Category Archives: Terrorism

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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What's the link between integration and extremism?

Today, Ruth Kelly, the Minister for Local Government and Communities, launched a new Commission on Integration and Social Cohesion. It is due to report in June 2007, with a remit that was described by Lord Parekh on the Today programme this morning as ‘vague’:


Diversity brings key benefits to the UK — contributed to by existing second and third generation ethnic minority communities as well as recent increases in immigration. But it can also lead to tensions. As a nation we face questions about how different communities can live together, respecting differences, but also with a shared sense of belonging and purpose.

1. Within this context, the Commission on Integration and Cohesion will consider how local areas themselves can play a role in forging cohesive and resilient communities, by:

a) Examining the issues that raise tensions between different groups in different areas, and that lead to segregation and conflict

b) Suggesting how local community and political leadership can push further against perceived barriers to cohesion and integration

c) Looking at how local communities themselves can be empowered to tackle extremist ideologies

d) Developing approaches that build local areas’ own capacity to prevent problems, and ensure they have the structures in place to recover from periods of tension.

2. The Commission will undertake its work within the context of existing Government policy, for example on managed migration and preventing extremism. It will be grounded in an understanding of current and future patterns of diversity, but will focus on developing practical solutions for local communities based on the best existing practice.

3. It will also consider the needs of communities defined by a shared characteristic (such as race or faith), which may require regional or national solutions.

4. Recommendations for local areas will cover England only, but will consider issues which affect Scotland and Wales, and good practice from other countries.

5. The Commission will report directly to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and will be expected to deliver its findings in June 2007. [1]

The terms of Commission’s remit reflect the changed nature of the debate on multiculturalism after 9/11. The basic premise, reflected in this remit, is that an overemphasis on accommodating diversity has led to segregation between communities and to extremism, the policy codeword for Muslim radicalism and far-right activity (the police tend to include violent animal rights activists too in their definition). The Commission has also been tasked with working within existing policy on ‘managed migration and extremism’, which potentially prevents any radical rethinking. Additionally it is to find ways of applying local best practice nationally. This is standard practice for such commissions, but there is a danger that, given its remit, it may just end up rubber-stamping the ‘community cohesion’ policy initiatives of the last five years instead of scrutinizing and re-evaluating the whole approach to integration.

Britain is more diverse now than it was five years ago, the latest manifestation of which has been the inward migration of 427,000 Eastern Europeans who have come to work here in the last two years (to which a further 200,000 have to be added who do not have to register because they are self-employed, according the the current Immigration Minister, Tony McNulty). [2] In my part of Leicester, a new community of Poles settled in the last year: the local library now has two racks of Polish books, the local video store stocks Polish films, and Polish cafes and corner shops are springing up to add to the mix of mandirs, gudwaras, mosques, African churches and ethnic food retail outlets from Lithuanian to Gujarati that dot my local area. Modern urban Britain is more multicultural than ever.

This simple social fact means that politically multiculturalism is not dead, as Trevor Phillips, the head of the CRE argued back in 2004 — it can only be reinvented or reimagined. There has been a renewed emphasis on developing a common civic culture based on shared values, shared not just by individuals (as in the French model) but also as expressed through communities. Some would like to move closer to the French model, which does not recognise or accommodate the claims of groups. Munira Mirza of the Institue for Ideas argues that the very fact that government entertains group claims in the first place is divisive.

I think the government is aware that society is fragmenting into tribes…. But if they are talking about creating common values for different faith groups, what are they? The government’s approach is wholly preoccupied with Muslims and that in turn tells people that being a Muslim is the most important part of them. They should stop talking to people through the prism of religion and start talking to them as citizens.[3]

This argument comes close to the classic Rawlsian myth of the neutral citizen of the liberal state, who comes cultureless to public debate, which is guided solely by the dictates of reason. This is rather far removed from the mix of self-interest, principle, cultural baggage, reason and rhetoric that tends to prevail on all sides in public life as it really operates. Instead the government is trying here to strike a balance between diversity, or a recognition and accommodation of different groups, with the rights and duties of the individual citizen.

The language used by politicians of the liberal-left to describe these shared values is largely legal and civic in nature, rather than national and historical. It’s all about being hardworking, law-abiding and adhering to democratic values. This is rather uncontroversial in and of itself, but perhaps rather demeaning to those recent and not-so-recent migrant groups who tend to embody these values in a rather exemplary fashion for the most part. A more basic point, which has been reiterated recently by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, is that our values allow us to express our disagreements (i.e. we recognise our interlocutors as moral agents in our attempt to persuade them, seeing that they are amenable to moral arguments) rather than acting as mechanisms of flattening conformity. [4]

At the same time, this inclusive language is undercut by anxieties about the divisiveness of diversity. These tensions are characterised in communal rather than individual terms, and various initiatives have been undertaken since 2001 under the rubric of ‘community cohesion’ to get these communities together. The more facile or commodified aspects of multiculturalism were satirised back in the 80s as ‘samosas, saris and steel bands’: today’s ‘community cohesion’ might easily degenerate into ‘pancakes and popadoms’. More so than grand government initiatives, it is the art of conviviality, laced with large doses of pragmatism and laissez faire, that needs subtle encouragement.

It will be quite difficult to avoid the work of the Commission being overshadowed by the spectre of terrorism of the Muslim variety. British Muslims might fear that, indirectly, there is a discreet correlation being made between what is seen as their perceived lack of integration and the emergence of home-grown suicide bombers. The political mood this summer has hardened: there is more consensus, particularly in the press, that too many British Muslims have failed to integrate and are in denial about the challenge that extremism poses. But to posit this connection between a lack of integration and extremism, while not completely unfounded, is too simple. The profiles of some of the bombers indicate cultural and not just formal integration prior to their radicalisation. After all, Mohammed Siddique Khan was also known as ‘Sid’ to his English friends and was described by them as a ‘Beeston-lad born and bred’. [5] The more painful and subversive truth is that extremism may be as much an outcome of integration as the lack thereof. Perhaps the globalised nature of al-Qaeda-type terrorism has blinded us to the historical truth that terrorism has emerged from political conflicts within societies too. But one would hardly expect in our world of realpolitik that the Commission will undertake to pursue such a line of reasoning. Instead, the focus will most likely be on culture, not politics.

[2] Guardian, 22 August 2006; Times, 23 August 2006.
[3] Dominic Casciani, ‘The UK’s ties that bind’, BBC News Online, 24 August 2006,
[4] K. A. Appiah, Cosmopolitanism (New York: Norton & Co., 2006).
[5] Nasreen Suleaman, ‘The mystery of “Sid”’, BBC News Online, 19 October 2005,

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