The current edition of Prospect Magazine has an extensive article by Shiv Malik titled My Brother the Bomber.
It’s an illuminating insight into the life of Mohammed Sidique Khan (MSK), the ringleader of the 7/7 terrorists. A humane picture almost. The full article is well worth reading.
I have two issues with this article: the first on the nature of terrorism and the second on the solution.
Shiv Malik’s thesis is essentially that MSK was driven to terrorism through a mixture of Wahhabist fundamentalism and inter-generational conflict. MSK’s parents wouldn’t let him marry the woman of his choice and he eventually got quite sick of the community’s apparent hypocrisy of paying lip-service to Islam while being stooped in caste-based Pakistani culture. So, to what extent is culture an issue?
This is a bit complicated. Two years ago Navid Akhtar wrote this article, saying that the constrained Biraderi system in created frustration amongst youngsters and made them somewhat likely to turn to extremist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir to voice their anger. But writing last week for Prospect, Yahya Birt says, “while extremist recruiters seek to exploit a common concern, arranged marriage is only a circumstantial and not a necessary driver of extremism.”
I feels both are half right. Let’s compare this to another group. I recently pointed out in Catalyst magazine that religiously observant young Sikhs are also frequently frustrated with Gurudwara committees. They also face inter-generational conflict with parents frequently trying to ensure their kids marry someone of the right religion/race/caste.
So it is easy to overstate the impact of culture and inter-generational tension in creating terrorists. At the same time, young British Sikhs have also seen somewhat of a revival in religiousity. This hasn’t created terrorist groups but does sustain political campaigns such as the annual 1984 remembrance rally as well as limited support for the Khalistani movement (especially in Birmingham).
Youngsters, especially those religiously inclined, sometimes get involved in political movements for varying reasons. Poverty, drugs and inter-generational conflict may be some but they not explain why so many Hizb ut-Tahrir members are middle-class and well-spoken. In that sense they’re no different to many of the white radicals who join hardcore socialist/communist/libertarian/racist movements.
What Muslim radical preachers can do however is exploit various factors that make them more successful than the Khalistanis were in circa 1984: conflicts around the world (such as Afghanistan/Iraq) where Muslims are being killed, for propaganda purposes; an extensive network of preachers and recruiters that have been allowed to operate in Britain for a long time; being able to incubate and brainwash potential suicide bombers in places like Pakistan and then bring them back here.
Capacity for evil
Let’s get one thing straight – anyone can be turned into an ‘evil monster’, it’s just a matter of circumstances. Sikh militant groups used to hunt down and kill Hindus during the height of the Khalistani movement; Hindus are responsible for a huge amount of suicide bombing in Sri Lanka and the Gujarat massacres of 2002 of Muslims. Christians? Well they have a history of religiously inspired (and non-religious) conflict as long as my arm.
In an interesting interview with the New York Times not long ago, Dr Zimbardo is asked: “You keep using this phrase ‘the situation’ to describe the underlying cause of wrongdoing. What do you mean?
That human behavior is more influenced by things outside of us than inside. The â€œsituationâ€ is the external environment. The inner environment is genes, moral history, religious training. There are times when external circumstances can overwhelm us, and we do things we never thought. If youâ€™re not aware that this can happen, you can be seduced by evil. We need inoculations against our own potential for evil. We have to acknowledge it. Then we can change it.
So it’s difficult to pinpoint which one factor is the root-cause of terrorism. There isn’t likely to be one. Blaming forced marriages or Wahhabism alone won’t be the answer. Neither can Iraq since many of these people were radicalised before that war started. So rather than try to pinpoint an issue, my solution would be to focus on the other aspects – the preachers, recruiters, incubators and extremist organisations that facilitate suicide bombings.
The other problem follows on from this. After building a portrait of Mohammad Sidique Khan, Shiv Malik isn’t really able to point a way forward in resolving the problem of terrorism. He says the problem looks “depressingly intractable”.
He adds: “But maybe all that we can do now is remain vigilant and wait for the tide in the battle for Islam’s soul to turn in the west’s favour.” I think this is also a cop-out.
The solution will take time but for others reasons. Muslims themselves are becoming increasingly vocal of problems that their families face and are becoming innovative in tackling them. That will take time to manifest itself. As I pointed out a year after 7/7, things have already changed a great deal.
The response from Labour, police and intelligence services will also take a few years to get on the right track. They started by inviting the MCB over every week and belatedly realised this wasn’t going to get them anywhere. The government response, while far from perfect, is moving in the right direction. The police have spoken out against media sensationalism and leaks, funding is slowly moving towards grassroots and womens organisations and the the intelligence services are building a better picture of potential terrorists.
Over the long term there can only be one response: to fully embrace British Muslims (and other minorities of course) as British citizens. As Yahya Birt points out: “…it is only the extremists who argue for absolute choices between Islam and the west.”
While British Muslims are trying to resolve their identity conflict issues, along with British Sikhs and Hindus (though they don’t feel conflicted as much since there’s no sign of a British attack on Sikhs / Hindus elsewhere), I believe Labour should facilitate this process by pushing through with the ‘Britishness project’, to ensure that British Muslims feel a sense of belonging and civic identity. That is the only long term solution to the schism that extremists want to create. I should really expand on this but I’ve gone on for too long already…
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Filed in: Current affairs,Religion,South Asia