I do not wish to indulge in speculation about the people arrested and subsequently charged over the plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic, nor on more recent arrests in South London (as well as the ongoing trial of the seven men accused of plotting to blow up targets around Britain). The evidence is being gathered and they haven't even reached a trial yet. Unless people have forgotten, one of the fundamental norms of the English legal system is that people are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. What's more, the accused have rights too (like the right to a fair trial); that is what separates the rule of law from mob justice and trial by media. Or trial by politicians. (And isn't it funny how the very things that make Britain a good place to live, are the very protections certain self-proclaimed defenders of Western Civilisation wish to ignore or, worse still, to discard altogether? Not funny? Maybe it's just my odd sense of humour then...)
Instead, I want to look at the causal explanations some have provided as to why Muslims who grew up in Britain would actually want to commit such acts of violence, classified as 'terrorism'. Of course, murder and violence are an unfortunate part of life in many cities in Britain; and we do have ask if television, music and cinema glorifies violence rather than educates its audience about its degrading effects on communities. But such acts of violence, which have already happened, invoke the religion of the perpetrators. Criminals do not ordinarily claim to kill people for some 'higher purpose'. And when they have done, they have been considered 'mentally ill'. Maybe some are mentally ill. But I don't think that alone is a sufficient explanation, simply because the people involved in such terrorism do not have a history of such illnesses.
The limitations of the foreign policy argument
The most common causal explanation provided is that the foreign policy of "Western" governments, that is the United States and United Kingdom, leads to a sense of perceived double standards by some young Muslims. A recent open letter from Britain's leading Muslim organisations and MPs to Tony Blair is an example of this argument. In it, various prominent Muslims write that Blair's flawed foreign policy is threatening us all with violent reprisals from would-be terrorists:
"It is our view that current British government policy risks putting civilians at increased risk both in the UK and abroad [...] To combat terror the government has focused extensively on domestic legislation. While some of this will have an impact, the government must not ignore the role of its foreign policy [...] The debacle of Iraq and now the failure to do more to secure an immediate end to the attacks on civilians in the Middle East not only increases the risk to ordinary people in that region, it is also ammunition to extremists who threaten us all."
The letter is politically naive. It should have concentrated on attacking Blair's foreign policy for the disgrace that it is without trying to find a causal link to terrorism. Anything else and it would have been, and indeed was, exploited by some as a veiled 'threat' to Britain, as though the Muslims who signed the letter are representatives of terrorist groups. Ministers were quick portray the letter as a green light to terrorism. The people who are spreading this idea that the letter was a 'threat' either have a great capacity to delude themselves or are hatemongers of one kind or another and, letter or not, believe there is an existential threat to their lives should Tariq and Muhammad have two weeks hair growth on the face. Or they're known as John Reid. What the letter does do is state a fact; the fact that those who promote and engage in unwarranted acts of violence, such as last year's bombings, use 'foreign policy' as their reason to do so. Just watch the video of one of the London bombers again. In any case, it is not only Muslims who push such reasoning. Over 70% of Londoners polled in one survey said that they blamed the Iraq War for the last year's bombings. And a detailed report by the Home Office and the Foreign Office, leaked to The Sunday Times, said affluent, middle-class, Muslims were the target of recruitment by extremists who played on a sense of anger at 'double standards' against Britain's foreign policies (the report can be found on the Times website: 1, 2, 3, 4). My point here is that in trying to explain the involvement of British Muslims in terrorism, Muslims who signed this letter were not 'threatening' anyone. They might well be wrong, but that still isn't a 'threat'. In any case, I don't think these Muslims MPs and "community leaders" are in the position to make threats or any kind to anyone because they're ignored by would-be terrorists. For example, some 500 Muslim scholars in Britain signed a fatwa condemding the London bombings last year. Another very detailed fatwa was released by a leading contemporary Shafi'i jurist and translated into English (check out this summary if you do not want to read all of it), which explicitly rejects violence against civilians. How many young Muslims have heard of these quite authoritative legal opinions and the scholars who approved them? The reader's guess is as good as mine, and I guess that very few Muslims have.
This government's foreign policy is, indeed, a total disgrace. Blair's political cross-dressing on the international stage involves merely slobbering at the feet of Bush and his deluded ex-leftists who now masquerade as conservatives, or promoting 19th-century liberal rhetoric about "civilised values" (and I won't hold my breath for Bush's unofficial spokesman to condemn violence commited in the name of ethnic and nationalist fervour in Turkey, even though British citizens were amongst those targeted). You know that Blair's attitude towards the United States is a farce when Malcom Rifkind, a well-respected Tory -- a party with even less dissenting views when it comes to support for the United States -- says much the same thing. But the major problem with the letter is that the foreign policy argument is a limited explanation.
For too many people the explanation of terrorism in Britain stops at this point about foreign policy. That is, the foreign policy is a shambles and therefore we can expect some kind of response from would-be defenders of the people who suffer from Blair's delusions of grandeur. But the argument fails, or is higly limited, on several points. It does not offer a 'root cause' explanation. As far as I am aware, no Iraqi or Afghan has decided to attack Britain for its role in the two invasions and subsequent occupations (instead some living Britain have made there way to Iraq to fight). Only, by and large, British-born, English-speaking Muslims. The simplest refutation of the foreign policy argument is that, despite anger at Blair's foreign objectives, there are Muslims who do not engage in such acts of violence. Is their anger or concern any less than those who take to bombing tubes and buses? Further, such an explanation is actually an insult to Muslims who don't feel the need to engage in such acts or find such actions against their religio-moral principles. This explanation says Muslims are unable to rationally deal with the situation and that their only response is bound to be a violent one. This is, plainly speaking, rubbish.
More to the point, not only is the foreign policy of British and American governments flawed, but so is the foreign policy of many Muslim governments. The leading Arab governments (all of them Muslim) appear apathetic towards Darfur, for example, where Muslims are also killed (by other Muslims). What was their collective response of to Syria's slaughter of thousands of Muslims in the city of Hama? What about Pakistan's foreign policy in Afghanistan? Or Iran's in Iraq and Lebanon? What about various Muslim governments who deal with China, that crushes its own Muslims? What about when Hamas met with Russia, with its disgusting rape and murder of Chechens? The list can go on and each of them involves killing of Muslims and the involvement of foreign policies of Muslim governments. However, I don't recall any video by bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, or young men with thick Yorkshire accents mentioning any of these geopolitical intrigues, nor of any attempts to bomb Arab or Pakistani interests. Although Musharraf has been targetted because he is seen as a 'Western lacky', I dont know of any attacks on Pakistani interests, such their embassies and prominent businesses, by Muslims born and raised in Britain; afterall Pakistan is also a member of the "war on terror". And the same goes for Arab business and political interests. Even when such a bombing has occured, as it did in Amman, the people who claimed to carry out the bombing had to partially apologise for killing Muslims. And then one would need to explain threats made to France and Germany; two nations that so openly rejected the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, on the question of Iraq, I have to ask that with the known animosity of such extremist groups towards Shi'ism, which of our "brothers" do they claim to be defending from the foreign invaders? The secular Ba'athists? The largely secular Sunni Kurds?
What the existing foreign policy of the United States does do is fan the flames. It helps "incubate" such extremist ideas and beliefs, and is unjust and politically wrong even if there had never been any terrorist atrocity. These policies, together with other issues, do help the extremists find sympathetic voices. Worthy causes, such as the plight of Chechens, Palestinians and Kashmiris, essentially nationalist and ethnic struggles, have become hijacked and manipulated; one will note the abscence of concern for Kurds, another stateless people. Why?
The stark reality is that such an extremist mindset is hardly new to Muslim history. From where and whence did the Khwarij arise? What about the Wahhabis who slaughtered countless people at Taif? How do we explain the disgusting sectarianism in Pakistan? I am not saying these are all interlinked in some worldwide conspiracy spanning not only the globe, but time itself. But the existence of such a violent mindset has been with Muslims since its early years (consider that three of the first four caliphs, God be pleased with them, were assassinated), even if the latest manifestation has adopted uniquely Western form of nihilism, which indulges in violence for its own sake. Indeed, one might ask what part the acquiescence of some of the major Islamic institutions and authorities to autocratic politics has played in the creation of more extreme tendencies (pdf link) and how far the failure of the modern Muslim nation-state in the Middle East is to blame for some of these groups. Yes, foreign powers intefere and they should be rightfully criticised on that. And yes, colonialism tore the heart out of many Muslim societies and in many cases laid waste to its intellectual traditions (but there is no reason to continue such a state of affairs as some regimes seem happy to do). However, Hosni Mubarak, the House of Saud, the Hashemites of Jordan, Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad are not products of New York, London or Paris. They're products of their own cultures; the United States or United Kingdom can only deal with these people if they exist in the first place. And the meddling of foreign powers in others affairs is not new (e.g. Ottomans relationship with the Vatican and the Venetians), and will probably continue till the end of times. This isn't to say there is something normative or even intrinsic to Islam with such violence and extremism. Racism, Colonialism, Nazism and Communism have been the products of Europe and its cultural outposts; it has required Europeans and their cultural offspring to deal with these manifestations of its own traditions, and they still struggle with some of these harmful and inhumane tendencies (like racism). Similarly, extremism amongst Muslims ultimately requires Muslims to deal with it. These ideas and beliefs can only be defeated by Muslims. Outsiders, even sympathetic ones let alone hostile elements, will not be able to distinguish the 'good' and the 'bad'. They will be unable to distinguish between permitted and controlled use of violence within ethical boundaries (as jihad has its own rules) and mass murder. They will not know that Muslims should return evil with something which is better.
Instead, what needs to be emphasised is that there are Muslims here in the Britain who need our help as much as in Palestine and Iraq and Afghanistan. And that, more to the point, young Muslims here are in a better position to help end the suffering of their brothers on their own doorstep; things aren't too rosy here for Muslims either in case people hadn't noticed. Drugs are destroying many urban communities, including Muslim families and lives. Muslims form some 10% of the prison population, whilst we number just under 2 million out of a population of some 60 million. Under achievement is also all evident in our communities. Many of our brothers and sisters live in squalid, cramped housing which can contribute to ill-health. So, how can a Muslim, who wants to help his brother or sister, say he must take to violence to help someone in a far away place, when one next door to him is in need too. Which of the two is more likely to produce some good? Which of the two is more likely to be practically productive (for jihad in its physical, violent, sense is also meant to be produce some worldly results)? What is the point of the Muslim brother who goes off to march for Palestine and campaign for Iraq, yet neglects his own home and ignores his wife and child? Does he not have responsibilities to them too? Perhaps ones greater than those he owes his brother? And all this is before we even consider the religio-ethical methods and means of warfare. Personally, I would also like to emphasise an 'aggressive' campaign of social/charity work for our local communities, not just Muslims, but I suppose if we're not in a position to help ourselves, we can't help others.
This isn't to say Muslims should ignore their brethren abroad or remain quiet. Young Muslims should be shown that, in whatever limited fashion, they could make a difference by engaging in the civil and democractic process. And to be shown that an involvement in unwarranted violence will make things worse for their brothers and sisters here. This is where institutions like MPAC could be useful, if only they would stop seeing Zionists on every street corner and engaging in a very unproductive manner with mosque leaders. And if they feel such an engagement is unproductive then it should be shown that civil, non-violent, disobedience is the best solution to having your voice heard in a liberal democracy. This allows one to keep the moral high-ground and so generate sympathy and positive coverage. Resorting to terrorist activities loses sympathy, and allows the truer cause to become manipulated and smeared by those who are hostile to it.
Of course, the failure to engage in politics is hardly a uniquely 'Muslim problem'. How many white, English, urban youth engage with the democratic processes? It isn't also a question of 'integration' or missing out on 'shared values and history' as some politicians and commentators keep telling us. Again, how 'integrated' are those urban youths who hang around street corners, consuming excessive amounts of alcohol and engaging in crime? Can they tell us about the legal and political traditions of this country? Can they name the first Plantagenet? Do they know who wrote Samson Agonistes? They're also quite 'alienated'; who knows that if they had a global ummah to believe in and contact with adherents of an ideologised neo-Islam they too might be drawn to terrorism. If anything some of the Muslims under discussion have been quite 'integrated' on the face of it and led seemingly 'normal lives'.
The fact of the matter is that if all the foreign policy questions were solved tomorrow, the extremists and their ideas would remain and the would-be liberators of Muslim lands would turn on each other (although such a scenario woud make it a lot easier to fight extremism). None of the more tangible and pressing issues, such as poverty, education, health, the existence of strong institutions to uphold rule of law, would be solved. Instead such extremists become infatuated with power and control or harbour delusional beliefs about the salvational quality of politics and adopt another ugly aspect of Western traditions, totalitarianism. Afghanistan, after the Soviets left, was a good example of this. Some of us live in the delusion that Muslim politics and the involvement of Muslims in their brothers' causes is somehow alturistic, and not driven by self-interest. This is completely false.
Poverty and profiling
There is much talk of profiling Muslims at airports these days. But we also engage in a profiling of our when seeking to explain extremism and terrorism amongst Muslims in Britain. We profile based on social status and material conditions. Using the deprivation of Muslims in Britain as a basis (1, 2), some Muslims explain that poverty and exclusion (racist/Islamophobic discrimination) are the reason why some young men turn to terrorism. The theory goes that since Muslims are excluded from wider society, they feel alienated; this makes them ripe for extremists to indoctrinate them into blowing people up. Abu Sinan, in a comment at a post by Umar Lee, explains the argument:
"In the USA immigrant Muslims are much more likely to be higher educated than Americans and make more money. It is the exact opposite in Europe. The Muslim immigrants there are not as educated, do not come from money, and have often been badly treated by their host communities."
It is true that many Muslims in the UK have never 'come from money'. But despite being extremely angry at unjust and downright stupid foreign policy decisions, and despite having people shit on them for being 'Pakis' and now 'Muslims', they have no inclination of blowing people up. I don't have any statistical data, but I would speculate that poverty and social exclusion is more likely to lead to a life of crime and delinquency than an infatuation with pious violence. Indeed, when one examines this argument closely, the facts betray such a hypothesis.
Omar Sharif, one of two Muslim Britons who ended up in Israel in an attempt to become martyrs, was a public schoolboy (he attended Repton) and from a wealthy family in Derby. As was Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a boy who went to the same public school as Nasser Hussain (a former captain of the England cricket team), as well as the prestigious Aitchison College in Lahore, whose noted almuni include numerous ministers of Pakistan. Sajid Badat, the young Gloucester man who was a co-conspirator with Richard Reid, attended The Crypt School, a presitgious grammar school. The London bombers included students from university and college. I knew a first class degree holder from a top 3 university with 28 UCAS points (under the old A-Level scoring system) who was also a follower of Omar Bakri Muhammad and would openly declare the World Trade Centre attacks his own personal sign from God (as he had prayed 'for a sign to kuffar'). Indeed, it is at colleges and universities that a young Muslim first encounters the ideologues of extremism. When I was a young child the Islam at home was about Eid, reading the Qur'an every morning around Fajr and being obdient to one's parents; later during early teenage years it was about being sent to madrassa to learn about the Five Pillars, memorising large chunks of the Qur'an properly, learning some Arabic, Urdu and the basic social rules of Islam. Politics and violence only made an appearance when I reached university. In other words, people who adopt such ideas need not come from poor backgrounds. So, whilst there are clearly stark problems for Muslims in the UK, to suggest it is poverty and racism are the major factors in driving Muslims into the arms of would-be terrorists is insulting to those Muslims who work hard, remain steadfast in their beliefs, manage to combat poverty and exclusion, and along the way do not want to kill people (and small-minded racism still exists; just see the coverage of the schoolgirl who went missing, only to turn up in Pakistan with her father).
We need to acknowledge that there are people amongst Muslims who do harbour ill-intent, not just towards non-Muslims in the first instance, but to humanity in general. We need to acknowledge that they do misinform people and do prey on our younger brothers and sisters who are more impressionable and open to emotional rhetoric. And the only people who can defeat the ideas are Muslims.
"...Allah changeth not the condition of a folk until they (first) change that which is in their hearts..." [Qur'an 13.11]