An IISS Forum in cooperation with the Wyndham Place Charlemagne Trust, 25 May 2006
Patrick Cronin, Director of Studies, International Institute for Strategic Studies, welcomed participants and highlighted three specific issues to guide the discussion: to what degree those responsible for the Madrid and London attacks were ‘home-grown’ or ‘imported’ terrorists, or indeed both; whether Islam had a role in the attacks and whether it could play in preventing further terrorist recruitment; and how to the above issues affect the elaboration and implementation of counter-terrorism policy.
Chairperson Robert Whalley, UK Home Office Former Director of Counter-Terrorism and Intelligence, said the Forum was a great opportunity to hear different viewpoints on Islam and terrorism. He informed participants about the reports of the Intelligence and Security Committee, to which the government has responded, as well as the Home Office produced narrative of what happened on 7 July 2005.
‘The Madrid Terror Bombing’ – Fidel Sendagorta Gomez del Campillo, Head, Policy Planning Unit, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stressed that the Madrid attacks had traumatised the nation on three levels:
- The scale of the Madrid attack was unprecedented in Spain, despite numerous terrorist attacks carried out by separatist group ETA.
- The change of government three days after the attack. He explained that the change of government, inextricable from the attacks, had created a divisive atmosphere in Spanish politics preventing a blame-free discussion on terrorism.
- The attack highlighted links between terrorism and integration. Immigration was a new trend in Spain; while ten years ago there were some tens of thousands of immigrants in the country, the number currently stood at an estimated three million. In fact, the immigration flow had been so quick that Spain had no consciousness of having a minority community. He suggested that this lack of consciousness was one of the reasons why Spain had seen no backlash against Muslims following the attack.
The Spanish government was currently trying to understand the driving forces of terrorism. What drove someone who spoke Spanish, had lived in a country for more than ten years, still had links with their country of origin and suffered from no direct ‘identity crisis’, to perpetrate mass murder in a suicide-attack, he asked. Why had jihad as a concept settled in Muslim communities across Europe?
Spain was now looking at integration and trying to learn from the experiences of its fellow European countries. He noted that Germany’s Turkish minority could not be described as integrated, yet Germany had suffered no attacks. The perpetrators of the Madrid and London attacks had been relatively integrated. Whether the lack of integration or backlash was at the heart of terrorists’ reasoning or not, he said the most worrying trend in Europe was the growing hostility between communities.
Young people were motivated by an ideology powerful enough to point them in the direction of murder and suicide-bombings despite living in environments far removed from the more traditional scenes of violence, such as Palestine. Through attacks in Afghanistan, United States, Spain and the United Kingdom, these young people were also given the impression that ‘victories’ were possible. In their eyes it was a winning strategy awakening their thirst for honour and glory, concepts he argued were no longer of relevant in European society.
He suggested that mainstream observers of international relations now considered al-Qaeda less of an organisation and more of an ideology that could motivate without support from above. He agreed that so far there was no proof that the higher echelons of al-Qaeda had been involved in the two attacks. However he refused to believe that there were no links. He suggested that the coordination and intensity of attacks were evidence itself of outside involvement. Without outside involved, he believed attacks would be more random targeting bars and restaurants, as witnessed in Israel.
‘The Muslim Community and the London Bombings’ – Asim Siddiqui, City Circle, raised concern about what he called the ‘Talibanisation’ of British Muslim communities. He stressed the importance of history when looking at the current predicament of British Muslims.
After WWII, the British government had called upon people from various colonies to come to Britain and help re-build the war ravaged country. During the 1950s-60s Britain witnessed mass immigration from the Sub-continent, including Muslims, who settled in the industrial centres. When the industrial decline hit the UK in the 1970s-80s, the first generation of immigrants were faced with unemployment, discrimination and racism. As a result they became increasingly insular. Their children grew up questioning their identities in a disadvantaged socio-economic environment.
He added that while this was happening on a domestic level, the US and Saudi Arabia supported the nationalist Mujahideen movement in Afghanistan against the former Soviet Union, effectively turning it into a religious movement. At this time, the Mujahideen were seen internationally as the ‘good guys’. He said the US had betrayed its short-sightedness when not realising that calls for the ‘death to all God-less communists’ could just as well be turned against the United States and its allies.
In the United Kingdom, preachers from abroad arrived spreading extremist ideologies to the disillusioned young who were struggling to come to terms with their identity. To focus on something ‘Islamic’ rather than a British society they felt excluded from or parents they felt detached from became increasingly attractive. They were given an important cause, a cause in which they were the frontline soldiers. He noted that when people feel taken seriously in their own society or are given a role in the political process, they do not tend to follow instructions or ideologies brought forward by outside actors. It was added that British foreign policy made recruitment even easier. The war in Iraq was not part of a war against Islam, however, politicians needed to make this much clearer when explaining its foreign policy.
The Muslim community as well as the Government had a role to play, he said. Muslims must stop wallowing in self-victimisation and realise that the world is far more complex than the simple division between Muslims and non-Muslims. In addition, Muslims must accept the damage Islamist terrorism has done and work constructively with other actors in preventing recruitment. The government needed to spend more time and effort improving the living standards of the Muslim community in Britain. Civil society and media also had a role to play in providing fora for communities to talk to each other, not talk about each other from afar. A Muslim-led intellectual battle for hearts and minds was needed.
‘Extremism in Europe’ - Dr Tariq Ramadan brought up the problems encountered when dealing with the Muslim community in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. When using this terminology, the cause of terrorists was nurtured. He regretted that Western media and politicians often played into the hands of the Islamists rhetoric by also defining the world in ‘us’ and ‘them’. It was a divisive strategy based on fear. Moreover, it was incorrect. He stressed five points to bear in mind when defining terrorists and trying to prevent recruitment and further attacks:
- It was important to clarify the picture, know the terminology and understand that there was a difference in being a Muslim and a terrorist, just like there was a difference between jihad and holy war. Both Europeans and Muslims needed more education and understanding in this regard.
- Many of the terrorists arrested or killed were not practicing Muslims but lived at the margin of the community. In fact, the reason people turned to more radical ideologies and terrorism often lay in a feeling of exclusion and lack of connection from the mainstream Muslim community.
- The notion that islamists were uneducated or ignorant was a misnomer. They were not necessarily poor or faced disadvantageous socio-economic conditions. In this context, he warned against ‘islamicising’ social and economic problems, saying they had nothing to do with religion. To do so contributed to the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality and allowed extremists to ‘islamicise’ socio-economic conditions to motivate their recruits.
- Terrorists were not always immigrants; many of them were British citizens. To connect terrorism with immigration was simply wrong.
- There was no evidence of links to a higher echelon of actors or al-Qaeda. These people could act any time in any place.
These five points must be taken into consideration when deliberating on policy initiatives to counter-terrorism and prevent recruitment. In his experience, once people were in the process of recruitment into extremist ideology it was near-impossible to reach them. Policy makers and Muslim community leaders must therefore focus attention on those not yet in the process but those ‘attracted’ to the idea. These people were in a ‘grey area’ and could be reached. In addition, the reasons why they were in the ‘grey area’ could be addressed by socio-economic initiatives and improved opportunities to participate in the political process.
Dr Ramadan said that security policies could undermine not only the rights of Muslims but human rights. To refrain from criticising or condemning torture of detainees, was to give up on humanity and everyone’s aspirations for a better society.
People needed to be encouraged to feel part of society, be citizens with rights and duties. The Muslim community needed to foster the idea of citizenship within the local context and promote ‘critical loyalty’. Space needed to be provided Muslims to be loyal, but critical, citizens as part of a political process. European countries needed to shape a new future that involved and recognised the reality of their multi-faith societies. New processes had to be initiated built on common values such as dignity.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS:
Robin O’Neill, Wyndham Place Charlemagne Trust, said there was no neat formula to explain the attraction to extremism. European countries had a wide variety of experiences. The Turkish minority in Germany were from a very different religious tradition than Moroccans in Spain. The fact that many of them had lived in Germany for 40-50 years might also explain why the German government had not faced problems such as the UK and Spain. In France, he said, minorities were arguably suffering from greater economic hardship, whilst in Spain, the immigration population was recent. Integration and economic advancement aside, he suggested that in the end what you do for yourself and your family is what mattered. In this context he mentioned that since many Muslims in the United Kingdom did not speak proficient English, they were unable to change their own predicament. The need for the Muslim community to feel a sense of belonging was stressed.
Responding to comments about the different experiences among European countries, Fidel Sendagorta Gomez del Campillo said that Spain was studying different countries’ approaches. Spain was a different case; its economy had been growing steadily since 1995 and everyone who wanted a job could have one. If the Madrid attack could happen in such economic stability, what would happen if and when Spain faced a recession, he asked. Having looked at other countries, Spain believed that urban planning was of utmost importance. The example of the French riots, he said, was as much as result of flawed urban planning as economic disadvantages.
Because of the recent inflow of Spain’s immigrant population, there was a lack of organisation and a lack of representation amongst the Muslim community. The most organised groups were often the most radical, having received considerable funding from Saudi Arabia. In this context, he questioned whether undue Saudi influence over the majority Moroccan Muslim population was a good idea. The Spanish government had tried to involve Muslim representatives in the political process and so far there were two representatives on the regional level. They had been legitimised by democratic means and could therefore speak about integration with legitimacy.
Asim Siddiqui responded by saying that representation was not a precise science. He said that often moderate Muslims did not seek out Muslim organisations for representation but approached mainstream organisations such as Amnesty when interested in particular issues. This meant that Muslim organisations were getting increasingly radical.
Robin O’Neill said he was surprised to hear about Muslim participation in mainstream organisations and asked if one should opt for this model or promote Muslim politics.
Representatives from the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party weighed in to this conversation. Robert Woodthorpe Brown of the Liberal Democrats said that his party had received strong Muslim support after the Iraq War, a constituency that historically voted for Labour. A number of Muslims voted and stood as councillors, though in general minorities and women were sadly underrepresented in the House of Commons. Garvan Walshe of the Conservative Party said historically his party was seen as a ‘white’ party because its power base was in the countryside areas where there were fewer immigrants or UK citizens of different ethnic or religious backgrounds. He said David Cameron wanted to address this situation and establish a presence in cities in order to reach out to Britain as a whole. He added that the Conservative Party was also trying to work towards getting more ethnic minorities to become Ministers of Parliament.
Tariq Ramadan warned against blurring the political and the religious and stressed that there was a difference between religious Muslim representatives and Muslim Ministers of Parliament. The latter had a responsibility to its constituency, not to Muslims alone. He said religious representation could be facilitated but not controlled. In terms of representation, the religious and political spheres were different.
Several participants contributed to a discussion on the role of the media. Michael Binyon of the Times said that Muslims often felt shut out from the press and believed that press demonised Muslim by equating Islam to terrorism. He explained that media reported bad news rather than good news about ‘good upstanding moderate Muslims’. He said there were too few Muslim journalists and those that were around did not, and perhaps should not, write about Muslim affairs. However, their mere presence would help to balance the press. With regard to terminology, he said that certain words such as Ramadan no longer needed explanations in the British press. Whilst recognising the subtleties in the expressions jihad and holy war, he said it was impossible to caveat every word used in every article with long explanations. Audrey Kurth Cronin, Director of Studies at the Oxford University Changing Character of War Programme, highlighted the lack of theological knowledge about Islam in Western media and writing and questioned whether the attempts to learn were too late and the learning curve too steep. Journalist Zenab Short told participants of her attempts, as a Muslim journalist, to write about Islam and said that she had encountered prejudice from all angles: editors, women’s groups, and Muslim groups. Also commenting on the role of media, Tariq Ramadan said that it was natural that the media focused on bad news. However, journalists also had a civic responsibility to report other news - society was changing - and there was a story in there. He encouraged journalists to be more creative in their writing.
Sir Michael Palliser of the European Movement raised issues including the need for Muslim clerics to condemn terrorist acts and the importance of speaking the language of the country you live in. Concerning torture, he said that Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib had been universally condemned – a significant step for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. However, he questioned the lack of outrage expressed by the ongoing practice of torture in nearly all countries of the Middle East. He stressed the need for consistency on torture and human rights to avoid double standards.
Many other issues related to the Madrid and London attacks, as well as Islam and terrorism were raised. The issue of integration was raised as it related to school admissions, police policies, the vetting of clerics and interaction between communities. Why many young, disillusioned Muslims were attracted to extremism was explained by some speakers as a quest for honour and glory in a society they felt excluded from. Participants were asked if Western governments should adjust their foreign policy in light of their growing Muslim populations. The meeting centred on issues related to civic engagement, political participation and representation, as well as increased understanding of terminology.