International Affairs UK / Europe — 25 August 2006

Should the fear of terrorism play a role in the formulation of British foreign policy? A group of Muslim MPs, peers and leaders recently wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister in which they urged the Prime Minister “to change our foreign policy to show the world that we value the lives of civilians wherever they live and whatever their religion. Such a move would make us safer.” Politicians and commentators were quick to criticise this letter. Many argued we should not allow British foreign policy to be dictated by the actions of extremists.

Even if you don’t agree with British foreign policy, it is hard to fault this argument. Despite the vast amounts of publicity given to the latest potential terrorist plot to blow up airplanes using liquid explosives, the likelihood of being killed by a terrorist in the UK still remains much less than by being run-over by a bus. The actual risk of terrorism is disproportionately small compared to the fear of terrorism created by the
media. Given these very limited risks and the limited impact that terrorism has on British society it makes sense to ignore the actions of a handful of terrorists when formulating British foreign policy.

Nor can Muslim leaders make a convincing argument that British foreign policy is inherently anti-Muslim, given that the NATO invasion of Kosvo arguably saved many thousands of Kosovan Muslims being slaughtered at the hands of Serbian Christians, as the Prime minister has stated on several occasions.

If there is a failure of British politicians in formulating their foreign policy, it is the failure to take account of the very palpable anger that exists throughout the Muslim world against specific US/UK positions on issues such as Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine. The results of the Israeli attacks upon Lebanon – the dead bodies of women and children – have been shown in all their gory details on the Arab satellite channels rather than the brief non-offensive reporting used by the Western media. The countless number of images of dead children and women has created a public mood of
hatred against specific US, Israeli and UK government policies in the Muslim world. It is hard for non-Muslims or non-Arabs to get a sense of this hatred but nevertheless it exists.

This anger has been building up as crisis follows crisis in the Muslim world. The Arab and Muslim regimes and governments are perceived by many Muslims as having sided with the US, UK and Israel. If there were democratic or accountable governments in the Muslim world, then arguably this public anger would have by now had a serious impact on the diplomatic and economic relations between Britain and many Muslim countries and would have led to a re-examination of foreign policy in Britain. But since most of the regimes of the Muslim world do not tolerate public meetings or dissent, and always seems to side with the West, there is little sense of this anger at a government level. If any one of the Middle Eastern dictatorships were to fall, and be replaced by a representative government – Islamic or secular – Britain will then find itself paying a major price for the foreign policy it pursues today.

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