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Beyond the beards and burqas
As the Iraq inquiry and the 7/7 inquest draw to a close, attitudes to Islam in Britain are under scrutiny.
Last Modified: 17 Feb 2011 09:33
Muslim men in London prepare Iftar, the meal which breaks the Ramadan fast. Such images stand in contrast to the way Islam is often portrayed as the religion of "extremists" in mainstream British media [GALLO/GETTY]

The most striking scene in Nick Broomfield's powerful 2007 film Battle for Haditha is not one of violence but love.

A wife calls to her husband from an upstairs window. He comes up to the bedroom. She removes her hijab. Her hair tumbles over her bare shoulders. They shower and then make love. The scene is not especially erotic or intense.

What makes it memorable is the rarity of seeing Muslims depicted in a normal way, doing normal things, like normal people. Muslims of the Western popular imagination are too often angry men waving guns or distraught women wailing beside gravesides. They are terrorists and suicide bombers. They are patriarchal husbands, violent fathers or repressed women forced to cover their faces and murdered in the name of honour.

Over the next few months, two inquiries that go to the heart of Britain's relationship with Islam, both at home and abroad, will publish reports. Although neither the Iraq inquiry, which drew to an end this month, nor the ongoing inquest into the 7/7 bombings, will explore this complex relationship in any concrete way, it is nevertheless this relationship that provides the essential context through which we may come closer to an understanding of these events and of wider societal trends.

Blair's plea

Towards the end of his testimony at the Iraq inquiry in January, Tony Blair, Britain's former prime minister, veered away from a question put to him by a member of the panel to make an impassioned plea.

"The West has got to get out of this wretched posture of apology for believing we are responsible for what ... these extremists are doing. We are not," he said.

"The fact is that they are doing it because they disagree fundamentally with our way of life and they will carry on doing it unless they are met by the requisite determination and, if necessary, force."

This insight into Blair's worldview shows not only that he harbours no regrets about the Iraq war and believes there is much killing still to be done, but also provides a clear thumbnail exposition of his rationale.

Rather than acknowledging the unsettling existence of a multitude of radicalised groups living in our midst and scattered across the globe, Blair prefers to view the West as facing a single enemy. Indeed, using the words "extremists", "Islamists" and "al-Qaeda" interchangeably, the Middle East peace envoy stopped just short of calling for war on Iran.

They're all out to get 'us'

The former prime minister does not differentiate between extremists - and believes any attempt to try to comprehend the reasons for their murderous rage is futile.

Instead, he takes the much more comforting view that they are "at war with civilisation". We are being targeted, so the reasoning goes, because we are too civilised.

This simplistic view, so often repeated, has gained currency in the British popular imagination. Indeed, for most Britons, July 7, 2005, will be remembered as the day that al-Qaeda terrorists attacked London.

But five-and-a-half years on, no link has been established between the 7/7 bombers and al-Qaeda. While it is possible that two of the bombers, Shehzad Tanweer and Mohammad Sidique Khan, may have visited training camps in Pakistan and met with al-Qaeda operatives, there is no firm evidence of this.

Last year a report from the Centre for Social Cohesion analysing Islamist terrorist offences in Britain over the past decade found that only 14.5 per cent of terrorism offenders had links with al-Qaeda. And yet, despite this, a belief persists that most Islamic jihadist attacks, including the 7/7 bombings, are somehow masterminded by al Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda 'doesn't exist'

According to Alain Bauer, professor of criminology and terrorism specialist, al-Qaeda as it is commonly depicted, does not exist. "It is not like a James Bond movie where they are villains based in a volcano," he tells me. "Rather, al-Qaeda is more like a mutual organisation or a franchise."

Bauer believes the "invention" of al-Qaeda results from a very human desire to put a name and a face to an otherwise unknowable enemy. But "knowing thine enemy" should extend beyond knowing his name and what he looks like. It should also involve a genuine attempt to understand why it is he wants to destroy you.

Despite having given a name to our enemy, Western populations do not feel more secure. Al-Qaeda remains an unknown and unquantifiable force.

The resultant pervasive sense of fear has allowed us to accept the incursion of the surveillance state, the loss of many hard won freedoms and a foreign policy which now regards as justified pre-emptive attacks on states - in breach of international law. Indeed, a key failing of the Iraq inquiry has been its failure to ask not just about the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) but about the evidence of intent to use them and evidence of imminent attack.

While the taking of innocent life can never be justified or excused, understanding the causes of Islamic extremism is clearly essential if we are to stop its rise. It may be comforting to believe that we in the West are being targeted because we are 'too civilised", but the reality is much more complex. In times of austerity, it is common for people to find convenient scapegoats on whom to vent their frustration and angry. Minority or immigrant populations have traditionally fulfilled this role and if we are not careful, the coincidence of rising unemployment, declining social welfare provision and growing anti-Islamic sentiment create a "perfect storm".

The lessons we must take from the 2003 invasion of Iraq and from the 7/7 bombings must go beyond those of operational effectiveness and good governance. While we should not be apologetic, we should also not be blinkered. We need to challenge lazy simplifications and stereotypes. We must look behind the beards and the burqas and recognise our common humanity.

Stefan Simanowitz is a writer, journalist and human rights campaigner. He campaigned against the 2003 invasion of Iraq and attended the Chilcot Inquiry.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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