Category Archives: war-on-terror

Playing the sectarian card: Britain’s Ministry of Justice is unfairly targeting Muslim prison chaplains

Yesterday, news came of a soon-to-be-released Ministry of Justice (MOJ) report, which will argue that Muslim chaplains are part of the problem of radicalisation in UK prisons. Given that the government has trailed the report in the Sunday Times (“Most jail imams teach anti-western values”, 07/02/2016, p.7) and the Mail on Sunday (“Majority of prison imams are ‘teaching anti-western’ values that promote gender segregation, study claims”, 07/02/2016) and played the sectarian card, it is a highly premeditated political intervention. Pointing fingers at chaplains of the Deobandi Sunni persuasion, who are said to make up 140 of 200 Muslim prison chaplains, a senior Whitehall official is quoted as saying that, “It is of great concern that the majority of Muslim chaplains in prisons propagate a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic scripture which is contrary to British values and human rights. Such imams are unlikely to aid the deradicalisation of Islamists in prisons and could potentially even make them more firm in their beliefs.” And in his major speech on prison reform today, the Prime Minister promised that he was prepared to make major changes if necessary on the basis of the recommendations of the MOJ report. The appointment of Peter Clarke as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons this month, Scotland Yard’s former head of counter-terrorism whom the government has previously deployed as a counter-extremism troubleshooter in the education and the charity sectors, signals the MOJ’s intent to construe prisons in the same light: as a hotbed of “extremist entryism”, with the potential to look at Muslim inmates without terrorism offences and Muslim chaplains in the same light as convicted terrorist offenders.

The Quilliam Foundation has stepped in to support the MOJ in identifying Deobandi prison chaplains as a particular problem. Usama Hasan, a senior researcher there, is reported by the Sunday Times as saying that “[t]he Deobandi movement is generally anti-western and anti-integration in its spirit … Imams in the prison system have to be more progressive and open-minded in terms of being supportive of modern, multicultural and cosmopolitan Britain.” The Foundation has prior form in this regard: its 2009 report on prisons, Unlocking Al-Qaeda, made essentially the same claims about Deobandi prison chaplains (pp. 33, 42, 101) and recommended a reduction in their numbers (p.108).

Reading between the lines, it seems as if Ahtsham Ali, the current Muslim Advisor to the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), is being set up as the fall guy for appointing many of these Deobandi chaplains. A damage limitation exercise on behalf of Ali is already under way to argue that he is neither an extremist nor of a particular sectarian persuasion by anonymous sources quoted in the Sunday Times. That is all very well, but what about some damage limitation on behalf of these Muslim chaplains who have rendered a great deal of public service in prisons for many years? Who is going to speak up for them?

It is naïve to expect fair play and even-handedness, or a reliance on evidence or the measured conclusions of academic research, especially where the incumbent minister, Michael Gove, is concerned. The news reporting and, one must surmise, the forthcoming MOJ report rely on the fallacious idea that the Deoband school is stuck in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, in the context of its original anti-colonial foundations (ignoring massive transformations since, both in the Subcontinent and the diaspora). It also seems to have discounted the findings of the three-year AHRC/ESRC ‘Religion and Society’ research study on Muslim chaplaincy in Britain (2008–2011) carried out by the University of Cardiff. That study acknowledged the conservative orientation of Deobandi chaplains but also found that pastoral practice in the challenging prison environment and working within a multi-faith chaplaincy team had a transformative effect:

Muslim chaplains working across most sectors learn new attitudes from their experiences. While they often tend to start with normative, didactic approaches that are directed towards their co-religionists, their experiences of working with all kinds of people in a multi-faith environment seem to inculcate within them attitudes of empathy, person-centredness, equality, broad-mindedness, openness, approachability, supportiveness, tolerance, non-judgementalism, non-directedness, compassion, patience and humility. (Gilliat-Ray, Ali and Pattison,Understanding Muslim Chaplaincy, p.175)

The Cardiff team also found that, when called to do so, Muslim chaplains provided genuine pastoral care for non-Muslim inmates. Furthermore, the study established that Muslim chaplains’ pastoral training and experience was having an impact on the mosque imamate in Britain, giving more profile and credence to the pastoral dimension in serving local communities. It also argued that the preponderance of Deobandi seminarians among Muslim prison chaplains was largely due to the huge investment in imam training that this denomination has made in Britain, more so than any other Sunni or Shia group.

Another factor that the Cardiff research team did not mention was that, after 7/7, the government wanted Muslim prison chaplains to have theological training as part of the professionalization of the sector and for them to possess the wherewithal to tackle the arguments of violent extremists. Again, this policy shift favoured Deobandi applicants who already had the necessary qualifications to hand. That said, the main formal role of Muslim chaplains remains pastoral and aimed at the spiritual welfare of the general Muslim prison population, yet they have made informal efforts to tackle extremist ideas within this primary remit, and have facilitated greater cultural awareness and understanding of prison staff about mainstream Muslim beliefs in the context of radicalisation (Gilliat-Ray et al, p.110). Overall, however, they have not been formally involved in theological deradicalisation efforts aimed at inmates with terrorist offences, for which outside specialists have been brought in with the collaboration of the authorities (HM Prison Service, Muslim Prisoners’ Experiences, 2010, p.35, Para 7.12).

For all those who agree that Muslim prison chaplaincy in Britain has been a growing and largely successful sector over the last two decades with a solid track record of public service and professional development, now is the time to make your voices heard. There is genuine fear that the government is now going to smear this sector as “extremist Muslim entryism”. Is the government going to brush aside all this dedicated public service and experience and start getting rid of people on the basis of lazy and pernicious sectarian labels? Where is the due process? Where is the expectation that professionals should be treated in a meritocratic way on the basis of their individual performances?

From my sources, I am hearing that many Muslim prison chaplains are feeling resigned to losing their jobs, and that, as public servants, they have no right to speak out if Mr Gove — who is ultimately their boss — is going to sack them. How terrible it is that even high-achieving Muslim professionals feel so isolated and demoralised that they cannot defend themselves against such baseless smears? And more importantly where will that leave the pastoral and spiritual care of Muslim inmates who sadly now make up 12% of the prison population? It is hard not to see this as anything other than institutional Islamophobia being sanctioned at the highest level, which could have really damaging and deleterious effects. Now is the time to speak up and set the record straight.

Update One: In mid-March, Middle Eastern Eye reported that Sir Michael Spurr, Head of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS)  wrote a letter to prison governors, responding to the newspaper stories, describing allegations of extremism as ‘disgraceful’. While he would await the recommendations of the MOJ report, he defended the existing vetting and recruitment process for Muslim chaplains and commended their service, and praised the ‘characteristic resilience and dignity’ of Ahtsham Ali in response to the pressure he had been put under.

A month later, some of the MOJ’s report’s findings were leaked in the Times (19 April 2016, pp.1, 6, 29 (£, paywall)), although it had not been cleared for release by Number 10. Apparently the report ‘pulled no punches’ and offers 69 recommendations, stating that NOMS suffered from managerial weaknesses when it comes to tackling extremism.  The headline conclusions leaked to the Times were:

(i) Extremist literature was found in more than ten prisons, and there was ‘little or no assessment of the suitability of Islamic literature before it was distributed to “impressionable minds”.’

(ii) Chaplains at several jails were found to have encouraged prisoners to raise monies for Islamic charities that had links to international terrorism.

(iii) Prison chaplains were judged to be under-prepared for counter-radicalisation responsibilities: ‘sometimes they lacked the capability, but often because they didn’t have the will.’

(iv) The report claims to have found evidence that chaplains from other persuasions felt ‘marginalised, bullied and intimidated’ by the dominant Deobandi viewpoint in prison chaplaincies.

Sir Michael Spurr and Ahtsham Ali as well as the Bury Dar al-Ulum came under renewed criticism in these Times articles.

Whatever the merit of these serious allegations, only minimal details have been leaked, so it is too soon to know how substantive they are. That said, it should be noted that the MOJ has again demonstrated its predilection for politically-motivated leaks, and that the political focus has intensified in the last month with the BBC’s two-part investigation ‘The Deobandis‘ on Radio 4.

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Telling or Censoring Our British Muslim Stories?

Self-Censorship

Can the moral panic about Islam in Britain today affect how we tell our own British Muslim histories? Yahya Birt reflects on his surprise about how much contemporary politics is casting a veil over even this relatively uncontentious area of Muslim cultural life.

In October 2014 I started a doctorate at the University of Leeds. I’m aiming to illuminate an important part of the complex history of post-war Muslim Britain – its political activism. We can understand Muslim community politics today better if we tell important parts of its history that date back to the sixties. I hope to find out more through a combination of archival research and interviews.

In June 2015 I began to contact people and organisations directly whom I had identified as holding important records. So far as British Muslim institutions are concerned, this is necessary because few organisational records have been professionally archived. Notable exceptions include the new East London Mosque archive and the records of the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking held at the Surrey History Centre.

One of my goals is to begin a discussion about how best to preserve these unarchived records with a view to finding workable solutions. There is some urgency because records are being lost. For instance, one important post-war Muslim women’s activist organisation neither holds its records nor a complete run of its magazine, which is tragic.

When I’ve approached people, their response has been overwhelmingly positive. One community statesman said he had been waiting to tell the story of his generation and pass on important records responsibly.

It was not surprising that another activist cautioned me about negotiating the contentious elements of this history. Differing accounts reflect the various perspectives of those who lived through those times. This is of course true of history in general and is hardly unique to our community. I can only strive to ensure that I portray each perspective fairly and accurately.

But what has really surprised me is that David Cameron is having an effect on my PhD. I didn’t expect the Prime Minister’s current drive against extremism to be affecting how British Muslims tell their own history quite so sharply. It is apparent in practices of silence and self-censorship.

The silence comes from the reluctance of some to talk about what they perceive as their radical pasts. This is particularly true of Muslim millennials – the generation that came to political prominence after 7/7. They regret what they see as a misspent youth, have no wish to advertise it now and prefer to pass over it in silence. This of course is their right. But it is revealing that the tolerance shown for youthful radicalism in British politics – either on the left or right – seems less likely to be forgiven or forgotten for Britain’s publicly active Muslims.

Self-censorship emerges for a similar reason, namely from the wish to preserve reputations to enable continued and effective public participation. Normally British Muslim organisations with long track records of community service hold commemorative events and may even mark a milestone anniversary with a publication about their history, contribution and achievements.

However, I was told recently that a community organisation dispensed with such a publication for fear that it might foster perceptions that it was “extremist”. This has become a live consideration in recent years for Muslim community organisations, most of which are charities, as the charity sector’s regulatory body, the Charity Commission, has new responsibilities and powers to tackle extremism.

It is shocking that the government’s counter-terrorism policy not only chills political dissent and free expression about contemporary issues but also how Muslim communities might preserve, record and pass on their own histories to future generations. It is very important that we consider the potential effects of silence and self-censorship and how we might find ways as a community to combat and overcome them in order that important aspects of our history are not lost forever.

Yahya Birt is undertaking a doctorate at the University of Leeds. If you have any materials or records relating to political activism in the British Muslim community between the 1960s and 1990s and wish to get involved then please contact him via prjjb AT leeds.ac.uk

This blog was originally published at the Everyday Muslim website here.

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by | August 21, 2015 · 9:55 pm

This Dance between “Extremists” and “Formers” is Past Its Sell-By Date: A Review of ITV’s “Jihad” Documentary

A lot of British Muslims who watched the Exposure documentary “Jihad: A British Story” on ITV last night probably did so with a powerful sense of déjà vu. But not for the emotional reasons one might think, not with feelings of collective guilt or shame. Rather I would hazard a guess that feelings of jadedness and ennui predominated instead. That sounds shockingly cynical, uncaring, even delusional, given that we have a very frightening and real problem of some British teens and even families going over the Turkish borders to join ISIS.

So why is there such a reaction? Well, we have been here before. Former extremists dramatize their personal stories to overshadow all of our community’s multifarious and untold human stories to feed a dominant meme of the post-9/11 world: namely, that this complex geopolitical crisis is really all about maladjusted Muslim men. The stories about the marginal Hizb ut-Tahrir and the minority Salafi movement have cast such a large shadow that almost nothing else about British Muslims in the eighties and nineties gets through into popular culture or the public debate nowadays, except perhaps the Satanic Verses Affair, which is problematic for different reasons.

Imagine for a moment that the retelling of Britain’s recent past is dominated by tales of splits on the hard left during the Cold War or the Militant Tendency and entryism, these being the only stories that get attention in popular culture and public life. Imagine even that parts of it were ghost-written by the Kremlin and sold as gospel truth to the British. It would be ridiculed and called out immediately. Let us at least pause therefore to consider why it is so much more difficult for a beleaguered minority community to call out a similar level of misrepresentation in any sort of impactful way. Its impotence at challenging this myth effectively explains why many British Muslims are jaded and bored by a documentary like this. Pretty much everyone I speak to in the community feels irritated and exasperated: these stories are not our stories and the resentment at being misrepresented by them is palpable.

The everyday Muslim is hidden in these narratives: she who never ran to answer the call for the caliphate or  jihad, or took up the condemnations of traditional Muslim piety as false innovation, polytheistic and the like, who never had to grow up and later regret a misspent youth. She is an invisible cipher, present yet absent, a cardboard cut-out, an intangible rhetorical device used to gloss over the serious ramifications of putting marginal stories on the centre stage rather than in their proper context. She who has to put up with endless reiterations of the stale dance between the “extremists” and the “formers”. No wonder she is less than impressed.

These stories get marketed heavily through the publishing giants or the media companies. Such high-level exposure of one’s personal story remarketed as everyone else’s story too is the golden ticket for a now well-trodden and lucrative path towards a future career as a wealthy and feted “former”. The pitch to government is the same: we have a unique psychological insight into extremism and we know best how to counteract it. That proposition might even be tolerable if such work were done quietly and sensibly, but these “formers” (with no scholarly credentials) often then take on the mantle of great “reformers”, tasked with dragging Islam kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. The message may have changed but the modus operandi often has not: it is often hectoring criticism from the margins of community, oddly distant from the very people it seeks to transform and save from their benighted condition. Such a transition from “extremist” to “former” does not appear to be informed by repentance. For the most part, the “formers” are still angry with themselves and contemptuous and detached from their community. They do not forgive their community its many failings and weaknesses or love it despite its human frailties: they want to break it and transform it in their image, an image that is itself prey to their own nomadic, confused and tortuous journeying in search of belonging and a home.

However, the striking thing about Abu Muntasir in the documentary was that he has not forgiven himself. I know that there will be cynics out there but for me his tears were unquestionably real, and not staged. His sorrow about his role in the jihad is not new: it has been well-known for the last ten years in the community and was reported in the national press. And, publicly at least, this is rare among “formers”. They are for the most part still self-righteous, vocal and angry, and not repentant, humbled and happy to work quietly to make a better world.

My biggest objection to the narrative of the programme is that it provided no context for Abu Muntasir and his erstwhile camp followers. In the story of the British jihad, it is true that he was a pioneering figure and that he was not a minor character. He did have influence but only precariously so in the setting of a complex and disaggregated scene of small jihadi peer groups and networks in ferocious competition with each other. But it is a gross exaggeration to describe him as the “godfather of the British jihad”, as the filmmaker Deeyah Khan did. The British jihad was never centralised. It did not have a pyramidal mafia-style power structure. Yet this is the moniker for Abu Muntasir that the British and the international press has now run with. The mobster overtones were reinforced by filming these middle-aged British Muslim men with lighting and backdrops strongly redolent of how former gangsters lamenting their misspent youth are shot on camera. The ex-criminal visual tropes were all there. One has to ask why Abu Muntasir should acquiesce to this rebranding. This is a critical point, just as it was when the ex-Hizb ut-Tahrir members who formed the Quilliam Foundation sold themselves as central to the story of radicalization when their group was in reality quite distant and distinct from the various strands of Salafi jihadism.

In the documentary, another student of Abu Muntasir’s Alyas Karmani (disclaimer: an old school-friend of mine) did a lot to frame these stories as ones primarily about psychological maladjustment, for instance, sexual frustration (again, a theme that has cropped up over many decades to belittle all kinds of Muslim political agency, violent or non-violent, and discounted by terrorism experts such as Marc Sageman). I would not want to deny there are psychological issues but that these should not be assessed in such a way as to preclude politics, whether that is micro-, organisational, community, national or global. And it seems to me that to preclude (or even disparage) a political sensibility is one of the tacit preconditions for becoming a “former”. Yet such an apolitical stance fails to recognise let alone negotiate a complex multipolar world of clashing interests and conflict, a world after American hegemony. It not only infantilises “extremists” and “formers” but is also a roundabout way of occluding Muslim political agency in general. It absolves “the West” by removing it from the story entirely. Indeed, the psychodrama played out in the documentary between “extremists” and “formers” perpetuates a fiction that this story is only about a clash within the House of Islam.

The documentary went one step further in decontextualizing and depoliticising the story of the British jihad. It used the eighties and the nineties, the years before the al-Qaeda network became politically significant, to talk to our contemporary situation where a younger generation of jihadi millennials is being drawn to ISIS, which itself is in deadly competition with an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. However, Da‘esh, unlike al-Qaeda, is a highly centralised organisation that runs a proto-state the size of Britain. ISIS is offering an alternate society not just endless armed struggle like al-Qaeda did. It is neither smart nor wise to preclude politics and historical context to such an extent that we miss what is new and important about this generation or the appeal of ISIS.

So if we Britons care about our shared future we cannot therefore allow the stale waltz between “formers” and “extremists” to predominate, especially if it precludes any sort of intelligible political analysis or historical context. We need to be less tribal about narrow causes and narrow solutions, but that is easier said than done when big forces have become entrenched and self-interested in perpetuating and propagandizing one narrow solution or another. We all really need to step back and have a more honest and searching debate if we are to have any chance of getting purchase on the perplexing and frightening problem of ISIS’s current success and appeal.

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The Perversity of Tom Holland’s Argument that ISIS is authentically Islamic

The history writer Tom Holland has waded into the argument about how Islamic the Islamic State is, originally sparked by an article in the Atlantic. His argument is that their rhetoric is full of pious references to scripture and that they faithfully apply the rulings to be found in the classical jurisprudential (fiqh) texts. In other words, Da‘esh is very Islamic; in fact, Islamic in a way that is too embarrassing for Muslims to acknowledge. Instead, “apologists” apparently muddy the waters by denying that ISIS is authentically Islamic, an exercise that mirrors the futility of the Catholic Council of Trent trying Canute-like to hold back the tide of the Protestant Reformation.

There are at least four reasons why this line of argument is simply perverse and dangerous.

One argument is political. Holland simply takes ISIS’s claim to be Islamic at face value, and buys into their propaganda. In doing so, he thereby gives succour to the narrative that ultimately Islam is the problem, and that the West and Islam are irreconcilable and doomed to remain in conflict. He goes beyond the well-worn language of good Muslim versus bad Muslim of the “War on Terror” years, and is closer in spirit to neoconservative “clash of civilisations” rhetoric (and ironically to ISIS’s bipolar worldview).

Another argument is historical. Holland reanimates the tendentious notion that the history of Islam can be understood through the history of Christianity, almost in a deterministic way. Thus Salafis are Calvinists and Sunnis are Catholics, and neither can hold back the tide of reform, violent or otherwise. Of course this simply elides some important differences. To name two obvious ones, that Islam has no equivalent of the Magisterium, and notwithstanding the Ottomans that Reformation Europe was not subjected to such intense extra-continental foreign invasion and occupation as nearly all Islamdom was during the era of European colonialism. We can enable a more serious debate by recognizing the claim that Islam needs to replay the history of Christianity and of Europe is ideological, rather than dressing it up as serious history.

A further argument is hermeneutical, as Holland’s position does away with any notion of orthodoxy. All Muslims can read the sources and their interpretive literature and stand in equality to them: they can all interpret them and so we cannot privilege one reading over another. But this conflates mundane ability with authority. It ignores the fact that when Muslims read the text they do so as part of a socially-embodied community of believers that worries over its present condition. This community extends into the past by its attachment to authoritative readings, exemplars, institutions, sensibilities, aptitudes and symbols, and it looks forward in arguing over what might constitute the good in the future.

For Muslims, what constitutes the good lies somewhere in the dynamic interplay between Muslim scholarly opinions and Muslim public opinion in general. Each major grouping in Islam has a notion of regulative authority and possesses an orthodoxy that shapes but does not set in aspic the tone and terms of the debate over what constitutes tradition, authority, and the good. On the other hand Muslim publics challenge their respective religious authorities on the grounds of justice, relevance and adequacy, and in the final analysis it is the umma (the body-spiritual of the believers) that regulates what is orthodox through weight of opinion.

In other words, the umma cannot be dictated to from the fringes. And on this basis the fact that a murderous cult has captured territory in Iraq and Syria and claims the mantle of Islamic normalcy and even the caliphate is neither here nor there. Rather the point is that virtually everyone has rejected ISIS’s claim to be Islamic – even other deviant extremist groups such as al-Qaeda have done so. What Tom Holland is doing is denying the right of Muslims to police deviancy and extremism in the name of Islam and is misconstruing the regulative mechanism of orthodoxy itself – Muslim public opinion – as mere apologetics.

The more salient questions that Holland alludes to but obscures are how can Salafism regulate its extreme jihadist elements and how do Sunni Muslims regulate Salafism? This is really another kind of question, namely what kind of regulative health do Islamic orthodoxies currently enjoy? I don’t want to pretend that anything other than a long and detailed reply would do justice to such large questions, and I am only going to provide the briefest of answers here.

I would posit the argument that there is a very loose regulative hierarchy of orthodoxies in Islam (see the attached diagram from S.H. Nasr’s The Heart of Islam, p.111). The Spectrum of IslamDespite their differences, their respective notions of the tradition, authority and the good bear enough of a family resemblance of overlapping congruities to recognize each other as bearers of the same living tradition. This is recognized in a de facto way, in notions like that of the ahl al-qibla or the issuance of Hajj visas in a non-sectarian way (for the most part). There are even convocations, such as the Amman Message in 2004, which provides an example of a relatively rare formal statement of this minimal reciprocal recognition. This particular initiative used the Sunni language of legitimate jurisprudential differing to recognize eight schools as orthodox: the four Sunni, two Shi‘i (Ja‘fari and Zaydi), the ‘Ibadi and the Zahiri (the latter a circumlocution for Salafi).

But it is global and mundane social processes of acclimatization and living together rather than official proclamations alone that would prove more potent. Sunnis could accommodate Salafis if there was greater mutual amity and recognition in everyday interactions along with some reduction in the militancy of Salafi thought and action. More formally, for Salafis the trade-off would be Sunni acknowledgement of them as a discrete school of law, probably to be construed as an outgrowth of late Hanabalism, under which Ibn Taymiyya and his students became primary referents. The prospects for this seem distant but less unrealistic currently than does rapprochement between Salafis and their militants, engaged as they are in a war of anathematization. This hot war of words extends to the Salafi jihadis themselves and the fallout between al-Qaeda and ISIS in 2014; it is always your former allies at the moment of betrayal who are more hated than anyone else.

Having said all this, it must be recognized that the regulative health of Islamic orthodoxy is under pressure from far more than Sheikh Google or Wahhabis, as Holland argues. In no particular order, the disruptive effects of colonialism, the intellectual challenges of European modernity, the rise of Muslim nationalism, the nationalisation of the endowments (awqaf) system that debilitated independent higher Islamic education, the shift to print from scribal culture, the change to promulgated law from law as responsa, the emergence of Islamic movements that challenged the ulema’s role, and general intellectual stagnation, have all been factors in weakening orthodoxy. Shi‘i orthodoxies being both more centralised and less historically tied to imperial state structures have tended to survive the transition to modernity more successfully than Sunni orthodoxy has. Today, both Muslim publics and their scholarly elites are under the continuous pressures of internecine national rivalries and new “Great Game” proxy wars in Islamdom that stoke sectarian conflict more so than it does encourage living together or reconciliation. To my mind, however, any right-thinking Muslim regards the weakening of orthodoxy as a serious challenge and she would regard the giving up any regulative moral role for the umma in policing its militant fringes as suicidal.

The fourth and final argument is contextual. There is a kind of pious thinking on the part of some atheists and believers alike that is wilfully blind to factors like the failure of politics, and the recourse to terrorism and invasion. In a recent interview with Vice, Obama has broken with normal “War on Terror” rhetoric to acknowledge the “unintended” causal connection between the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq and that of ISIS, its bastard child. Yet it’s all about decontextualized ideas with Holland. Years into the War on Terror that’s an unsustainable position for a history writer to take. Seemingly the invasion and occupation of Iraq has less bearing for Holland than it does for Obama. Sustained asymmetric warfare over time creates brutal outfits like ISIS, who have made the propaganda of the vile deed an essential element of their credo. But of equal concern is that we have normalized a continuous state of emergency, a normalization that reduces the Muslim enemy to a subhuman status. There are continuous attempts to make legitimate their rendition, detention without charge or trial, torture, bombing, hunting by drones, and so forth. The massive projection of Western military force requires continuous war propaganda, one strand of which argues that our foe’s enmity towards us lies essentially with his Muslim identity and in nothing else.

By asking Muslims to own up to ISIS being authentically Islamic, Tom Holland is asking us to surrender Islam to ISIS. And that is wrongheaded, dangerous and perverse and serves no good outcome that I can see.

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Just how big a threat is "Islamic" terrorism?

How big a threat is “Islamic” terrorism (note the scare quotes) to Europe? It’s a valid question, and not one that we should assume we already know the answer to.

Since 9/11, politicians have had a ready answer and portray terrorism as the primary, existential threat, even in an age of global warming. For Tony Blair it was “the greatest twenty-first century threat”, for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “the greatest threat facing democracies”, for George W. Bush, “the greatest threat this world faces”, for the former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, “no challenge is greater”, and for Vladimir Putin, the former Russian President, “the greatest threat to world peace”. [1]

From 7/7 until May 2007, there have been around 25 statements on UK threat levels from MI5, “Whitehall sources”, the police and politicians to the national and foreign press. Al-Qaeda “supporters” ranged in number from 200 to 120,000 based on unscientific polling; Al-Qaeda “terrorists” from 200 to 4000; and numbers of plots, networks and those who trained in camps were variable. In May 2007, Lord Stevens gave two contradictory figures of 2000 and 4000 UK terrorists. [2] Even if Gordon Brown now determines that such announcements should be formally made to Parliament, it may be some time before politicians will be judged to have handed these announcements responsibly.

Facts and statistics have a way of undermining such rhetoric that, some have argued, is more designed to promote a politics of fear and a “war on terror” in which securing peace and stability for some is underwritten by ongoing military intervention and the planetary curtailment of fundamental freedoms for others. Certainly the two Interpol reports assessing the terrorist threat across Europe makes for sobering reading in this regard. In 2006, one out of 498 terrorist attacks were “Islamist”; in 2007, four out of 583: that’s rather less than one per cent of the total. [3] By contrast, nationalist separatism is statistically a much more pressing terrorist problem in Europe.

The rejoinders might be that these isolated attacks aim at mass civilian casualties, there is no gentleman’s agreement of pre-warning that did exist, albeit imperfectly, in Northern Ireland and that no political endgame exists if terrorism is still understood as the outcome of local grievances, anti-imperialist insurgencies and frustrated causes of nationalist self-determination. The global franchise of al-Qaeda, while it feeds on these, is the child of the Internet, globalisation and the devolution of the state monopoly on the use of large-scale violence in the name of a deterritorialised ummah. We therefore face a failure of the political imagination to think through what a better endgame might be when the dominant metaphor is that of an endless struggle against an abstract noun, “terrorism”, that allows the rulebook on conflict resolution to gather dust on the shelf.

But is al-Qaeda an existential, first-order threat? For a generation that lived through the Cold War that seems overblown. The Interpol figures allow us to make an assumption and to ask a question. The assumption is that intelligence penetration into frankly amateurish terrorist cells is better than we are often led to believe and that prevention is working rather effectively. On the radio programme Desert Island Discs in 2007, Dame Elizabeth Manningham-Buller, the former Director-General of MI5, said that, even if patchy and incomplete, intelligence was being garnered.

This assumption then leads the argument for prevention in two possible directions: firstly to say, as governments do, that such initiatives are measured and equitable or secondly to question whether preventative measures are fair and proportionate even if they are always necessary. Again the Interpol figures show that the impact of anti-terrorist measures outstrips the actual threat level. For instance, in 2006, a third of all terrorist arrests involved “Islamists”; in 2007, a fifth did. In 2007, 44 per cent of terrorist convictions featured “Islamists”, mostly for membership of proscribed groups, financing, recruitment and propaganda. Only a fifth of these related to preparatory acts of terrorism.

Let’s add on top of that the observations that too much media coverage links Muslims to terrorism and cultural backwardness (as the recent survey by the Cardiff School of Journalism on the British press between 2000-08 showed) [4] and the rightward shift in European politics stokes and reflects anti-Muslim sentiment, then we can hardly operate in a political context amenable to question if preventative, legal and policing measures have been proportionate or fair. Indeed, for a European Muslim to pose such a question is to risk being branded as an apologist, but – believe it or not – there can be other motivations at play like the desire to protect fundamental liberties and the concern that discriminatory treatment feeds the sort of alienation terrorist recruiters like to exploit.

To get it right, the question – how big is the terrorist threat? – should always be asked.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

A version of this article was first published by Emel Magazine, Issue 47, August 2008.

Notes

[1] C. Abbot, P. Rogers and J. Sloboda, Beyond Terror: The Truth about Real Threats to Our World (London: Rider, 2007), 5. The authors (part of the Oxford Study Group) view climate change, competition over scarce resources, the marginalisation of the majority world and global militarisation as more pressing security threats.

[2] Steve Hewitt, The British War on Terror: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism on the Home Front since 9/11 (London: Continuum, 2008), 81.

[3] The EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Reports (TESAT) 2007 and 2008 are both available online.

[4] The Cardiff School of Journalism’s report is available here: http://www.channel4.com/news/media/pdfs/Cardiff%20Final%20Report.pdf

Update (10th Aug 2008)

S. Lodhi kindly pointed out an inaccurately reported figure from the 2007 Interpol report. It should have been one “Islamist” attack out of 498 (not 424), TESAT 2007, p. 13, Table One. Thanks, Yahya

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Conversion and Betrayal

Today we live in an age when the boundary between two allegedly monolithic entities, “Islam” and the “West” appears to be rigid, politicized, ring-fenced. So the question arises as to the motives of converts to Islam. Are they converting to faith or to an anti-West political cause? Such questions get asked after terrorist incident involving converts like Richard Reid, Don Stewart-Whyte, and Germaine Lindsay.

Such examples reinforce the view that conversion to Islam is an act of joining an anti-West political cause rather than one of the world’s great religions. If conversion to Islam was dubbed “turning Turk” to the Elizabethans and the Stuarts confronting Ottoman naval power; “turning Terrorist” is its twenty-first century variant.

It can be observed that cultural boundaries between these two so-called worlds can, with time and circumstances, grow more or less rigid, or conversely become more or less permeable, with conversion seen as less threatening, as less remarkable. John Walker Lindh, dubbed “the American Taliban”, provides an iconic illustration of the tensions around conversion today.

Lindh converts to Islam in 1997, and sets out for the next few years to master Arabic and to memorise the Qur’an, in trips to the Yemen and secondly in Pakistan, to a simple madrasa in the NWFP. Exposed to the idea of global jihad, he signs up with Harakat al-Mujahidin for basic training in May 2001 and is then sent to Afghanistan in  to fight jihad there. In June 2001, Lindh, now fluent in Arabic, is sent to one of the Arab traning camps, al-Farooq, run by Bin Laden. Fighting for the Taliban he idealised against the Northern Alliance, Lindh never fires his gun once. He is shortly captured and incarcerated at a basement in the Qala-i Jangi near Mazar-i-Sharif. Of 330 men, only 85 come out alive, Lindh included. Lindh comes to global attention in a CNN interview just after he is captured but not yet in full American custody, as “the American Taliban”.

At the end of his trial, all charges relating to terrorism were dropped and Lindh was charged with carrying a rifle and grenades for the Taliban, for which he was sentenced to 20 years, and forbidden by a court ruling to speak Arabic in prison. In his final court statement Lindh repudiated terrorism, and al-Qaeda’s ideology and approach.

Lindh was the first prisoner to be “Abu-Ghraibed”, to be photographed naked and bound, blindfolded with the word “sh*thead” written across it, to be denied access to the Red Cross or to a lawyer. His was the first test case for the Bush adminstration’s creation of a legal state of exception by which international and constitutional rights were suspeneded.

Frank Lindh, John’s father, says that his son was born Muslim, always focused and disciplined from a young age. Throughout his journey to and through Islam, Lindh comes across as driven, but also as passive, as innocent to the complexities of the wider world around him. Lindh comes across as a majdhub, drawn to faith, to good practice, almost as if by a bestowal of Divine grace. He has an idealism, a divine foolishness, a fatal incuriosity for the practicalities of the world and the messy realities of politics. Tom Junod’s remarkable prison portrait leaves the unmistakable impression of itmi’nan, of Lindh being at peace with himself, in serenity at his lot in prison, reliant upon his Creator and constantly prayful. He is never known to miss the fajr prayer or to fail to offer his tahajjud devotions in the night. As the prison librarian he devotes himself to ancient Arabic texts. As a constant target for violence and abuse, Lindh cannot afford to leave himself in unsupervised parts of the prison. As Junood, puts it, despite being described as a global villian, as a modern-day “renegade”, “in response to what America has done to him” Lindh “has become more Islamic — more himself, and a better Muslim.”

Lindh is portrayed as an insider, the innocent American abroad, naive to political realities, touched by a simple profound faith of the heart, that divorces his intentions from his acts. But Lindh is also an outsider, one who has took up a task and a choice that few converts have: the cause of jihad on behalf of the Taliban. He is the terrorist, one for whom the basic dignities  and human rights afforded a prisoner of war and a citizen were suspended.

Lindh’s story indicates that choices away from liberal self-enlightenment can only be seen as acts of betrayal. But betrayal of what? Of enlightened morality and sound reasoning, as conversion enacts a reversal of the process of reformation and enlightenment. Such a choice might have been seen, in kinder times, as naive or eccentric, but today are seen as subversive, defiant, traitorous. Converts to Islam must be deconstructed as moral persons to make safe the boundary around liberalism (and indeed Islam), marked by words of rejection and acts of violence, such is the dangerous ambiguity of free choice, of acceptance and betrayal, that the convert represents.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

This article first appeared in Emel Magazine, Issue 44, May 2008.

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Thought Crime comes to Britain

Boyd Tonkin says it much better than I could, but the case of the Lyrical Terrorist shows that people can now be locked up for what they think, what they write and what they read, download and print out from the Internet. How can we have come to the position whereby the first response of the state is to send an angry young Muslim to jail for what they think, write or read? This is madness. Better that she had received some kind of counseling, advice and guidance, talking her out of her violent fantasies. If she had planned to move from the realm of fantasy to reality and was part of some plot, it would have been entirely different. That the law no longer seems to recognise the distinction is truly chilling.

Boyd Tonkin: The scribblings of dreamers are catharsis, not crime
Let’s hope no anti-terror officer ever browses in that banquet of butchery, ‘The Iliad’

The Independent, 12 November 2007

http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/article3152363.ece

Thought crime has come to Britain. We knew that in principle, as wave after wave of legislation has pushed the scope of anti-terror laws from deeds and plans to words. The case of Samina Malik, the Heathrow airport worker and jihadi fantasist convicted on Thursday under the Terrorism Act, confirms it beyond reasonable doubt.

True, the legal core of the prosecution’s case lay in the Islamist horror handbooks (“How to Make Bombs” and so on) found on her computer – although there is no evidence that she ever lifted a finger to act on them. But the mood music of insinuation played out entirely around the poems, the scribblings, the postings of the self-described “Lyrical Terrorist”. With the whole of Catholic Europe desperate to dethrone her, Elizabeth I famously said that “I would not make windows into men’s souls”. Now the British state, which politely declines to raise the issue of human rights when it entertains the Saudi autocrats who have funded the export of jihadi extremism around the world, makes those windows, kicks them in, and tells young Muslim hotheads that every stupid brainstorm may send them straight to jail.

Besides, if trite bloodthirsty verse of the sort that helped to convict Malik agitates our law-makers so much, perhaps they should start their crackdowns in higher places than a bedroom in Southall. Take George Bush’s new best buddy, Nicolas Sarkozy. Every day, this patron of terrorist lyrics permits – no, commands – the singing of Rouget de Lisle’s “War Song of the Rhine Army”, better known as the “Marseillaise”. And what does every rugby team or village fete bellow each time the chorus comes around?

The final couplet’s invitation to massacre the counter-revolutionary infidel could hardly be clearer: “Let impure blood drench our fields!” Even closer to home is an inflammatory anthem crammed with sanguinary images of “scarlet standards” and the “martyred dead”, sung by a British political conspiracy once dedicated to overturning the entire economic order of society.

After a spine-chilling evocation of “martyrs” who died in ideological battle, the sinister ditty (“The Red Flag”) explains why this movement’s symbol is “deepest red”: “ere their limbs grew stiff and cold/ Their hearts’ blood dyed its every fold”. Truly chilling stuff. Surely, the leader of an organisation who sanctioned the singing of such a grotesque hymn to sacrificial death should at least have his hard drive examined by our Thought Police?

The glamour of bloody strife in a higher cause has appealed to dreamers and drifters since the first tribal bard brought news of shattered limbs and spurting arteries from the first battlefield. And if Malik’s gory imaginings rendered her a “complete enigma” to the Recorder of London, then much of western culture – which has often gloried in sanctified slaughter – must remain a closed book to him. Let’s hope that no anti-terror officer ever bothers to browse in The Iliad, that banquet of butchery served up with a relish that has excited writers for 2,500 years: “Achilles slit open his liver/The liver spurted loose/ he reared and jammed his lance through the man’s ear”.

From Homer to 50 Cent, lonely and frustrated youngsters have sought to compensate for the limitations of their lives via the vicarious thrill of spoken or written violence. Malik’s own non-Islamist inspirations included Tupac Shakur, the rapper who lived the “thug life” as well as singing about it. His posthumous stock as a poet of the gang-ridden ghetto streets rose so high after his death by shooting in 1996 that Harvard University hosted a conference on his work. I find Tupac’s literary charms pretty resistible (“I want to piss on his head/ I want his family dead” and so on, ad nauseam) but the usual defence of gangsta rap deserves a hearing.

This material acts as catharsis, not incitement; as purgation and not provocation. Puerile it may be, but the bellicose doggerel of the “Lyrical Terrorist” herself looks like a feeble attempt to graft hip-hop style onto the Islamic tradition of counter-crusading warrior verse (“Move to the front line/ To chop chop head of kuffar swine”). Of course, the Muslim world came rather late to the poetic pleasures of holy gore. The medieval Chanson de Roland, another pillar of European literature, boasts enough smiting and slicing of the Saracens to keep the “Islamophobia” hunters busy for weeks. As for her beheading riff (“It’s not as messy or as hard as one may think/ It’s all about the flow of the wrist”): this feels rather like a sexual fantasy gone astray. And we know that cults of holy war and martyrdom tend to thrive in cultures where sacred violence leads to honour but sexual expression leads to shame.

Whenever police officers, politicians or our not-so-secret service chiefs decide to scare us again, they summon up the current menace to the “British way of life”. Curiously enough, the “Lyrical Terrorist” case has helped define the features of that way of life that urgently need defence. They include a sense of proportion and a sense of the absurd; an unflustered sympathy with human oddity and eccentricity; and – these days, above all – a common-sense refusal to be stampeded into repressive hysteria by every youthful folly or fantasy just because it wears a headscarf or a beard. How the real predators must rejoice to see our blinked enforcers open up a ring-binder full of unwisely scribbled desires and dreams, and cry “Wolf!”.

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