I must start this article by affirming with absolute certainty that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not plotting to destroy our society, and that any attempts to paint Muslims as a homogenous entity with some kind of universal agenda is as stupid as it is offensive. Having travelled extensively in the ‘Muslim world’ in Malaysia, Central Asia and Turkey, and now to my current occupation volunteering in Occupied Palestine, I feel safe in the knowledge that the people I have met on my travels are as diverse in their faith, opinions and beliefs as would be any other group of people on earth.
Nevertheless, the campaign of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the rise and fall of al-Qaeda demonstrate that in an extremist capacity there are Muslim groups that are hell bent on harming our society, and any others that oppose their plans. Certainly many aspects of the ideology of these groups are disturbing and could never be reconciled with any kind of rational or humane thought process. These elements, including genocide, the killing of innocent civilians and other gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity, are as opposed by Muslim populations as they are by the rest of us.
There are many who would like to make the claims that I have just refuted. In the British press, and certainly in the US, but elsewhere also, an ugly vein of Islamophobia has seeped into journalism since the 9/11 terror attacks that have reshaped the world we live in in so many ways. In order to combat terrorism, we must not simply dismiss terrorists as faceless villains, but instead attempt to understand their motivation in order to assess rationally whether any of their claims have legitimacy. These situations are always more complicated than good versus evil. Certainly much of an extremist Islamist agenda is abhorrent to us; we should never, for example, give in to attacks on our free speech, on our right to choose our own religion, or our right to freely express our sexual identity. However there is one key area where we must learn that our behaviour has been a catalyst for the extremist campaign against us and others: our corrupt foreign policy, and our negative treatment of the Muslim world, is a direct causal factor in Islamic extremism.
Britain has a long and shameful history of interaction with the Muslim world. The British Empire, for example, subjugated Muslims in the Middle East, Malaysia and India, just as we subjugated many others across the world. The fall of the British Empire did little to put a stop to this catalogue of foreign policy blunders and human rights violations carried out by the British government against the global Muslim community. In the 50s, for example, the British (led by Winston Churchill nonetheless) were instrumental in toppling a democratically elected moderate government in Iran and replacing it with a puppet regime so brutal he was later overthrown in a popular revolution. Western media might attempt to paint Iranian animosity towards us as being born from random or ideological Iranian hatred, but we were largely responsible for the circumstances that led to such a hard-line regime taking power.
Perhaps no episode is more shameful in the history of British interactions with the Muslim world than the British Mandate in Palestine, which constituted the irresponsible carving up of Palestine, a territory over which we had no legitimate claim, to create a Zionist state in the Middle East. We blithely gave away large portions of the Palestinian territory to Jewish colonists, who set about taking much more land by force and leading to the appalling apartheid conditions, human rights abuses and continued occupation and subjugation of the Arab population we see today. Our tacit support for this appalling regime does little to endear us to Muslims across the world, including British Muslims, who are extremely vocal in peaceful protest campaigns against our policy on this matter, of which we act as puppets to the will of the US government. Osama Bin Laden frequently cited US support for Israel as one of the motivations for the brutal actions of al-Qaeda.
The so-called ‘War on Terror’, particularly military action in both Iraq and Afghanistan has also been a disaster for Britain’s reputation in the Islamic world. A survey conducted by the Arab American Institute four years after the Iraq War found that 83% of Egyptians, 68% of Saudis, 70% of those in the UAE, 76% of Lebanese and a staggering 96% of Jordanians were opposed to the war. The Iraq War was wasn’t just a diplomatic disaster in the Arab world either; a BBC World Service poll conducted across 26 countries found that 73% disapproved. It is hardly surprising that this war was extremely damaging to our international standing, particularly in the Islamic world. Between 2003 and mid-2011 the death toll from the war, the following insurgency and infrastructure collapse was over 450,000 people. The infrastructure collapse also led to the implementation of a weak, corrupt and sectarian government, allowing Islamic State to sweep to power with another tide of bloodshed and misery. Only 27% of British people believe the Iraq War was right, and it is undeniable that the situation in Iraq now is far worse than it was before. The war in Afghanistan is also now being drawn to an ambiguous close, despite that fact that the gains that have been made seem only slim, the government that has been instated is rife with corruption and the Taliban is very far from being defeated, despite thousands having died. The high civilian body count in US drone strikes, the exact figure of which is shrouded in undemocratic secrecy, only adds to this resentment. In fact, the list is almost endless; I could add the torture and rendition of terror suspects, in violation of British and international law, with total impunity, to the list.
It’s undisputable that prior to the ‘War on Terror’ there had never been a jihadist attack on British soil. Since then, there have been several, and many more thwarted. Denial of the connection between our disastrous foreign policy, lack of diplomacy or mutual understanding with Islamic countries, and our politician’s dismissive attitude to any causal link between our behaviour and the Islamist response, is merely fuelling these problems, and increasing Islamophobia on our home turf. Politicians are either in denial, or they are lying to further their agenda. After the Woolwich murder, David Cameron insisted it was simply “an attack on the British way of life”, and Boris Johnson stated there would be “no question” of blaming British foreign policy. This is deluded, wrong, or deceptive. Only when we reassess our foreign policy, can we possibly hope to stem the tide of jihadist attacks, and the often justified negative sentiment felt more broadly throughout the Islamic world.