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Can Obama woo the Muslim world?

Obama went to Cairo to woo the Muslim world. But one lofty speech won’t stop America from being loat

Ever since the attacks of 11 September 2001, Muslims whom I know, both in Britain and abroad, have taken an almost morbid pleasure in telling one particular joke about George Bush and Tony Blair. It seems that the two leaders are sitting at a White House dinner, whispering to one another in the corner, when a diplomat from a friendly nation walks over to them and asks what they are discussing.

“We’re finalising our plans for World War III,” says Bush.
“Really?” says the diplomat. “And what are the plans?”
“We’re planning a war which will kill 14 million Muslims and one dentist,” answers Bush.
A look of confusion appears on the face of the diplomat. “One . . . dentist?” he asks. “Why? Why would you kill one dentist?”
At which point, Bush turns to Blair and smirks: “I told you no one would give a damn about the Muslims.”

Some might argue that such black humour is illustrative of the paranoid and distrustful modern Muslim psyche. Perhaps it is – but, as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

Eight years of disastrous invasions and oc­cupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, belligerent rhetoric towards Iran and Syria, and absolute US support for Israel’s bombardments of Lebanon and Gaza have incited hatred among the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims.

From the very outset, Bush’s so-called war on terror alienated and radicalised Muslims around the world and exacerbated levels of anti-American feeling. According to a Zogby poll, for example, between 2002 and 2004, the proportion of Egyptians with negative attitudes towards the United States jumped from 76 per cent to 98 per cent – that is, almost the entire country.

Egypt is where Barack Obama delivered his much-anticipated set-piece speech to the Islamic world, at Cairo University on 4 June – less than two months after a similar address to the Turkish parliament in Istanbul, where he pronounced that “the United States is not and will never be at war with Islam”.

Where getting a fair hearing is concerned, Obama benefits not simply from not being Bush, but also from charisma, background and a reputation as a calm, moderate politician.

“In the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, [US poll] ratings took a sharp dip after the invasion of Iraq,” says Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies and co-author of the book Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. “They never permanently recovered anywhere during the Bush years. Now we’re seeing them recover in 2009.”

Such is the weight given to her views and insights into the Muslim mindset that Obama appointed the 33-year-old Mogahed to his Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships, making her the first veiled woman to gain a position in the White House.

In the run-up to Obama’s speech in Cairo, Mogahed reiterated to reporters the importance of the president conveying to his global Muslim audience “the idea of respect, co-operation, and a demonstration of empathy”. Her own polling suggests that one of the most important things the US can do to improve relations with Muslims is to refrain from seeing them as being in any way inferior or backward.

For my part, however, I don’t think Mogahed goes far enough. Poll after poll in the Islamic world has demonstrated that, above all else, Muslim anti-Americanism is shaped not by cultural, religious or ideological factors, but by US policies, chief among them support for Israel and, more recently, the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

When asked, “What is the first thought when you hear ‘America’?”, Muslim respondents to the 2004 Zogby poll of six Arab nations overwhelmingly answered: “Unfair foreign policy.” And when asked what the US could do to improve its image and rebuild relations with the Islamic world, the most common answers were: “Stop supporting Israel” and “Change your Middle East policy”.

This is not new. Over half a century ago, in 1958, President Eisenhower described “the campaign of hatred [in the Arab world] against us, not by the governments but by the people”. His own National Security Council concluded that the “majority of Arabs” saw the US as “opposed to realisation of the goals of Arab nationalism” and interested only in protecting “its interest in Near East oil by supporting the status quo and opposing political or economic progress”.

Yet, bizarrely, in more recent years, the Bush administration and its acolytes in the media refused to concede any link at all, not even the slightest, between its policies in the Middle East – often intrusive and militaristic – and the consequent terrorist blowback, preferring instead to push the simplistic, almost childish, formula: “They hate us because we are free.”

What often goes unmentioned is that the Bush administration’s own independent advisers disagreed – and did so publicly. The Defence Science Board is a little-known 40-member federal advisory committee to the Pentagon, staffed by civilian experts from a variety of diplomatic, military, academic and business backgrounds. The board’s voluminous and usually technical reports have a tendency to focus on rather abstruse and recondite issues such as “Achieving Interoperability in a Net-Centric Environment” or “Logistics Transformation Phase II”.

In recent years, however, the one exception to this rule has been the scathing, if not devastating Report of the Defence Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication, produced in 2004, examining the effect of Bush’s various wars on America’s allies and enemies.

Its conclusions are as stark as they are damning: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom’ but rather, they hate our policies.”

“The overwhelming majority,” says the report, “voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favour of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the long-standing, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan and the Gulf states”.

How did the Bush administration react to the report? By burying it. Despite being completed on 23 September 2004, the report was quietly shelved by the then defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, until after the November presidential election that year – thereby denying it the maximum political impact. Sidney Blumenthal, a former White House adviser under President Clinton and consummate Washington insider, pointed out at the time that the report was “silently slipped on to a Pentagon website on Thanksgiving eve, and barely noticed by the US press”.

Frustratingly, in the lone story in the New York Times which covered the report, the author quoted from the paragraph that began: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom’” – but then omitted the crucial following sentence about what Muslims do object to: “. . . one-sided [US] support in favour of Israel and against Palestinian rights” as well as support for Muslim tyrannies. The Times did, however, include the sentence that immediately followed the missing one, suggesting that the author or his editors deliberately removed the crucially revealing yet controversial middle sentence from the paragraph.

It is no wonder that the 22-year CIA veteran and former head of the agency’s Osama Bin Laden Unit, Michael Scheuer, believes there has long been a conspiracy of silence among political and media elites in the United States about the real reasons for Muslim hatred of America. In his acclaimed book Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror, published in 2004, Scheuer argued that “while there may be a few Muslim militants out there who would blow up themselves and others because they are offended by McDonald’s restaurants, Iowa’s early presidential primary, and the semi-nude, fully pregnant Demi Moore on Esquire’s cover, they are exactly that: few, and no threat at all to US National Security”.

Rather, he wrote, “the United States is hated across the Islamic world because of specific government policies and actions”.

Five years on, Michael Scheuer says that he has no faith in Barack Obama’s ability to turn the tide of hatred, or to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world. Obama has “no intention of leaving Iraq or Afghanistan”, Scheuer told me. “In other words, his foreign policy in the Middle East is the [same as the] Republicans’ but with a softer voice.”

I am not so sure.

Obama may indeed have intensified the US war in Afghanistan and extended it to Pakistan, and he may have remained shamefully silent during the Israeli assault on Gaza in January, when he was president-elect, but in other areas policy seems to be changing – even if only very slowly. The Obama administration has, for example, belatedly demanded that Israel freeze its settlement-building activities in the occupied territories, made diplomatic overtures to Tehran, forbidden torture and pledged to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

There have been small yet not insignificant changes in other areas, too. As a victim of what one liberal commentator once called the “preventive war on innocent tourists” at US airports during the Bush era, and having been detained by Homeland Security for several hours at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, in 2006 simply for having the terrorist-sounding surname “Hasan”, I can testify to the changed atmosphere in the Obama era. In May this year, on my return to Bush Intercontinental, I was welcomed by a smiling immigration officer who waved me through passport control.

As countless commentators and analysts have noted, Obama is the change that he promised. This applies at home and abroad, and especially vis-à-vis the US and its fraught relations with the Muslim world. The mere presence of Obama in the White House begins to address the “fundamental problem of [US] credibility” highlighted by the Defence Science Board report of 2004. “Simply there is none,” it concluded at the time, adding that “the United States is without a working channel of communication to the world of Muslims and of Islam”.

This is emphatically no longer the case. The fact remains that when America’s new president stood up on 4 June to deliver his speech in Cairo, his sceptical, distrustful and largely disillusioned global Muslim audience was confronted by not a swaggering Texan cowboy with a tendency to talk of war, crusades and Islamic fascists, but a black man, with the middle name “Hussein”, born to a Muslim father and raised in the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, by a Muslim stepfather. Obama, in and of himself, embodies America’s “channel of communication” to the Islamic world, and it is his name, his heritage and his appearance that will help him to begin breaking down the barriers between the two cultures.

But it won’t be enough.

Fundamentally, the likes of Michael Scheuer and the Defence Science Board are correct. If Obama cannot pledge and deliver on meaningful and long-lasting changes to radicalising US policy in the region, if he cannot bring himself to confront the Muslim view of America’s actions as it is – and not as he and predecessors assume it to be – if his actions don’t speak louder than his words, then no amount of lofty rhetoric or stentorian intonation in Cairo, or, for that matter, Istanbul, will make even the slightest bit of difference. Nor will his appearance, background or “Islamic” heritage.

On the contrary, as Scheuer put it to me, rather bluntly: “Muslims are not stupid. They will demand that President Obama’s words be matched with deeds – and if he fails to deliver, his looks, name and ethnicity will make the negative Muslim reaction even worse.”

Mehdi Hasan is the New Statesman’s senior editor (politics)

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Inside the minds of the Isis murderers

As pressure on the terror group who claimed responsiblity for the Manchester attack intensifies, the threat to Britain will only become more acute.

The police and security services had consistently warned that a significant terrorist attack in Britain was inevitable. Yet no warning could have prepared us for the horror of the suicide attack on the Manchester Arena on Monday night. Twenty-two people were killed and at least 60 were wounded as they were leaving a concert by Ariana Grande in what was the most deadly attack in Britain since the London bombings of 7 July 2005, in which 56 people died.

Like the London bombers, the Manchester suicide attacker, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was British. He was 22, lived in Manchester and studied business management at Salford University before dropping out. He worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. The son of Libyans, Abedi is said to have returned recently from a visit to the North African country, where Islamic State has a foothold.

Ariana Grande is a former children’s TV star who made her name on channels such as Nickelodeon. Her fan base is overwhelmingly young and female, and many of those killed or wounded were children, including Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old girl from Leyland, Lancashire.

Islamic State inevitably claimed responsibility for the massacre, dismissing the victims as “crusaders”, “polytheists” and “worshippers of the cross”. This is not the first time Islamist terrorists have targeted children.

A Chechen jihadist group calling itself ­Riyad-us Saliheen (meaning “Gardens of the Righteous”) took more than 1,100 hostages, including 777 children, in a school siege in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004. In the event, more than 330 were massacred, including 186 children. Gunmen from the Pakistani Taliban also stormed a school in 2014, killing 148.

For terrorist actors, these are neither whimsical nor irrational acts. Contemporary jihadist movements have curated a broad and expansive intellectual ecosystem that rationalises and directs their actions. What they want is to create an asymmetry of fear by employing indiscriminate barbarism to intimidate and subdue their opponents into submission.

We have grown accustomed to a wave of terrorist attacks being carried out in the name of the self-styled Islamic State ever since the group’s official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani began prioritising them in 2014. (He was killed in an American air strike on Aleppo province in Syria in August last year.)

The US-led coalition against Islamic State has weakened the terror group in its former strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. In response, IS has been forced to concentrate more on what it calls “external operations” – by which it means inspiring its sympathisers and operatives to carry out attacks on Western countries. Indeed, al-Adnani encouraged the group’s supporters not to migrate towards IS-held territory but rather to focus their efforts on attacks in their home countries.

“The tiniest action you do in the heart of their [Western] land is dearer to us than the biggest action by us,” he said in an audio statement released last year. “There are no innocents in the heart of the lands of the crusaders.”

Islamic State refers to its strategy as “just terror”. Its framing places culpability for attacks on Western states on these nations themselves by claiming that IS actions are a response to aggression or assault. That much has been outlined in the group’s literature. “When will the crusaders end their hostilities towards Islam and the Muslims? . . . When will they recognise that the solution to their pathetic turmoil is right before their blinded eyes?” the militants ask in the IS magazine Dabiq. “Until then, the just terror will continue to strike them to the core of their deadened hearts.”

IS offered a rationale of this sort as justification for its bombing of a Russian commercial aircraft – Metrojet Flight 9268, travelling from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to St Petersburg. That attack in October 2015 killed 224. Similar reasoning was offered for the attacks in Paris the following month in which 137 people were killed, in a series of co-ordinated, commando-style gun and bomb outrages across the city.

“Revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe,” IS declared in Dabiq. “Let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken . . . The [caliphate] will take revenge for any aggression against its religion and people, sooner rather than later. Let the ­arrogant know that the skies and the lands are Allah’s.”

***

Through my academic research at King’s College London, I have ­interviewed scores of Westerners who became foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq to quiz them about their motives. Last year, one man from High Wycombe who had joined IS told me that it wanted to attack British targets in response to the vote in the House of Commons to extend British air strikes against IS targets to include sites in Syria (the British had only been targeting the group in Iraq until that point). “Do they [the British government] expect us to sit back and do nothing? ­Idiots,” he said.

In this respect, IS frames its attacks as acts of “revenge” and predicates its response on the Islamic principle of qisas, which is comparable to lex talionis or the doctrine of “an eye for an eye”. Qisas was always intended to be a tool of private redress for an individual or his/her family to seek justice in matters relating to bodily harm. Typically, it relates to cases of murder and manslaughter, or acts involving physical mutilation (say, leading to loss of limbs). The principle creates a framework for retributive justice.

The contemporary Salafi-jihadi movement has adopted a particularly innovative approach to the concept of qisas in two ways. First, groups such as IS have taken the idea and construed it in a way that justifies indiscriminate terrorism, such as the attack in Manchester. They argue that qisas has a political dimension and that it can be applied to international affairs in a way that holds civilians responsible for the perceived crimes of their governments.

Second, qisas is normally applied only in cases where the aggressor is known. IS, by contrast, holds every citizen-stranger of an enemy state responsible for the actions of his or her government. Thus, when it released its statement claiming responsibility for the Manchester attack, it said that it had struck against a “gathering of the crusaders . . . in response to their transgressions against the lands of the Muslims”.

It is this militaristic construction of qisas that allows IS to rationalise the bombing of a venue where large numbers of young girls had gathered to watch a pop concert, dismissing them as “crusaders”.

This is not new. In 1997, Osama Bin Laden told CBS News that “all Americans are our enemies, not just the ones who fight us directly, but also the ones who pay their ­taxes”. His rationale was that all Americans, by virtue of citizenship alone, are vicariously liable for the actions of their government.

Just a few years later, Bin Laden used the same idea to justify the 11 September 2001 attacks and also invoked it in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged,” he wrote. “You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.”

IS used the concept most dramatically in January 2015, when it burned alive a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, whose plane had crashed in its territory. A video of the killing was circulated on the internet and social media. The group claimed his bombing raids had killed civilians and that it wanted to punish him with “equal retaliation”, in keeping with qisas.

What is well known about al-Kasasbeh’s murder is that he was burned alive inside a cage – but that is not the whole story. To understand how IS tethered this to the principle of qisas, it is the end of the gruesome video that is invested with most significance. After al-Kasasbeh has died, a truck emerges and dumps rubble over the cage. It was claimed this was debris from a site he had bombed, thus completing the “equal retaliation” of returning like for like. The idea was that IS had retaliated using the two principal forms in which a missile attack kills – by fire or debris.

***

The Manchester attack came on the fourth anniversary of the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London. Rigby was killed by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in the middle of the afternoon on a street outside a military barracks. That attack was in keeping with a pattern we have become increasingly accustomed to in Europe: an unsophisticated plot that employs ordinary, everyday items – a car, say, or a knife.

The consequences of such attacks have been seen across Europe, most notably in Nice on 14 July 2016, when 86 people were killed during Bastille Day celebrations after a jihadist drove a truck into crowds on the promenade. Similar attacks followed in Berlin, Westminster and Stockholm.

The security services find that these murderous attacks are extremely hard to disrupt because they typically involve lone actors who can mobilise quickly and with discretion. The Manchester attack was different. Explosives were used, which means the plot was inherently more sophisticated, requiring careful planning and preparation.

We know that two of the 7/7 bombers had previously trained in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, where they honed their skills. In other plots, such as the connected attacks in London and Glasgow Airport of 2007, the explosive devices failed mainly because the bomb-makers had found it difficult to travel abroad and develop their skills in safe environments. Whatever Abedi’s connections, the long war in Syria and Iraq has once again created a permissive environment for terrorist training and attack planning.

The devastating impact of this has already been felt across Europe. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, more than 800 Britons are believed to have travelled there to fight. From Europe as a whole, the figure is over 5,000, of which a significant number are believed to have joined IS. Of the British contingent, the security services estimate that about half have returned or become disengaged from the conflict. Of those who remained, a hundred are believed to be active, the rest having been killed.

It is improbable that Abedi acted alone in Manchester or that this plot had no international component. Indeed, he was already known to the authorities (and had returned recently from Libya). As pressure on IS intensifies across Syria and Iraq, the threat to Britain will only become more acute as the group’s sympathisers prepare for what they consider to be a fightback.

This speaks to the scale of the threat facing Britain, and Europe more generally. Our police and security services have been stretched and continuously tested in recent years. Just recently, in March, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley told Radio 4’s Today programme that 13 plots had been thwarted since Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013. Put another way, the police have disrupted terrorist plots every four months for the past four years.

Naturally, Islamic State is not the only threat. On 13 May, one of Osama Bin Laden’s sons, Hamza, released a video, titled “Advice for martyrdom-seekers in the West”, on behalf of al-Qaeda. Hamza, 27, who was his father’s favoured successor to lead the group, called on its supporters to concentrate on attacks in the West rather than migrating to conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond. Scenes of previous ­terrorist attacks in Britain played throughout the video.

The central leadership of al-Qaeda is increasingly looking for opportunities to reassert itself after being eclipsed by Islamic State and losing control of its affiliates in Syria. It needs attacks and a cause in the West with which to revive itself. Hamza therefore cited the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris as a critical example, calling for the assassination of anyone deemed to have “insulted” Islam.

The Charlie Hebdo attack was especially important for al-Qaeda because it enabled the group to transcend the fratricidal conflicts that frequently define relations between the various jihadist groups. In Syria, for instance, al-Qaeda’s affiliates (when it had better control over them) and Islamic State have been in open war with each other.

Yet, the Charlie Hebdo attack brought warm praise from the group’s Islamist rivals because none of them wanted to appear ­unsupportive of an atrocity that had, as the terrorists proclaimed, “avenged” the Prophet Muhammad’s honour.

The British man from High Wycombe who joined IS told me the group had welcomed the attack for precisely those reasons. It was something that, in his view, had confirmed the “nobility” of the attackers, even if they had not been members of IS.

Is it too late for the West to save itself, I asked him. What if the West simply accepted all of Islamic State’s demands: would that provide respite?

The answer was as emphatic as it was stark: “We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue.”

He went on: “Their kufr [disbelief] against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.”

In other words, we are all guilty, and we are all legitimate targets.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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