Britons are far more divided over 9/11 than the rest of the world. A recent poll found that while 71 % of the population believe that al- Qaeda carried out the attacks, only 4 % of Muslims do so. Globally by comparison 39 % of all people and 21 % of Muslims buy the official story. Demonising the Muslim community as an incubator of terrorism in the UK is clearly polarising opinion.
The poll was sponsored by the think tank Policy Exchange and conducted by ICM. A report based on the findings – Unsettled Belonging: A survey of Britain’s Muslim communities – was released last month. Labour MP Khalid Mahmood, chair of the All Party Group on Tackling Terrorism, is one of the authors of the report.
In an era in which intolerance and bigotry pose a growing challenge to our society, it cannot be stressed enough that most British Muslims want to integrate with their non-British neighbours. It was with this in mind that I was keen to work with Policy Exchange to build the most extensive survey to-date of British Muslim opinion. I was driven by the conviction – based on my experience in my local community – that it would show Muslims to be upstanding members of society, who share many of the same ambitions and priorities as their fellow non-Muslim Britons.
The poll proved as much.
It is clear that the more religious character and general social conservatism of British Muslim communities, does not detract from the essentially secular character of most Muslim lifestyles. In terms of their everyday concerns and priorities, British Muslims answer no differently from their non-Muslim neighbours. When asked what are the most important issues facing Britain today (people were allowed to give three responses), the most likely answer was NHS/hospitals/healthcare (36%), with unemployment second (32%) and then immigration (30%). Contrary to what is often asserted on both sides of the political spectrum, the priorities and everyday concerns of the overwhelming majority of Muslims are inherently secular.
But the report also says:
A surprisingly large proportion of British Muslims deny the existence of extremism altogether (26%). In addition, a significant proportion of British Muslims are susceptible to conspiracy theories …The prevalence of such conspiracy theories is demonstrated by views towards the terrorist attacks against America on 11 September 2001. A surprisingly large proportion of British Muslims said they did not know who was behind those attacks. Even more remarkable is the fact that some 31% said the American government was responsible for 9/11. More people claimed that the Jews were behind these attacks (7%), than said it was the work of al-Qaeda (4%) or some analogous organisation.
Mr Mahmood dismisses the widespread rejection of the official story pinning the blame on al Qaeda as the product of a Muslim mentality of victimhood.
It is obviously a cause for concern that so many within our communities should doubt the very existence of this phenomenon (extremism), even as we face a severe and on-going terrorist threat. Even more startling is the fact that so many British Muslims seem ready to entertain wild and outlandish conspiracy theories about the way the world works, believing that dark forces are at work to ‘do us down’ as Muslims. From the attacks of 9/11, down to the more recent conflict in Syria, too many people seem ready to believe that these events are being deliberately organised and manipulated… This readiness to believe in conspiracy theories and the mentality of victimhood to which it speaks is having a pernicious effect on British Muslims and the way they see the world.
This doesn’t wash. There are about 3 million Muslims in the UK, less than 5 % of the population. Going by the poll twice as many non- Muslims believe that 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’ were orchestrated by elements within the US administration. A more plausible explanation for Mr Mahmood’s annoyance is that Muslim rejection of the ‘authorised’ al-Qaeda conspiracy theory undermines ‘Prevent’, the government’s anti-extremism program. The report he co-authored recommends:
The government should not be “spooked” into abandoning, or apologising for, the Prevent agenda. Our survey shows that Muslim communities are generally relaxed about government intervention to tackle extremism – and are actually supportive of traditional ‘law and order’ policies more broadly.
Eroding Trust, a report by the Open Society Justice Initiative, provides a useful description of Prevent also referred to as Preventing Violent Extremism or PVE.
Launched in 2003, the Prevent strategy has evolved against the background of increased public fears over the threat of “home grown” terrorism. The strategy in its current form aims “to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”. In 2015, legislation created a statutory Prevent duty on schools, universities, and NHS trusts, among other public sector entities, to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. This requires doctors, psychologists, and teachers, among other health and education professionals, to identify individuals at risk of being drawn into terrorism (including violent and non-violent “extremism”) for referral to the police-led multi-agency “Channel” programme… which purport to “support” such individuals…Under Prevent, doctors and teachers who have a professional duty to care for their charges are now required to assess and report them for being at risk of “extremism”, which is defined as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.
The report calls for the repeal of Prevent in the education and health sectors. It notes “by the government’s own admission, thousands of people have been erroneously referred to the Channel program”. But the counter-radicalisation strategy is to be toughened “rather than scaled back despite criticism that it is a toxic brand and a “big brother” security operation among Britain’s Muslim communities.”
Figures show that in 2015/16 there were around 7,500 referrals to Prevent – a rate of 20 a day. Of those, 3,100 were aged under 18 – with 61 of them under 10.
Professor Arun Kundnani provides essential context. He says the neo-conservatives who launched the “war on terror” saw 9/11 as a product of Islamic culture and its totalitarian rejection of modernity They argued only war could overturn this doctrine in the Middle East and bring about cultural transformation.
In the wake of the Madrid (2004) and London (2005) bombings the concept of radicalisation was introduced to explain why members of European societies resorted to violence. In this model extremist versions of Islam serve as a “conveyor belt” pushing individuals into terrorism. The assumption that religious ideology turns people into terrorists, and that British values can provide a bulwark against extremism, has underpinned the policy response in the UK since 2006.
Over the last decade, this narrative has been repeatedly promoted by government ministers. Yet, as an account of what causes terrorism, it does not stand up to scholarly scrutiny. A growing body of academic work holds this position to be fundamentally flawed…Rather than a broad policy that seeks to criminalise or restrict extremist opinions, a better approach is to focus on individuals who can be reasonably suspected of intending to engage in a terrorist plot, finance terrorism or incite it. The best way of preventing terrorist violence is to widen the range of opinions that can be freely expressed, not restrict it…In light of this more authoritative understanding, the government should end its Prevent policy. This will help to avoid nurturing a new generation of antagonised and disenfranchised citizens. Ultimately, Prevent style policies make Britain less safe.
Profesor Kundnani says two organisations, the Quilliam Foundation and Policy Exchange have been especially significant in promoting the US narrative in which religious ideology is the central problem.
Former education minister Michael Gove was a founding chairman of Policy Exchange and regarded by other Conservative Party leaders as an expert on Muslims in Britain. In his 2006 book Celsius 7/7, he called for a new Cold War against Islamism, which he defined as an ideology similar to fascism. He states that in the war against Islamism, it will be necessary for Britain to carry out assassinations of terrorist suspects in order to send “a vital signal of resolution”. More generally, a “temporary curtailment of liberties” will be needed to prevent Islamism from destroying Western civilisation…The Quilliam Foundation was established in April 2008 by Ed Husain (author of the best-selling The Islamist published a year earlier) and Maajid Nawaz, both of whom had been activists in Hizb ut-Tahrir before becoming disillusioned and embracing the government’s PVE agenda. The apparent credibility of these two “formers” was crucial to the Foundation’s success in legitimising the official narrative on the causes of terrorism… The Foundation launched an extensive program of “radicalisation awareness” training sessions for thousands of police officers and officials working in local authorities around England and Wales, promoting this argument. With backing from government ministers, it also advised schools on the behaviours that could indicate a young person is being radicalised. In its first two years, the Quilliam Foundation received over £1 million of government PVE funding.
The Islamist and Nawaz’s more recent tome Radical trace the journey of Quilliam’s founders from aggrieved young Muslims to Islamist activists who eventually reject the ideology. Journalist Nafeez Ahmed says the government has played a direct role in crafting these accounts and British intelligence is priming both sides of the “terror war”.
A few years ago, BBC Newsnight proudly hosted a “debate” between Maajid Nawaz, director of counter-extremism think-tank, the Quilliam Foundation, and Anjem Choudary, head of the banned Islamist group formerly known as al-Muhajiroun, which has, since its proscription, repeatedly reincarnated itself. One of its more well-known recent incarnations was “Islam4UK”. Both Nawaz and Choudary have received huge mainstream media attention, generating press headlines, and contributing to major TV news and current affairs shows. But unbeknown to most, they have one thing in common: Britain’s security services. And believe it or not, that bizarre fact explains why the Islamic State’s (IS) celebrity beheader, former west Londoner Mohammed Emwazi – aka “Jihadi John” – got to where he is now.
Anjem Choudary has outlived his usefulness as a provocateur and is now behind bars. But there is a murky history of the involvement of British (and US) intelligence agencies in the radicalisation of young Muslims, particularly of Pakistani origin. Jihadis have been trained in camps in Britain and filtered into Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechynya and more recently Syria. “This terror-funnel”, says Ahmed, is what enabled people like Emwazi to travel to Syria and join up with IS – despite being on an MI5 terror watch-list.”
Mr Mahmood worries that Muslims entertain conspiracy theories about Syria. Briefly, they are expected to believe the British government supports ‘moderate rebels’ against a brutal dictator who is ‘barrel-bombing’ and using chemical weapons against his own people with the backing of Russia. British values require that Muslims ignore the ample evidence that ISIS is armed and supported by the West and its allies and part of the plan was to establish a ‘Salafist principality’ in Eastern Syria.
Unlike ordinary Muslims, the most ardent proponents of ‘political Islam’ in Britain are loathe to challenge the 9/11 cover-up. But as Huffington Post blogger Dilly Hussain recently revealed, they share the government’s objective of regime change in Syria and are prepared to push the same Russophobic propaganda.
Surveillance of the Muslim community is justified by the claim that the 7/7 London bombings and a series of ‘foiled’ terror plots show that the UK faces the threat of “home-grown terrorism.” But much about 7/7 remains disquieting and a proper and public inquiry is vital. Even a cursory acquaintance of the facts of the Ricin poison attack on London or the transatlantic bombing plot – both sensationally reported – suggest the need for careful scrutiny and analysis of the terrorism record.
The US experience is instructive. Scientists John Mueller and Mark Stewart examined the fifty cases of Islamic terrorism in which the US was or was apparently targeted, at home or abroad in the eleven years after 9/11. Their research shattered the Department of Homeland Security’s claim that “terrorists have proven to be relentless, patient, opportunistic, and flexible, learning from experience and modifying tactics and targets to exploit perceived vulnerabilities and avoid observed strengths”.
Those arrested were in fact “incompetent, ineffective, unintelligent, idiotic, ignorant, inadequate, unorganised, misguided, muddled, amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational, and foolish”. Despite warnings of thousands of al-Qaeda cells there had been a dearth of domestic terrorists and police had resorted to creating them. Operatives embedded in terrorist plots considerably outnumbered would-be terrorists. Nearly half the cases involved undercover agents grooming the gullible.
A London bomb plot exposed in a ‘sting operation’ in 2014 illustrates a similar pattern of ‘lone wolf’ delusion in Britain.
Investigators uncovered Mohammed Rehman, an unemployed drug addict still living with his family. His wife, Sana Khan, also lived at home with her parents who disapproved of Rehman. The two decided that they wanted to launch a terrorist attack against the London Underground or a shopping center, with Rehman seeking chemicals online to detonate a bomb while Khan provided the funding. The couple discussed bomb tests, and Rehman eventually tested a bomb in his backyard. Two weeks after they were detected online, the couple was arrested, and after a short trial, they were given life sentences. (There was) no clear evidence of direction by a terrorist group overseas or links to any other plots.
Mr Mahmood is my MP. A year ago I sought his help in defence of ostensibly sacrosanct British values of equality before the law and freedom of expression. He has not responded or replied to follow-up emails. Be warned, Muslims are us.
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