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
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.