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Sunday, July 24, 2005

Engagement

In the Observer today, Andrew Rawnsley is absolutely right to focus on some of the underlying causes of the terrorism facing us in London and elsewhere. He outlines the reasons why Ministers need to be more open with the British public on this issue:

No one knows precisely what is going on in the heads of the successful and failed suicide bombers who have attacked London over the past fortnight. We won't know until we can explore their poisoned minds. What is absolutely certain is that no one, cabinet ministers included, can be absolutely certain that Iraq has nothing to do with it. It is just not credible.

It is also futile. That argument has already been lost with the majority of the public whose common sense tells them that the war probably has made Britain more of a target. Sixty per cent of respondents to a Communications Research poll for Sky News 'agreed' or 'strongly agreed' that there was a link between the war and the bombings. An earlier ICM poll for the Guardian had 64 per cent of respondents believing that Tony Blair bore some responsibility for the attacks on London because of the invasion of Iraq.

Trying to shout down anyone who mentions the war isn't working and doesn't deserve to work for the government. Ministers are going to have to fashion a more reasoned and sophisticated argument. It would be more grown up and plausible to accept that this was one of the many risks that had to be balanced when the decision to go to war was made, something which Mr Blair did acknowledge when he gave evidence to the Butler inquiry.

It is possible to think that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased the probability of terror attacks on Britain and at the same time believe that removing the Taliban base of al-Qaeda and the tyranny of Saddam Hussein were long-term goods that will ultimately make that risk justifiable.

I reckon the public can hold those two ideas in their heads at the same time. I think that many of the public already do. That would help explain the paradox that most people make a connection with Iraq even as they also award higher approval ratings to the man who took Britain into the war.

That respect won't be sustained by telling the public that they are idiots to think there can be any link with the war. This simply makes Tony Blair and his ministers look delusional.

Labour MP, Shahid Malik, writes today that we must confront head-on those few who preach violence and hatred in the name of Islam and, in doing so, poison the minds of vulnerable young men.

In his Observer article he states that "those of us in leadership roles must make it clear to our young people that in a democracy the way we express such feelings is by debate and through democratic institutions, not through violence. We must drag them into the political mainstream."

Unfortunately, the disillusionment with mainstream politics is not just felt by young Muslims, it is shared by nearly half of the electorate, if the turnout last May is anything to go by. Equally, those of us in non-Muslim communities have a responsibility to rein in our extremists as well. The growth of the BNP as a political force, the day-to-day low level racism that many Muslims encounter, the diatribes about asylum seekers and immigration from supposedly responsible politicians and journalists can all contribute to a siege-mentality, that neither explains nor justifies violence, but does contribute to the alienation that breeds discontent.

The opposition of most of the Muslim community to the war contributes to that discontent. It is not the cause of terrorism but it does contribute to the radicalism that makes recruitment to extremist causes easier. Whilst politicians publicly refuse to recognise that link then their attempts to bring young Muslims into the political mainstream will be met with scepticism.

The question of how we engage with these militant young Muslims is also highly pertinent. Abdul-Rehman Malik has a fascinating piece in the Observer in which he explains that task forces, meetings with moderate Muslim leaders and even fatwas against terrorist violence may not be enough.

Most of the titular leaders who gathered last Tuesday represent only fragments of a complex community - 56 ethnicities speaking almost 100 languages, by one count. Most are at their best when condemning terrorism. Few have been able to put forward a vision of British Islam that is convincing to the most marginalised, disadvantaged and prone to militancy. It's not a question of whether they deserve a voice at the table, but whether they are trusted by the Muslims they claim to speak for.

He says that it is foolish to speak of a 'Muslim community' as if it were undifferentiated and homogeneous.

In towns like Oldham, there are parallel communities - Pakistani and Bangladeshi, divided along ethnic and sectarian lines. How can any organisation claim to represent both communities nationally, when they are divided locally? Well-publicised visits to Leeds in the aftermath of the bombings to meet still more community representatives cannot make up for regular, sustained contact with Muslim communities at street level.

Even last week's welcome fatwas against terrorist violence should be regarded with caution. Fatwas are non-binding opinions and most imams in Britain do not have the power to interpret doctrine. Mosques have little actual authority in the lives of ordinary Muslims and the edicts of imams can be ignored or followed as Muslims wish. With most mosques not accessible to women and with more young people, like the bombers, seeking guidance outside them, Britain's mosques are caught in a crisis of relevance.

It is the street-level voluntary and community sector organisations that represent the British Islam's hidden civil society, working to meet the needs of neighbourhoods struggling with violence, drug abuse and teenage pregnancy. These are the front lines of the fight against militancy and desperation.

For Abdul-Rehman Malik this is not a hopeless task. He agrees that Muslims do need to confront militant ideologies, but argues that politicians should be careful before putting fingers in Islam's theological pie. "It was Ronald Reagan's policies in the 1980s," he says, "that strengthened Afghanistan's mujahideen, through their Arab backers, many of whom promoted a violent brand of Islamic liberation theology that eventually spawned al-Qaeda."

Muslims who think that the recent attacks have nothing to do with Islam are simply in denial, he says. Since the 1960s, a literalist, puritanical form of Islam has been gaining ground in Britain. Well funded and promoted in slickly produced manuals of 'correct' doctrine and 'authentic' practice, this aberrant theology saw to remove the celebration of difference and flexibility of law that lies at the heart of Islam's classical past. Gone were the interpretive ambiguities, replaced by certainties of right and wrong, good Muslim and bad.

It was under the watch of Muslim organisations that this form of Islam became increasingly popular and mainstream. The deteriorating political situation of the Muslim world, coupled with the rise of, at first largely peaceful, Islamist movements, has added a dangerous dimension to this reformist Islam.

Spurred by strident religious tracts and dreams of a utopian Islamic state, some doctrinal zealots have turned their thoughts to the ummah, the global Muslim community, seen not as a spiritual brotherhood, but reimagined as a political one in opposition to an immoral, imperialist and decadent West. Such literalism allowed for a hatred of 'the other' that was hitherto unknown in Muslim civilisation.

The community-based approach that Abdul-Rehman Malik advocates, by-passing figureheads, is not an easy option for politicians looking for quick fixes but it is one that needs to be vigorously pursued. Such a policy needs to be adopted without passing judgement on the Muslim communities as a whole. There is no better way to alienate young radicals than to allow them to believe that their concerns are not being listened to or that in attempting to reach out to them we fail to acknowledge and understand what it is that fuels their discontent.


Comments:
I think you mean Andrew Rawnsley, not Nick Cohen.
 
You are right. I have amended the entry.
 
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Perhaps grass roots engagement could be facilitated by the web, eh, Peter?

As for the Iraq war: it's clear that it contributes to recruitment propaganda but take a look at the Islamist agenda and the history of Islamist terrorism.

Just the other day an Indian court sentenced a terrorist for an aborted attempt to crash planes into the House of Commons and Tower Bridge on September 11, 2001. Before 9/11, before Afghanistan,before Iraq, we were already a target of Islamist terrorists.

And the Islamist agenda? It's not one that we can deal with politically. The establishment of a non-democratic Islamic theocracy that makes women second-class citizens and has the death penalty for homosexuals isn't something we can or should want to accommodate.

I think there's something wrong in your typifying extremist Islamists as 'theirs' and the BNP as 'ours'. Extreme Islamist terrorists aren't owned by Muslims and the BNP don't answer to me or you. Fascists should be opposed, wherever they come from, whatever their religion and ethnicity.
 
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