British Muslims, alienation and terrorism

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The Guardian recently carried two related depressing stories about the Muslim community here and terrorism. The first was that, according to some survey carried out by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, British Muslims had more negative views about their non-Muslim fellow citizens than do Muslims in Europe and more likely to believe conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks (PDF of survey results here, press release here). The second had to do with the circle surrounding two of the four men who carried out the July bombings last year: their non-Muslim computer technician tried to alert the authorities to the nature of the materials he was putting out on their behalf, but it appears nobody paid him any attention (as you might expect, Melanie Phillips has already picked up on this story and is using it as part of her anti-multicultural diatribe; for anyone who thought she had gone quiet over the past week, she has simply changed blogging tools and her new diary is here). (More: Opinionated Voice, Harry’s Place.)

As a Muslim who has harboured more than a few conspiracy theories myself, I’d like to make the point that what should be of concern is not that Muslims are unwilling to believe the official story about such events, which has been used to justify destructive actions in the Muslim world and impingements on Muslim civil liberties at home, and more willing to believe that they were government or intelligence service set-ups, but that some Muslims are more willing to believe stupid and fantastic conspiracy theories than reasonable ones. With regard to 9/11, a number of Muslims I met insisted that the attacks on the World Trade Centre were carried out using remote-controlled drone aircraft and missiles and that the real planes had somehow been diverted and sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic. There was even a book published which claimed that the collapse of the towers was caused by some sort of truck bomb, despite the obvious evidence of the planes crashing into the towers, in front of thousands of witnesses, and the fact that they collapsed from the top, not the bottom. This chimes with the tendency of some Islamophobic writers to disregard reports of the excellent characters of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and the Sahaba, and substitute imaginings, one of the most common being that the battle of Badr was no more than a raid on a Meccan caravan.

A more reasonable thesis involved people carrying out these attacks on behalf of people they thought were al-Qa’ida but were actually agents provocateurs, and given the fact of intelligence agencies circulating in the community and entrapping Muslims into terrorist plots (see last entry) and then telling the police, who can blame anyone for suspecting that such an agent might have instigated a real terrorist attack if his masters had desired to carry one out? I mentioned this particular theory to one brother (a middle-aged man of Carribean origin) who clung to the “drone theory”; he told me that it was part of imaan (faith) not to believe what the kufaar (non-believers) say about Muslims. And it is the nature of Muslims not to believe such things about other Muslims without evidence, and this is in effect what Muslims were being asked to do in the aftermath of 9/11. Some Muslims did believe that it was simply an al-Qa’ida conspiracy, and others (like me) have come to do so since, now that there is more evidence that it was just that.

The Tel Aviv pizza parlour bombing in 2003 and the July 2005 attacks also produced their fair share of conspiracy theories. The theories surrounding the Tel Aviv incident were based on the fact that one of the two perpetrators, Asif Hanif, was known not to have been involved in “radical Islamist” groups when in the UK; indeed, he was known to despise them. Of course he had contacts with them; they were all over the place and any active Muslim would have met a few Muhajiroun in his or her time. The fact is that Asif Hanif regularly attended the sort of gatherings which anyone of a “Salafi-jihadi” tendency would not have been able to sit through. I have spoken to others who knew of the events surrounding the two men’s departure from Damascus, who told me that one of them borrowed money before leaving. Most Muslims would not dream of borrowing money with the intention never to pay it back. The only explanation I can think of for Asif’s apparent conversion from Sufi-oriented mainstream Islam to Hamas is that it happened in Damascus, possibly by watching reports of the Palestinian situation on local TV. But until I saw on TV the notorious “sicko” video the two men made, I fully believed they had been set up.

Like a lot of such surveys, this one has a piddlingly small figure of people quoted: the total number of those polled in the UK is 902, of which 412 are Muslims, polled by telephone during April 2006. (The figure for the UK is on page 39 of the PDF download of the survey results.) There are strange inconsistencies in the results: for example, 71% of British Muslims said they felt favourable towards Christians (pp43-44), and strangely only 65% of British Muslims said they felt favourable towards Arabs (p46). Where does that come from? The survey did not ask Muslims if they were favourable towards Westerners, or the general population. It did say that, while a majority of British people, and British Muslims, thought relations “between Muslims around the world and people in Western countries such as the United States and Europe” were generally bad (a little over 60% in both cases), 48% of the British people surveyed, and only 11% of the Muslims, blamed westerners - not a surprise at all, because they may well have been thinking of politicians rather than ordinary people, a distinction the survey does not appear to make (p47). Surprisingly, 59% of the British Muslims thought that democracy would work well in Muslim countries (60% of the British surveyed thought the same; p46). Of the factors the Muslims blamed for the lack of prosperity in Muslim countries, 27% blamed lack of education and 37% blamed government corruption; 17%, a lesser number than I would have imagined, blamed American or western policy (p48). They also asked what characteristics Muslims and non-Muslims in various countries associated with each other (pp51-57); a majority of non-Muslims in all the western countries mentioned did not associate respect for women with Muslims, but 57% of the non-Muslims in Nigeria did (p57). I wonder what that says about the culture there, given that the country is commonly associated with Shari’a hard-luck cases involving women pregnant out of wedlock.

Yesterday’s Guardian carried an article about how the computer expert who worked with, and produced videos for, a group including two of the men who were involved in the July 2005 London bombings. The article by Ed Vulliamy is here, and an interview with him is here. No doubt a lot of people will develop 20-20 hindsight over this, but taped lectures with a violent content by such people as Abdullah Faisal were well known well before 9/11, never mind July 2005. A common feature of the content of Faisal’s tapes and the attitudes Gilbertson heard was the tendency to consider other Muslims as non-Muslims: Gilberson talks of Muhammad Siddique Khan having to be “re-converted”, while Faisal insisted that anyone who disagreed with him on some preacher being a kafir was himself a kafir. Why the intelligence services lost the information Gilbertson provided for them I can’t speculate, but the fact that it was not direct evidence that an act of terrorism was being plotted, and that the people involved were willing to trust a non-Muslim to put their propaganda together for them, spring to mind. The fact that two of the people involved had their computers seized by the police suggests that the authorities were not entirely looking the other way.

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