Back in July 2005, when four British Muslim youth killed 52 people on the London Underground, the British government and Muslim organizations sought to find common ground in the fight against terrorism and extremism. For a moment, the quotes from leaders on all sides were indecipherable and it seemed as if the terror threat had finally peaked.
One year later, both have failed to live up to their sides of the bargain and suspicion has continued to grow. From last year�hasty killing of Jean Charles de Menezes to the staggering ineptitude of last month�Forest Gate raid, the Metropolitan Police and its chief, Sir Ian Blair, have been left stumbling. Non-Muslims are still spooked by provocative protests by extremist Muslim groups over the Danish cartoons and continued media focus on militant imams such as Abu Hamza al Masri. And efforts by Muslims to extend the debate to Muslims at large have been sporadic, perhaps reaching those who are already socially and politically active but not those who are reclusive or hardened.
British society sees the lack of progress as a sign that Muslims don’t care, don’t understand, or worse, sympathise with extremists. Muslims have been faced with calls from Yvonne Ridley, the British journalist who converted to Islam after a brief period of captivity by the Taliban, to withdraw collaboration with the police where fellow Muslims are concerned. And continued empirical evidence shows no abatement of extremist tendencies among certain sectors of Muslim youth. One year after 7/7, both sides have retreated to their corners of the ring and sensational tabloid headlines continue.
Labour MP Sadiq Khan from South London made the first anniversary assessment, claiming Muslims had been paraded to Westminster like the “grand old Duke of York – marching all these talented British Muslims up the hill of consultation and dialogue, only to march them down again.” Khan also insists that only 3 of the 64 recommendations put forth by Muslim leaders have been implemented (though many of the recommendations made available were to combat Islamophobia rather than extremism).
Prime Minister Tony Blair countered this assertion, saying that while government had a role to play in combating terrorism, Muslims had to do more to counter the tendencies toward extremism within their own communities. “The Government has its role to play in this but, honestly, the Government itself is not going to defeat this,” he said. “If we want to defeat the extremism, we have got to defeat its ideas and we have got to address the completely false sense of grievance against the West.” His office noted that 19 of the 27 recommendations that involve the government are being acted upon (though a full public enquiry of 7/7 is a notable exception).
There is a little bit of truth in all these assertions – but a lot of defensiveness as well. The parties differ primarily in their interpreted balance of responsibility between them, the agreement on a constructive approach and possibly even the definition of extremism itself.
For their part, Muslim leaders, despite their efforts, have failed to relate effectively to wayward Muslim youth, where extremist sympathy may continue to simmer. Pleas for government help in combatting extremism reinforce views from angrier Muslims that their leaders are “selling out” their interests for political gain. Ultimately, the measures that will carry the most weight are those that are built from Muslim consensus and free of government influence. Ashqar Bukhari of MPACUK (an advocacy group rather than a representative council, and thus freer to speak its mind) adds that too many Muslim leaders are “incapable or wilfully refusing” to tackle extremism and did not involve enough young British-born Muslims. And recommendations for tackling the poverty, lack of education, and social exclusion that allow Muslims to fall prey to extremists never seem to factor in anywhere.
Tony Blair, on the other hand, insists that Muslims counter the sense of grievance against the West, which he asserts is wrong. This approach would conveniently mesh with his efforts to stem criticism of Britain�presence in Iraq. But grievances alone, perceived or real, are not a crime, and Blair is being disingenuous in stating that it is the cause of the problem. Grievances against Western foreign policies, especially those aimed against the Muslim world, do exist and – more importantly – are shared by even greater numbers of non-Muslims. More than half the populations of the US and Britain have consistently opposed the continuing war in Iraq in recent years for reasons that have nothing to do with terrorism.
This should also be an example to Muslims of the reservoir of public goodwill available to them without making the common error of causal (if explanatory) links to terror. The foreign policies of Britain and America towards the Muslim world can be opposed on their own merits (or lack thereof), as evidenced by everything from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo to dodgy dossiers and Fahrenheit 9/11. Arguing that foreign policy is a root cause of terrorism has come across to wider society as a form of blackmail. Indeed, to some Muslims, that is exactly what it is intended to be.
More accurately, the root cause of terrorism stems from the inability of its proponents to deal with grievances in a lawful and civilized manner. Where it affects them, this is the point where Muslim community responsibility should take over. Bukhari�other contention that Muslims need to teach their youth not to resort to terrorism may seem shocking to non-Muslims, but it is not fundamentally different than the need for any parent to teach their children not to slash each other with knives in schoolyards or beat late night commuters to death in lonely train stations. The tendency towards violence has to be countered everywhere.
As for the police, while excessive raids into Muslim households (872 arrests have led to 3 Muslim convictions) may feel good to the British public (as long as the failure catch any real terrorists remains unpublicized), there needs to be a realization that the British government�side of the bargain ᠳperior intelligence and police work ձ(s been largely a sham (the trumped up ricin terror plots are one egregious example). And to Muslims, the implications of intentional police heavy-handedness and threats of arbitrary anti-terror laws that strain civil liberties come off as a form of blackmail as well.
Seen in this way, the Forest Gate raid may finally be the last look over the cliff for both Muslims and the British government. The excessive resources that police have poured into faulty intelligence have grated on everyonemӠpatience, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Another mistake in the vein of De Menezes will (and probably should) disrupt the security services that every citizen needs. Yet most Muslim leaders have wisely seen Ridley�castle-moat approach as a recipe for never-ending conflict.
The call for increased Muslim participation in the police and intelligence services is one example of the integration that needs to occur at all levels of British Muslim society so that “them” can become part of “us.” Extremism should be broadly defined to include the legitimization of the murder of civilians ᠩcluding elsewhere in the world, despite our sympathies α7thout resorting to an indefensible ban on “glorification.”
Non-Muslims should be reminded and convinced that small groups of offensive protestors donɭԠreflect the sentiments of mainstream British Muslim society. And to the extent that real crimes may be plotted within their communities, Muslims must stem it (many, in fact, quietly do), if for no other reason than the good name of their religion. The very distinct campaigns for Iraq and Palestine can continue on regardless.
In their response to the Forest Gate raid, victims Mohammed Abdul Kahar and Abul Koyair were notably gracious, asking only for an apology and insisting on full accountability, while repeatedly asserting that they were (and intend to remain) good citizens who would not otherwise undermine the police from their responsibilities.
This key difference between accountability and demonizing, which can be applied to both Muslim communities and the British government in appropriate measures, signifies an important distinction in trying to deal with the problems of terrorism and Muslim relations constructively. Tabloid editors may not value that enlightened approach, but the rest of us should.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.