What a crazy week it’s been and a particularly testing one for the British Muslim community. The buzzwords ‘Islamic extremists’ and ‘Muslim terrorists’ returned with a vengeance in the wake of the Woolwich tragedy and suddenly, we think we’ve identified the monster in our midst and why that monster is seething with resentment towards ordinary Britons.
But it’s not quite as black and white as some terrorist experts would have us believe. Yes, terrorism is a multilayered phenomenon, but that’s no excuse for limiting our inquiries into its most important causes. And that’s exactly what our ivory tower experts and Muslim spokespersons have been guilty of. The Muslim Council of Britain led a delegation of leaders to strongly condemn the sickening murder which it clearly was, but muted any mention of our country’s meddling in Afghanistan. On BBC Question Time, Majid Nawaz said the primary cause of terrorism was an ‘Islamist narrative’ and reserved scant mention for Britain’s foreign policy, thus displaying a remarkable lack of foresight for a co-director of the world’s first counter-extremist think tank. Newsnight felt pitting Anjem Choudary on a collision course with two mainstream Muslims would help shine the light on the moderate-extremist divide. Minister after academic after journalist all shared in the spoils to unpack the psychology of radicals and enlighten panic-struck Britons. Some said these terrorists came from socially excluded and economically marginalised backgrounds. Others said they were lone wolf foot soldiers at the mercy of Salafi Jihadism. Yasmin Alibhai Brown’s point of ‘noxious masculinity’ was a particularly amusing contribution to the debate.
But we can’t keep wrecking our brains over these mass produced explanations. As economically deprived as some British Muslims may be, it does little to help us appreciate the depth of their dissatisfaction. After all, many studies reveal that terrorists do not emerge from the lowest socio-economic strata but come from educated and affluent backgrounds. The number of suspected terrorists who have been described by their peers as friendly and popular socialites should makes us think twice before labelling radicals as misfits who have problems integrating with the wider society. My own studies and conclusions on the political grievances of young British Muslims suggest the government’s prescriptive focus on ‘suspect communities’ seduced by Jihadi propaganda occurs to a far lesser degree than is often acknowledged. Any calculating use of theology or “Islamist narrative” to justify violence was in the first place, born of political anger.
All these explanations either miss the point completely or regurgitate the misguided obsession with security, policing, and intelligence. It’s this kind of logic which makes combating terrorism baffling and obscures more patent failures at government, academic and media levels.
With a few notable exceptions, why didn’t the foreign policy of our government get the workout from all those who took to the media? Why did Muslims cower behind the state-centric assumption that terrorists derive legitimacy and justification from a warped understanding of Islam? Why did the Imam of London’s Central Mosque sound like an official from a counter-extremist watchdog doing the government’s bidding during the Friday sermon, instead of highlighting what makes the blood boil for so many Muslims at grass roots levels? Was it that, by exposing Britain’s war crimes, we would somehow be granting Michael Adebolajo a respectful hearing as some have suggested? Rubbish. Nobody wants to see a repeat of the cold-blooded murder that took place last week, so it’s more urgent than ever before that we act upon the testimonies of terrorists. Doing so would not be ceding to their demands but doing what’s in the national interest to prevent us sleepwalking into another bloody tragedy. The 7/7 bombers, the Boston bombers and the Woolwich duo have a common grievance which unites them all. And for the danger of repeating myself the umpteenth time, that grievance is the foreign policy of countries like Britain and the US which have left hundreds of thousands of Muslim men, women and children dead.
Like the overwhelming majority of British Muslims, I am also angered and distressed by what’s happening abroad but can appreciate the political space and opportunities for dissent this country has to offer to channel those grievances. But as the director of Ebrahim College Sheikh Shams ad-Duha warned the Deputy Prime Minister this week, there will always be a handful for whom civil disobedience doesn’t register well. And that’s where the debate on radicalisation needs to be centred. Britain’s military adventures abroad are clouding the religious convictions of some Muslims, who may entertain twisted understandings of scripture and grow sympathetic to the terrorist cause to express their political frustrations. The more we try to de-radicalise these individuals through community outreach, counter-extremist workshops and legislation like the snooper’s charter, the further we move from what causes their alienation. After last week’s tragedy, it’s our collective obligation to prize substance over rhetoric. This means placing the debate on terrorism in its right context and not de-politicising the discussion by pretending foreign policy does not matter.