Tag Archives: Islamic extremism

To understand the politics of Islam you must look at its history

Islam has become one of the hottest topics in politics worldwide.  And yet the religion is little understood by non-Muslims. Instead ill-informed narratives gain currency, even amongst the better educated. It is a hard subject to get a grip on, but BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend, on Sunday broadcast an excellent item on combating Islamic State (IS). Each of the three introductory interviews was illuminating, but that with Washington Islamic history expert Haroon Mughal made things a lot clearer to me.

As with most areas of current politics, we need to get a historical perspective. Most educated people will know that Islam has two main denominations, Sunni and Shia, which arose from a split in the 7th Century over who was the prophet Mohammed’s successor as caliph. That, of course, remains an important fault-line, as followers of the two sects (and variations within) are intermingled in Iraq, Syria, Lebenon, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Yemen, to name the main hotspots. The split may be compared to the Christian split between Catholic and Orthodox, but geographically it is much messier. Apart from in Iran and, to a lesser extent, Iraq Shias are in the minority – but they are politically more coherent because there have reasonably clear hierarchies and, perhaps, they are used to a greater level of challenge.

The Sunni realm too used have clear hierarchies and orthodoxies, sponsored, in early-modern times, by the Ottoman Turks, who held sway across most of it; there was even a (nominal) caliph, until the Ottoman Empire fell in 1922. But this orthodoxy was subject to challenge, and a Reformation of sorts took place in the 18th Century, led in particular by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Like the Christian Protestant Reformation, it urged a back to basics creed, that rejected the corrupt ways that orthodox Sunni religion was practised. There are two key things to know about Wahhabism, which is now the orthodoxy in Saudi Arabia. It emphasises the separateness of true-believing Muslims; others are condemned to hellfire and not worthy of consideration. The second is that it takes inspiration from the customs of early Arab days, most notably in its strictures on sex, women and crime.

Mr Mughal’s critical insight was that, unlike for the Christian Reformation, there was no Counter Reformation – a reinvigoration and counterattack by the orthodox. At this time the Ottomans were on the wane, and the orthodox structures were too weak to mount such an effort. That leaves a vacuum at the heart of Sunni Islam. There is a huge amount of scholarship which can be used to counter Wahhabism, but efforts to do so are weak and disjointed. Imams tend not to be up for the sort of intellectual challenge required. Meanwhile the Wahhabists have a clear message and are expanding their appeal. The ground has been prepared through official Saudi sponsorship of mosques and schools, which has spread throughout the world, and undermined orthodox teachings. Now more sinister forces are promoting Wahhabi ideas to the disaffected, in ways that a re socially corrosive.

There are two important groups of Wahhabist derivatives, both of which have a clear political agenda, that some refer to as “Islamism” . There are the violent ones (I don’t want to call them “Jihadis”, since it is important to preserve non-violent aspects of jihad, just as there are non-violent uses of “crusade”, a very similar idea), promoted by terrorist movements like al-Qaeda and IS. They have a millenarian interpretation of the scriptures: that the end of the world is nearing. They extend the Wahhabist ideas of separateness to the practice of violence against non-believers, not least Muslims that do not share their binary world view.  There are enough sacred texts and historical episodes from Islam’s formative years to allow a coherent narrative – even if their practices go against a mass of Islamic scholarship. This narrative of violence has a clear appeal to the disaffected looking for some kind of heroic way out of their dead-end lives. The second group is known as Salafists; they share much of the millenarian credo of the terrorists – but they are non violent. They advocate the withdrawal of believers from any non-Islamic political structures. Salafists are much more numerous than the terrorists, with a lot of strength in Egypt and Tunisia, but their doctrines of withdrawal reduce their political weight. Some politicians have tried to play them off against the terrorists, since they are able to argue the case for non-violence from a Wahhabist perspective. But this serves to entrench the basic, and socially corrosive, ideas of Wahhabism.

The critical question is whether orthodox Sunnis can organise themselves into putting together a vigorous, international counterattack on Wahhabism, and to win back the battle of ideas. The hope is that a confident, cosmopolitan orthodoxy can be established that offers a middle way between a godless  materialism that denies Islamic heritage, and the backward looking ideas of Wahhabism. This seems to be what Mr Mughal was advocating.

But such a Counter Reformation faces formidable challenges. The first comes from political power. One group that would love to promote such a “respectable” version of Islam are the military backed regimes of Arab countries, like Egypt. And yet the incompetence and corruption of these regimes is one of the things that gives the Wahhabist creeds a lot of their appeal. Any Counter Reformation has to keep its distance from such willing official sponsors. Another challenge, of course, is the rejection of Saudi sponsorship; we may hope that low oil prices will reduce this malign influence.

But the biggest challenge surely is to develop ideas that are compatible with the modern, cosmopolitan world. This means rejecting the paternalism of the current order -allowing young people more freedom to consort with the opposite sex and choose their own marriage partners, and to offer women more freedom and power all round. To say nothing of more tolerant attitudes to gay sex. This is a huge jump for many, older Muslims. To them the paternalist ways are something worth fighting for, and their religion is bulwark against dissolute modern ways.

Is their anything to learn from what has happened to Christianity? In Europe established churches are fighting a losing battle with materialism. They cannot find a viable middle way between an empty modernism and being perpetually behind the Zeitgeist. They remain the standard bearers for socially conservative values – which is perhaps why they have a strange obsession with sexual morals. This has parallels with modern Islam.

Still, in America it is a different story. Somehow American churches are able to find compatibility between traditional beliefs and the modern world. We may associate them with conservative strictures on abortion and gay sex, but they have moved on in the question of love and marriage, and the empowerment of women. American churches are fragmented and highly competitive. They have no choice but to adapt to the modern world, or else they will lose out to neighbouring churches, constantly juggling a mix of social conservatism and modern values. To my knowledge Muslim imams and mosques haven’t taken on such a competitive approach – but I don’ think there is any institutional barrier to it. This bottom-up way offers more hope, surely, than some kind of top-down institutional one based on learned scholars and high level conferences.

But, assailed by an ultimately futureless and destructive Wahhabism on one side, and the temptations of godless materialism on the other, orthodox Sunni Islam must change itself somehow.


Charlie Hebdo – time for cosmopolitans to show leadership

As the dust settles from the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, an ugly picture emerges. The consensus that holds society together is breaking down. We may all agree that murder is wrong, but we disagree on how to combat extremists, how to live with foreign cultures and, indeed, the scope of free speech. The cosmopolitanism that prevails amongst society’s elite is challenged. And yet the only solution is to embrace cosmopolitan ideas yet further.

On the one hand we have the Islamic extremists themselves. We haven’t learnt much new here. Their alienation is such that they feel at war with western (and not just western) states, and they have ceased to see their opponents as human beings. The Paris assailants drew a distinction between “civilians”, whom they should not attack, and others, including journalists and Jews, whom it was OK to kill. This will no doubt aid the process of self-justification in their own circles – but the contradictions are too obvious to everybody else. The extremists appear to have momentum, especially led by the success of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. But their attacks, and their revelling in the power of life and death, should alienate them from the rest of society, outside the failed states in the Middle East and Africa.

We could take comfort from that if it wasn’t for dark forces working within the rest of society. Foremost amongst these is the rise of nativism in Europe and America. Nativists are intensely suspicious of any foreigners in their land. As we come to the end of the era of easy economic growth, and as technology destroys swathes of stable, clerical and factory jobs, faith in the idea of progress wanes. Nativists hark back to an earlier age that seemed simpler. They blame immigration for its undermining. Islamic immigrants have become a particular focus of suspicion. Ideas of a clash of civilisations, even a war, take currency. Nativism seems particularly strong in places with small immigrant communities, such as Clacton in England or, on an altogether larger scale, Dresden in Germany. But large, unintegrated ethnic minority communities provoke similar fears in neighbouring communities too. This accounts for the rise of perhaps the most important nativist movement: the National Front in France.

In Britain the rise of nativism is led by Ukip. Originally  Ukip focused on Britain’s membership of the European Union, but it struck electoral gold when it shifted to opposition to immigration. The mainstream Conservative and Labour parties started to panic as Ukip ate into their core support, giving nativism further impetus. Tabloid newspapers stirred things up. As a result public attitudes to ethnic minorities have soured in much of the country. The idea of “freedom of speech” is now used to defend the open expression of Islamophobic views – though the idea that such freedoms should extend to the expression of Islamist or anti-Semitic views is not aired.  The outcry of the Charlie Hebdo killings has given such nativists and their prejudices a real fillip.

Which makes matters worse. The entire Islamic community finds itself under attack. People say that all Muslims are to blame for extremists, and should apologise for them. Now the Muslim communities must face up to some important questions about how they are to progress and integrate into a modern world – questions that many are reluctant to confront. But ignorant prejudice serves only to alienate them, and prolong the sense of grievance on which the extremists feed.

And so we face the prospect of an unravelling.  Globalisation is integral to the western way of life. Just think of the rise of the British Empire and the cities that have been built on the back of the African slave trade in the 18th Century if you think it is anything recent. Large immigrant communities are simply a continuation of that process, in an actually much more benign way. Denying globalisation is as futile as Britons denying that their country is European. Nativism is a road to nowhere, or rather a road to poverty and conflict.

Instead we must embrace the values of cosmopolitanism. These are articulated most clearly by the Ghanaian-born author Kwame Anthony Appiah (as in Cosmopolitanism – Ethics in a world of Strangers). We must accept that our culture is the product of many cultures melding together in a process that has being going on for millennia, and which is destined to continue. There is no such thing as cultural purity, and no point in trying to defend it. This is not the same as relativism, which backs away from defining any kind of right or wrong ethical values. It means embracing ethical values which accept that all the globe’s inhabitants are part of an “us”, even though we recognise stronger affinities with some rather than others. People of different cultures should enter conversations with each other, and accept that their outlooks may change as a result.

Cosmopolitanism has always been embraced by elites, especially in the west after the nightmare of Fascism, which showed the futility of its opposite. That accounts for the many cosmopolitan aspects of our institutions. But now it is vital that it is taken up by all of society: amongst working class communities and ethnic minorities too. Here in London, perhaps, this process is quite well advanced, though hardly complete (I’m afraid that Islamophobic attitudes remain commonplace). Different communities are forced to mingle. We go to school together; we work together; increasingly we have children together. Elsewhere, though, we have just taken a backward step.

But I remain hopeful. The young are more cosmopolitan than their elders. Our cultural and business leaders, by and large, remain firm. At a time when elites are under attack for being out of touch, it is time for them do what elites should: to show leadership.


The Arab world must find its own way

Two weeks ago I wrote a long essay on Israel, which focused mainly on the Israeli government and its wider network of support. But Israel is simply an actor in a wider drama centred on the Middle East. Today I want to look at this wider drama, and to focus on the Arab world. That is because this drama has drawn in the Western democracies, and we need to see a bigger picture. My main message is that we must find a way of stepping back, and letting events take their course, apart from clear humanitarian interventions.

Who are the Arabs? The narrow definition encompasses the native peoples of the Arabian peninsula, and their descendants, such as the Bedouin tribes that are scattered across a wider area. But I will opt for the wider version, for whom the Arabic language and Islamic religion are the defining characteristics. These are spread across North Africa from Morocco to Egypt, and then through “Greater Syria”, which includes Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, and then, of course, the Arabian peninsular.

The heyday of these Arabs was an era that I will loosely call the Caliphate, when, in the Middle Ages the Arabs could claim to be the centre of the civilised world. They constituted an empire ruled by people who could trace their succession back to the great Prophet. This empire collapsed, most notably with a Mongol invasion and the sacking of Baghdad in 1258. In due course the Arabs came to be ruled by the Turkish Ottoman empire. This empire weakened progressively through the 19th Century and finally collapsed in the First World War. It was replaced by period of European colonialism of varying degrees (deep in Algeria, largely absent in the central Arabian peninsular). The modern era begins as this colonial rule was shaken off, but succeeded by a series of states whose boundaries were defined by the colonial powers.

Things have not gone particularly well for these countries in this modern era. In spite of their great inheritance, their economic development has lagged. While they do better than the African countries south of the Sahara, Turkey and the European parts of the former Ottoman Empire have mainly done better. They have usually been ruled by strong men in highly paternalistic and corrupt regimes, with or without token references to democracy. Many have been marred by civil war, of which the worst were in Lebanon, Algeria, and, ongoing, in Syria. The western powers have been unable to resist the temptation to meddle, most egregiously with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

These wars mark a struggle for identity after the Ottoman and colonial eras. This has two aspects in particular. The first is the obvious one that Arab countries want to become strong, prosperous countries, like their European neighbours – but have unable to do so largely through the ineptitude of their rulers. Some Arab countries are very prosperous, of course, courtesy of oil and gas resources. But high average wealth in these countries masks otherwise underdeveloped economies. This underdevelopment has caused frustration and a crisis of confidence.

Enter the second theme: the Islamic faith. The Arab world is not completely Islamic, but Islam is central to their identity. And so, with the failure of secular, nationalist dictatorships, Arab peoples have been drawn to an identity that is more explicitly based on their faith. Fundamentalist interpretations of the faith have been gathering momentum, marked by a return to traditional practices, such as the closeting of women and brutal punishments. Fundamentalism has been promoted by Saudi Arabia, using its oil wealth. This has been based on their highly traditional Wahhabism. But this has spiralled out of their control, as extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda and Isis have taken these ideas to a logical conclusion, but without reference to the Saudi state, which they regard as corrupt and hypocritical. I will call these groups Jihadis. We need to be a little careful here. The Christian equivalent of the Islamic doctrine of Jihad is a crusade. The correspondence between the two terms is rather good – conveying as it does anything from an entirely peaceful campaign to deal with mundane problems like litter, to a full-blown war. Jihad itself is a perfectly functional part of the architecture of Islam that has much positive potential. But not if it translates into eulogising violence, as the Jihadis do.

But the Jihadis are by no means the only form of militant Islam, and Wahhabism by no means the only fundamentalist one. Three other groups are worth mentioning. The first is based on the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement of Egyptian origin which includes Hamas, which rules Gaza and which is propagating war against Israel. This has its origins in the early to mid 20th Century. It has developed highly secretive practices, from generations of evading state suppression. This makes the movement particularly difficult for outsiders to grasp. One of the unfortunate aspects of this is that it impossible to take the statements of their leaders at face value. They have a long record of saying one thing and then apparently changing their minds – something which undermined their credibility when they briefly took power in Egypt under President Morsi. A further Militant movement is based on Shia Islam (all the rest are Sunni); this includes the highly effective Hezbollah in Lebanon. Shias are a minority in the Arab world (though a majority in Iraq), but they draw strength from backing by Shia (but non-Arab) Iran – and this movement is clearly well-led and effective. Finally it is worth mentioning Salafism, a Sunni fundamentalist (but not militant or Wahhabi) movement particularly strong amongst the rural poor cross North Africa. Salafists advocate a return to highly traditional Arab practices, but their methods are peaceful persuasion and politics, not the violence of the Jihadis.

Ranged against this assortment of fundamentalists and militants are the Arab strong men, who seem to be able to rally all those who fear the politicised Islamic movements. They make full use of state structures and institutions, like armies and secret police. By and large they remain in power. But at the cost of corruption, oppression and continued economic underdevelopment.

The problem for us as westerners is that there is almost no room for movements that we find congenial. Ordinary Arabs (to generalise absurdly) seem to see the western powers as part of the problem. Westerners seem both decadent and contemptuous of the Arab Islamic heritage. Their identification with Israel and colonialist days does not help. The fundamentalists see democracy as a means of seizing the reins of power, but not as a thing of value in itself. The strong men see democracy as in a similar but opposite light: a threat to their regimes.

So what are we supposed to do? The strong men are asking us for military support, because they brand the Jihadis as a terrorist threat to the West. They have support within our security services, for whom these militants are seen as the main enemy. And yet the Jihadi threat to the West seems to be diminishing. They gain little from their terrorist assaults in Western countries. They would rather their recruits came to the Middle East where the real war is being waged. Excessive Western involvement simply increases the flow of recruits. Now that our troops are finally pulling out of Afghanistan, the Western effort should mainly focus on propaganda – to show disaffected Muslims that these wars are brutal affairs that are not their business, and to persuade them of the opportunities they have as constructive members of our own societies. We need to move away from the idea of war. Funnily enough, the media savvy of Jihadis like Isis is playing to our advantage. It is easy enough to use their own material against them.

Is there hope? I think there is. As the Western powers withdraw, it is becoming clearer to Arabs that their problems are largely of their own making – and that a culture of victimhood, however much it is apparently justified, is getting them nowhere. Fundamentalist and militant Islam is step in the wrong direction. They need to forge a new understanding of the Islamic religion that is more workable in the modern world, but still confident of its heritage. One that embraces democracy, accepts diversity and celebrates the equality of women. We might call it liberal Islam. But we liberals have to be very careful. The Arab peoples need to feel that these ideas are a natural progression of the Islamic faith – and not an import. We can’t help them with that. Something like this a slowly taking shape in Tunisia, and we have to wish them well. I firmly believe that the tenets of Islam are susceptible to this form of interpretation.

The Western world must stand ready to provide humanitarian support for the inevitable series of disasters that the region faces. We should provide logistical support to any efforts that promote a peaceful resolution of conflicts. But we should back off from military interventions and seeing the Middle East as one front of a “War on Terror”. It will take time, but the Arab peoples really need to work this one out for themselves. And the sooner they understand that their fate is in their own hands, the sooner any resolution will arise.


The West has become irrelevant in the Middle East

Along with most of my politically conscious compatriots here in Britain, I am deeply shocked by the massacres perpetrated by the Egyptian security forces on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood over the last couple of days. A deeply shocking, and depressing, revelation came from an EU mediator in a BBC interview yesterday. Apparently he was very close to achieving a negotiated way forward, before hardliners in the Egyptian government overruled the people he was negotiating with to press ahead with the violent crackdown. This episode deserves more attention that it got (I have failed to find any report of it after searching both the BBC and Google, so quickly have the news media dropped the story), as it is very revealing about both Egypt and the Middle East at large. We in the West have become completely irrelevant.

What we had hoped for in the Arab Spring was the emergence of democracy in the various Middle Eastern states, with a working relationship developing amongst the main political factions, with workable, effective governments emerging over time. Perhaps a bit like Portugal after the 1970s. We cling to the hope of this now in just Tunisia and Libya. What has emerged instead is a conflict between an Islamist faction and the state security apparatus, neither of which is interested in liberal democratic government. In Egypt both factions have decided they should get what they want by ignoring the liberal factions and Western standards. They are following a path taken by Algeria; the uprising in Syria is evolving in a similar direction. In Jordon and Morocco the state security apparatus is in control but toy with democratic reforms to keep Western sponsors sweet. In the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula the state security apparatus is not even doing that. In Iraq democracy is gradually being pushed into the background as a similar dynamic emerges. Israel/Palestine and Lebanon are much more complex, but some of the same themes can be seen there. The real battle is between a powerful state security apparatus and an Islamist protest movement, which shades into insurgency and outright guerrilla war. Neither side is interested in democracy, and no other civic or foreign forces can persuade them otherwise.

The first disappointment in Egypt is that the Islamists failed to embrace democracy. Rather they saw democratic institutions as a means of seizing power for themselves. They seemed to have no concept of governing by consent, or of building democratic institutions. President Morsi’s democratic mandate was weak, as the electoral system failed to give voters a proper choice. There is no properly elected parliament, and the Muslim Brotherhood showed no real interest in conducting proper open elections for them. Their attitude to democratic institutions seems rather similar to that of Lenin or Hitler: a means to an end. This seems to be part of a wider pattern of similar Islamist movements in the Middle East – notably Hamas in Gaza, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Their implacable opponents are hardliners in the security establishment: armed forces, police and murky intelligence organisations. In Middle Eastern countries these forces in most cases, including Egypt, have become monstrous and unaccountable. They are usually incredibly incompetent at their alleged purpose of maintaining law and order, as this week’s massacres showed. They effectively control most Middle Eastern governments, though often with civilian or royal heads of state nominally in charge. They have no time for liberal democracy. The sort of accountability implied by such a system is anathema.

More liberal forces did flower for a while in Egypt, allying with the Islamists to temporarily turn the generals out of power. But the Islamists were not interested in a real partnership. There was a small hope that, after the military coup, the Brotherhood might again see that it was in their interests to team up with the liberals, and concede real power to them. That, no doubt was the substance of what EU mediators were trying to negotiate. But the security hardliners have now crushed all hope of that. And now ordinary Egyptians are faced with a stark choice. Whose side are they on? The Islamists or the security forces? After the Brotherhood’s disastrous period in power, many will choose the latter.

And there is practically nothing that we in the West can do to influence events. The best hope for democracy lies in the Islamist forces coming to understand that they need and should respect democratic institutions, even when it proves inconvenient. They can then build a secure partnership with secular liberals that will command broad popular support. This is what happened, eventually, in Turkey as the Islamists embraced the idea of Turkey being part of Europe. Instead the Islamists in the Middle East and Africa seem to take their lead from their implacable opponents in the security state: it is all about getting your hands on the levers of power.

All we can do in the West is help nurture the small shoots of liberal democracy as they emerge, through mediation and advice, as much as through money and aid – as the EU did with Turkey. Meanwhile we are condemned to being utterly helpless. Neither side needs us.




The Woolwich murder: time for solidarity not demonisation

A week ago a British soldier, Lee Rigby, was murdered in Woolwich, in southeast London. His murderers (subject to due process of law…) were two British black Muslim converts, who had taken up Jihadist views. Their methods were as low tech as possible, and they were happy to be caught, though they may have wanted to be killed by police snipers. For them the point was publicity. In this they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The story was promoted massively by all media outlets, and it is still getting a lot of coverage – quite out of proportion to other deaths, of civilians in London, or of soldiers on active service. The whole episode has stirred passions, and the results are disturbing.

At first I tried to retain a sense of proportion on the affair. It was pretty horrid, but more a random act of violence than a systemic threat to our way of life. But I seem to have missed something; the episode has hit Britain’s pressured working classes in a sore spot. For reasons that future historians will debate, soldiers have become a working class icon here in Britain (and perhaps the US as well). Their travails in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to symbolise the general pressures that working class people face: sent to fight wars nobody understands, and generally let down by the elites that sent them there. They are referred to as heroes.

This seems very different to the ways soldiers used to be regarded. The heroism is based on the dangers that the soldiers face and the endurance they show, not on the number of enemy that they kill. There was a bit of embarrassment when Prince Harry, after serving in Afghanistan, confessed that his actions would have killed people. Soldiering is about meting out violence; but we don’t really talk about that aspect of their work. There are occasional efforts to demonise the enemy, but it all turns out to be a bit complicated when many of your local allies appear little better. It is perhaps interesting that I don’t remember anything like this public regard for British soldiers serving in Northern Ireland, though I do remember having those feelings myself. The violence they inflicted on people that looked very like us, with some inevitable innocents, was altogether more visible, and made people feel uncomfortable.

Be that as it may, the target of last week’s attack could not have symbolised the working class icon better. And the reaction has been anger. The nasty islamophobic English defence League (EDL) has seen its popularity rocket. Attacks and threats on Muslims have soared. This seems to be a mainly working class phenomenon, though middle class prejudices are perfectly visible too, judging by the odd Facebook comment.

This is very depressing. The demonisation of Muslims and the Islamic religion is grossly unjust. All it can do is push more young British Muslims, suffering similar working class pressures, into extreme views. But demonising the EDL’s supporter doesn’t help either, and quickly takes on an air of class prejudice.

The fact is that most of British working classes, of all colours and races, are under pressure. Technology is killing traditional working class jobs and pressuring wages; housing costs, at least in places where there are jobs, are steadily rising. Benefit and public service cuts add to the pressure: though their effect on the working classes as a whole is complex – resentment at people living on benefit runs high amongst working class people. The education system often lets them down.

There are no easy answers. Stoking up a sense of victimhood, and throwing in the odd benefit or tax credit entitlement, is a road to nowhere, though advocated by many Labour politicians. By and large we need people to take more control of their lives and education, not blame everybody else when things go sour. The education system is slowly being fixed, though not all the government’s ideas are helpful. We need more social housing in the southeast, building on greenbelts if necessary. That’s hard and the government is doing much too little, though I don’t hear much convincing or constructive coming out of the Labour side either.

But it helps to understand and to listen. About the only shaft of light to emerge over the last week was an act of reconciliation made by a mosque in York to EDL protestors. Tea and biscuits made the headlines, but the real progress was made when the two sides got into dialogue and discovered their shared interests. Too many people advocate intolerance and confrontation (“standing up for what you believe in”), which only promotes misunderstanding and division. What is needed is true working class solidarity across race and religion to press for changes that will improve life in all our pressured communities.


Tony Blair is both right and wrong, but mostly yesterday’s man

Well I was going to turn the radio off this morning when John Humphreys was interviewing Tony Blair to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  But I couldn’t go that far, and I caught about half of it.  I’m glad I did because it has helped clarify my views on confronting terrorism.

Mr Blair’s main argument is a lot more subtle than it is often made out to be.  He dismisses his critics as believing that the Islamic extremists (and I think that term is a fair one) are not a lunatic fringe who can be contained using normal security methods.  They are in fact the extreme end of a much larger spectrum of people who agree with their virulent anti-western narrative.  Since they have such a large hinterland of people who will support them and from whom they can recruit, they will simply grow stronger if they are not vigorously confronted.   He completely rejects the idea that the West’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have made things worse, since he says the terrorists would have gathered strength anyway.  What provoked 9/11? he asks.  The Al-Qaeda threat is of much longer standing than than these Western interventions.

And he is partly right.  There is a big hinterland for the terrorist groups, and an even bigger group of people who think that there are two sides to what is going on, rather than it being a simple battle between good and evil.  But from the same facts I draw a different conclusion.  This is not just a battle between just goodies and baddies; there is a huge neutral middle ground whose support is decisive.  These are mainly Muslims, and they live all over the world.  If these people come to the conclusion that the terrorists are a bad thing, who will make their aspirations more difficult to achieve, then Al-Qaeda and its like will be isolated and disappear.  If, on the other hand, they accept the clash of civilizations narrative, their support, even if mostly tacit, will keep the terrorist threat going forever.

There is a security campaign against the terrorists; but there is also a hearts and minds campaign for the Muslim public.  Unfortunately, if we are too uncompromising on the first campaign we will not win the second.  It is important to occupy the moral high ground.  The tragedy is that Tony Blair, and the American neocons, think they are occupying this higher ground.  In fact they have been systematically provoking the Muslim public.

And the important thing to understand about the hearts and minds campaign is that the ground shifts.  What gave Al-Qaeda real strength in its early days was the US intervention in the first Gulf War in the 1990s, which led to the stationing of US troops on Saudi soil; this seemed an insult.  It probably didn’t mean a great deal to the wider Muslim public, but it was enough for a determined group of Middle East activists to get started, mainly from Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  Israel, Iraq and Iran didn’t really come into things.  This was enough to lead to 9/11.

But the American response to 9/11 changed the game.  The outrage initially gave them the precious high ground, but they made cynical use of it.  Two problems stand out: the campaign in Iraq and taking sides with Israel.  These may not have been all that relevant to the Al-Qaeda threat in 2001, but they became so because the the strength of the American intervention.  The Muslim public became angry with America and its allies, and the extremists were able to pump up the clash of civilisations narrative.  They started to draw in many more recruits from right  across the world, including Britain.

But the hearts and minds battle has not been one-sided.  The terrorists’ very success has exposed the weakness of their case.  They now spend more energy killing other Muslims and creating civil disorder in Muslim countries than they do on attacking the west.  They have no real answers to the problems that trouble so many Muslims: dis-empowerment and poverty.  The west is retreating from Iraq and, ever so slowly, Afghanistan.  The British coming together after 7/7 has not played to the extremist narrative.  The western response to the Arab Spring has shown it to be a bit less cynical than people thought – comparing favourably with China and Russia, say.  In Libya Al-Qaeda and the west turned out to be on the same side.  Israel remains a running sore, of course.

Of course we need a robust security response to the terrorist threat.  But it can do more harm that good.  Assassinations and suspending the rule of law should not be part of it.  The terrorists may not be moved by this – but they will increasingly lose the support of their hinterland.

We have to move on.  Mr Bush’s and Mr Blair’s response to 9/11 was a huge mistake, and we can’t expect them to acknowledge this.  But they are yesterday’s men.  We’ve learnt a lot.  A new generation of leaders is showing more subtlety.  Slowly, we are learning how to manage the terrorist threat.