Why religion can’t be absolved of all responsibility for violence

By Daniel Margrain

Stock photo of surveillance cameras

In light of the recent spate of terror attacks, it’s worth reminding readers to this blog of a speech that former UK Prime Minister, David Cameron made in Birmingham a year ago this month. The speech, which was ostensibly low on substance and high on rhetoric, unveiled what could loosely be termed as a less than coherent strategy to tackle Islamist extremism. Cameron’s nonsense would have almost certainly gone down well with many of his core Friends of Israel Tory MPS, some of whose constituents have left the UK to fight for Israel against the occupied and oppressed Palestinian’s whilst others have gone to fight alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga.

Are we ever likely to have a future UK Prime Minister talking condescendingly to the Jewish community in the Golder’s Green district of North London about strategies to tackle Jewish-Zionist extremism? Moreover, is a future leader likely to debate in leafy Surrey, the Christian-Zionist fundamentalism of Blair and Bush which resulted in the deaths of at least half a million Iraqi’s on the basis of a pack of lies? The questions of course are rhetorical since we know the answer.

Unlike the Tory-voting wealthy middle classes and Friends of Israel, mostly anti-Tory Muslims within a de–industrialized urban landscapes like Birmingham are regarded as political fair game for Tory shenanigans. Ignoring many of the causal factors that drive a small minority of mainly young Muslims to ISIS, such as the Wests endless wars in Muslim lands, Cameron outlined the Tory five-year vision to defeat home-grown extremism. The former PM set out four major areas that needed attention: countering the ‘warped’ extremist ideology, the process of radicalisation, the ‘drowning-out’ of moderate Muslim voices and the ‘identity crisis’ among some British-born Muslims.

The then PM spoke about the need to enforce British values citing “equal rights regardless of race, sex, sexuality or faith” as a core aspect of these values despite the fact that he voted in support of the homophobic Clause 28 as recently as 2003. Cameron then claimed that Islamic extremism can have nothing to do with Western intervention since the invasion of Iraq came after 9/11. He appears to be unaware of a century of imperial intervention before that. In the Tories vision ISIS popped out of thin air. It had nothing to do with a vacuum left as a direct result of US-British intervention in Iraq.

The most hypocritical thing is how the establishment pick and choose their Muslims. A well-worn narrative is that Muslims are incapable of coping with modern values. However, a succession of British Foreign Secretaries – including the latest, the pathological liar, Philip Hammond – are only too happy to be photographed and dined alongside the Saudi royal family who don’t accept any of the values the establishment call British. And when the likes of the current PM, Theresa May, talk about the British values we should accept, she’s not talking about the values her lot used to build an empire on.

In his speech, Cameron went on to conflate what British values were not by referencing forced marriage and female genital mutilation. The implication being that these manifestations of ‘un-Britishness’ are unique to Muslim culture which of course they are not. “No more turning a blind eye on the basis of cultural sensitivities”he said. Fine! I’ll now wait in eager anticipation for a similar speech by Theresa May to the Jewish community in Stamford Hill.

Cameron continued, “I want to work with you to defeat this poison [of Islamist extremism]”he said. Presumably, ‘defeating’ ISIS doesn’t involve the counterproductive action of bombing to smithereens yet more innocent civilians as the justification for mission creep or unconditionally supporting the Sunni authoritarian regimes, the ideology and funding of which helped spawn the likes of Al-Qaida and ISIS in the first place.

The one (unintended) positive that emerged from his speech was when he talked about the differentiation between Islamist extremism on the one hand, and Islam the religion, on the other. As such he brought into focus the wider questions regarding the differing interpretations seemingly inherent to religious doctrine.

Jon Snow of Channel 4 News quoted the Muslim Council of Great Britain saying:

“We need to define tightly and closely what extremism is rather than perpetuate a deep misunderstanding of Islam and rhetoric which invariably facilitates extremists to thrive.”

Do we know what Islamic extremism is exactly? Is there a distinction between Islam and extremism peddled in the name of Islam? Can a distinction be made between the Wahabbi version of Islam in Saudi Arabia and extremism? Surely the former is indistinguishable from the latter?

In order to tackle the problem associated with certain extremist interpretations of Islam, it makes sense to want to tackle the problem at source. But crucially, this was the aspect missing from Cameron’s speech. For if he was to highlight it, he would have been cutting off his nose to spite his face. That’s because Britain has a an extremely cozy relationship with the oppressive totalitarian states’ of the Arab Gulf Peninsula, all of whom without exception, adhere to the extremist theocratic Islamic ideologies.described but nevertheless represent extremely good business for Great Britain PLC.

Is it the duty of Muslims living, in say, Birmingham to defend other Muslims living, in say, Baghdad? Conversely, can the killing of innocent people in Western liberal democracies’ ever be considered justifiable on the basis that theoretically the populations within these nations often elect governments’ who initiate wars of aggression against Muslims in their name? Can violent acts in these circumstances ever be justified? Does this, in the minds of extremists, justify Jihad against Westerners by Muslims irrespective of where either reside in the world?

Some moderate Muslims like Baroness Warsi insist that Jihad is about “self-improvement, self-evaluation, questioning injustice and being prepared to raise your voice when you see injustice.” This contrasts with the more extreme interpretation of Jihad in which external factors like the taking of arms are seen as the precursor to the kind of self-evaluation outlined by Warsi. How can these seemingly irreconcilable differences be reconciled?

One of the main problems that needs to be addressed, but tends to be constantly evaded, relates to the contradictory aspect of religion itself. Christians, Jews and others of all denominations will often claim piety with one hand but adopt the role of arm-chair generals holding a metaphorical grenade with the other. Moreover, irrespective of whether one is a follower of ISIS, or whether one is a part of the vast majority of the wider Muslim community of Sunni or Shia, all groups and sects will self-identify with, and hence, claim they are the true representatives of Islam and all will justify their opposing positions by cherry-picking appropriate verses from their religious book.

These contradictory positions, in turn, are exploited politically by racists and Islamophobes. Islamophobia is not just a human reaction to cultural difference. It has been purposely perpetuated as a result of the politicisation of religion of which the creation of an Islamophobia industry is a reflection. The governments Prevent Strategy and the policies of the Henry Jackson Society are integral to the functioning of this industry. Cage, the London-based advocacy organisation, wrote of the Prevent strategy:

“Prevents causal analysis and theory is fundamentally flawed. According to the strategy, the cause of violence in the Muslim world is rooted in ideology. Whereas in reality the cause is the political struggle of Muslims in response to unrepresentative regimes, often aided by Western policy and occupations.”

This assessment appears to be consistent with the analysis of Stephen Holmes, who in relation to the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, implied that the goal of ISIS and Al Qaida is no different from other national liberation movements – to achieve independence by forcing the imperialist powers to retreat:

“The vast majority of Bin Laden’s public statements provide secular, not religious, rationales for 9/11. The principal purpose of the attack was to punish the ‘unjust and tyrannical America’. The casus belli he invokes over and over again is injustice not impiety. True, he occasionally remarks that the United States has declared war on god, but such statements would carry little conviction if not seconded by claims that the United States is tyrannising and exploiting Muslim people… Bin Laden almost never justified terrorism against the West as a means for subordinating Western unbelievers to the true faith. Instead, he almost always justified terrorism against the West as a form of legitimate self-defence.”

According to Holmes then, whilst political objectives maybe expressed in religious terms, in essence, the goal of ISIS/Al Qaida is the same as previous secular-nationalist movements in the Middle East—the defeat of US imperialism and its allies in the region.

However, as I will outline below, to claim that that all instances of jihadist violence do not have religious rationales is misleading. Nevertheless, the anti-Muslim ideology of the right-wing Henry Jackson Society, alongside the creation of the illiberal Prevent Strategy, meant that the establishment have been quick to exploit the media’s often sensationalist reporting as well as the fear and panic Muslim’s generate for their own narrow political propaganda purposes.

The former, for example, set up Student Rights which produced a report that manufactured panic around gender segregation on campuses. Cameron weighed in. Though strangely he never spoke about gender segregation at Eton. Catherine Heseltine of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK spoke of how growth in the fear of Islam has gone along with policies pushed by governments. She said:

“Immediately after 9/11 only 10 percent of people in Britain saw Islam as a religion as a threat…Since then that figure has just about tripled.”

According to Bob Ferguson, teacher and convener for Newham Stand Up Against Racism, since the passing of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act in February last year, Islamophobia has been taken to a new level. Teaching staff at universities and schools now have a statutory duty to report people who may be vulnerable to “Islamic non-violent extremism”. One clause that is particularly pernicious, requires teachers and lecturers to report discussions on ‘Grievances to which terrorist organisations claim to have a solution’. That one clause wipes out any possibility of discussing imperialism.

Ferguson says :

“There was a minute’s silence for the victims of the beach attack in Tunisia. All the Muslims I know at my school thought those murders were a vile, reactionary crime. Many also regard the slaughter of three boys playing football on the beach in Gaza by Israel as a vile, reactionary crime. Expressing the first sentiment proves you are a good Muslim, but expressing the second could get you seen as an extremist.”

In conclusion, the issues are complex and multifaceted and not one aspect by itself is the reason why some young people join up with groups like ISIS. Although many moderates would deny to their last breath the religious rationale that underpins the violence of groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, these groups would make similar claims against them. Whether moderate and peaceful Muslims disagree with their violent counterparts is a moot point since all groups self-identify as Muslims and justify their respective actions as Muslims based on the interpretation of passages contained within the holy book.

In Iraq, religious Sunni/Shia sectarian violence was unleashed following the illegal allied invasion of that country. Saddam had kept a lid on it up until that point. That’s just one example where religion is a major contributory cause of violence. Similarly, Zionist Jews justify continued illegal settlement building predicated on the Biblical imperative, and Bush and Blair were alleged to have got down on their knees in the name of their Christian God prior to the invasion of Iraq.

Some religious followers who interpret their books literally, cherry pick certain violent quotes from them in order to justify to themselves their beliefs, mainly for political purposes. This is true of religious extremists whether they be Salafist Muslims, Zionist Jews or Christian fundamentalists.

 

 

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