In the ongoing debate on terrorism, nothing is more polarising, nothing sends political discourse into a tailspin more than the contention that foreign policy is one of the root causes of terrorism. As much as it is a favourite slogan among Muslims, it sends skeptics of Muslims and Islam into a near xenophobic rage. After the verbal fireworks go off, the dialogue fades until the next Islamo-crisis. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Although such linkage began mostly after 9/11, it resurged again in full force after the recent attempted car bombings in London and Glasgow. In the blogs and newspapers, the assertion was made back and forth and back again. Two hundred Muslims gathered in London on Saturday to discuss what to do about terrorism and the official (sensible, yet obvious) advice to the public was that Muslims should report suspicious activity to the police. But inside, “foreign policy was mentioned over and over again,” according to one participant. “Whatever the government or some MPs say, it is a factor that is fuelling extremism.”
The Muslim reliance on this argument is understandable because it’s absolutely true. With religious, ethnic, and cultural links to the scores of countries subjected to Western “interests,” evidence is both anecdotal and explicit. From Mohammad Siddique Khan’s explicit mention of Britain’s involvement in Iraq and elsewhere, to Osama bin Laden’s assertion that he doesn’t have a problem with Sweden, you can’t get it more direct than from the terrorist’s mouth.
The counterargument is that Muslims are being cynical and selective with the foreign policy argument. A blind eye to Darfur has been mentioned, as has the sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq and elsewhere. Palestine, despite the very real injustices committed against it by Israel, commands a disproportionate attention among Muslims when compared to either of the above where far more Muslims die (many at the hands of other Muslims). Palestine, in particular, has become a political Mecca, towards which Muslims direct their attention every day.
Still, these two modern struggles – against terrorism on one hand and unjust foreign policy towards the Muslim world on the other – are valid and necessary. But like matter meeting anti-matter, when these distinct issues are mixed together, everything disintegrates. Muslims around the world are on one side, Western governments and their non-Muslim citizens on the other, hurling accusations in equal measure until they’re incapable of seeing the grain of truth each possesses.
More importantly, what’s the end game of the foreign policy-terrorism connection? As an argument, it is incapable of altering the foreign policy it condemns. The masses of people who could sway government decisions will not accept challenging the injustice of foreign policy in Iraq or Palestine by accepting the threat that an injustice (terrorism) will occur to them. Yes, the link between them is true, but the foreign policy argument is a non sequitur. In fact, it is the mother of all non-sequiturs.
Linking foreign policy to an increased risk of terrorism isn’t merely a casual observation. The only possible course of action is to change those unjust policies. But it’s hard to influence people this way, especially when the majority of citizens who hate the Iraq mess and want a way out don’t want to appear to capitulate to terrorism. Tony Blair and George Bush linked the threat of terrorism to foreign policy because fear of terrorism helped promote their grand foreign policy designs. How on earth will using the same fear dismantle them?
When citizens – especially Muslim ones – start saying that terrorism is blowback for foreign policy, those who conflated the two in the first place know that it suits their purposes as well. It “proves” the government’s point that “if we don’t get them there, they’ll get us here” – even if everything is twisted around in reality. The public fear of terrorism (promoted by the government) will not be soothed with more fear of terrorism (as argued by the blowback proponents). The answer is not to buy the government’s logic, but to maintain a principled alternative.
Incidentally, this “serves you right” approach to terrorism is far less prevalent in the US than in Britain, partially because of fear of the government, but also because this approach has simply never caught on with Muslims or war opponents there. Instead, the arguments dealing with torture, WMD lies, civil liberties, direct and indirect deaths, exacerbating of sectarian tensions, failure to deliver security, sabre-rattling with Iran, etc., have all worked to erode the Bush administration’s arguments. For the first time in years, there is a sense of real momentum in the US for ending this fiasco. And none of it has to do with conflating foreign policy with terrorism.
In the Qur’an it says “Let not the hatred of a people toward you move you to commit injustice” (Qur’an 5:8). In other words, Muslims should not legitimise any motivation to injustice because it is only the injustice (terrorism, in this case) that matters. Even if that motivation is cited by the perpetrators, our instinct should be not to honour it. In the context of this issue, that motivation should now be tainted.
If despite all this, Muslims and others insist on reducing the threat of extremism in Britain and elsewhere by addressing the Iraq conflict, then at least Muslims should strive to end that conflict with arguments that work – not with arguments that don’t. In the four years since Iraq was invaded, there is no evidence that the blowback argument has had any positive effect. The more terrorism and foreign policy are mixed up, the more the circular arguments will continue and the more things will never change.
Give people a way out by condemning foreign policy on its own injustices. Condemn terrorism by its own inherent injustice. And put the Grand Canyon in between them.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.