Monthly Archives: July 2007

Human Tetris

Don’t you sometimes feel that life is like a game of Human Tetris?

Hat Tip: Naeem’s Blog

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One Year On: Thanks for Your Support

This blog is nearly a year old. I wanted to thank everyone for taking the time out to visit and look at the site, for posting comments and sending emails. Despite only averaging two to three posts a month, I’m amazed that the site has had over 400,000 visits since it started, with over 4000 sites now visiting every month, and around 500 visits a day, alhamdulillah. Any feedback about how I could improve either the site or the blog further would be much appreciated.

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Ummatic Trade Barriers

The Muslim world, however else it is interconnected by history, culture and religion, largely doesn’t trade with itself today. In 2004, about a sixth of all imports and exports were traded within the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (with nearly all of its 57 member states being Muslim-majority countries); by contrast, after nearly a decade-and-a-half of the internal market, two-thirds of imports and exports were traded internally within the European Union. [1]

Currently the OIC is in the process of setting up a preferential trading system, which is to launched in 2009. It has set a modest target of increasing intra-OIC trade to 20% over the next ten years.

It’s a poignant indication of how insubstantial all this pan-Islamic rhetoric really can be sometimes.

Note

[1] For the OIC, 16% of imports and 15% of exports were traded internally in 2004; for the EU-25, 65% of imports and 68% of exports were traded internally in the same year. These figures have been derived from Eurostat and SESRTCIC.

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"Hearts and Minds": What more can be done?

Anti-Terrorism Protest in GlasgowWe have sadly been here before. The question on everyone’s lips after the failed attacks in London and Glasgow is: shouldn’t British Muslims be doing more? After all, if one considers some of the key figures, the battle for the “hearts and minds” (a horrid cliché admittedly) of an extremist subculture doesn’t seem to be progressing at all. The number of would-be terrorists under surveillance by MI5 has increased sixfold from 250 after 9/11 to “around 2000” today. [1a] The number of terrorist networks has increased from 30 in 2003 to 219 now (broken down regionally into the Midlands, 80; Leeds, Bradford and Manchester, 60; London, 35; Merseyside, 20; Scotland, 12; Wales, 10; Northern Ireland, 2). [1b] A factor in this increase may well be MI5’s greater ability to monitor already pre-existing networks as its workforce increases from a baseline of 2000 employees in 2004 to 3500 in 2008. And besides 7/7, we’ve had a number of failed or foiled plots: the shoe-bombers, the fertiliser bomb plot, 21/7, the airliner plot in 2006 and the recent car bombs. Similarly, polling consistently reveals a fringe that will justify terrorist attacks in Britain as a reprisal for the US-led occupation of Iraq and a culture of denial that is happy to blame anyone but Muslims for 9/11 and 7/7.

However, Muslim communities have already shown the capacity to take up “hearts and minds” work in at least three areas – deradicalisation, reinforcing mainstream Islam and reassuring the public – which can be strengthened with the right kind of official support.

Deradicalisation needs selected individuals with the knowledge and “street credibility” to work effectively with those who have already become radicalised. Some of the best deradicalisation work is being done on a voluntary, non-funded basis with the knowledge and support of the police, with the very sorts of people that central government would prefer not to be seen to be doing business with, e.g. ultra-conservative Salafis. There are a few schemes like this in prisons and some local communities, but this specialised work is not within the competence of most Muslim leaders, religious scholars or movements and is off-the-radar in terms of publicity.

Reinforcing mainstream Islam entails restating the orthodox viewpoint that opposes suicide bombing and the killing of innocent civilians (and off-duty soldiers and reservists even in time of war) [2] and articulating the theological rationale for active citizenship and engagement. The four basic criteria for success work in this area are (i) contractural and intellectual independence of any agreed project in order to ensure credibility, (ii) capturing the interest and participation of Muslim young people, (iii) avoiding the stoking of community sectarianism, and (iv) a focus on developing the intellectual capital of local religious leaders.

The obvious case-study here is The Radical Middle Way project, backed by the FCO and the DCLG, that, in its first year of operation in 2005/6, succeeded in fulfilling the first two criteria, but more work with local religious leaders on a cross-sectarian basis should now be emphasised. Whatever good impact it may have had has been weakened since last autumn by the unsophisticated promotion by government of a Sufi-Islamist political rivalry that has made the formation of a vigorous, broad front against political violence more difficult. With respect to religious leadership, a recent BBC survey has shown that only 6% of mosque imams speak English as a first language, only 8% were UK-born, and that nearly 45% had only served in British mosques for five years or less. [3] However, there is still a cadre of UK-trained imams who will be invaluable to this effort. In this context, the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, now months away from its launch after a protracted two-year gestation, will hopefully do much to improve the management of the whole mosque sector. At the same time, it should be realised that it is opinion formers (including ex-extremists) who should be engaged and not just imams, whose relevance and credibility are often questioned.

Reassuring the public through clear and effective messages condemning extremism is necessary to prevent any lazy connection being made between extremists and Muslims in general merely on the basis of a shared faith identity, which does so much to sap the good will that any “hearts and minds” strategy requires. Continuous reiteration is unfortunately necessary as distinguishing between Muslims and extremists, especially as the latter employ theological rhetoric, seems beyond the wit of many. Consider, for instance, that the violence of David Koresh or Timothy McVeigh is easily understood to be exceptional and so American Christianity is not put in the dock as a result. Last weekend saw perhaps the most effective public reassurance exercises so far with anti-terrorism marches in Glasgow and London, a national press ad campaign and unequivocal public statements from the Muslim Council of Britain and others.

It is important to note the shift from Blair’s Gladstonian moralising about an “evil ideology” to Brown’s more prosaic and procedural language in response to terror raids and attacks has already begun to produce immediate dividends with stronger anti-terror messaging from Muslim leaders, although it is too soon to say whether this will pay dividends in terms of practical policy measures. Government research with focus groups had revealed that ordinary Muslims were being alienated by references to “Islamic” or “Muslim” terrorism, reading such terms as rendering them complicit by association rather than naming the more extreme or even violent tendencies. (Of course, this rhetoric shift has to do with public communication, and not necessarily with the analytical categories used in the formation and implementation of counter-terrorism policy.) Another unheralded factor has been the legacy of the Birmingham raids in January this year. The police had publicly criticised Home Office officials for detailed and sensationalist off-the-record briefings to journalists that jeopardized their investigation and harmed community relations. This time around journalists report that the police have been very disciplined.

Besides this shift in its public communication tactics, the government must do more to support “hearts and minds” strategies financially. “Hearts and minds” has been allocated only 7.5 million out of this year’s 2.25 billion counter-terrorism budget, or a third of one per cent. Six million of that is filtered through seventy local councils with much, apparently, going into existing community cohesion projects. While it would not do to suggest that spending unlimited amounts of money will solve the problem, it still seems pitifully inadequate in scale and unfocused in delivery.

The third measure is trust-building measures between key community stakeholders, the police and the Home Office. Intelligence penetration of cells is apparently still poor, and there has been a reliance on broad-brush measures, like stop-and-search, whose alienating impact is obvious. Rather, the police believe, or so I have been told, that they have relied too much on these measures and on “getting lucky”, and therefore there is considerable fear that they are not on top of this problem. Therefore the political relationship with local Muslim communities needs to be much more regular, frank and direct, replacing the unproductive megaphone courting of public opinion, so that in the end the kind of intelligence needed will be garnered, thereby beginning to turn around the recourse that has been made to invasive policing measures and the unnecessary creation of a parallel quasi-legal system to police a “suspect community”. [4]

Fourthly, in the Blair years, national debate became polarised between entrenched positions — “it’s the evil ideology, stupid” verses “it’s the foreign policy, stupid” — that precluded a measured multi-causal analysis. Over the last two years in particular, that debate has also focused on the problem of the radicalisation of young British Muslims and thus a period of soul-searching over integration, multiculturalism, social cohesion and cultural dislocation of young Muslim people. Yet this has shifted the focus away too much from geopolitical issues that have shaped the current al-Qaeda phenomenon, which is likely to change by the fact that the latest cells were composed of foreign nationals, including Bilal Abdulla, an Iraqi seemingly radicalised, at least from the facts available at present, by the invasion of his country. Unlike the case of Mohammad Sidique Khan, it seems unlikely that we will now be discussing marriage customs or generational dislocation among Jordanians or Iraqis any time soon.

Clearly, Iraq has been an aggravating if not originating factor in the rise of this form of extremism. Equally, however, only an extremist mindset would transform opposition to the Iraq war into murderous indiscriminate violence when otherwise the vast majority have been happy to exercise their democratic rights to dissent and disagreement, and should not be stigmatised for so doing. That unpopular military occupations create blowback is a political fact that remains at the centre of any sensible counter-terrorism strategy – and a healthy dose of realism in these matters doesn’t amount to moral abdication.

Over three decades, major IRA attacks in Britain targeted civilians, soldiers and political figures, and, despite their penetration by the intelligence services in later years, the IRA retained the technical and professional resources to strike multiple targets successfully. By contrast, the “jihadi” cells seem, thankfully, to be amateurish. The major differences between the IRA and al-Qaeda are that a political endgame of peace in Northern Ireland was in sight and a system of pre-attack warnings in later IRA campaigns were designed to minimize casualties. Now attacks come out of the blue and responsibility is claimed by the al-Qaeda franchise which is not a part of a cohesive political movement that can be understood within a single national conflict as could Irish Republicanism.

The temptation in taking on a novel formation like al-Qaeda is to frame this challenge in civilisational, even existential, terms and thus keep ourselves open to the suggestion that this is an endless Orwellian war with no political endpoint. Al-Qaeda operates outside traditional international politics by claiming, as a non-state actor, the basic right to defend the sovereignty and autonomy of Muslim nations, a right it asserts has been forfeited by ineffectual Muslim governments. In this reading, an embryonic al-Qaeda emerges during the early 1990s in the context of seventeen American military strikes in the Middle East, as listed by the US State Department, between 1980-1995. [5] And while nearly all Islamists and jihadists remain nationalists, al-Qaeda uses national or regional conflicts to advance its claim to represent the political interests of Muslims everywhere. It does not have a developed political ideology — a coherent vision of the state — but a strategy of protracted and agile guerilla tactics heavily reliant upon Western military intervention or heightened internal suppression in the Muslim world to bolster its support.

The solution to this strategy is disaggregating the myth of a pan-Islamic menace, instead focusing on resolving a set of local, national and regional conflicts, centred on the Middle East and West Asia. Of course that is easier said than done, as this requires multilateral diplomacy and peacemaking based on the mutual security of all the actors involved. Resolving Iraq and Israel-Palestine requires a regional peace plan based on mutual assurances of security, which needs a complete shift in emphasis from military to diplomatic measures on the part of the United States, Britain and others. It will be very difficult to enfranchise democracy and self-determination in the region without establishing this basic security and recognising the possibility of vernacular democracies in future. Of course, Britain can do very little on her own, but she can still play a leading role in bringing about this transition from war to politics. The return to politics or giving up the aspiration to remake the world in our own image will, in the end, be most effective counter-terrorism policy that we can mount.

Update

In his statement to Parliament on 25 July, PM Gordon Brown announced that:

Over the next three years we will provide an additional £70 million to support local authorities and community groups in improving the capacity of local communities to resist violent extremism. This will include developing leadership programmes for young people, strengthening the capacity of women’s groups, and local projects to build citizenship. [6]

This fund will be run through the DCLG’s Preventing Extremism Unit, which administers the prevent strand of the government’s Project Contest. The funding will most likely be spent at local and national levels, with local funding going through seventy strategic local authorities. This represents a welcome significant increase on spending in the first year of the fund, which was 7.5 million, and which will now rise to approximately 23.3 million per year, if averaged out over the next three years.

Notes:

[1a] “Around 2000”, Prime Minister’s Statement on Security to Parliament, 25 July 2007, available at http://www.number-10.gov.uk/output/Page12675.asp. The PM also noted that there had been 15 terrorist attacks on British soil since 9/11, including the latest three on London and Glasgow.
[1b] News of the World, 8 July 2007, reportedly from an undated MI5 source.
[2] Sheikh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti, “Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless against the Killing of Civilians”, jurisprudential refutation published in 2005, and available here online, see http://www.livingislam.org/maa/dcmm_e.html.
[3] BBC News online, “Ban foreign language imams — peer”, 6 July 2007, see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6275574.stm.
[4] Helena Kennedy, Just Law (London: Vintage, 2005); Paddy Hillyard, Suspect Community (London: Pluto, 1993).
[5] Mohammad-Mahmoud Mohamedou, Understanding al-Qaeda: The Transformation of War (London: Pluto Books, 2005).

[6] See [1a] for the reference.

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Filed under Civil liberties, Ghuluw, Terrorism, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics, war-on-terror