The concept of jihad has never been an easy one to grapple with for British Muslims with various groups and individuals exploiting the language to justify all sorts of actions as diverse as fasting in the summer months to political participation to suicide bombings against civilians. Most understand it to be a struggle of some sort against one’s desires and endeavouring to venture outside one’s comfort zone for the greater good of one’s self and humanity. The most controversial aspect of the latter is clearly the issue of military jihad.
While debate rages within Muslim circles about jihad zones, methodology and legitimacy of targets, the British government and courts appear intent on muddling the waters further through its legislation, policy and actions in recent years. Take for instance the following judgement of Judge Paget in the Court of Appeal last week:
“Acts by insurgents against the armed forces of a state anywhere in the world which seek to influence a government and are made for political purposes are terrorism. There is no exemption for those engaged in an armed insurrection and an armed struggle against a government.”
Judge Paget was hearing the case of Mohammed Gul, a young law graduate who while in his late teens at university, uploaded videos onto YouTube and other websites videos of attacks by al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other groups on military targets in Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya. Judge Paget ruled that “those who attacked the military forces of a government or the Coalition forces in Afghanistan or Iraq with the requisite intention set out in the Act are terrorists”. Despite his good character, young age and bright future, the Judge refused to reduce Gul’s five year sentence for disseminating terrorist publications.
Yet these comments appear to contradict the recent policy of the British government in relation to certain parts of the Arab Spring. Last year, the government fully supported the armed jihad against Gaddafi being waged by the same individuals who it had criminalised for years on the very orders of Gaddafi. The Libyan rebels called themselves mujahideen. Inheritors of the legacy of the mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar. They called their dead shuhadaa – martyrs. But for over half a decade, many of the fighters were arrested, detained and harassed by the security services of this country due to their enmity to wards Gaddafi. Some of their leaders had fought the Soviets, been imprisoned by the Americans in Bagram and handed as ‘gifts’ by the British government to Gaddafi. In a key case at the High Court in January 2007, Mr Justice Mackay convicted a Libyan refugee of possessing a blueprint for setting up an underground organisation in Libya to oppose Gaddafi. The judge held that the defendant could not plan, from England, the overthrow of Gaddafi. Yet now these very individuals, including many British Muslims, were being supported by the British to militarily remove Gaddafi.
The issue of today is Syria. There are growing calls for the rebels to be armed in the face of Assad’s murderous regime which shows no signs of pulling back. There have been reports of scores of Libyans, fresh from action against Gaddafi, now fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army against Assad. The slogans are Islamic and the call if for jihad. It is only a matter of time before British Muslims seek to support the besieged cities of Homs and Hama motivated by the Islamic principle of defending the oppressed. According to Judge Paget and Judge Mackay, these individuals are terrorists for attempting to overthrow the Syrian regime potentially, even if they upload anti-Assad videos. But since their actions are in line with the current government interest, it is unlikely that those who fought in Libya or campaign against Syria will face prosecution.
Interestingly, in Gul’s case, the trial judge told the jury that it was not necessarily encouraging an act of terrorism to encourage a resident of Gaza to blow up an Israeli helicopter. He reasoned that “If Israel was taking part in an incursion, Op Cast Lead, which involved attacks on civilians, schools, hospitals and ambulances, then resistance to that would be reasonable self-defence.” The jury acquitted Gul of this charge only. This leads to the inevitable question as to whether encouraging attacks on Coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan following similar atrocities as happened in Fallujah and the attacks themselves constitute terrorism or reasonable self-defence. As in all cases, it will depend on the national interest and not the law.
This duplicitous approach the government takes in relation to jihad is nothing new. In the 80s, the government fully supported the Afghan and Arab mujahideen forces in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union flying them to Snowdonia and the Scottish Highlands for specialist SAS training and the use of anti-aircraft missile systems. A decade later, British security services assisted British Muslim fighting jihad in the Balkans against Serb ethnic cleansing.
The politicisation of the law by the authorities has left British Muslims bewildered as to when fighting against tyranny is permissible and when it is a crime. Jihad is an Islamic principle intended to bring social justice and an end to tyranny and oppression. It is not a tool to be exploited by any government to further its own national interest. The government must be principled in its approach to such issues and not selectively implement the law based on its own unprincipled foreign policy objectives. By failing to do so, it is only the credibility of the criminal justice system of this country that appears farcical to the world, especially those feeling the revolutionary breezes of the Arab Spring where tyrants are being overthrown by mujahideen.
Fahad Ansari is a human rights lawyer. He has also authored a number of articles and reports on international human rights, social discrimination and anti-terrorism legislation.