Time to move beyond the ‘war on terror’ narrative in UK

Reframing the debate on extremism in Britain is long overdue.

British Muslims seek an open debate as a way to counter radicalisation  [GALLO/GETTY]
British Muslims seek an open debate as a way to counter radicalisation [GALLO/GETTY]

You could say that once or twice is just careless and ill-advised, but now it is starting to look like a bad habit. Following last week’s verdict over the bloody murder of Lee Rigby – the British soldier hacked to death on the street in Woolwich in May – British media has been following an all-too-predictable format for the required commentary.

We need, after all, to be told how to think about this grotesque killing by Muslim converts who claim to be acting in the name of Allah. And so, up pops Anjem Choudary – at the behest of the BBC. You know Choudary: hate preacher, frontman for the violent Islamist group al-Muhajiroon until the UK banned it, utterly unrepresentative of British Muslims, and at the same time, the one that’s “allowed” to point out that British foreign policy in Arab and Muslim lands can lead to blowback on UK soil.

Following the Rigby verdict, Choudary was given the agenda-setting Radio 4 Today‘s prime slot and another hefty reference on the BBC‘s political flagship Newsnight programme (which had wheeled him out for airtime at the time of the Woolwich killing). He is usually set against someone from the security establishment or from, say, the Quilliam foundation, the “moderate Muslim”, “counter-extremism think tank” that is at war with “Islamism”.

Newsnight feasted on this formulation last week: After a report featuring Choudary, the show spoiled us with insights from the neocon, Muslim-bashing Henry Jackson society, the Quilliam foundation and a former counter-terrorism minister all in one sitting. Thus the frames of the debate are set: there are the “baddies” like Choudary, who rant about deadly British wars in the Middle East, and then there is everyone else rushing to dismiss such ludicrous assertions. The message is clear; who do you want to be: Choudary, or a reasonable person who condemns any link to foreign policy?

When British media discusses extremism strictly within the same, narrowly proscribed frame, that’s dangerously unhelpful – and it ultimately fails us all.

Counterproductive measures

And so, as permitted commentators and politicians wring their hands over “not doing enough” to combat violent extremism, they shut down the very discussion we urgently need to have, the one that might actually help: the one about the impact, the horrifying recruitment power, the consequences of Britain’s involvement in the endless war on terror.

It isn’t just the perpetrators of bloody acts of violence in the UK that cite bloody wars on Muslim soils as motivation; Britain’s own security chiefs have long warned that foreign policy in Iraq will bring ugly consequences back in the UK. And, after all, as Asim Qureshi, research director at CAGE, told an Al Jazeera investigation last week, it is the war on terror’s instigators that claim this war is everywhere. The US, says Qureshi, “started this conflict without jurisdictional boundaries, without any rules, or regulations, that basically says: the law doesn’t matter anymore”.

It should by now go without saying that to discuss British foreign policy is not to condone the butchering to death of a soldier in south London, and that most British Muslims – just like the more helpful category “most British people” – are repulsed by it. Not every critic of British foreign policy turns to violence; clearly, other factors are at work. The trouble is, as long as we continue to place a sort of silent ban, a muzzle, on making the association between such violent radicalisation and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are making any efforts to tackle such extremism utterly ineffectual.

Counter-terrorism projects that were supposed to be Muslim-community-led perversely turned into surveillance projects: thus cementing the assumption, (actually shown to be fact) that criticising the war on terror while being Muslim would get you placed on a watch list. Indeed, those with experience of counter-terrorism projects, such as the former government’s much-criticised Prevent scheme, say that one of the “triggers” for such monitoring would be an interest in the Palestine cause, or Afghanistan.

Like many community workers, Jahan Mahmood, a Birmingham-based historian who has advised the government on this issue and now mentors young people, urges open discussion: “I don’t see it [violent extremism] stopping until we have a sensible, open debate about this at every level of society. It would be ugly, but at least have the debate, encourage it – let it come out of their system into the open. Let people express their thoughts so that others can deconstruct and counter them.”  

What’s to blame?

It isn’t just foreign policy in itself – the ravaging of Arab and Muslim countries, the spiralling, medieval death tolls, the drones, the maiming and killing of innocents, the prisons and humiliations and renditions and torture.

Part of the problem is a hypocrisy that community workers say they struggle to counter. If, for example, the government stated aim is to counter al-Qaida, why would Britain at times – such as during the West’s intervention in Libya in 2011 – align with affiliates of this organisation?

In the face of a constant refusal at government level to engage with such points, those who work to help counter violent radicalisation are now running out of options: “This is why more and more people are now less willing to be involved in counter-terrorism policy,” says Mahmood. “The government isn’t paying enough attention to the actual grievances and is utterly obsessed with ideology.”

Relying on religious radicalism as the sole explaination isn’t just counterproductive, it is separatist – turning the issue of extremism on British streets into a “Muslim problem” rather than a collective issue urgently in need of collective responses. Of course ideology is a factor (who would argue otherwise?), but it is not the only one: In addition to foreign policy, community workers talk about the impact of gang culture, exclusion, deprivation and Islamophobia.

Reducing all that to ideology is a lazy cop-out, a blind insistence on the crass “us against them” false binary of the war on terror. And when British media discusses extremism strictly within the same, narrowly proscribed frame, that’s dangerously unhelpful – and it ultimately fails us all.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

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