28 May 2013

The reaction to the Woolwich murder denies British Muslims a political voice

Rachel Shabi argues that denying the right to discuss British foreign policy in the wake of the horrific murder in Woolwich is short-sighted and dangerous.

Rachel Shabi has written extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Middle East. Her award-winning book, Not the Enemy: Israel's Jews from Arab Lands, was published in 2009. She received the International Media Awards Cutting Edge prize in 2013, the Anna Lindh Journalism Award for reporting across cultures in 2011, and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize the same year. She tweets @rachshabi

The following article was published on The Guardian's website.


This debate isn't just sealed shut, it has round-the-clock protection. In the context of the Woolwich killers, there is to be no connection made to British foreign policy in the Middle East. That, we are told, is because the link is erroneous, an attempt to justify (as opposed to just understand), and an appeasement to terrorists. Oh, and also: those making the link only do so because of a tedious tendency to blame the west for everything.

All that's bad enough, but British Muslims also say that, for them, making this connection is even harder because of the fear that, despite being just as worried about the issue as anyone else, they will be viewed as having somehow stepped on to a conveyor belt that leads inexorably to violent extremism.

It is no surprise that those policing this closed debate should be politicians and the defenders of a disastrous series of invasions in the Middle East – for who would want to claim that the very policies they deployed or supported are the ones that even partly account for blowback terror? British politicians avoid saying it even as their own security officials warn that foreign policy in places such as Iraq has created a greater risk of terrorism on British soil. And meanwhile, the fact that violent extremists all cite the same thing – occupation and wars in Muslim lands – is hastily dismissed as a crazed coincidence.

Of course, only a really tiny proportion of this anger actually turns violent – but to stifle a discussion over any element of causality is essentially to dismiss the reasons why people might be confused, outraged or frustrated by Britain's foreign policy in the first place. And the anger over western policy is obvious; its causes both real and palpable. Corrosive, hypocritical western policy is one key subject that is constantly raised in conversations across the Middle East. There's the long-standing dishonesty in the way the west in effect endorses Israel's continued military occupation of the Palestinian people.

There's the agonising, deadly aftermath of the illegal invasion of Iraq, a nation that continues to bleed 10 years later. There is the occupation and lack of security in Afghanistan, the country that was meant to be freed from oppression by a western offensive. There's the constant reality of drone warfare, which continues to maim and kill civilians in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. And there is the constant, burning question: why are these deaths, these tragedies acceptable, while others aren't? So we know about and can understand the anger over British foreign policy because, bluntly, we have eyes and ears.

But the reluctance to discuss these issues now, in the aftermath of the horrific murder in Woolwich, isn't just blind – it is also profoundly dangerous. If violent, supposedly religious extremists use the justifiable frustration over foreign policy as the bait with which to lure followers, we are potentially handing them new recruits on a plate if we don't talk about these issues honestly, in the open. Legitimate anger that is both unacknowledged and unheard is one of the various ingredients that fundamentalist violence seeks to exploit.

And yet, British Muslims seem actively encouraged not to discuss British foreign policy – human rights issues such as Palestinian solidarity, or the war on Iraq, or opposition to drone strikes: issues that are obviously supported by the wider population, too. Projects that were supposed to foster inclusion, such as the past government's widely criticised Prevent scheme, would routinely glide over foreign policy, thereby squashing any healthy space for genuine concerns to be aired.

Those with experience of such schemes say that the Home Office deemed one potential "indicator" of violent extremism to be an interest in Palestine or Afghanistan – which is one reason why young, politically aware Muslims were worried about participating in such "inclusion" schemes, for fear of being placed on a watchlist (Those fears were real; Prevent schemes were used for surveillance. As a result of this approach, initiatives seeking to grow inclusion had the counterproductive effect of alienating some of the very people that might have been considered at risk of becoming marginalised and vulnerable.

Obviously, foreign policy is not the only factor, but the refusal to engage with it is part of a wider narrative over how to deal with extremism, one that places responsibility solely with Britain's Muslim communities. Now, with the launch of a new "anti-terror task force", one Muslim organisation head told me that it looks like we're "back to square one; you Muslims deal with it". It is in line with a painfully ironic theme seemingly intoned by politicians and media alike: that Muslim communities must integrate – but must do so on their own. They must do so while national newspapers still make distinctions between "Brits" and "foreign-born people".

And they must do so in a climate of rising Islamophobia and violent attacks against Muslims, all fuelled by a casually racist media that has framed Muslims in a positive light in only 2% of articles between 2000 and 2008 (and just yesterday, The Sun's Trevor Kavanagh unhelpfully equated Islam with guns).

Meanwhile, the government still underplays the violent extremism of far-right groups such as the English Defence League, whose sympathisers were involved in 40% of attacks on Muslims in Britain last year, according to the Tell Mama (measuring anti-Muslim attacks) project.

Shocking violence of the sort we saw in Woolwich last week isn't a Muslim problem: it is a collective problem. We can only begin to tackle it if we collectively address its causes – and part of that must involve listening to people even when you don't like what they're saying, and hearing complaints about foreign policy without branding those with genuine concerns as apologists for inexcusable, extremist violence

More of Rachel's articles can be found here: The Guardian - Rachel Shabi

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