply troubling especially to those who wish to act as apologists for the British and American governments. But nonetheless it is by far the most convincing explanation I’ve so far come across as to why young educated British Muslims would even sympathise with supposedly Islamic proponents of terrorism, let alone be willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause.

The FP hypothesis operates on the assumption that, although there are indeed several factors that contribute towards the alienation and subsequent radicalisation of young Muslims, the primary motivating factor is ultimately the perception, prevalent across the Muslim world, that Western (though in this case I’m referring specifically to British and American) foreign policy is inherently anti-Muslim. In fact to expand a little, it is a policy that is perceived as having been directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muslim civilians, the occupation of Muslim majority lands by foreign occupiers, the theft of valuable natural resources from Muslim lands, and the propping up of tyrannical and murderous regimes across the Muslim world. The FP hypothesis suggests that the chief beneficiaries of the resentment this perception has aroused have been radical Islamic organisations, who’ve exploited the anger and discontent that is pervasive across British Muslim communities, and used it to further their own agendas.

Aside from its prodigious explanatory power, one of the great benefits of the FP hypothesis is that it avoids some of the tacitly (and not so tacitly) Islamophobic and racist assumptions resorted to by several of the other theories purportedly explaining the rise of Islamic extremism in Britain. The FP hypothesis doesn’t assume that Islam is an inherently violent or aggressive religion, one that freely sanctions the murder of innocent civilians under the mantle of global jihad; neither does it assume that Muslims themselves are essentially irrational and given to committing or calling for slaughter on the basis of every perceived minor slight to their faith. Rather, the FP hypothesis leaves room for a far more nuanced understanding of why anyone would feel driven towards committing or even supporting such desperate acts.

Primarily though the FP hypothesis does succeed on its explanatory power, by furnishing us with compelling reasons as to why young British men would be driven towards taking their own and other civilians’ lives in the service of their religion, when most authorities agree that that very same religion absolutely forbids both suicide and the taking of the lives of innocents; as well as explaining why the organisations that support (whether morally, ideologically or in other ways) such actions receive some measure of sympathy among the wider British Muslim community.

The Umma

One of the most important concepts to bear in mind when attempting to understand why the FP hypothesis is particularly viable is the Islamic notion of the Umma, the wider community of believers. For many Muslims, and British Muslims are no exception, the idea that they belong to a worldwide Umma, a brotherhood, plays an important role in their understanding of what it is to be a Muslim, and constitutes an essential part of their Islamic identity — and this in spite of the existence of manifold schisms within the worldwide Islamic community along the lines of sect, ethnicity, outlook, etc. The bitter enmity that fuels the internecine fighting between Sunni and Shia although particularly virulent does not preclude feelings of solidarity manifesting themselves across these sectarian boundaries, as was demonstrated during the recent Lebanese conflict.

The idea that British Muslims might feel a close kinship with their co-religionists across the world is essential to understanding why that community feels such a strong sense of grievance toward foreign policy — even if as one or two commentators have pointed out, adducing the disparity between awareness within the Islamic community of what is happening in the Sudan versus the injustices in Palestine, this kinship is not always manifested consistently — inconsistency obviously being no proof of inauthenticity of moral feeling.

The fact is that British Muslims will, on the whole, tend to have a considerably stronger empathy with their co-religionists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya, and Lebanon than their non Muslim compatriots, and will therefore diverge in their perception of and reaction to images of the suffering of Iraqis, Afghanis, Palestinians, Chechens and Lebanese — and it is for this reason that British Muslims should be considered part of the “Muslim World”. This poses something of a difficulty for policy decision makers: in weighing up the potential political cost of a planned foreign misadventure, they could usually rely upon a certain customary indifference on the part of the population to its human cost — that is if it was far enough away and the people were alien enough, and of course there weren’t too many casualties among our boys (another example of the same moral inconsistency we were talking about). The problem is that a substantial proportion of the population strongly identifies with what it becomes harder to refer to euphemistically as ‘collateral damage’, and this is rendered even more problematic by the fact that thanks to the Internet and the upsurge in satellite TV stations like Al Jazeera, it’s become simultaneously easier for the public to access different points of view and more difficult for the authorities to influence the flow of images and data (even though post-Hutton the government has clearly succeeded in further muzzling the BBC).

The end result of a constant stream of ‘bad news’ stories arising from the aforementioned flash points has been to seriously undermine the moral authority and credibility of the British and American governments in the eyes of many British Muslims; which not only has the dangerous effect of exacerbating the sense of divided loyalties and alienation that is already common within the rather embattled British Muslim community, especially amongst the young, but also encourages the notion that there must be some contradiction between being British and being Muslim. And remember that we’re talking about a community that’s constantly bearing the brunt of criticism, especially in the mainstream press, over its unwillingness to integrate fully into British society, its refusal to fully adhere to British norms and values, or to respect freedoms that are a necessary part of a liberal, secular, and democratic society.

It’s also a community that’s plagued by a whole host of other difficulties: poverty, drugs, unemployment, domestic abuse, low educational attainment, poor housing and ill health — in short an extremely marginalised community. A common response to the FP hypothesis is that it is overly simplistic in that it doesn’t take into account, or even acknowledge, all of these other difficulties as factors, when explaining why a substantial number of Muslims would actively support terrorism or groups that promote terrorism as a legitimate means to an end. That would in fact be a fallacy; indeed the response itself is often based on a much too simplistic understanding of causality: on the idea that if there are several factors behind something, they must all have equal weight.

One of the central contentions of the FP hypothesis is that whereas all of these other factors by themselves may have well have encouraged the growth (though obviously on a smaller scale) of a more puritanical, literalist and antimodern Islam (at least compared to the more tolerant Islam previously associated with, for example, the Pakistani community), such as has been exemplified by the Salafis and Wahabbis, within the British Muslim community; the increase, albeit to a limited extent, of the popularity of or even sympathy towards extremist groups who promote the idea of violent global jihad between the West and Islam and who advocate acts of terrorism and murder in the name of Islam, can only be properly accounted for by reference to the intensity of anger and resentment generated by FP within the British Muslim community.

I should make the important point at this stage that the vast majority of British Islamic fundamentalists, including the aforementioned Salafis and Wahabbis, the bane of many a moderate or reformist Muslim, do not support or condone the actions of the terrorists: for a start many of their scholars absolutely condemn these actions as contrary to Islamic law. We shouldn’t make the mistake either of assuming that the same factors that are responsible for the rise of fundamentalism also account for the rise of extremism, though they may share many factors in common.

Ultimately, it just seems like common sense — which as the increasingly pertinent saying goes is far from common — that whereas the Muslim perception of Western immorality and intemperance may well by itself be a source of enormous discontent, it’s quite improbable that aside from a few pathological and statistically negligible cases it would inspire the sort of anger and frustration that would drive anyone to blow himself up in a crowded tube station — and even less probable that it would evoke sympathy for or ambiguity towards that very same action within a small though not negligible portion of the wider Muslim community (I will discuss this below). And of course we have the motives given by the bombers and terrorists themselves for their own actions, but we’ll come back to those later, suffice to say that it’s incredible how easily some people can dismiss these as irrelevant.

To quote a Washington Post article (27th of September, 2006) on a recently leaked US intelligence report on the threat of terrorism post-Iraq (on which more later):

“The overall estimate is bleak, with minor notes of optimism. It depicts a movement that is likely to grow more quickly than the West’s ability to counter it over the next five years, as the Iraq war continues to breed ‘deep resentment’ throughout the Muslim world, shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and cultivating new supporters for their ideology.”

Another view

An alternative to the FP hypothesis, one particularly favoured by Western intellectuals and Islamic reformists, is the argument that the growth in extremism within the British Muslim community and the subsequent radicalisation of Muslim youth is primarily the result of the escalating influence of extremist Islamist groups. One way of putting this argument which aims to avoid the obvious charge of circularity (“Well then explain the increase of extremist groups without invoking FP as the prime factor?”) is to claim that Islam as a religion has become more reactionary and intolerant. And this is as a result of the post-colonial Islamic world’s inability to properly cope with the demands of modernity forced upon it by an ever increasing trend towards (economic and cultural) globalisation.

The argument is that the resulting widespread bitterness and disaffection amongst Muslims has fed the ever-increasing growth of a movement towards a more fundamentalist and regressive Islam, and in thus doing has made the Muslim world increasingly receptive to extremist and militant fringe elements. The problem the argument goes is not FP but the undue influence of extremist elements who have benefited from ascendancy of antimodern, anti-reform tendencies within contemporary Islam.

An interesting spin on this rests on the idea that memes (a meme is defined as a unit of culture carrying an idea that can replicate itself like a gene), spread like viruses, and the memes that carry such ideas as the righteousness of martyrdom, the necessity of violent global jihad against the West, have spread like a contagion across a Muslim world that has become susceptible to their influence in most part because the Muslim masses have very little recourse to a democratic means of changing things. Therefore the best way to defeat terrorism is to initiate a thoroughgoing programme of religious reform and democratisation within the Islamic world.

The core argument here isn’t so much that Muslims are inherently prone to becoming irrational humourless zealots (unable to see the funny side of for example the Muhammad cartoons or the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon) and apologists for terror because their faith, even though it may not explicitly condone terrorism or violence against civilians in the name of faith, does not unambiguously forbid it (although that particular argument’s a very popular one amongst erstwhile leftists); it’s that a failure to reform or to learn the lessons of modernity has made many Muslims so disposed. It seems that Islam is crying out for its own Martin Luther, or even a Voltaire to bring it up to speed with the 21st century, and may well require a slight tug in the right direction from concerned Western advocates of freedom and democracy.

From the lips of the terrorists themselves

One of the major stumbling blocks that this argument — or indeed any argument that tries to minimise the role of Western foreign policy in radicalising Muslims — inevitably encounters is that it fails to explain why those who take part in these atrocities, whether in Palestine, Iraq or the UK, will in most cases (through their public pronouncements) justify their actions as retaliation for some perceived injustice committed by the West; why extremist recruitment literature focuses almost exclusively on the gross iniquities of Western foreign policy and its deadly consequences for Muslims in places like Palestine, Chechnya, Iraq, and Afghanistan (it’s been well established by now that that the distribution, over the Internet or through DVDs, of footage of bloody carnage from these conflicts is one of the jihadi’s most favoured recruitment tools), as do the imams, preachers and other religiously inspired ideologues who pledge their support for attacks against the West.

For example, Bin Laden gives the following explanation for his decision to attack America in 1998:

“[The] call to wage war against America was made [when it sent] thousands of its troops to the land of the two holy mosques over and above… its support of the oppressive, corrupt and tyrannical regime that is in control. These are the reasons for the singling out of America as the targets.”

Bin Laden from the same year, from a self-declared fatwa published in Arabic newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi :

“First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples…Second, despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the crusader-Zionist alliance, and despite the huge number of those killed, which has exceeded 1 million…Third, if the Americans’ aims behind these wars are religious and economic, the aim is also to serve the Jews’ petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there. The best proof of this is their eagerness to destroy Iraq, the strongest neighboring Arab state, and their endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper statelets and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel’s survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the Peninsula.”

From a video statement broadcast on Al-Jazeera (26 December 2001) :

“We say our terror against America is blessed terror in order to put an end to suppression, in order for the United States to stop its support to Israel.”

And from an audio tape of November 2002, Bin Laden’s most concise and unambiguous statement of intention yet:

“Just like you kill us, we will kill you.”

Of course this hasn’t stopped politicians and intellectuals from striving to deny that the actions of groups like Al-Qaeda could possibly have any basis in American and British foreign policy. Something which Al-Qaeda have acknowledged and to which Bin Laden himself has responded :

“Free people do not relinquish their security. This is contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom. Let him tell us why we did not strike Sweden, for example” (sourced from a 2004 video tape broadcast Al-Jazeera)

Indeed Al-Qaeda deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri made the following statement, broadcast on Al-Jazeera in September 2005, regarding Al-Qaeda’s role in the London suicide bombings, explicitly affirming that, contrary to Tony Blair’s claims, the bombings were in retaliation for acts committed by the West:

“I speak to you today about the blessed London raid, which came as a slap in the face to the conceited crusader British arrogance, and made it drink from the same cup from which it had long made the Muslims drink. This blessed raid, like its glorious predecessors in New York, Washington, and Madrid, brought the battle to the enemy’s soil after long centuries in which the enemy brought the battle to our lands and after its legions and forces have occupied our lands in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine, and after centuries in which it occupied our lands, while being secure in its home… Didn’t the Lion of Islam, the mujaheed Sheikh Osama bin Laden, may Allah protect him, offer you a truce, so you would leave the lands of Islam? But you were obstinate and your arrogance has led you to crime, and your Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that these proposals should be treated ‘with the contempt which they deserve.’ So taste the consequence of your governments’ arrogance. Blair brought calamities upon his people in the heart of their capital, and he will bring more, Allah willing, because he continues to exploit his people’s heedlessness, and stubbornly insists on treating them like uncomprehending idiots. He keeps reiterating to them that what happened in London has nothing to do with the crimes he perpetrated in Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq.“Oh people of the crusader coalition…[we] say to them that these civilians are the ones who pay taxes to Bush and Blair, so they can equip their armies and give aid to Israel, and they are the ones who serve in their armies and security services. They are the one who elected them, and even those who did not vote for them consider them legitimate rulers who have the right to give them orders and must be obeyed, and who also have the right to order strikes against us, killing our sons and daughters, and to wage war in their name, and to kill Muslims on their behalf. Moreover, they consider disobeying their orders a crime punishable by law. “

Obviously since we’re primarily focusing on the potential for terrorism amongst British Muslims we should also consider the words of two of the participants in the 7/7 London bombings, both of whom gave their lives in the name of their cause, and both of whom left video messages explaining their actions (delivered in broad English regional accents, something which seemed to have caused more consternation in the media than the contents of the messages themselves). The videos were broadcast on Al Jazeera.

Firstly Shehzad Tanweer:

“For the non-Muslims in Britain, you may wonder what you have done to deserve this. You are those who have voted in your government who in turn have and still continue to this day continue to oppress our mothers and children, brothers and sisters from the east to the west in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya. Your government has openly supported the genocide of more than 150,000 innocent Muslims in Fallujah.We are 100 per cent committed to the cause of Islam. We love death the way you love life. I tell all you British citizens to stop your support to your lying British government and to the so-called war on terror. And ask yourselves: why would thousands of men be ready to give their lives for the cause of Muslims?What you have witnessed now is only the beginning of a series of attacks which will intensify and continue to until you pull all your troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Until you stop all financial and military support to the US and Israel and until you release all Muslim prisoners from Belmarsh and your other concentration camps. And know that if you fail to comply with this then know that this war will never stop and that we are willing to give our lives 100 times over for the cause of Islam. You will never experience peace until our children in Palestine, our mothers and sisters in Kashmir, and our brothers in Afghanistan and Iraq feel peace. “

Secondly, Mohammad Sidique Khan:

“This predictable propaganda machine naturally will try to put a spin on things to suit the government and to scare the masses into conforming to their power and worth-obsessed agendas…Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world, and your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security, you will be our targets, and until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment, and torture of my people, we will not stop this fight…We are at war, and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation. “

It goes without saying that if we want to avoid producing any more Shehzad Tanweers and Mohammad Sidique Khans, it’s imperative that we try to understand what motivated the originals. Therefore, their words should be carefully scrutinised and not just for coded instructions for Al-Qaeda sleeper cells.

Finally, as a rather typical example of the thought processes of those involved in extremist ideological groups:

“When they speak about September 11th, when the two planes magnificently run through those buildings, OK and people turn around and say, “hang on a second, that is barbaric. Why did you have to do that?” You know why? Because of ignorance….For us it’s retaliation. Islam is not the starter of wars. If you start the war we won’t turn the other cheek….According to you it can’t be right. According to Islam it’s right. When you talk about innocent civilians, do you not kill innocent civilians in Iraq?'”

These words were spoken by a member of the radical organisation Al-Muhajiroun, subsequently banned under newly introduced UK legislation, on BBC 2’s Newsnight in 2004.

And it’s not only their words that carry a very definite message or that signify a deep rancour towards Western FP. It’s certainly no coincidence that the first two homegrown British Muslim suicide bombers chose to carry out their mission in Israel: the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine and the support Israel derives for its policies from the UK (military, diplomatic and ideological) and US (Israel is the world’s single largest receipient of US military aid), is without a doubt the single greatest source of anger and resentment in the Muslim world. It stands to reason, if they were aiming to target Western decadence and licentiousness why not target Amsterdam, or the sex tourists of Bangkok?

Obviously there is a major proviso with regard to these statements: they should be approached with great caution and not simply taken at face value, not least given the bloody and horrific actions they are called upon to justify as reprisals. It is also vital that we note that the justifications given by these extremists for taking noncombatant, civilian lives (justifications which seem to be based on the democratic complicity of Muslims) are considered by mainstream Muslim scholars (including many the West would consider to be fundamentalist) to be in complete contradiction to the statutes of Islamic law. Additionally and we can be absolutely clear on this, if we understand terrorism to be “the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to attain political or religious ideological goals through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear” then without a single doubt these guys are terrorists.

Bearing this in mind, it would still be extraordinarily foolish just to simply dismiss these statements as the deluded rantings of an insane zealot and to pay them no further heed: they raise numerous interesting issues, many of which we will explore in the next section. For example why is it only now, after so many centuries, that the West is facing attacks on its own soil as retaliation for its imperialist misadventures when to put it brusquely, they’ve been at it for around five centuries, especially in Muslim countries? The simple answer is the obvious one: it’s not (simply) that Muslims have become more extremist, or more violent (as is charged by many); rather it’s that technology has enabled both a widespread and immediate awareness of events across the Muslim world — which has obviously changed how these events are perceived. Technology has also provided a greater number of opportunities for the organisation and recruitment of Muslims across the world as well as access to an enormous amount of information and possible income streams, thus allowing potential terrorists far more scope to attack a broader range of targets.

Building support for the extremists

The response usually given by those who don’t support the FP hypothesis to the challenge these statements present is that Bin Laden and the other extremist ideologues are obviously dissembling, hiding their real intentions: the terrorists are concealing their true agenda behind the facade of Western foreign policy (arguing that foot soldiers such as Tanweer and Khan are pushing some ulterior agenda presents more of a challenge, though you could claim that they’d probably been brainwashed, see next section). Their real agenda? Well take your pick: maybe they’re working towards establishing an Islamic caliphate across the Western world; maybe it’s pure resentment at the West’s freedoms or its many varied successes; maybe they’re just affronted by the collapse of Western morals, or by globalisation; or they still haven’t got over the crusades. (There are of course some extremist groups who explicitly give as their objectives, the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate, the imposition of sharia law in the UK, and who also argue for the legitimacy of terrorism based on the immorality of Western foreign policy.) The fact is, given that these people are prepared to murder innocent men, women, and children, deception wouldn’t exactly be beyond them.

It is also claimed that were it not for foreign policy, the extremists would find plenty else wrong with our secular Western civilisation (i.e., free-speech, sexual liberality, equal rights for women, materialism, etc), or with the process of globalisation that’s exporting Western values across the world. This is what I call the ‘one amongst many’ (OAM) hypothesis: Western foreign policy is only one amongst many grievances that the extremists have. And of course broadly speaking it is true, but when it comes to tackling the threat of terrorism it seems that proponents of the idea that the terrorists have some other agenda — and that by invoking Western foreign policy they are effectively masking their real intentions — are slightly missing the point.

To see why this is so you only have to ask yourself why it is that Islamic extremism poses such an overwhelming threat to the West. In other words what has been consistently identified, by security forces, academics, and politicians as one of the, if not the core challenges that the West faces in its battle against Islamic extremism and terrorism? Simply put, the problem is that of recruitment: the more Muslims that the extremists can convince of the righteousness of their mission, the more likely they are to find recruits willing to help plan and carry out further atrocities; the more sympathy they elicit within the Muslim community, the less likely members of that community will cooperate with intelligence services or the police (a recent survey done for a British newspaper suggested that 9% of British Muslims would not inform the police of any suspicions they had of terrorist activities), the harder terrorist perpetrators will be to identify. If the issue were only that of a few isolated madmen plotting to blow themselves up with no support or sympathy from a wider community, then the threat would be significantly reduced indeed would most likely be minimal; it’s their power to convince others and to dissiminate their poisonous message that poses the real, longstanding threat. As the politicians constantly iterate, the so-called war in terror must also incorporate the battle for Muslim hearts and minds if it is to be at all successful, not least at home.

Therefore bearing this in mind and given the quotes above, we have to ask, why these prominent proponents of terrorist ideology almost exclusively justify their actions — to their intended audience, which we must assume is primarily Muslim — as revenge against an unjust and immoral Western foreign policy? Why does recruitment propaganda focus almost exclusively on the atrocities supposedly perpetrated by the West — if not, that is, to capitalise upon the very real Muslim anger at these perceived injustices, and at the policy of which they are part? Why use foreign policy as a so-called proxy and so adamantly repudiate suggestions that there may have been other reasons for the bombings, going so far as to set as the grounds for a truce the immediate cessation of Western actions in various parts of the Muslim world, if not to recruit (primarily) young Muslims radicalised by Western FP?

The evidence suggests that the OAM hypothesis when it relates to the hidden intentions of extremist ideologues is at best an irrelevance: the real question is why would these particular extremists be so careful to present a certain image across to the rest of the Muslim world? If you are willing to accept Islamic extremists as rational agents (and we have to attribute some level of rationality to them if we’re going to label them terrorists and therefore willing to use terror as a weapon to further some agenda) then we must judge the public statements of Bin Laden et al, as we do every other kind of propaganda, indeed as a particularly effective piece of propaganda, the risk assessments with regard to the increase in terrorist activity in the UK testify to that. Some commentators argue that denied the opportunity of exploiting extreme discontent felt towards foreign policy, the extremists would use, for example, Western promiscuity as a pretext for committing acts of terror, but in that case how many others could they convince of the righteousness of their cause to the extent that they’d be willing to kill themselves and others? Anyone who thinks it wouldn’t make any difference to their ability to recruit potential suicide bombers and terrorists is absolutely deluded.

What we have to realise is that at the end of the day these extremist groups are directly addressing Muslim conceptions of foreign policy and explicitly challenging the dominant Western cultural narratives on world events in a way that strongly appeals especially to those alienated not only by mainstream British culture, but also by what they feel to be the ineffectual and inadequate responses to these injustices by mainstream Muslim leaders, who are often seen as having an interest in preserving the status quo. The problem is that whereas many Muslims might disapprove of the actions taken by the terrorists and indeed may not agree with the other ideological claims that extremist groups make, radical clerics, or self appointed authorities like Bin Laden are often the only prominent figures giving voice to the full extent of Muslim anger on foreign policy. That gives them an authority, especially in the eyes of young Muslims, that they would most certainly otherwise lack, and makes them more receptive to Islamist worldviews that advance the idea of a clash of civilisations, or of war between Islam and the West.

Chomsky puts this especially well in the Hugo Chavez endorsed Hegemony or Survival (p. 209):

“[Those who want to reduce the threat of terror] will also distinguish carefully between the terrorist networks themselves and the larger community that provides a reservoir from which radical terrorist cells can sometimes draw. That community includes the poor and oppressed, who are of no concern to the terrorist groups and suffer from the crimes, as well as the wealthy and secular elements, who are bitter about US policies and quietly express support for bin laden, whom they detest and fear, as “the conscience of Islam” because at least he reacts to these policies, even if in horrifying and disastrous ways.”


“The easiest way to get brainwashed is to be born.”
— Robert Anton Wilson, Prometheus Rising

So, what is British Muslim public opinion on all this; in other words can we quantify how well the have extremists judged their audience? Amongst the findings of a survey conducted by Populous for The Times and ITV News using a sample of 1,131 Muslim adults between the 1st and the 16th of June 2006 — the largest survey of British Muslim opinion to date — was that “[more] than one in ten [British Muslims think] that the men who carried out the London bombings of 7/7 should be regarded as “martyrs”. Sixteen per cent of British Muslims, equivalent to more than 150,000 adults, believe that while the attacks were wrong, the cause was right… 2% would be proud if a family member decided to join al-Qaeda. Sixteen per cent would be “indifferent””

One of the most incisive comments on the Times’ poll was from “Britain’s most prominent Muslim policeman”, Assistant Met Commissioner Tariq Ghaffur who thought that “[the] poll [showed] that we do have a minority of people within our community who do effectively pose a danger. The tipping point between someone feeling anger and alienation and then engaging in the kind of atrocities we saw last July or being exploited by somebody who wants to commit a terrible act is very, very small.” This comment takes on a greater significance when we come to look at accusations that the extremists are brainwashing young, impressionable, and hotheaded Muslims. Meanwhile, the results of a Channel 4 Dispatches survey also conducted this summer with a sample of 1000 British Muslims, were far more disturbing:

“Almost a quarter of British Muslims say the July 7 attacks can be justified because of the Government’s support for the ‘war on terror’. The shocking 23 per cent figure is the equivalent of 370,000 of the 1.6m Muslims living in the UK…And it is almost double previous opinion polls suggesting 13 per cent believe the atrocity, which claimed 52 innocent lives, could be justified.”

However some measure of reassurance was at hand thanks to a poll conducted by the ICM on behalf of the Sunday Telegraph during February 2006, using a random sample of 500 British Muslims, whose findings were rather less stark. When asked their opinions on Western society and given the choice of the two options, “Western society is decadent and immoral and Muslims should seek to bring it to an end, if necessary by violent means”, “Western society may not be perfect but Muslims should live within it and not seek to bring it to an end”, 80% opted for the latter, only 7% chose the former, the rest opting for “Refuse/Don’t know”. When asked whether it was right or wrong for “Al-Qaeda or those sympathetic to Al-Qaeda to attack Western targets”, 86% said it was wrong, only 4% said it was right. On the other hand only 1% said it was right “[f]or Muslims to have bombed London on 7/7 and 21/7”, 96% said it was wrong. When asked whether “[i]rrespective of whether you think the London bombings were justified or not, do you personally have any sympathy with the feelings and motives of those who carried out the attacks?”, a fifth responded either “yes- a lot” or “yes – a little”, an important result.

These and other opinion poll statistics approximating British Muslim opinion make it hard to maintain the idea that somehow young Muslims are being brainwashed into committing, aiding, or supporting these atrocious acts; even though the idea has become quite fashionable of late having recently been espoused by none other than British Home Secretary John Reid. The merits of the idea are obvious: if we assume that the perpetrators who carried out the 7/7 bombings were completely brainwashed into believing what they did, we can easily dismiss their own testimonies; just as we don’t generally feel the obligation to take the words spoken by the acolytes of a cult leader seriously.

The concept of “brainwashing” itself has an interesting history having first been applied (by a journalist who later turned out to be a CIA agent) to the indoctrination techniques used by the Chinese on prisoners of war during the Korean War, and then later to the methods used by so-called cult or new religious organisations on their members to instil belief — though latterly it seems to have fallen out of fashion as a concept within academia, its usefulness in many instances having been challenged. Originally, it had a very particular meaning, so that to say that someone had been brainwashed was taken to imply that some sort of coercion had taken place, more precisely the victim had been “made” to believe something against his or her free will under conditions of trauma, which meant that he or she could then claim diminished responsibility for subsequent actions (e.g., in the case of Patty Hearst). However the term lost most of its original technical meaning on entering the public arena, and now more often than not we use the term ‘brainwashed’ informally to describe anyone who has adopted beliefs that we find irrational or implausible that have been adopted due to the undue or excessive influence of some particular group or person. What both uses of the term share is the central idea that you brainwash someone into believing something they would not otherwise have believed.

Reading over terrorist literature or terrorist propaganda, it’s clear the extremists know their audience too well; if a fifth of Muslims sympathise “with the feelings and motives” of those who carried out the London bombings then a lot of the groundwork has already been prepared and most of the “brainwashing” already taken place. In fact it should be obvious by now that there is absolutely no need to “brainwash” the overwhelming majority of Muslims into believing that “democratically elected [Western] governments continuously perpetuate atrocities” across the Muslim world; it’s a perception that binds Muslims together regardless of class, nationality, ethnicity, or sect. You don’t need to brainwash them into believing that American and British foreign policy is culpable in the impoverishment, imprisonment, torture, murder and daily humiliation that is a direct result of the illegal (under international law) Israeli occupation of Palestine; that Britain and America are guilty of invading and occupying two sovereign Islamic countries Iraq and Afghanistan under false and dubious pretexts, and thereby causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, as well as the the utterly predictable onset of horrific and bloody civil war; that Britain and America are resposible for propping up tyrannical and murderous regimes across the Muslim world, from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia, supplying them with arms and military training for use against their own people. The real challenge would be to “brainwash” them into believing otherwise (though it can be done, 43% of Americans apparently believe that “Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 11 September terrorist attacks” according to a CNN poll conducted in September this year).

And it’s unlikely that it would require much persuasion to convince anyone sufficiently enraged and sufficiently vulnerable or ignorant, that the civilians of these “democratically elected” Western powers have enough blood on their hands to be considered legitimate targets. If the Channel 4 poll is correct then anything up to 370,000 Muslims already feel this way. Almost as bad as that, the Times poll tells us that 16% would be “indifferent” if a family member joined Al Qaeda. By any reckoning this is a dangerous state of affairs.

But wait a minute, you might ask, how can Muslims, or indeed anyone justify supporting terrorist actions even if carried out in the name of a just cause? In order to understand that you have to appreciate the extent to which many Muslims perceive the term “terrorism” itself to have been devalued by persistent American/British misusage. Indeed when many Muslims hear American or British politicians apply the term “terrorist” to label some person, group, or state, they automatically assume that the usage is primarily determined by whether the “terrorists” in question are perceived to be threatening US (legitimate or illegitimate) interests than by any more objective definition of the term — what Noam Chomsky calls a term’s “operational definition” as differentiated from its ideological definition.

And it’s easy to accord for this all pervasive cynicism especially when across the world America is itself regarded as the single greatest instigator, (ideological and diplomatic) supporter, funder and beneficiary of terrorism; that is if terrorism is defined more objectively, as in the Encyclopedia Britanica, as “the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective.” Accusations of terrorism against others by the foremost (obviously un-self-acknowledged) perpetrators of the same inevitably have for most Muslims, who understandably given their history see themselves the primary victims of US imperialism, the stench of rank hypocrisy.

What the Experts Think

Recently it’s become much easier to push for the FP hypothesis, especially in the light of leaked documentation that reveals the extent to which the belief that the Iraq war serves as “a recruiting sergeant” for terrorist organizations has become a matter of consensus within British and American intelligence agencies. For example, a recently leaked report written for the UK Ministry of Defence by an intelligence official who the BBC claims is both linked to MI6 which caused consternation in some circles for its scathing portrayal of the role played by Pakistani secret services in supporting global Islamic terror networks, also found that “[t]he war in Iraq … has acted as a recruiting sergeant for extremists across the Muslim world … Iraq has served to radicalise an already disillusioned youth and al-Qaida has given them the will, intent, purpose and ideology to act[my italics].” According to the Guardian, the report “reflects what the MoD, military commanders, and the Foreign Office, have been saying in private.”

Another leak, one that has proven even more deleterous to the so-called war on terror, made public the contents of a classified American intelligence report, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). The worth of the NIE can be gauged by the fact that it is based on the consensus of the full role call of all 16 American intelligence agencies. A matter of some concern to pro-war ideologues when it says things like:

“The Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives; perceived jihadist success [in Iraq] would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere…The Iraq conflict has become the ’cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world. If this trend continues, threats to US interests at home and abroad will become more diverse, leading to increasing attacks worldwide.”

According to Suzanne Goldenberg of the Guardian (September 27, 2006), the report “acknowledged some US success in disrupting al-Qaida. But it said these gains were outweighed by other factors, fuelling al-Qaida’s spread: anger at corrupt Muslim regimes, anti-US sentiment, and a decentralised leadership that made it harder to penetrate.” Another assessment released in 2005 by the CIA affiliated National Intelligence Council, this time based on “the analysis of 1,000 U.S. and foreign experts”, found, according to Dana Priest of the Washington Post (January 14, 2005) that “Iraq has joined the list of conflicts — including the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, and independence movements in Chechnya, Kashmir, Mindanao in the Philippines, and southern Thailand — that have deepened solidarity among Muslims and helped spread radical Islamic ideology.”

(Addendum:Seems there was another prominent leak earlier this year that I missed out on in the course of my research for this piece, this time it was a top secret Joint Intelligence Committee Memo. Details are from a Sunday Times article:

SPY chiefs have warned Tony Blair that the war in Iraq has made Britain the target of a terror campaign by Al-Qaeda that will last “for many years to come.”A leaked top-secret memo from the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) says the war in Iraq has “exacerbated” the threat by radicalising British Muslims and attracting new recruits to anti-western terror attacks.
The four-page memo, entitled International Terrorism: Impact of Iraq, contradicts Blair’s public assurances by concluding that the invasion of Iraq has fomented a jihad or holy war against Britain.

It states: “It has reinforced the determination of terrorists who were already committed to attacking the West and motivated others who were not.”

It adds: “Iraq is likely to be an important motivating factor for some time to come in the radicalisation of British Muslims and for those extremists who view attacks against the UK as legitimate.”

The memo was approved by Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, John Scarlett, the chief of MI6, and Sir David Pepper, head of GCHQ, the government’s eavesdropping centre.

The leak of the JIC’s official assessment — marked “top secret” — will alarm Blair as it appears to be directed at undermining the public statements in which he has denied that the war in Iraq has increased the terror threat from Al-Qaeda.

In a speech shortly after the London bombings last July, Blair blamed an “evil ideology”, not the war, for motivating the suicide bombers. He said: “If it is Iraq that motivates them, why is the same ideology killing Iraqis by terror in defiance of an elected government?” In a separate speech he dismissed claims that the London attacks were sparked by Iraq, saying: “What they want us to do is to turn round and say, ‘Oh it’s all our fault’.”

He added: “The people who are responsible for terrorist attacks are terrorists.”

At the same time Charles Clarke, the home secretary, accused those who said that the attacks were caused by the war of “serious intellectual flabbiness”.

The JIC report contradicts these ministerial statements. It says: “There is a clear consensus within the UK extremist community that Iraq is a legitimate jihad and should be supported. Iraq has re-energised and refocused a wide range of networks in the UK.”

Written in April last year and circulated to Blair and other senior ministers before the July attacks, it says: “We judge that the conflict in Iraq has exacerbated the threat from international terrorism and will continue to have an impact in the long term. It has reinforced the determination of terrorists who were already committed to attacking the West and motivated others who were not.”

The document says the war is providing an “additional motivation for attacks” against Britain; is “increasing Al-Qaeda’s potential”; and “energising” terrorist networks engaged in holy war. Equally worrying, Iraq is being used as a “training ground and base” for terrorists to return to carry out attacks in Britain and elsewhere.

The JIC is the senior intelligence body in Britain and is responsible for issuing assessments of the gravity of threats to Britain’s national security.

It says that while attacks outside Iraq since the war began in 2003 have not been motivated by the war alone, “in some cases we judge that it has been a major additional motivation”. It cited the example of the 2004 Madrid bombings in which 201 people died, even though, in a speech two months later, Blair denied that those attacks had been sparked by Iraq.

The intelligence committee named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, as a key figure behind the growing threat. It describes him as an “increasingly iconic figure” who is fast becoming the “new [Osama] Bin Laden”. It warns that Zarqawi is seeking to use his status in Iraq to co-ordinate attacks against other countries, including those in Europe.

The JIC analysis presents a disturbing picture of the growth of the terrorist threat and suggests that there is a regular flow of terrorists to and from Britain and Iraq.

“Some jihadists who leave Iraq will play leading roles in recruiting and organising terrorist networks, sharing their skills and possibly conducting attacks. It is inevitable that some will come to the UK,” it says.

A government report, compiled by a senior civil servant using intelligence from the security services and due to be published in the next few weeks, is also expected to recognise that the July 7 bombers were motivated by the invasion of Iraq.)


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Sajid says:

    this is a great post.

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