By Jeremy Salt
When Jeremy Corbyn made a direct link between the Manchester bombing and Britain’s wars on Iraq, Libya and Syria he was roundly attacked for justifying terrorism, supporting terrorism, being soft on terrorism and being weak. Theresa May accused him of saying terror attacks in the UK ‘are all our own fault.’ Even before he spoke the Sun was referring to ‘outrage’ as ‘it is revealed Corbyn will claim Britain’s war on terror is to blame for Manchester terror attack.’
In fact, Jeremy Corbyn neither intended to make nor did he make any such statement. His link was with British attacks on other countries, not the ‘war on terror’, which he mentioned only in the context of it having failed. As bombings in Britain and other countries have continued over the years, it is surely time to concede that he is right, or at least that there is something amiss in the way governments are dealing with this menace.
Official complicity is one of the elephants in the room. John Pilger and others have pointed to the fact that the British government knew there was a potential terrorist cell in Manchester, in the form of adherents of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), proscribed as a terror organization by the government, but turned into a useful tool during the war on Libya. Sympathisers, or members of the group, were well known to the authorities in Manchester. Many had been placed under a form of home detention when in 2011 they were released, had their passports returned and were allowed – virtually encouraged – to return to Libya to join Al Qaida-affiliated groups fighting under the air cover provided by the US, Britain and France.
One of them was Ramadan Abedi, now living in Tripoli, the father of Salman, the Manchester suicide bomber. Salman was known to police, and was on an FBI terror list as well. Only recently the FBI had alerted the British government to his presence and the possible threat he represented. So, very clearly, the government knew who he was, where he was and where he had been. Just before the bombing, he had traveled to Syria and returned to Britain from Libya without attracting sufficient attention for him to be picked up, questioned and watched.
So, what is more important here, the alleged character weaknesses of a young man, as described by the media, a dropout and dope smoker, a lone wolf, attracted to terrorism because of a void in his life – or because that void had been filled by the consequences of what he saw in Libya and Syria? That he chose to destroy himself in Britain rather than Syria would suggest that he saw the ‘west’ as the deeper and more dangerous enemy and not the government in Damascus.
The other elephant in the room is the ‘western’ wars which have killed millions of Muslims since the invasion of Iraq in 1991. The twelve years of sanctions alone (1990-2002) were responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. The first war on Iraq was followed by the invasion of 2003, the destruction of Libya and then the war on Syria. If the death toll is extended back to Afghanistan it stands at a minimum of about four million, with estimates reaching as high as eight million.
Countless of millions of other Afghans, Iraqis, Libyans and Syrians have been turned into homeless refugees inside their own countries, or have been driven beyond their borders. In the aftermath of these wars thousands of people, men, women and children, down to infants and babies, have drowned in the Aegean or Mediterranean trying to reach safety in Europe. The ‘western’ governments that went to war against their countries must be held fully responsible for the short and long-term consequences of what they have done even if they are not prepared to admit responsibility themselves.
These appalling events would seem sufficient reason for any Muslim (or Arab Christian for that matter) to be very angry at what ‘the west’ has done and justification for the very small number of people who want to strike back. Against the scale of damage done to Muslim countries, the shock at ‘terrorist attacks’ (wars which extinguish the lives of millions of people do not fall into this category) should probably be that there have not been more of them.
We need to be precise about who is responsible for these crimes. ‘NATO’ did not destroy Libya: the US, Britain and France did, with marginal help from other actors. These three countries have been at the center of all the disasters that have overwhelmed the Middle East and North Africa since the French invasion of Algeria in 1830.
There are many in the ‘west’ who are not Muslims or even Christians, but atheists and agnostics, humanist in their convictions, who feel just as strongly as people of religion about the gross violations of international law and human rights represented by ‘western’ attacks on predominantly Muslim countries. Nevertheless, it is Muslims who have had to bear the brunt of the consequences of these onslaughts, who have had to watch their countries being destroyed and millions of their countrymen and women or their coreligionists being obliterated in the pursuit of ‘western’ interests. They know from their own histories that these attacks have continued without a break for the past two centuries.
In the 19th century, from the Caucasus to the far borders of North Africa, Islam (‘Mohammedan fanaticism’) and not the invasions and occupation of Muslim lands by European armies was identified as the prime driver of hatred of Europe or the ‘Christian west.’ It was a self-serving lie and now we see a repeat of the same deliberate disconnect between cause and effect, the wilful refusal to see what should be obvious before anyone’s eyes.
The search for ultimate responsibility for terrorist attacks has been pushed in the direction of Muslim communities, skirting the backfiring consequences of the policies of ‘western’ governments. It is Muslims who have to be prevented from turning to violent extremism, not governments; Muslims who come under suspicion, not government policies based on lies, propaganda and blatant illegality; and Muslims who have to deal with Islamophobia as the government cranks up public concern resting on their communities.
They are right to be resentful. It is not just now but two centuries of unrelieved ‘western’ aggression that Muslims recall, entitling them to conclude that the ‘west’ does not change because it does not want to change, because less aggression and more morality abroad will hinder the pursuit of profits and power and because the price it has had to pay for its wars is not yet high enough to compel it to change, despite 9/11, Bataclan, Nice, Manchester and all the other horrors we have seen recently.
Ahead of time, words of warning bounce off its thick hide like pebbles off the side of a tank. It does not listen because it does not want to listen to arguments that stands in the way of its policies, however logical, humane and well-founded in international law. When it suffers the consequences of not listening, minor compared to the damage it has wreaked elsewhere, it either averts or denies responsibility, expressing outrage at those who make such an outrageous suggestion. At an impasse, because the law does not work at the local or international level, allowing these governments to get away with mass murder, what are Muslims to do?
They protest, they put pressure on their local MPs, they write letters to the editor and they call on their fellow Muslims to be more active in their support of their bombed and persecuted co-religionists overseas, at the risk, in these increasingly watched times, of attracting the attention of state security. Almost none of them will resort to violence as an answer to the violence they are forced to witness. Like nearly all people everywhere they abhor violence: they don’t want it for themselves, for their families or for other people, for the country in which they live or their country of origin.
Some, a tiny number, will take the further step and either travel abroad to fight with the group of their choice or strike back, as they would see it, at the enemy at home, killing and injuring people who are as innocent of any crime as the multitudes who have been killed or have died as the direct result of ‘western’ wars on predominantly Muslim countries. These groups justify their killing just as ‘western’ governments justify theirs. The moral line between them is just about indistinct, as much as they profess to loathe each other.
One act in the name of Islam, when the killing of innocent people, the killing of Christians just because they are Christians and the destruction of their churches is not just inconsistent with Islam but a violation of its fundamental principles, setting them up as renegades against their own faith. The other’s slaughter of civilians in aggressive wars is just as much a violation of the principles and the ‘shared values’ for which ‘western’ governments say they stand.
If the ‘west’, just once, had put one of the people responsible for these crimes in the dock, say, very obviously, Tony Blair, Muslims could at least feel that a bit of justice had been done. But the ‘west’ protects its own whatever their crimes. Neither the politicians who go to war in breach of international law nor the individual soldiers and airman responsible for atrocities, are punished for what they have done.
There are very few exceptions. There is law but no-one to uphold it and arrest the lawbreaker so there might as well be no law. There is a global institution, the UN, with no power to enforce the law. There are no policemen on duty and like a gang of jewel thieves, the collective ‘west’, having got away with numerous crimes, sees no reason to stop what it is doing.
If the unrestrained violation of international law is one central issue in the debate over who is ultimately responsible for the chaos that has enveloped much of the Middle East and North Africa and is now blowing back across British and European borders, the ‘shared’ or ‘fundamental’ values ‘western’ governments are supposed to represent is another. These values are the basis of the ‘deradicalization’ and ‘rehabilitation’ programs set up in Britain and other countries, specifically targeting Muslims. Those endangered have to be brought to understand and accept them. Wherever they are inscribed in the ‘west’, they come down to the same thing: respect for the rule of law and respect for human rights.
Violent extremism is defined by the Australian government as ‘the beliefs and actions of people who support or use violence to achieve ideological, religious or political goals.’ The definitions of other governments involved in aggressive wars on Muslim countries would be the same. The contradictions must rise immediately in Muslim and other minds: ‘Is attacking other countries in breach of international law one of your fundamental or shared values? In Iraq and Libya, didn’t you use violence to achieve a political end? In Syria haven’t you been supporting extremely violent groups in pursuit of your political goals? Doesn’t your own definition of ‘violent extremism’ actually apply to you? Are your principles and values for home consumption only?’
These contradictions don’t seem obvious to the bureaucrats, academics and anti-terror experts drawing up ‘deradicalization’ programs: if they are obvious they choose to ignore them except for notional references. Every cause of ‘violent extremism’ is considered except the one that must be regarded as the most critical, the large-scale killing of Muslims in the recent wave of ‘western’ wars. This refusal to come to terms with what is arguably the central cause of violent Muslim retaliation is possibly the reason why these programs are regarded as having failed.
The Australian government funds deradicalization programs at universities, it gives money to football clubs, councils and community organizations but as long as it does not face up to the ‘western’ origins of violence in the Middle East and elsewhere, and as long as ‘western’ governments refuse to live within the constraints of international law, these programs will have no effect in eliminating terrorist responses to their own extreme violence.
In an excellent talk presently posted on the London Review of Books web site, Karma Nabulsi points to the fallacies of Britain’s ‘Prevent’ Program. She describes a mood close to paranoia affecting the government and the suspicion and Islamophobia generated by governments in the minds of people struggling to understand what is going on.
Muslim students, at university and even primary school, are subjected to widespread surveillance by the security services, police, doctors, opticians, school teachers, university lecturers, anyone coming into contact with them. They are legally required to fill in ‘risk assessment’ statements, and to give concrete examples of how they watched out for signs of radicalism in the classroom and what measures they took. Their failure, or refusal, to comply can result in their institution being denied funding. The public is invited to call a national security hotline to register their suspicions, which could be anything, of a woman in a hijab, a man wearing a long beard, flowing robe and sandals or of someone speaking Arabic on a bus or train.
Ms. Nabulsi describes one Syrian refugee boy of pre-school age who spent his time drawing planes dropping bombs. Instead of the teacher understanding why, and consulting the parents, she called the police. On numerous occasions Muslim students have been denied access to rooms for the purpose of a lecture on Islam. A Sikh student’s room was searched after someone heard him saying a prayer in Punjabi. The wearing of a badge identifying with the Palestinians can be enough to arouse suspicion.
In its isolation of causes of radicalization, the Prevent program includes identity crisis, alienation from British values, negative experiences of officialdom, feelings of failure and criminal activity. It wants to ‘prevent’ young people from being radicalized first and then perhaps moving on the ‘conveyor belt’ to an act of violence. That the same governments which set up deradicalization programs at home sell arms to governments widely regarded as facilitating violent extremism abroad is only another contradictory aspect of their behaviour.
Donald Trump, for example, has just signed a $350 billion arms and business contract with Saudi Arabia, before moving to Jerusalem for discussions with a government whose violent ideological extremism targets Palestinians every day of the week. The same trip to the gulf has been made by Theresa May: over the years British Conservative governments have sold ten of billions of pounds worth of arms to the gulf states.
That weapons can be supplied to the Saudi government at a time it is trying to starve or bomb the Yemeni people into submission is an indicator of the lack of principle in ‘western’ policies behind the talk of democracy and humanitarian concern. Thousands of children alone have been killed in missile strikes on Yemen or have died and are still dying from malnutrition. Are the hides of Donald Trump and Theresa May so thick that they don’t even feel this? From their behavior we have to conclude that the answer is ‘yes.’
The Australian government’s ‘Let’s Live Together’ program seems largely derived from the British Prevent template. Large sums of money are made available to universities setting up deradicalization, rehabilitation and anti-terror programs and to individual academics researching ‘moderate’ forms of Islam. In addressing the ‘societal drivers’ of radicalization the Australian program refers to ‘issue-based’ extremism, giving as examples animal rights, environmental activism, ethno-national or separatist extremism and anti-gun control which, while a big issue in the US, is hardly an issue in Australia.
Under the heading of ‘ethno-national’ violence it is noted that Australians have traveled to Yugoslavia, and more recently Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon and Somalia to participate ‘illegally’ in conflicts in these countries. The illegality of Australia’s role in foreign wars and its long-term support for Israel, a state which lives in violation of international law and has been repeatedly condemned by human rights organizations for its violent behavior, extreme by any measure, does not even get a mention.
A NSW parliament publication, ‘Radicalization and Violent Extremism: Causes and Response’ (February 2016) lists among the causes of radicalisation ideology, personal relations, identity issues and social exclusion with ‘perceived’ injustice to Muslims, such as Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan (no mention of Iraq) falling well down on the list. The wording itself is a giveaway to the official mindset because Palestine and the killing of civilians in Afghanistan, not to speak of Iraq, Somalia or Yemen are not ‘perceptions’ of injustice but injustice, plain and simple, on a brutal scale and upheld by international law.
Unfortunately it is not just the refusal of governments to acknowledge the crimes they have committed but their continuing support for the violent policies of other governments. Donald Trump supports full-scale settlement of Palestinian land on the West Bank, and supports his decision to build a wall along the Mexican border by referring to the ‘separation’ or ‘apartheid’ wall built by Israel. He and other politicians do not hesitate to visit Jerusalem, an occupied city in international law, with much of its land and many of its buildings still the property of Palestinians whatever the occupier’s law says.
Julia Gillard, the former Prime Minister of Australia, blamed Hamas for Israel’s onslaughts on Gaza, consistently refused to describe Israeli settlements as illegal and tried to block Palestine being given observer status at the UN. She was ‘horrified’ at ‘the immense loss of life’ in the bombing in Paris but not once in her political career did she express horror at Israel’s mass killing of civilians in Gaza and Lebanon: she presents herself as a global defender of the rights of women and children but has never condemned Israel’s large-scale killing of both in Gaza, Lebanon and occupied Palestine.
Young people have to be mentored and protected as far as possible from activities damaging to themselves and others. To this extent these deradicalization programs have a worthwhile aim which, but when one of the prime ‘drivers’ of radicalization, if not the prime driver, is ignored, the governments putting these programs in place are treating the symptoms but not curing the disease. As long as they refuse to face up to the consequences of what they have done their ‘war on terror’ must stall.
Dealing honestly with their own behavior, however, will require them to turn their backs on a consistent pattern of preaching violence at home while practicing it abroad. The victims of violence anywhere, in any circumstances and at any time, need the perpetrator to stop what he is doing and then say sorry. In personal relations, or at the national or global level, these are the necessary first steps back to rational, humane, principled behavior but the ‘west’ never stops and never says sorry.
Like the bad, unruly and selfish student that it is, it refuses to learn, it looks for excuses and alternative explanations, it blames everyone and everything but itself, and thus the hard lessons will continue.
– Jeremy Salt taught at the University of Melbourne, at Bosporus University in Istanbul and Bilkent University in Ankara for many years, specializing in the modern history of the Middle East. Among his recent publications is his 2008 book, The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (University of California Press). He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.