Eight years on, nothing has been learned. In the week since a British soldier was horrifically stabbed to death by London jihadists on the streets of Woolwich, it’s July 2005 all over again. David Cameron immediately rushed to set up a task force and vowed to ban “hate clerics”. Now the home secretary wants to outlaw “nonviolent extremist” organisations, censor broadcasters and websites and revive plans to put the whole country’s phone and web records under surveillance.
“Kneejerk” barely does it justice. As for the impact on Muslims, the backlash has if anything been worse than in 2005, when 52 Londoners were killed by suicide bombers. As the police and a BBC reporter described the alleged killers as of “Muslim appearance” (in other words, non-white), Islamophobic attacks spiked across the country. In the first five days 10 mosques were attacked, culminating in a triple petrol bombing in Grimsby.
As politicians and the media congratulated themselves that Britain was “calmly carrying on as usual”, it won’t have felt like that to the Muslim woman who had her veil ripped off and was knocked unconscious in Bolton. Nor, presumably, to the family of 75-year-old Mohammed Saleem, stabbed to death in Birmingham in what had all the hallmarks of an Islamophobic attack last month – or, for that matter, the nearly two-thirds of the population who think there will be a “clash of civilisations” between white Britons and Muslims, up 9% since the Woolwich atrocity.
One key change since 2005 is the rise of the violently anti-Muslim English Defence League, given a new lease of life by Woolwich. More than 40% of Islamophobic incidents recorded by the Muslim organisation Faith Matters last year were linked to the EDL or other far-right groups. “It makes me feel I don’t belong here”, one Muslim community leader quotes his teenage son as telling him this week.
But almost nobody in public life mentions the war. The reason cited by the alleged Woolwich killers – the role of British troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and the war on terror – has been mostly brushed aside as unseemly to discuss. Echoing his predecessors, the prime minister insisted the Woolwich killing was “an attack on the British way of life”. London mayor Boris Johnson declared there could be “no question” of blaming British foreign policy or “what British troops do in operations abroad”.
Instead, the problem is once again said to be “Islamism”, regardless of the string of democratic Islamist governments elected from Turkey to Tunisia. Or the focus is on the “mistakes” of MI5, as if any amount of spooking could detect the determination of an enraged takfiri killer to exact revenge with kitchen knives and meat cleavers. Whatever the focus, even to mention the western wars that drive these attacks is deemed to justify them.
That is, of course, absurd. Targeting a soldier who fought in Afghanistan might not be terrorism in the sense of an indiscriminate attack on civilians. But the random butchery of an unarmed man far from the conflict by disconnected individuals who have nonviolent political alternatives is clearly unjustifiable in any significant religious or political tradition.
The fact that the US declared the war on terror to be a war without national borders and routinely targets unarmed or unidentified victims has fatally blurred those boundaries. The grisly, intimate killing of Lee Rigby was the absolute antithesis of high technology drone attacks. But both embody the degradation of the human spirit.
There can be no surprise, however, that such attacks take place. It’s not just opponents of the war on terror who predicted from the start that it would fuel terrorism not fight it. The intelligence services on both sides of the Atlantic did the same. The perpetrators of one attack after another, from London 2005 to Boston 2013, say they’re carrying them out in retaliation for the vastly larger scale US and British killing in the Muslim world.
It’s true that all kinds of personal factors and experiences help create the mentality to carry out such attacks. But as Abdul Haqq Baker – head of the south London “counter-radicalisation” outfit Street – puts it, the tipping point that has turned people to violence has been shown again and again to be episodes in the war on terror.
There is already some evidence that torture of one of the Woolwich suspects in Kenya – after which MI5 tried to recruit him – may have been such a catalyst. Azad Ali, a Muslim community activist who has advised the Metropolitan police, says there has been a pattern of official abuse of British Muslim activists in Arab countries, apparently using British-supplied intelligence, who are then pressed to work for the British security services when they return home.
What is indisputable is that there were no jihadist attacks in Britain before 9/11, itself claimed as a response to US support for Arab dictatorships, Israeli occupation and murderous sanctions on Iraq. Wars supposedly fought to keep Britain safe have been shown to do the exact opposite.
Given the bloodshed, torture, mass incarceration and destruction that US-British occupation has inflicted on Afghanistan and Iraq, and the civilian slaughter inflicted in the drone war from Pakistan to Yemen, the only surprise is that there haven’t been more terror attacks.
Three years ago WikiLeaks gave a glimpse of the routine killing of Afghan civilians by British troops – as did the jailing for 18 months of a grenadier guardsman for stabbing an Afghan boy who asked him for chocolate. Now Britain is preparing to supply weapons directly to the Islamist-dominated rebels in Syria. But at home ministers want to use their “Prevent strategy” to freeze out still further nonviolent Islamist groups that have been most effective at isolating those drawn to violence.
Denial of the role of US-British wars, occupations and interventions in the Muslim world in fuelling terror attacks at home helps to get politicians off the hook. But it also plays into the hands of those blaming multiculturalism and migration, feeding racism and Islamophobia in the process. The wars should be ended because they are wrong and a failure – but also because they fuel terrorism and divide communities.
Those who carried out last week’s killing are of course responsible for what they did. But those who have sent British troops to wage war in the Arab and Muslim world for more than a decade must share culpability.
- Britain’s wars fuel terror. Denying it only feeds Islamophobia (guardian.co.uk)
- The reaction to the Woolwich murder denies British Muslims a political voice | Rachel Shabi (guardian.co.uk)
- Woolwich murder: 200 Islamophobic incidences since Lee Rigby’s killing (guardian.co.uk)
- Soldier murder fuels Islamophobia in UK (rinf.com)
- Terror in London Sparks Tensions, Upsurge in Islamophobic Attacks (world.time.com)
- No room for the racists (morningstaronline.co.uk)
- Muslims fear backlash after UK soldier’s killing – CNN (edition.cnn.com)
- Islamophobic hate crimes running at 10 times usual rate after Woolwich murder of soldier Lee Rigby (belfasttelegraph.co.uk)
- Ten attacks on mosques since Woolwich murder (independent.co.uk)
- The Problem of Muslim Leadership – WSJ.com (richarddawkins.net)