Category Archives: Terrorism

Reporting "Extremism": Inaccuracy and Censorship

It’s a truism that how journalists report “extremism” is a central issue of the day. The controversies over two Dispatches programmes, one broadcast in January and other in August on the topic of British Muslim “extremism”, usefully highlight difficult issues around standards of accuracy in journalism and the forms of censorship that emerge from the political pressures around this issue. A lot of disentanglement needs to be done for the sake of preserving serious and accurate reporting that helps to inform public debate around what is one of, if not the, key policy issues of our times.

Issues of Inaccuracy: How far is the media getting the story right on “extremism”?

Firstly it’s important to address the accuracy of the journalism in these two programmes. The chief problem is one of description. Using terms like “extremist” often obscure rather than explain the phenomenon at hand. “Extremist” is used in a cultural sense to mean “non-liberal” and in a political sense to mean “violent” and the conflation of the two in journalese often has major implications for community relations. It is also a term that replicates sophisticated war-on-terror political rhetoric rather than queries some of its assumptions. However there is a more generic problem here: one of the public register of understanding and level of interest. In other words, there is only an interest in establishing the binary category: “extremist”/”moderate”, or analogues, “Islamist”/”non-Islamist”, “jihadist”/”non-jihadist” and so on, and not in the more complicated task of understanding various groups with their internal disputes, disputes with other groups, their distinct positions and so on, for fear of loosing the audience rather quickly. However I am still confident that a bit more framing of the material in these terms would have made a significant difference.

In January, Channel 4 aired the Dispatches programme, “Undercover Mosque“, an undercover investigative documentary about preachers at certain British mosques. The programme focused mainly on conservative Salafi mosques, a minority trend within British Islam, and, in particular, those Salafis who have opposed al-Qaeda and terrorist violence. (Whatever their political inclinations, all modern-day Salafis believe that Muslims must return to the authentic textual sources of the faith in order to renew it, by discarding about 1200 years of intellectual history and cultural manifestation, with a few notable exceptions. At the centre of Salafi criticism is that too many Muslims are no longer true monotheists and have taken up polytheistic practices and beliefs, which is the most serious charge that one Muslim can level at another.) Most Muslims, however, have found the da`wah (mission) of conservative non-violent Salafis to be highly critical and dismissive of non-Salafi Muslims and of non-Muslims. There has been introspection and rethinking since 9/11 in Salafi circles, which the programme did not acknowledge, yet at the same time I found the programme disheartening because it also showed a sometimes shrill, defensive and occasionally militant faction still carried some weight among British Salafis. I had thought that things had moved on a bit more; I have written about “Undercover Mosque” at greater length here.

The second Dispatches documentary broadcast in August, “Britain under Attack”, portrayed two strands of jihadi Salafism present in Britain, but didn’t distinguish between them sufficiently, which I shall attempt to do at some length here. (And it should be added that if “Britain under Attack” focused on jihadi Salafis, “Undercover Mosque” mostly looked at conservative non-jihadi Salafis.)

The first strand, which one might dub “the jihadist internationale” is concerned with the defence of Muslim lands (including Muslim minorities within state borders, e.g. the Chechens on the Trans-Caucasian borders of Russia) through a mobile and permanent jihadist international vanguard that was originally comprised of veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s. Its chief theorist was Abdullah Azzam (1941-1989). He broke with traditional Islamic scholarship on jihad to the extent that he allowed jihad to be called by non-state actors, he characterised jihad as a standing, perpetual obligation (rather than as sporadic, i.e. as rationally conditioned by the failure of peaceful conflict resolution), and he overwhelmingly emphasized it as a compulsory individual obligation on Muslims everywhere. But in this case, as in most others, theory followed the political fact of the creation of an international jihadist vanguard in Afghanistan, supported by many Muslim states and by the Americans as part of a Cold War proxy conflict against communism. From the eighties onwards, some British Muslims were drawn to such theatres of conflict (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo) for any variety of reasons — for high jinks and adventure, out of romantic solidarity for the Muslim oppressed and so on. It is and was not altogether unlike the example of the British Left who went to fight Spanish fascism in the 1930s, whose locus classicus is George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, if one considers it at the basic level of solidarity with a foreign oppressed group with whom one strongly identifies. Some of these romantic jihadists went to disburse charity, some to do some military training and some to fight with their Muslim brothers. What was not very clear to most until the late nineties was the extent to which this strand of romantic jihadism was defined by a hardline Salafi theology and how much it had come to be the target of recruitment by the second strand of jihadist Salafism led by al-Qaeda.

There are two important differences between “the jihadist internationale” and the al-Qaeda strands of jihadist Salafism. The “romantic jihadis” did not endorse the killing of civilians or “attacking the far enemy” i.e. those Western nations deemed generally hostile to Muslims, targeting them directly as well as their interests in the Muslim world, which was the tactical switch endorsed by the al-Qaeda leadership in the nineties. There is no evidence — and I have asked several knowledgeable people about this — that Azzam endorsed either suicide bombing or targeting civilians in general.

To give a practical illustration of this, Moazzam Begg, whilst in Guantánamo, recalls an argument between himself and a self-declared al-Qaeda member, Uthman al-Harbi, in which Begg argues clearly against the targeting of innocents (see Enemy Combatant, London, 2006, pp. 304-309). Begg sticks to a romantic notion of honourable jihadism in an era of total war and the post-9/11 US “doctrine of pre-emption” and “full spectrum dominance”. Al-Harbi replies that modern weaponry is indiscriminate, and that the wide collateral damage inflicted upon the Muslim world deserves a similar response. Thus it seems that in Islam, as with other religious traditions, traditional codes of ethical conduct in wartime are under immense pressure to accept the “realpolitik” of civilian casualties. Begg is viewed by his American captors as just another al-Qaeda member like Uthman, despite the crucial differences between them. The danger of escalation with such conflation is obvious: it merges causes of self-determination in the Muslim world with terrorist attacks upon civilians within the Muslim world and in the West.

The chief similarity between “the jihadist internationale” and al-Qaeda is that their political framework is anti-national and resolutely globalised, and tied to an imagined politics of the umma (Muslim supernation). This historically places both at odds with the majority of jihadi Salafis who are nationalists, as experts like Fawaz Gerges, who has interviewed hundreds of them, attests.

Since the late 1990s, the lines between the two globalist strands have become more blurred. Firstly al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups targeted people who went over to train or fight. Although more research is required to confirm it, it would seem that Dhiren Bharot (Abu Eesa al-Hindi) shifted from the “jihadist internationale” strand to al-Qaeda in late nineties. Secondly, the military invasion and occupation of Muslim countries by America and its allies also brings the two strands closer together. In the programme, both strands were clear in articulating the right to the self-defence of Muslim lands, a position that is more widely held among Muslims generally. This, in and of itself, is unsurprising as self-defence is an orthodox position in nearly every religious tradition as well as in secular international law. Al-Qaeda was able to turn itself into a formidable presence on the back of the invasion of Iraq on the basis of this argument. Later on al-Qaeda became split on the question of whether Shiites in Iraq should be systematically targeted, to foment Sunni discontent at the Shiite-majority government. On the face of it, Zarqawi’s view that the deliberate targeting of Shiites should continue, as opposed to Zawahiri’s view that it would corrode Muslim support for al-Qaeda, seems to have prevailed.

However, as far as the obligation on British Muslims is concerned, the difference between the two strands lies in their response to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Al-Qaeda’s supporters and fellow travellers deem “the convenant of security” between Muslims and the British state to have been rendered null and void by the “war on terror” at home and abroad. This means that they work clandestinely and through deception to target Britain through terrorism, as argued by Abu Muhammad in the programme. Also featured were their apologists, among whom are Omar Bakri Mohammed and his followers, who refuse to distance themselves from al-Qaeda’s position, merely saying that they understand the response of the 7/7 cell and their likes to British foreign policy. This circumlocution is necessary in public statements given that they would otherwise face prosecution under the Terrorism Act 2006 for encouraging the “emulation of terrorism”.

The “jihadist internationale” strand endorsed the position that the legal contract between British Muslims and the state should be honoured, but there was less unanimity about the implications of that position. None supported attacks on Britain, but some appeared to endorse British Muslims joining the jihad against British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq so long as they publicly renounced their British citizenship before leaving the country. It should be noted that the government has placed a few British citizens under control orders for leaving to fight with Iraqi insurgents, from which a few have absconded. Others, like Moazzam Begg, while upholding the right to self-defence in principle, seemed to advise British Muslims to pursue a political path of protesting against the occupation of Iraq and providing emergency relief aid and the like to Iraqi civilians. Anti-extremist campaigners, like Imam Musa Admani, also upheld the right to self-defence while attacking “extremist ideologies”.

In short, while the presenter Phil Rees, of Dining with Terrorists fame, seems to have talked to the right people, more could have done more to frame the programme in terms of these “strands”. One complaint I would have is that while one might have some sympathy with the argument aired here by both Rees and his interviewees, that makes “foreign policy” the central driving causal factor, the framing of this issue by many of those interviewed here, which dictates the manner of their responses, should have been put any much more rigorous scrutiny. Finally by placing the intra-jihadist Salafi theological debate centre stage, Rees did not do enough to show that this is a minority trend within British Islam. How much are British Muslims truly self-defined by the traditional legal categories, formulated in age of the caliphate, of dar al-kufr, dar al-islam and dar al-aman that were discussed here?

Issues of Censorship in the Reporting of “Extremism”

Subsequent to the transmission of “Undercover Mosque”, the West Midlands police investigated the statements of three preachers featured in the programme to see if any criminal offence of inciting hatred had been committed. After reviewing 56 hours of tape, and referring the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service, it was found that there was “insufficient evidence” to charge anyone. In fact, the West Midlands police then went on to investigate if there were grounds for prosecuting Channel 4 under the Public Order Act 1986 for including material likely to stir up racial hatred. In her summary comments, CPS reviewing lawyer Bethan David said:

The splicing together of extracts from longer speeches appears to have completely distorted what the speakers were saying. The CPS has demonstrated that it will not hesitate to prosecute those responsible for criminal incitement. But in this case we have been dealing with a heavily edited television programme, apparently taking out of context aspects of speeches, which, in their totality, could never provide a realistic prospect of any convictions.

There is insufficient evidence to charge either the preachers or the programme makers, but in investigating both parties thoroughly the West Midlands police have sent a clear signal that it matters very much that we make ourselves responsible for what we say, being mindful of the context and representing other people’s positions without distortion. The West Midlands police have now referred the matter to Ofcom, the media regulator, although — strangely — none of the mosques featured in the programme appear have done so themselves.

Inayat Bunglawala, commenting recently on the CPS-West Midlands joint statement on the matter, said:

Hate speech must be combated. Documentary makers have an important responsibility, however, to do their research properly and carefully identify those who actually incite hatred. They must take great care to avoid unfairly stigmatising whole institutions and groups of people.

This is obviously true. But it doesn’t take us far enough as we have only established that there is insufficient evidence to bring charges, and that journalists should be responsible in how they report Muslim communities. That’s all well and good. As the deputy secretary-general of the MCB, Inayat Bunglawala would be expected to publicly defend the Council’s affiliates in cases of journalistic misrepresentation. But what shouldn’t be overlooked is the question of how “hate speech must be combated” by Muslim communities themselves, which requires a critical discussion about how some preachers play a divisive role. As I wrote in a previous blog on the programme:

We do need to think about the importance of what our imams and visiting preachers/lecturers say in our mosques…. Not because of outward respectability or out of fear of monitoring but because of what is right and proper. How can we expect a balanced form of Islam to emerge from such a hate-filled discourse? That’s the main question.

Why should we put up with the peddling of false dreams of future domination and merely waiting to fight some grand global jihad later on (when the reality is that Muslim countries cannot even secure their own basic sovereignty), of the insecure proclamation of our inherent superiority (surely conditional on our actual conduct), the need to continually demean the ‘kuffar’ (as if to bolster one’s own precarious faith, for as the saying goes: ‘hate’ is the opposite not of ‘love’ but of ‘indifference’; in other words, obsessive hatred reveals something of a fixation akin to attraction), the nasty denigration of women and speaking as if they were in a position to enforce, with relish, the fixed penalties (hudud) of Islamic sacred law (rather than as being, as in fact their congregation is, subject to English common law).

We British Muslims should take careful note of the fact that the West Midlands police acknowledged “the concerns that some parts of the programme may have been considered offensive”, despite the journalistic distortions. A point of disagreement remains as to what level of distortion we are talking about here. Many of the quotes featured in the programme were either lengthy or unambiguous in their content, so — even if there may have been a lack of contextualisation here — it did not amount to the outright falsification of the positions aired by some preachers. As for the context, the key question here is whether their “bark” was worse than their “bite”: many religious conservatives (not just in Islam) hold misogynist or homophobic positions, but how far do they recognise that this rhetoric is decisively framed by their legal and social context in terms of practical implications, and remind their mosque congregants of that context? By and large, in legal terms, the state aims not to censor non-liberal views but to foster an atmosphere in which the media and public opinion seeks to censure them away and set out a human rights framework based on the principles of reciprocal non-discrimination between all disadvantaged groups and the promotion of equality. Having said that, I believe British Muslims should argue for a “responsibility for rhetoric” given the multifaith, multicultural society that we are a part of, even if, at the same time, most would contest legal restrictions on free speech and many would also feel uncomfortable with intrusive “liberal moral policing”.

Therefore, the lesson is not only that there is lacklustre, sometimes malacious, journalism that should be challenged but also that we British Muslims have to do more to take on the intolerant, sometimes hateful, views that some preachers peddle. They need to reconsider their attitudes to other Muslims and the rest of society, as do the mosque committees that employ them. It would have been opportune for Inayat Bunglawala to have said more about the positive work the soon-to-be launched Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, which includes the MCB, is doing around raising service standards in mosques and setting more stringent job descriptions for imams, which will include a requirement to work pro-actively on inter-community relations and interfaith.

It has also emerged that the Metropolitan Police have now also asked Channel 4 for all evidence and footage collected in relation to “Britain under Attack”. Rees has already been criticised for giving airtime to an al-Qaeda supporter, Abu Muhammad, now exiled in the Middle East and debarred from entering Britain. Rees has defended interviewing Abu Muhammad on the basis that journalists have to reflect all sides of the argument, even the most radicalised and extreme voices. I would tend to agree with him while saying that the propositions upon which they base their argument should have been subjected to more scrutiny.

I would also like to support an argument, bound to be unpopular with many British Muslims, namely that we should be alive to an additional danger here, of allowing over-zealous prosecution, which, even if it fails legally, sends out a tacit signal to curtail proper investigative journalism around this crucial issue out of fear of legal reprisals. Many would like an easy life and have no investigative journalism at all; equally, some journalists would likewise invoke “free speech” rights without considering more measured criticisms of their efforts. After all, there is a middle ground here: the recognition that careful investigative journalism, duly sensitive to context, that tries to get to bottom of these complex issues, is desperately needed. This is a difficult enough thing to get right.

One has to wonder of course if the Crown Prosecution Service and the police by wading in here, presumably on behalf of beleaguered British Muslims, are taking unspoken signals from government on this. It is better to muzzle the media sufficiently so that “political handling” of the Muslim community is left to government and is not derailed by sensationalist reporting. As this case shows, broadcast media is the obvious target here as it is much more heavily regulated than is the press to provide editorial balance in news and current affairs. But isn’t this the same profession that also puts the government on the spot too, which, has also, at times, become very politically contested, as was the case with the BBC and the Hutton Inquiry. Shouldn’t the CPS and police prosecutions not be read within this context too?

So while one might argue for better reporting of “extremism”, surely improving it is a matter of open debate and of producing better alternatives than is the threat of legal prosecution which will leave all of us none the wiser and very much in the dark.


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

The Problem with "Stop and Search"

Stop and SearchAfter the foiled attacks in London and Glasgow, stops and searches under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 have increased in London to five times the monthly average of 2,114 to 10, 948 last month (July 2007). Twenty four per cent were Asian, 14% were black and 54% were white. Under the Act, people can be searched for “articles connected with terrorism” without “reasonable grounds” for suspicion (although the need for “reasonable grounds” applies in the case of search powers with respect to drugs, weapons and stolen goods). In February, the Association of Chief Police Officers had promised to review stop and search policy. Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman of the Metropolitan Police, a senior counter-terrorism officer, remarked at the time that stop and search damaged community relations and resulted in few arrests. The review, published in May, found that, although the power should be retained, the public needed regular and accurate updates on its use and that police officers should get further training. However, after the attacks, senior officers within the Met advised that stop and search should be used more frequently. According to Commander Rod Jarman of the Met, stop and search is a visible form of deterrence for would-be terrorists. [1] As much as anything else, it looks like the traditional show of will, determination and force on the part of the police in the wake of what could have been deadly attacks. However it is not determination that is at question here, but effectiveness.

Some questions immediately spring to mind. If searches are a blunt tool and lead to very few arrests, as the Met has admitted in the past, then is a vague rationale of “visible deterrence” adequate, given the impact on community relations? Is it really possible to know, or indeed to measure, whether “visible deterrence” actually works? I would guess not. Isn’t there a more important long term goal of building a trust-based relationship with Muslim communities, with the intelligence dividends that would accrue, rather than persisting with blunt tools like stop and search, which, when widely and indiscriminately used, damage the long term aim of policing with the full consent of Muslim communities? Unlike “visible deterrence”, the poisoning of community-police relations through stop and search has much more historical evidence to back it. As Lester Holloway, news editor of the Voice, reflected back in 2002 in relation to the Afro-Caribbean community, “Undoubtedly, stop and search has been an enormous problem that has caused decades of strife between the black community and the police.” [2] History seems to be repeating itself.

As the police now argue, profiling seems increasingly pointless. Each cell brought to trial adds to the growing evidence that, while those convicted share an extremist (mis-)interpretation of Islam, there are wide class, ethnic, residential and national differences amongst those caught. Drawing up a typical profile seems more and more difficult. Rod Jarman confirms this when he says:

Terrorists live, work and blend into our communities. They need information; accommodation, transport, communications, material and storage. Terrorists can come from any background and live anywhere. They are as likely to be seen in quiet suburban roads as they are in inner city areas. [3]

So is the answer then to merely widen the net: to apply stop and search in Croydon as much as in Tower Hamlets?

There has also been an internal police debate, and indeed one within Muslim communities too, about how stop and search should be recorded. At the moment, figures are collected on the basis of ethnicity. My understanding is that there is also an Arab category alongside “white”, “black” and “Asian”. But I’ve yet to come across publicly-released figures on the numbers of Arabs being stopped and searched in London. The large figure of 54% for “white” might be explained by the propensity of some Muslim ethnic or national groups (Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Bosnians etc) to prefer categorising themselves as “white”, as opposed to “black” or “Asian”. Anecdotally, Arab friends say that certain communities, like London’s Moroccans, feel that merely walking down the street in some parts of London is an invitation to be stopped and that they have been stopped many times. Additionally there is the question of whether religious affiliation should be monitored as well. Advocates say that it would allow unwarranted and disproportionate stops and searches on the basis of religious affiliation to be monitored and therefore contested where necessary. Opponents say that the very fact of asking what someone’s religion is, is going to alienate Muslims further, who will feel that they are being monitored by the state.

The main reason for resentment at stop and search under s.44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 seems obvious: that someone is suspected of involvement in terrorism on the basis of belonging to the same faith community, and that this suspicion need not be based on evidence. Stop and search therefore has an inherently speculative element to it. This speculative suspicion is based on what inevitably must be a stereotyping surmise linking faith identity with violent extremism. On this basis, there is bound to be some skepticism as to whether monitoring on the basis of faith identity is worthwhile in the first place. Rather, given that stop and search is a blunt and speculative form of policing, as currently framed under s.44, then the powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 ought to be curtailed to include the requirement of “reasonable grounds”. If used wisely and proportionately, on the basis of evidence, then there are grounds for cautious hope that stop and search would be less likely to alienate the very communities that the police would hope to win over, and might prove to be more effective.


[1] Sandra Laville, “More face stop and search to deter terrorists, say police”, Guardian, 7 August 2007.
[2] Anushka Asthana, “A way to curb stop and search”, New Statesman, 5 August 2002.
[3] Sandra Laville, ibid.

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Filed under Civil liberties, Racism and Islamophobia, Terrorism, UK Politics

"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.


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.


[1a] “Around 2000”, Prime Minister’s Statement on Security to Parliament, 25 July 2007, available at 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
[3] BBC News online, “Ban foreign language imams — peer”, 6 July 2007, see
[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.


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

Beyond Sidique

Shiv Malik reads too much into one case study.

Mohammad Sidique KhanShiv Malik’s essay, “My brother the bomber” (Prospect, June 2007), sets out a detailed account of the life and motivations of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the 7/7 bombings. But Malik reads too much into this one case study.

Much of the detail in Malik’s piece has either been previously reported or is disputed. Some locals argue that the name “Mullah boys”—the group Malik describes of young Muslim boys in Beeston that formed initially in response to local drugs problems—is media hype, that this loose network didn’t really go in for enforced “cold turkey” sessions, and that Khan had fewer associations with them in later years than did Shehzad Tanweer, his fellow cell member. Most importantly, some sources argue that Khan only become prayerful and pious in 2003, even if his political radicalisation came earlier. By contrast, Malik describes a long gestation over ten years, from Wahhabi literalist piety to jihadism to terrorism, which leads him to base his analysis on theological and cultural rather than political issues.

Malik’s explanation rests on a tendentious thesis—terrorism as the result of Islamic liberation theology and intergenerational dislocation. He argues that violent extremism is a fringe element in a broader religious revival among young Muslim people, driven by a generational shift towards more autonomy and choice in the name of Islam. This is set in the context of Beeston, where young Pakistani men are given free rein so long as they affirm (but not necessarily practice) traditional Islam, remain teetotal and marry within the clan (baraderi). Younger Muslims often criticise this combination of religio-cultural strictures with their elders’ myopic response to their wider concerns. Khan’s father cut him off when he married outside the clan, yet the elders in Beeston did nothing to tackle the rise of drugs in the area, leaving it to initiative-takers like Khan.

Youthful religious revival and extremism should not be conflated too closely. Arranged marriage is a common issue for many young Muslims, but those who contest the institution usually assert scriptural rights, or just individual rights, outside of any religious framework. In other words, while extremist recruiters seek to exploit a common concern, arranged marriage is only a circumstantial and not a necessary driver of extremism. The same holds true for identity—much of this religious revival is about formulating British Muslim identities, about piety in a new context; it is only the extremists who argue for absolute choices between Islam and the west. Islamic revivalism in Britain is maturing, which helps young Muslims in their search for a balance between culture and religion, text and context, modernity and tradition, nationalism and global Muslim fraternity, despite being guilt-tripped in various ways by parents, imams, old-style community leaders, jihadists and the august guardians of Britishness.

Traditional Muslim communities do seek to challenge extremism, but sometimes do so in an incompetent way that can actually exacerbate the problem. Malik’s account shows us that Khan’s father took steps to counter his rebelliousness, eventually cutting off all contact once he married outside the clan. For some British Muslims, being cast off in this way can set up a vulnerable isolation in which the jihadi network may seek to become a surrogate family. In a similar way, too many traditional mosques often chase away radical groups rather than taking them on.

Malik’s analysis of the radicalisation of the 7/7 cell is predicated on a conveyor-belt model. But it is important to understand that British Islam is also experiencing an ongoing process of deradicalisation, as disillusionment with utopian, millenarian discourses takes hold. For example, while nearly all extremists might subscribe in some form or other to Salafi theology—alongside a doctrine of global jihad and a radical Islamist reading of world politics—turning Wahhabi is not, most of the time, the prelude to becoming a jihadist.

Indeed, in the 1990s, many apolitical Salafis spent much time arguing against—and warning an officialdom then less attentive about—extremist preachers like Abu Qatadah and Abdullah al-Faisal. Many of these Salafis have been rewarded for this courageous stand by vilification by association, and death threats from jihadists, even if, after 9/11, the police have begun to discreetly support their work. Counter-terrorism is an unsentimental business that does not take account of liberal sensitivities in working with non-violent religious fundamentalists or Islamists, and, as such, it ought not to be confused with a broader integration agenda or debates around multiculturalism and Britishness.

Finally, it is hard to accept Hassan Butt’s contention that the extremists are winning by mainly recruiting from Islamists and fundamentalists, to use Malik’s terms, for this is to judge the mainstream by the fringe. Any serious reading of recent religious revivalism in British Muslim communities would do the reverse. Since the mid-1990s, there has been a convergence between an increasingly relevant traditionalism and a “post-Islamism” that articulates modern British Muslim identities more at ease with minority status in a secular liberal democracy. This process is far from over, and has not fully excised extremist ideas on the fringe. Yet if carefully handled, official encouragement to the mainstream may help to further reduce the influence of the extremists—if allied with greater honesty about the aggravating role Iraq has played in bolstering al Qaeda’s cause.

Yahya Birt is national director of City Circle ( and his personal blog is

Reproduced courtesy of Prospect Magazine (c) 2007. The original can be accessed here.


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

The Islamist: A Review

Ed Husain, The Islamist: Why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left. London: Penguin, 2007. Pp. 288. £8.99. Paperback.

As this book was published at the beginning of May 2007, five British-born Muslims were convicted of plotting to blow up targets like a shopping centre and a nightclub using 600 kilogrammes of ammonium nitrate. The persistent question remains: how did we get to a position where MI5 are monitoring 1,600 suspects in 160 cells? Who are these would-be terrorists? Even though Ruth Kelly and John Reid now belatedly acknowledge the aggravating effect of Iraq, foreign policy alone does not provide the whole answer. The impact of radical ideas have mattered too, which this book sets out to explore.

Leaving aside how much weight they would put on radicalisation alongside other causal explanations, British Muslims generally have two views on the role of ideas in the phenomenon. The first pins the blame squarely upon extreme Salafis who developed a doctrine of attacking the West in the wake of the Afghanistan-Soviet war in the 1980s. Some of their propagandists – Abu Qatada, Abu Hamza, Abdullah Faisal and Omar Bakri Mohammed (who became Salafi in his theological outlook sometime after 9/11) — were allowed to spread their ideas in Britain relatively unimpeded by the police and intelligence services throughout the Nineties, in fierce competition with other groups promoting political Islam. Most ordinary Salafis, commited to a puritanical apolitical form of Islam, either ignored this trend or argued against it. Some British Salafis who opposed this trend early on, with no public recognition whatsoever, had to face intimidation and even death threats.

The second position takes a wider view. British Islamists, those who emphasise faith-based political activism, helped to create a receptivity to more radical groups with whom they shared a similar vision of Islamic resurgence in the Muslim world. In this view, the elements of Islamism are likened to the spectrum of communism, i.e. between the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks and the Trotskyists – more a difference over means than ends — ranging from gradual reform to national or even international revolution. Some Islamists are in favour of democracy and some aren’t. Some are happy to have peaceful co-existence with the “West” and some aren’t. All, to a greater or lesser extent, have been critical of the traditional Islam of the ulema, of what they saw as their intellectual lethargy and quiescence during the period of direct European colonial rule in the Muslim world. They were also critical of Sufism, either rejecting it or seeking to reform it.

Ed Husain, brought up in Tower Hamlets, takes the second view and describes in detail his time with various Islamist groups in London at colleges and university campuses between 1990-1996. Husain, in escalating youthful rebellion, defies his parents, then his traditional upbringing, his college authorities and later society at large. Having been an eyewitness to this scene myself, I can vouch that he accurately describes an historical period of intense competition and one-upmanship for the attention of young minds. However, the main reviews so far, in the Times, the Sunday Times, the Observer and the Guardian, have been quick to draw sweeping and general conclusions about today’s situation, even though the heart of this book is really about the early Nineties.

The most important insights arise from Husain’s period of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir at a time when it was under the leadership of Omar Bakri Mohammed. Riding on the back of anti-Saudi sentiment during the first Gulf War in 1990, Hizb ut-Tahrir began to have a serious impact. Its confrontational tabloid style excited Muslim students looking for easy answers to Western double standards and the new Salafi missionaries from Saudi Arabia. The control of Islamic student societies would oscillate between Islamists and apolitical Salafis, leaving few alternatives to a crude, despiritualised, angry and self-righteous take on Islam. Husain’s judgement that Hizb ut-Tahrir, under Bakri’s inspiration (who was later to found the splinter al-Muhajiroun), did more to inculcate the spirit of jihad, anti-West sentiment, anti-democractic politics, and passionate support for the cause of the umma, the Muslim supernation, than anyone else is essentially correct.

While this personal memoir is a must-read, offering with authority and nuance an insider’s view of the context that shaped the period, it is not a definitive analysis. Husain doesn’t reflect enough on the serious debates on basic beliefs and practices that the Salafis provoked at the time and says little about the emergence of “the jihadi scene” in Britain during the late Nineties, during a time when the enemy (in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo) was politically halal. But then none of this is central to his personal journey.

Husain is unequivocal about calling for the banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir, yet I remain unconvinced. For while Hizb ut-Tahrir is subversive of democratic participation and integration, and should be challenged, they have not directly recruited for jihad abroad or terrorism at home. Undoubtedly, a few have left Hizb ut-Tahrir’s talk of jihad for the real thing, and the leadership has always denied the violence that hovers around some of the young men they have influenced. For instance, Hizb ut-Tahrir’s stoking of inter-communal tensions in Newham College in 1994 led indirectly to the murder of a Nigerian Christian by a Muslim, in which the leadership denied all involvement, a tragedy that leads to Husain’s pathway out of Islamism. Husain also reports of “off-duty” excursions to help out Muslim gangs in their turf wars with Sikh gangs in Slough and West London.

I also got first-hand reports of the disruption of Labour and Respect Party election campaigns as late as 2005 by Hizb ut-Tahrir activists in Tooting, Bethnal Green and Bow, and Sparkbrook and Smallheath, something that Husain reports, too. This is contested by Hizb ut-Tahrir’s leadership, who argue that they never endorsed any such activity, and other community activists have reported that al-Muhajiroun members were the real culprits in operating these spoiler campaigns. Given these conflicting reports, I do wonder if Husain has done enough to sift fact from allegation.

The government was far from agreed on the case for banning, first mooted by the Prime Minister in 2005. Charles Clarke, the former Home Secretary, Home Office lawyers, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the intelligence services and the Association of Chief Police Officers argued against the banning. Hizb ut-Tahrir have not been seen as part of the terrorist problem, even if they are seen as subversive of democratic politics. The point though is that postwar Britain didn’t seek to ban political subversion. For example, neither the Communist Party of Great Britain was banned, even though it was funded by the Soviets during the Cold War, nor was Sinn Fein, despite its being the political wing of the Irish Republican Army during the Troubles. The British Nationalist Party is not banned either. Other methods have been used to marginalise or moderate such movements in Britain.

This is unlike postwar Germany, where the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz), or FOPC, seeks to “safeguard the protection of the free and democratic fundamental order and the continued existence and security of the state”. This covers political subversion, originally designed to tackle any re-emergence of Nazi ideology in postwar (then West) Germany, as well as terrorism. The 2004 FOPC Report gives the following reasons for the German ban of Hizb ut-Tahrir:

The Federal Minister of the Interior banned Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami in Germany with effect from 15 January 2003, among other things because it opposed the principle of international understanding and because the organisation approved of violence as a means for achieving its political aims. (p. 204)

Is Britain moving towards the German view that subversion should be banned? Al-Muhajiroun and its successors could only be legally banned after extending the grounds for the proscription of terrorist groups in the Terrorism Act 2000, by passing an additional clause banning the glorification of terrorism in the Terrorism Act 2006. Section 21 of the Terrorism Act 2006 proscribes groups that promote or encourage “the unlawful glorification of the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future, or generally) of acts of terrorism”. Glorification is understood as encouraging the “emulation of terrorism”.

This is a delicate and difficult debate. Husain makes the case for banning Hizb ut-Tahrir on the basis of his personal journey rather than considering the political implications as carefully as he should have done. There is no doubt that Hizb ut-Tahrir should be pressurised in all sorts of ways short of banning, but let us not lose sight of the fact that criminalising its membership might end up alienating Muslim communities up and down the country and scotching any effective “hearts and minds” strategy. Academic estimates of the Party’s size in the UK, including members and sympathisers, hover at around 8,500. Given its size, the ripple effect would be immense, a consideration that no doubt bore upon the decision to not, as yet, ban the Party. The other effect would be the chilling of the dissident political voice of young Muslims, who would no doubt draw their own conclusions. Would this be preferable to taking ideas on while preserving the democratic right to speak out? One worries that the litmus test of being a good liberal, especially of the Muslim variety, might have come to rely on a preference for security over liberty on issues like this. A common argument one will hear is that Hizb ut-Tahrir has opened up somewhat since 2005, and Husain characterises this as a divergence between a comparatively more moderate leadership seeking political survival while trying to keep a more unreconstructed membership on board. This judgement is sound, and he is also right to remind us of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Leninist orientation. It has not given up on the idea of a totalitarian expansionist state or the coup d’etat as a means of establishing it.

The other serious point that Husain raises is about responsibility for rhetoric. To put it simply, the angry anti-West rhetoric of the period of colonial struggle (Mawdudi) or of postcolonial resistance (Qutb and Nabhani), without a controlling contextualisation, cannot be idly placed in the hands of young British Muslims. Years ago, back in the Eighties, some young members of the Islamic movement went to the elders to ask why the movement in the UK was not more radical. Why did they not adhere closely to the revolutionary ways of Mawdudi and Qutb? The elders replied that their ideas were for purposes of self-rectification only, and had no practical place in the work of the Islamic movement in Britain. Now this is genuinely mysterious. If the founding fathers of modern Islamism are basically irrelevant, which is what the first and second generation leaders tell me when I’ve pressed this point on them in private, then what’s the reason for not going out in public with a clear post-Islamist position? Tribalism? Loyalty to the movement? Inertia? Pride? Who knows?

Husain’s point here is that during the early Nineties, broad ideological affinity among Islamists meant that the moderates got involved in a game of one-upmanship with the radicals even as they competed fiercely for recruits. Husain gives an example that occurred at the East London Mosque when Hizbi activists attempted to take on the Islamic Forum Europe and the Young Muslims Organisation on their own turf. They were eventually forcibly removed, but not before an elder is seen to fail to respond to Hizbi polemics against democracy, and chooses to remain silent instead. The moderate Islamists could only argue within an overall framework that merely set their differences out in methodological terms (gradualism verses revolution), rather than on more substantive bases. Even now, some, especially those associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in the UK, will mount a sophisticated apologetic on behalf of Qutb. People just keep misreading Milestones and his tafsir, they say, and have done so consistently since the 1970s. If only people had listened a bit more to Hassan al-Hudaybi, the second Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood between 1951-1976, then the violent splinter groups would not have emerged. This is rather wishful thinking that misconstrues the power of Qutb’s ideas. The argument about responsibility over rhetoric also has implications for whether a prominent institution like the East London Mosque should be happy to invite intolerant, communalist preachers (Delwar Hossain Sayeedi or Abdul Rahman al-Sudays), or to allow the stocking of Qutb’s Milestones in the bookshop that pays rent to the mosque and is incorporated as part of the building.

However, this tribal loyalty to the ideologues of Islamism is only part of the story. You would be hard pressed to find a more dynamic mosque than the East London Mosque. It houses a school, a major charity, countless educational and welfare projects and extensive sporting facilities. It employs non-Muslim staff. It has a high rate of active participation from young men and women. It has incorporated newer communities — Somalis and Maghribis — within the governance structure of the mosque, rather than remaining an ethnic redoubt. It has worked very closely with the local authority on some substantive issues. For instance, the mosque worked with the local council to bring down absentee rates among Bangladeshi pupils, with the imams directly challenging the cultural practice of pulling kids out of school during term-time for extended trips abroad. There was no doubt that many at the mosque put their weight behind the Respect Party protest vote in 2005 that saw George Galloway to victory at Bethnal Green and Bow. Husain mentions that the link between Respect and former YMO/IFE activists exists, but, arguably, their links with local Labour are much stronger. Privately, it was accepted that Galloway would not be a good constituency MP, and that this was effectively a short-term protest over Iraq. It was assumed that politics as usual would resume with Labour, which is likely to be the case with an excellent candidate in Rushanara Ali (ex-Home Office, Young Foundation and political aide to Oona King, the former MP). None of this gets consideration in Husain’s account of the ELM today.

Husain also provides a short pen-portrait of the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB) in 1996, a year before a faction split off to help form the Muslim Brotherhood’s main organisation in the UK, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). He captures the inside debate at the time between those who wanted a post-Islamist, integrationist British Islam, those who were responding to Hizbi criticisms, and those who took more seriously the Muslim Brotherhood’s rather unreconstructed tarbiya, laced with lashings of pro-Hamas rhetoric and anti-Semitic diatribes, according to Husain who attended some of these sessions. Husain, then still detoxing himself from the Hizb, doesn’t always distinguish more laughable elements from more serious ones. A two-hour ISB presentation Husain attended on an entryist methodology into key sectors of British society should rightly be laughed off as pie-in-the-sky thinking rather than some kind of insidious Islamist version of SPECTRE.

Husain’s intelligence and sensitivity eventually leads him to go full circle, back from Islamist alienation to his family and the tolerant mystical Islam – Sufism – that they espouse. He becomes part of the counter-extremist movement, led by Hamza Yusuf and Tariq Ramadan, that gained ground in Britain from the mid-Nineties onwards, defined by a convergence between a more relevant traditional Islam and post-Islamism, emphasising core Islamic values and active citizenship. Husain, scarred by the cultish manipulations of Islamist groups, particularly Hizb ut-Tahrir’s, underestimates the positive impact this has had on both British Islamists and Salafis, and, in my view, mistakenly judges this transition as more tactical than genuine. He is sometimes unwilling to see that just as he has been on a journey, others have been too. The contours of the middle ground have been drawn and partly defined by many of the moderate Islamist groups, of which he has remained suspicious. Muslim student politics, with all its passions and immaturities of the early Nineties, has improved and matured. The students I regularly meet nowadays are considerably more sophisticated than the Neanderthal variety that roved the campuses in the period of the early Nineties that Husain describes. They embody this new middle ground: a place for personal spiritual piety combined with a commitment to social and political activism within democratic norms, or somewhere in the ground chalked out by Hamza Yusuf and Tariq Ramadan ten years ago and elaborated since then. Even now, in a new publication, Turning the Tide, Qutb and Mawdudi are being improbably represented as part of the Sufi tradition. Sarah Joseph edits the most integrationist, aspirational glossy Muslim magazine, Emel, on the market. The centre ground has shifted. Formerly hardline Salafis are happy to go by the name of “Sidi” and to emphasise the traditionalist aspects of the Hanbali madhhab. Mawlid, dhikr, rihla, ijaza — all terms and practices with cache and endorsement; Sufism is no longer the despised, disreputable cult of uneducated parents, as it was once characterised not too long ago. And how many in traditionalist circles now follow the lead of the moderate Islamist movements into interfaith, civic participation, charitable, social and welfare projects? How many Muslims now seek to define Muslim public identity, even as “British Muslims for Secular Democracy”? How many raise the same arguments about foreign policy, whether as Sufis, Shias or Islamists, as British citizens making their concerns heard?

This shift towards a relevant British Islam, having acquired official encouragement since 7/7, has become politically contested among British Muslims. Naysayers may now play the “sell-out” card more assiduously, and government has been none-too-subtle at times in its public interventions, stoking fears of re-engineering a churchless religious tradition proud of its independence and diversity. Presently, at national level, Sufis are being pitted against Islamists in representational terms, while the government is endorsing a British Islam that is the product of both, i.e. the championing of both Tariq Ramadan and Hamza Yusuf, the two figureheads of the new convergence. No wonder many Muslims are disenchanted and confused by these mixed messages. The moderate Islamists have pioneered interfaith, democratic political engagement, women’s participation and serious youth work and they look increasingly likely to leave aside their ideological roots for civic participation and integration. The neo-traditionalists have restated core Islamic values and respect for learning in a manner relevant to diaspora life in twenty-first century Britain.

Husain, however, ends on a more ambiguous note: the future direction of British Islam remains, for him, uncertain. His own trajectory shows, however, that mainstream Islam can renew itself in the context of twenty-first century multicultural Britain, even with the challenge of an extremist fringe, which — while small in absolute terms — constitutes the largest political challenge for British Muslims and society at large. He has not recognised sufficiently that he didn’t travel alone in his voyage of maturation and self-discovery: many of his generation have travelled with him, and the younger generation has absorbed the lessons of the excesses of the early Nineties in order to avoid them.

A short version of this review will appear in the New Statesman.


Filed under Ghuluw, Islamism, Religion, Terrorism, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics

With Us or Against Us: The Rhetoric of the War on Terror

After 9/11, there has been a shift in the cultural representations of Muslims towards more direct political themes and the use of terrorist violence. In particular, there has been the emergence of a shared political rhetoric, particularly between Washington and London, that is central to the “war on terror”. Rhetoric, which is part and parcel of political speech-making, is still vulnerable to the ancient criticism of Plato that it is too concerned with the means of persuasion rather than the framing of good argument itself. One species of rhetoric identified by Aristotle, the enthymeme, commonly features an unstated premise, the veracity of which is a probable rather than an established truth. A comparison with actual policy would show that rhetoric can have a contested relationship with reality.

This essay offers an analysis of this rhetoric to see what it seeks to persuade Muslims to do, what its unspoken premises are and which categories it uses to mobilise Muslim sentiment. Five years on after 9/11, and with the descent of Iraq into bloody civil war, it is essential that Muslims develop a critical distance from this rhetoric, not only because it can be internalised and have negative consequences for Muslims and how they evaluate themselves and their faith, but also because the rhetoric does much to justify an aggressive militarism that feeds the very terrorism it purports to be ending.

The Crude Form of the “War on Terror” Rhetoric

There is a crude form of rhetoric in the “war on terror”, which is summarized as “Islam verses the West” or “the clash of civilisations”, which, because it generally serves to antagonise Muslims, is not commonly used. In fact the evidence is that, if used, this terminology is quickly modified or retracted. In its crude form, the “war on terror” rhetoric is explicitly tied to the dictates of nationalism and anti-terrorism. The most famous example is George W. Bush’s assertion that “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists”, of which we find a rare British echo in a comment from Dennis MacShane in 2003, then the British Minister for Europe: “It is time for the elected and community leaders of British Muslims to make a choice: it is the British way – based on political dialogue and non-violent protests – or it is the way of the terrorists, against which the whole democratic world is now uniting.” The reason why this crude form is not normally employed is that it does nothing to mobilise Muslim sentiment in favour of the “war on terror”. Another good example is Bush’s use of the word “crusade” to describe the war on terror a few days after 9/11, which was quickly retracted. It could also be argued that this crude form does not necessarily represent the most prevalent view among American and British political elites either.

The crude form has some historic pedigree. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new Muslim enemy comes to be constructed by right-wing academics, policy-makers and politicians associated with the neo-conservative wing of the Republican party. The story is too well-known to be rehashed here at any great length. But, briefly, the two key figures who give the idea proper substance are Bernard Lewis, the British-American Middle East studies specialist, who in a 1990 article introduces the term “the clash of civilisations” which is subsequently popularised by the political scientist Samuel Huntingdon, in which ideological clashes in global politics are replaced by civilisational ones. The chief antagonists for the West are now Islam — with its “bloody borders” — and Confucian China.

It is not Christianity as such that is opposed to Islam, for the “clash of civilisation” argument has its roots in a secularised form of American Protestantism. At the end of the Cold War, conflict would no longer be an ideological clash between communism and liberal capitalist democracy but based on civilisational conflict. It compares an idealised West – based on democracy, human rights, free enterprise and globalisation, with its opposite portrayed as “unsympathetic, adversarial and incapable of betterment”. [1] It is a correction of the post-war modernisation thesis that said that religion would simply fade away. Instead, after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, there was a revision so that religion could still play a part in political conflict, and this was seen in a negative and combative way. These are different civilisations and they are destined to clash on the basis of value-difference. The crude version relies on persistently asking the question: can Islam meet the test of civilisation for although it is a civilisation, it is an inferior one. It allows for purveyors on the “clash” thesis to be blind to the many occasions when they fall short of their own civilisational standards. Muslims are judged by the most extreme adherents of their faith, whereas Christian extremists are exceptional.

Huntingdon’s thesis is largely discredited, and is not taken seriously by many neo-conservatives, including, for example, Daniel Pipes, who criticised it in a recent debate in London with Mayor Ken Livingstone. The Muslim world and Europe have had a deeply enmeshed interaction, which certainly cannot be defined as characterised largely or solely by conflict. Fourteen of today’s 34 European countries were at one time wholly or partly ruled by Muslims for a century or more, and similarly, all Muslim societies except for three have experienced direct European rule in the last 200 years. Yet this deep interaction is written out of European history and self-definition. Instead, it is written only as a relationship of rivalry and conflict, but with no proper assessment of long periods of peaceable co-existence or of profound cultural interchange. In particular, there is the huge legacy of late medieval and philosophical Muslim thought later drawn on by European Jews and Christians to create the modern West. Richard Bulliet has even coined a new term, “Islamo-Christian civilisation”, to denote

a prolonged and faithful intertwining of sibling societies enjoying sovereignty in neighbouring geographical regions and following parallel historical trajectories. Neither the Muslim nor the Christian historical path can be fully understood without relation to the other. [2]

If we take these Muslim and Christian societies to denote one civilisation then conflicts between them take on an internecine character. After periods of conflict, the realisation of a common heritage would make eventual reconciliation easier, and would prevent the conception of conflict as the result of a “clash”. The terrible treatment of Jews in Europe did not prevent, after the Holocaust, the development of an idea of Judeo-Christian civilisation, emphasising what was held in common. There is no reason why commonalities between the Muslim world and the West should not be similarly achieved, despite the current round of conflict.

The Sophisticated Form of the “War on Terror” Rhetoric

The sophisticated form of the “war on terror” rhetoric has defeated many a critic, Muslim or otherwise; many end up inadvertently confirming some of its features. Sayres Rudy provides one of the best current analyss of this form, and his work has heavily informed much of this section. [3]

The sophisticated form argues that while suffering is found everywhere and is constant, only Muslims are highly likely to be involved in terrorism. The reason for this is that there are some aspects of Islam that turn normal grievances into exceptional, anti-human ideologies and actions like suicidal terrorism on the part of a delusional and inexcusable minority of Muslims. This minority is termed “Islamic fascists”. This sophisticated argument is evidence-based, rejects simple racism and crude essentialism, and replaces the crude form of “Islam verses the West” with the more sophisticated form “Islamism verses Americanism”.

In more detail, the argument goes something like this:

(1)Political, economic and cultural grievances are ubiquitous;
(2)Muslims are over-represented among terrorists [although terrorists are not necessarily over-represented among Muslims];
(3)Thus, some Islamic quality uniquely inspires terrorist overreaction to grievances;

1.Islamist terrorists do not share political or economic grievances;
2.Islamist terrorists do share cultural grievances;
3.Thus, Islamist terrorists overreact to cultural grievances.

(4)Islamist terrorists attack the US.

1.America boasts a liberal-democratic-secular culture;
2.Islamists oppose liberal-secular-democratic culture;

(5)Thus Islamist terrorism against the U.S. is an overreaction sparked by a unique Islamic quality to the minority Muslim grievance against America’s cultural valuation of liberal-secular-democratic culture;
(6)Culture valuation and value-conflict are immutable;
(7)Therefore, anti-American Islamist terrorism reflects an immutable conflict of cultural valuations between the U.S. and Islam(ism) [4]

The key concept at play here is “grievance”, usually popularly expressed as “Muslim anger”, which precludes any analysis of the normal causes of political conflict. Economic, political and social causes, or injustices, are reduced to a critique of Islamism, which is comes out of and is reinforced by Islam’s supposed anti-modernism. This is a subset of the general argument that the discontent caused by the disparities produced by globalisation (used interchangeably with modernisation here) creates religious fundamentalism. Thus not only does global modernisation cause local fundamentalism, but local modernisation creates global fundamentalism, and all of a sudden we have a single global fundamentalist movement, otherwise known as al-Qa’ida. But there is no reason to think that the various Islamist movements around the world are in fact “cohesive, connected, or even compatible”. [5]

The normal anti-racist arguments made by critics of the “war on terror” rhetoric — that Islam is complex and diverse, that Muslims should not be denied political agency, and that all cultures, including Islamic ones, are changeable — are accepted by proponents of the sophisticated form of the “war on terror” rhetoric. So not only is anti-essentialism shared by critics and proponents alike, but this argument is politically irrelevant too, for the proponents will say “We are talking about Islamism, not Islam, and a level of internal distinction, political agency and cultural dynamism within Islam is central to our argument”.

In the sophisticated form of the “war on terror” rhetoric, there is a distinction made between “good” and “bad” Muslims [6], a differentiation that is part of a post-colonial project of assimilation, replacing older, colonial discourses of blanket and distancing rejection, to which Huntingdon’s “clash” thesis is nearer in spirit. In other words, the attempt to provide a binary distinction is properly termed “Islamophobia”, and is understood to describe part of a condition internal to the post-colonial state, which has replaced Orientalism, a metaphor of spatial segregation in an earlier age of imperialism. This sort of bifurcation of complicated Muslim individuals into either moderates or extremists appears at present to have little end in sight. The open-endedness of the war on terrorism, with its policing, legal strictures, and military ventures abroad, offers up the prospect of social re-engineering on a grand scale. This sort of binary opposition between the Muslim pacifist and Islamic terrorist predates the “war on terror” and actually emerged over the last quarter century since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, chiefly through the mass media. Edward Said noted in the early 1980s that Islam had become a scapegoat, a catch-all explanation for various disliked social and political ills, even if in the overall schema, the Muslim world’s status as a potential bulwark of anti-communism was still useful back then. [7]

Of course the political goal now is to form a bulwark of moderate Muslims against extremist Muslims: in the sophisticated form of the “war on terror” rhetoric, there is not a clash between civilisations, but within Islamic civilisation, to which others are innocent bystanders and victims, or between the civilised West and moderate Muslims against the barbarian Islamists or bad Muslims. However, it is certainly arguable that even if Islamism is separated from Islam and is set up in opposition to a U.S.-Islam alliance, Islamism is still re-identified with Islam and is still seen as an enemy of the U.S. coming from within the House of Islam. Even if it is seen as the exception to the norm of Islam, violent Islamism is still seen as pervasive within the House of Islam. Islamism, in sophisticated “war on terror” rhetoric, is thus both inside and outside Islam.

To counter this, one needs to take apart — and not confirm — the assumption of a continuum that places all the various currents of Islam on a sliding scale to terrorism and violence, which contends that the causal explanations for why the various trends within Islam act the way that they do are merely reducible to a “grievance theology” alone, i.e., the idea that an increase in the grievance felt pushes all Muslims down that sliding scale towards violence. Of course, the occupation of Iraq has made that argument more difficult to sustain because it could in many ways be characterised as an insurgency with features in common with anti-imperialism anywhere. But the larger point is that this form of the “war on terror” rhetoric seeks to refute the position that the vast majority of Islamist militants or terrorists are fighting military or police repression within the Muslim world with an anti-Islam purpose that is either implicit or explicit.

The distinction made between good and bad Muslims often gets replicated and mapped onto ancient and modern sectarian divisions in the Muslim world. An overarching division, as mentioned, has been “Islamism verses Islam”. But there are other forms too. A strong element since 9/11 has been to exacerbate the differences between Wahhabis (or Salafis) and Sufis. Another is to support establishment ulema against anti-establishment Islamist movements in places like Egypt. The third element, noticeable in the build-up of an anti-Iran rhetoric, has been to pit a Sunni “arc of moderation” against a Shiite “extremist crescent”. None of these add up to a consistent view of the internal debates within Islam, and betray an inherent flexibility suited to changing political purpose, e.g. Wahhabism is decried as part of Bin Laden’s patrimony at one moment, and as a bulwark against Iran and the Shia the next.

These divisions are rhetorically invoked on the grounds that good Muslims are the ones that comply and the bad ones are the ones that don’t. Furthermore, the goodness of a Muslim relates to how closely that Muslim is like “us”. That “us”, as Rudy argues, is an idealised (not an actual) America imagined as always unified, stable, infused with integrity, and contrasted negatively with a disunited, unstable and volatile Islam. It is worth saying more about the “us”. Unlike Europe, which has historically defined itself in many periods against its Muslim neighbour, the United States has represented itself as a form of universalism, as a civilisation that is the right template for everyone. President Bush in a State of the Union address in 2004 reflects this sentiment:

The cause we serve is right, because it is the cause of all mankind. The momentum of freedom in our world is unmistakable – and it is not carried forward by our power alone. We can trust in that greater power who guides the unfolding of the years. And in all that is to come, we can know that his purposes are just and true. [9]

This outlook collapses the future into the present-day, and thus those who resist the aspiration of American hegemony do so because they are anti-Americans and not primarily because they have yet to experience freedom and security. And in their anti-Americanism, they are not true to the real teachings of Islam. So while essentially, Islam and America are not opposed to each other, Islam still produces enemies who oppose America’s universal morality. As American values are always held to be coherent, beneficent, exportable and humane, there is no legitimate resistance to them. [10] This shift, then, to a conflict over values has meant that Washington has twice redubbed the “war on terror”, which at the end of the day refers fundamentally to technique and not motivation or values. In July 2005, it became the “war on extremism” and in the summer of 2006, it was semi-officially renamed “the freedom agenda against Islamic fascism”, although the phrase “war on terror” seems to have stuck in the popular consciousness.

It is worth pointing out, as an aside, that the rhetoric about the exceptionalism of Islamism comes out of the rhetorical justification of American exceptionalism, and a view of its global role in the post-Cold War world. The locus classicus is the National Security Strategy of the United States 2002, which sets out something like a Bush foreign policy doctrine for the world. This extraordinary document, which may easily be accessed online, enunciates a “doctrine of pre-emption” that precludes any predisposition to international diplomacy alongside a commitment to a “millennial military state”, and promises a perpetual global role as the world’s policeman which should remain militarily pre-eminent. It recapitulates the idea of universalism as Americanism, centred around “a post-communist world of evangelical capitalism”, in which America’s economic power is assured through an advantageous penetration of global markets. It operates under the assumption that to oppose America is to oppose “the good”. Of course, such rhetoric is hardly self-sustaining in any self-critical analysis. [11]

The key issue with the good/bad Muslim distinction is that it conflates criminal and moral registers. The consequence of this is that the definition of who is a moderate and who is an extremist becomes ambiguous and unstable. It means that legal definitions of an extremist who takes innocent human life are inevitably mixed up with more general moral judgements made about Muslims, who, while they oppose terrorism, are seen to be illiberal. Thus counter-terrorism arguments get caught up with discussions about national identity and belonging, multiculturalism and integration. Thus the list of extremist attributes grow longer and longer, and therefore more Muslims become labelled as “extremist” in political rhetoric. Muslims who are moral conservatives come under as much scrutiny as those who actually endorse terrorist violence. For instance, the official Conservative Party report that came out in January 2007, “Uniting the Country”, lists several groups who have opposed al-Qa’ida as in fact being an integral part of the “Muslim problem” with regard to national security imperatives. [12] It is unsurprising therefore that as the “box” labelled “extremist” grows ever larger, polling finds that a majority of ordinary Muslims conceive the “war on terror” to be a war against Islam.

As Saba Mahmood comments, the rationale of defining moderates and extremists is not seeking to extirpate religion entirely from public life but to produce the kind of Muslim believer who is “compatible with the rationality and exercise of liberal political rule”. [13] America has undertaken an ambitious plan to reform and reshape Islam not only in the diaspora but in the Muslim world as well, largely under the aegis of programmes like Muslim World Outreach established in 2003 (with an inaugural annual budget of $1.3bn). This outreach finds important allies among Muslim reformers who agree that received authority (taqlid) is overemphasised and that more should be done to create the believer who apprehends religion as a series of personalised symbols that may be interpreted flexibly in consonance with the rationales of liberal secular rule. The relationship between text and context should be set by the individual, and not by scholarly consensus. It is of relatively little moment that these reformers may or may not endorse the anti-imperialist critique of the global Left when there is a far bigger debate about the constitution of religious authority within Islam at stake.

The problem with the good/bad Muslim distinction is that it robs Muslims of the power of self-definition, and it politicises the ordinary process of upholding ethical standards among Muslims. It is no longer a question of whether something is good or bad, but an additional consideration emerges: why and for what purpose is someone condemning or supporting something? It is vital here for Muslims to be alive to this pressure but not, at the same time, to let go of their own moral and legal definition of “moderation” and “extremism” (ghuluw), and to insist on it in the current context. After all, prophetic tradition warns Muslims to “beware of excessiveness in religion” (al-ghuluw fi’l-din). Moderation includes combining the interests of continuity and change, acknowledging both fundamental principles and that which is subject to change in religion, avoiding rigidity and elasticity at the same time, and having a holistic understanding of Islam. Fanaticism (ta`assub) includes bigotry and intolerance of other people who are different, excessiveness and exaggeration in religious observance, sternness of manner and outlook, a lack of patience, harshness towards others and an attitude of suspicion and distrust. [14] A similar sentiment — realising the need to maintain the power of self-definition — ought to inform debate, too, around the formation of religious authority among traditionalists and reformers within the House of Islam. This requires retaining the claims of tradition, reason and consensus in creative balance, even in this overly-politicised context, where intellectual debates retain their autonomy and integrity, and accusations of impolitic motivation should be set aside to this end.

In fairness, it should be added that the rhetorical response to 9/11 is partly due to the deregulation of large-scale capacity for violence and destruction — away from the hands of the nation-state — that the new al-Qa’ida global terror franchise represents. There is still serious puzzlement, and not just manipulative political rhetoric, about where to place the motives of this new terrorism within a traditional framework of nationalist self-determination. In fact, the new terrorism is part of generalised emergence of globalised political protest movements, like the anti-globalisation movement, two decades or so after the emergence of a global neo-liberal economic order. Al-Qa’ida is in many ways unthinkable without globalisation, without the internet. It is not jihad as we know it, but, appropriately, as Slavoj Zizek dubbed it, McJihad. As Bin Laden commented on the 9/11 attacks in one of his videotapes: “Those youths who conducted the operations did not accept any fiqh”. [15] Not only is al-Qa’ida unorthodox, but in many ways it refuses even to react against orthodoxy, and so sets out its own modus operandi. So for the Muslim world, a theological response is probably insufficient.

However, while it might be difficult to set a context for political resolution to this new and endless war on terror, the burden of my criticism is that seeking to leave the mode of war for politics is not even being imagined at present. And this failure of imagination therefore devolves into a generalised anxiety that opposes simultaneous loyalty to the nation and to the ummah (the Muslim supernation), which is a particularly pressing issue for Muslim minorities of the West, whose loyalties, presently, must first be ascertained before they may be trusted. The other feature that this failure of imagination provokes is a fear of unrestrained and apparently motiveless violence that is stripped of historical context and is reduced to ideology, which casts a pall of fanaticism over all Muslims. It is this presumption that prevents a conversation of humankind, a dialogue within and between civilisations, from eclipsing the partisans and the warmongers on all sides.


[1] Richard Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilisation (New York: Columbia University, 2004), 2.
[2] Ibid., 10.
[3] Sayres S. Rudy, “Pros and Cons: Americanism against Islamism in the ‘War on Terror’”, Muslim World, January 2007, 97(1), 33-78.
[4] Ibid., 43, the whole outline of the argument is taken verbatim from Rudy.
[5] Ibid., 42.
[6] Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim (New York: Pantheon, 2004).
[7] Edward Said, Covering Islam (New York: Vintage, 1997 [1981]).
[8] Rudy, 54.
[9] Cited in Rudy, 54.
[10] Ibid., 55.
[11] Stephen John Hartnett and Laura Ann Stengrim, “War Rhetorics: The National Security Strategy of the United States and President Bush’s Globalization-through-Benevolent-Empire”, The South Atlantic Quarterly, Winter 2006, 105(1), 175-205.
[12] National and International Security Policy Group, “Uniting the Country” [interim report on security issues, chaired by Dame Pauline Neville-Jones], 31 January 2007, available at
[13] Saba Mahmood, “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation”, Public Culture, 2006, 18(2), 323-347, quote at 344.
[14] M. Hashim Kamali, “Fanaticism and its Manifestations in Muslim Societies” in Aftab Ahmad Malik (ed.) The Empire and the Crescent: Global Implications for a New American Century (Bristol: Amal Press, 2003), 175-207.
[15] Faisal Devji, Landscapes of the Jihad (London: Hurst, 2005), 13.

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Terrorism, Politics and Media Controversy

Today’s global media is the most effective weapon around for both governments and terrorists — despite the presence of WMDs. Even after 9/11, the maxim still holds that ‘war is ultimately coercive [while] terrorism is impressive’; in other words, terrorism compensates for its relative lack of coercive force by relying on ‘collective alarmism’ to create the forceful reaction of the state it needs to rally people to its cause. [1] Similarly governments seek to reassure publics by talking and being tough — which is more often than not the initial response before any attempt to win hearts and minds becomes more serious. Even five years on after the World Trade Center attacks, we seem caught in a media battle through which the apparently wavering hearts of British Muslms are to be won over. The intensity of this media battle is in and of itself highly divisive and counter-productive.

Recently there was an interview with a prominent radical on British radio’s most prestigious interview slot, 8.10am on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. On the eve of Ramadan, Today’s chief interviewer, the normally insistent John Humphreys, found himself fazed when facing the aggressive scattergun approach favoured by Abu Izzadeen and other protégés of the exiled founder and leader of al-Muhajiroun, Omar Bakri Mohammed (b. 1958). The interview itself, the full transcript of which is available here, was a classic instance of a liberal and a jihadi talking past each other, speaking two entirely different languages.

But first some background. Al-Muhajiroun is a splinter group that broke away from Hizb ut-Tahrir, a transnational organisation that works to re-establish the caliphate in the Muslim world. Its splinter is a small, high profile group that courts controversy with the media in order to use notoriety as a recruitment tactic. A reliable estimate from academic research done in 2002, put its numbers back then at 160 members, 700 attendees of weekly study circles and 7,000 contacts or potential participants. [2] It was founded in Saudi Arabia in 1983 but after a crackdown Bakri left for London in 1986, and rejoined HT where he succeeded through his high profile, controversial style in attracting a considerable membership for the movement as well as international notoriety. Bakri’s outlandish positions were too extreme even for HT’s leadership (e.g. wishing to establish the caliphate in Britain), and he was stripped of his leadership of the UK section in November 1995 by the worldwide leader, Abdul Qadeem Zalloum. He later resigned from HT and relaunched al-Muhajiroun in January 1996.

Omar Bakri endorsed al-Qaeda’s 1998 attacks on the American embassies in a samizdat legal verdict. But after 9/11, he was more equivocal, condemning attacks on civilian targets but claiming still that this was an act of mistaken but still rewardable ijtihad on al-Qaeda’s part. Only in July 2003 did the Metropolitan police really crack down on the group after the bombing of Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv by two British Muslims who were some way linked, at least indirectly, to the movement. In 2004, al-Muhajiroun was disbanded and in August 2005, Bakri left for the Lebanon and was subsequently banned from returning to Britain. Al-Muhajiroun’s successor groups al-Gurabaa and the Saved Sect were banned by the British government in July 2006, after some internal disagreement and equivocation from the former Home Secretary Charles Clarke and from the intelligence services. [3] These groups could only be legally banned after extending the grounds for proscription of terrorist groups in the Terrorism Act 2000 by passing an additional clause banning the glorification of terrorism in the Terrorism Act 2006.

Section 21 of the Terrorism Act 2006 proscribes groups that promote or encourage ‘the unlawful glorification of the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future, or generally) of acts of terrorism’. Glorification is understood as encouraging the ‘emulation of terrorism’.

On splitting from HT in 1996, al-Muhajiroun defined itself on three points of difference:

(i) While they both believe in the reestablishment of worldwide caliphate, HT believes such work is confined to the Muslim world, whereas al-Muhajiroun considers it an obligation to establish God’s command in Britain.
(ii) Al-Muhajiroun adopts a more public style of moral correction, of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil, in contrast to HT’s more private method of training and inculcation.
(iii) Finally, unlike HT, al-Muhajiroun openly supports the cause of jihad by hand, heart or tongue in the British context. Their spokesmen have in the past refused to condemn the bombers of 9/11 or 7/7, but have argued that foreign Muslims ought to make a strike on British soil for this country’s military support for the American-led ‘war on terror’.

The full transcript of the interview, available here, reiterates all these three distinctive features – and leads to the conclusion that Abu Izzadeen succeeded in using this influential slot to get across his core message. With Humphreys’s assertion that those who support the Sharia ought to leave the UK to live in somewhere like Saudi Arabia, Abu Izzadeen recognises the worldwide applicability of the Sharia, the duty to establish it here, and the non-validity of the concept of national sovereignty:

I believe Allah is al-Khaliq, He’s the One who created the whole universe, He created the UK. It doesn’t belong to you, it doesn’t belong to the Queen, it doesn’t belong to the Anglo-Saxons. … It belongs to Allah the Creator, and He has put us on the planet Earth, to live wherever we want and implement the Sharia rules. If I live in the UK I will call for Islam.

Secondly he adopts the hallmark style of public moral correction both in the interview and in the headline-grapping heckling of John Reid, the current Home Secretary, in an East London mosque. He partly quotes the famous hadith on the levels of iman and necessity of correction in the interview. He also reiterates his core message to millions of listeners, which centres around the condemnation of temporal political authority:

If you’re going to talk about terrorism, I think you can look to Tony Blair, coz at the moment the biggest terrorist on the planet is George Bush and his sidekick. … How many people died in 9/11? 3000? Let’s give a nice round figure of 5000 people. Since 9/11, the British Crusader forces and the American Crusader forces, George Bush has it’s a crusade, so I’m not going to argue with the President of the United States, he said it’s a crusade, Tony Blair sided with him as a crusader. They have killed…the bombing campaign alone, some say 70,000 inside Iraq, some said 100,000.

He is quick to tap into the main contention in the Muslim world, that Muslim deaths are more numerous and are accounted to matter less in the Western world. He also connects his message with a feeling of discontent not only with military intervention abroad, but with policing at home:

We’ve had enough of the police raids, we’ve had enough of the shootings in Forest Gate, we’ve had enough of the arrests inside Walthamstow, inside restaurants, under the guise of your “war against terror”, which everybody knows – Muslims and non-Muslims – is a war against Islam. And I’m telling you something, if they don’t stop this, then there’s going to be a very strong reaction from the community, maybe not from me on an individual level, but people have had enough. … Well I think that the British government should really open their eyes and smell the coffee. You can only push people to a certain level before they explode, I’m not talking about a self-suicide operation, but there’s a tension within the community because they are being targeted.

Finally, Abu Izzadeen is able to continue to provide tacit support for suicide terrorism in the UK despite the strictures of the new legislation against the glorification of terrorism by recounting the opinions of others rather than his own view. He achieves this despite an attempt by Humphreys to get him to make an open statement of support:

JH: I tell you what you do about Tony Blair, you vote against him. It’s your right as a British citizen, vote him out of office if you disapprove of what he’s doing, but are you telling me that 9/11 and the subsequent attacks, including the attack on this country were justified because of the things you’re talking about?

AI: Who’s talking about justification?

JH: I’m asking you whether you whether, you know perfectly well what…

AI: …I haven’t mentioned anything about justification. I’m talking about the reality of Muslims being attacked after 9/11… the numbers of casualties are much greater on the Muslim side. So no-one’s taking about justification apart from yourself.

JH: I’m asking you whether they were justified?

AI: Well why don’t you go and ask the terrorists?

JH: No, no, I’m asking you.

AI: No you ask the terrorists. Those who took out the operations, we should go to them and ask them why did you do so? And I believe that there was a video release by Mohammed Siddique Khan, after the operation he did on 7/7, he explained clearly why he did those, it’s not for me to justify or for me to condemn because it doesn’t make any difference. People are dead. Rather you should go to those who did the operation and ask them why they did it, and they said clearly ‘if you bomb us, we’ll bomb you back.’ That’s not about justification, it’s about what they said.

JH: Let me tell you…what the Channel 4 poll on British Muslims said that one in four British Muslims believe that the attacks on London last July were justified, and that’s the word, because of British support for the American-led war on Iraq.

AI: So what are you asking me for? You’ve got a clear poll, and you’re asking me about my opinion?

This particular exchange demonstrates that while legislation is passed outlawing ideas as well as criminal acts, it is at the same time quite easily circumvented and is therefore ineffective as well as sapping the state of moral legitimacy.

The great lesson was that this interview, a golden opportunity for Abu Izzadeen to spread his message, was effectively granted by the Home Secretary himself, who seems anxious to appear tough on the ‘war on terror’ (in the run up to the election of a new Labour Party leader and thus PM) at the expense of ratcheting up inter-community tensions, which can then be exploited by the likes of Mr Izzadeen through a mass media ever hungry to report controversy.

Previously in an article for the Sun, Mr Reid has made this appeal:

I appeal to you (the Muslim community) to look for changes in your teenage sons — odd hours, dropping out of school or college, strange new friends. … And if you are worried, talk to them before their hatred grows.

No doubt this might seem at first sight to be the right thing to do on the part of any parent faced with such an agonising eventuality, and yet this suggestion was met with some consternation by community leaders. Why should a generalised request be made to an entire community to police itself? It is stigmatizing to generalise, as this problem affects very few families. A contact within the police service told me that radicalisation takes place in a context where communication has already broken down, and parents genuinely do not know much about the details of their sons’ lives in these cases. The surprise of parents upon the arrest of sons on terrorist charges has been genuine. In the one case where family members were suspected of prior knowledge of an attack, that of Omar Sherif who carried out a failed suicide bombing mission in 2003, they were acquitted of all charges in 2005. In another case, a teenage boy was reported to the police by his parents and was subsequently given a two year jail sentence without any recourse to deradicalising interventions that did not require recourse to a prison sentence. This would hardly encourage parents to come forward if matters are not going to be dealt with sensibly. It is better to leave such matters to the professionals and allow serious cases to be dealt with quietly and effectively without creating a cause celebre for short term political gain.

A heavy handed approach from government allows the likes of Mr Izzadeen to press his case further.


[1] Charles Townshend, Terrorism (Oxford: University Press, 2002), 15.
[2] Quintan Wiktorowicz, Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 10.
[3] New Statesman, 30 January 2005, based on information from a confidential memo leaked to the journalist Martin Bright.

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