Why Mehdi Hasan is half right and half wrong on foreign policy as a cause of terrorism

Uncomfortable though it might be, it is entirely conceivable the Woolwich attack was motivated by both an unwise, unsustainable and unjust foreign policy, and the beliefs predominant within minority elements of British Sunni Islam, namely Salafi-Jihadis.

 

Mehdi Hasan’s article “Extremists point to Western foreign policy  to explain their acts. Why do we ignore them?” contains both an appealing, and an uncomfortable message. Firstly for those wedded to interventionist positions, be it in Iraq and Afghanistan, or several of the foreign policy choices that have faced the coalition, the argument is discomfiting. A traditional principle of government is to provide for the security of its citizens. If intervening in Muslim majority countries, or reflexively supporting the United States or Israel undermines this, surely the Prime Minister has a duty to reconsider such policies?

There is little evidence such an approach is likely. David Cameron’s response to the In Amenas siege in Algeria was to talk of an existential struggle against terrorism that may last a generation, to pledge some supporting elements to France’s intervention in Mali, but to deny a parliamentary debate on the subject as British boots were not on the ground in the country. Such actions made a mockery of the democratic beliefs he claims to be upholding.

Mehdi Hasan’s arguments are also, in some quarters, very appealing. Britain’s many Muslim representative organisations have long complained of a political discourse that equates Islam per se with terrorism. Academic research of our print media in particular demonstrates the volume of negative media stories about Muslims. Both the British National Party and English Defence League sought to arrest declining influence post-Woolwich with rallies, whilst in several towns arrests were made after attacks on mosques.  The response of many on the left – from the Morning Star, Stop the War Coalition to Unite Against Fascism, has been to describe Woolwich as ‘the inevitable price of the war on terror’, and, after briefly condemning the murder, to quickly move on to concentrating solely on their original campaigns.

In such an atmosphere, many will miss the nuanced nature of Mehdi Hasan’s argument, which does not seek to blame all of our terrorist trends on our foreign policy, but does locate much of the blame there. This needs to not only be debated, but placed in significantly more context.

Woolwich in Context

We are now in the third decade of what may be referred to as British Jihadism – the involvement of a small, but not insignificant number of British Sunni Muslims (perhaps best described as Salafi-Jihadists) in armed struggle and/or bombings. These actors have appeared in areas as diverse as Bosnia, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Israel, Iraq, Somalia, Sweden, Kenya, Libya and Syria, not forgetting attempts to blow up airliners flying to north America. At some stage, probably beginning with the jihadist plot uncovered in Birmingham in 2000, but occurring increasing significantly after 2003, the UK was added to this list of combat zones.

The Iraq invasion, as former head of MI5 Eliza Manningham-Buller states, sent domestic terrorist plots off the Richter scale. But is worth stressing how distinct these plots were. Iraq is a mostly Shia country, Shia are estimated to comprise anything from 10-15% of the UK Muslim population, yet they do not tend to appear in our terrorism arrests. Nor do other Muslim minorities – the Ismali section of Shi’ism or the Ahmadiyya’s seem immune to such trends. The hurt of our foreign policy was felt most onerously by certain, but by no means all, Salafis.

These plots tended to focus on the mass killing of civilians – something delivered on 7/7, but something that failed with, for example, the botched bombing of the Tiger Tiger bar in 2007. If Woolwich was different it is that rather than targeting a transport interchange or large venue selling alcohol, an off duty soldier was chosen, and civilians left to go about their business. Whether this reflects debates within Jihadist circles, and the wider estrangement killing civilians brought Al Qaeda from its base, remains to be seen.

Home and Away With Al-Muhajiroun

Following Woolwich, significant attention has again been focused on individuals around the over-interviewed Anjem Choudary. At least one of the alleged attackers, Michael Adebolajo, had publicly moved in these circles. Often referred to as al-Muhajiroun (even though this group was disbanded in 2004 and subsequently banned under the Terrorism Act) these activists have long provided a heady mixture of vigorous condemnation of British foreign policy with a politico-religious platform that centres around Islam having the answer to all the United Kingdom’s problems be they spiritual, legal, political, economic or ethical.
This duality is also displayed In terms of nomenclature. After al-Muhajiroun (the exiles, a reference to the Prophet and his companions being exiled to Medina from Mecca) – replacement names have included Muslims Against Crusades, Islam4UK, not to mention front groups such as the London School of Sharia. This translates into group activity combining these two poles – provocative anti-war stunts such as poppy burning and booing returning soldiers, or dawah stalls to convert non-believers to Islam, usually but not always in inner London.

Somewhat curiously a visit to the Home Office’s list of proscribed terrorist organisations finds al-Muhajiroun listed, not as a domestic terrorist group, but an international one. Its supporters have allegedly been responsible for something like a fifth of Islamist terrorist plots in the UK, and many of its members were born within sound of Bow Bells. One of its best known, Anthony Small, is a former British Light Middleweight boxing champion. What is so international about it?
When I challenged the Home Office about categorisation, via the Freedom of Information Act, I received a very woolly response that its focus was international because it campaigns for a caliphate. In this area at least, the government seems determined to have an international, rather than domestic focus.

There is much more to come out about Woolwich, but the snippets we have of the attackers invocations to Allah, followed by a desire to be filmed denouncing British policies in Muslim lands, are entirely consistent with al-Muhajiroun’s trajectory over many years.

The closing of debate

For some on the left, making reference to problematic trends within domestic Islam remains a no-no. Some anti-fascist organisations have grasped this nettle – the anarchists of Antifa were probably first, whilst the anti-fascist organisation Hope Not Hate, under the leadership of Nick Lowles, has returned to this subject repeatedly.
This remains a step too far for some on the revolutionary left, and broader organisations such as Unite against Fascism or the Stop the War Coalition. Here a condemnation of an attack such as Woolwich (or Toulouse, or 7/7) is quickly followed by a pivot into either opposition to the EDL/BNP or broader critiques of Western foreign policy. The Jihadists are then forgotten about, until the formula is repeated the next time. And the next.

The Broader Problems

It is entirely possible to imagine a Britain with a non-interventionist, quietist foreign policy, and yet still wrestling with some of the difficult minority strands in British Islam. Is it because of foreign policy that earnest young men in Tower Hamlets proclaimed gay free zones earlier this year to try to enforce, even for a few hours, their version of sharia? How do we explain the practice of segregated meetings being held by some Muslims at universities, often in defiance of clear guidance to the contrary by the host institutions? 
In some neighbouring countries it is not foreign policy but perceived or actual insults to Islam that have provoked the jihadists – to attempted murder in the case of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, murder in the Holland of Theo van Gogh. But we do not have to look abroad for politico-religious violence – in 2008 the publishers Gibson Square was firebombed for planning to publish a novel about the Prophet’s child bride. In 2010 RE teacher Gary Smith was battered for the ‘crime’ of teaching about Islam when he was not a Muslim. These actions, which combine a hyper-sensitivity to the practices of democratic society with a desire for sharia, right here, right now, are unlikely to dissipate quickly. If fighting for the Jihadist cause abroad is still going strong after three decades, why should fighting for these ideals at home end any quicker?

It is entirely conceivable the Woolwich attack was motivated by both an unwise, unsustainable and unjust foreign policy, and the beliefs predominant within minority elements of British Sunni  Islam, namely Salafi-Jihadis. That is an uncomfortable message – to those in government, those who oppose its foreign policy, and to Muslim representative organisations. But unless we open up debate on these issues, this society is guaranteed to experience groundhog day, not just in further terrorist attacks, but in the debates that follow them.

Paul Stott is an academic based at the University of East Anglia. He submits his PhD “British Jihadism: The Detail and the Denial” later this summer and tweets @MrPaulStott  

Michael Adebolajo, who is charged with the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich, arrives at court. Photograph: Getty Images
ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war