Monday, June 11, 2007

A very British bombing

I've just read an excellent article "My brother the bomber" in Prospect magazine. It is about Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the London bombers and takes a serious stab at explaining the sociology of the attacks. The author, Shiv Malik, deserves congratulations.

It was, it turns out, a very British bombing. Not because of British troops in Iraq; as Malik writes:
"Khan may have felt indignant about western foreign policy, as many anti-war campaigners do, but that wasn't the reason he led a cell of young men to kill themselves and 52 London commuters."
You could say it was more about who you marry, or that the bloke down the mosque was boring and couldn't speak English properly. It's about Barelvi traditionalism of the Kashmir colliding with Salafi* modernism of the internet on the back streets of Leeds. They wanted to be global jihadis, and indeed have become that in death - I'm sure they would have wet their pants with excitement at the idea of their deaths being lauded by Ayman al-Zawahiri. But what made them take that path is to be found more in Yorkshire than in al-Anbar or South Waziristan.

The depressing thing is how, in retrospect of course, it all makes sense. I remember taking a leaflet from the guys manning a stall of one of the Hizb ut-Tahrir affiliates/fronts outside the student union of my university in Manchester in maybe 2003. It was about resisting arranged marriage. Malik nails it by saying the Salafism is in effect "liberation theology" against the ultra-conservative traditions brought to the UK by the country-bumpkin Pakistani parents (again - that is the sociology, it's not just about immigrants being 'Pakistani' or 'Muslim', it is about the specific social, economic, and cultural situation that led to Pakistani emigration to Northern England three decades ago). The leaflet I took hits a tone somewhere between radical feminist pamphleteering, reactionary evangelicalism and a teenager whining "just leave me alone!" to his parents. I'm not sure if the fathers of modern Salafism would be delighted or horrified by this.

Obvious in retrospect... I interviewed a senior British counter-terrorism police officer recently - a fascinating couple of hours. He noted that in the aftermath of 9/11 the government hauled in a load of British imams and "community leaders" for a round-table to help them 'understand' al-Qaeda and, of course, they were all clueless - having basically no more idea about bin Laden than the rest of the country. I suggested that it was like asking your local vicar to help explain Timothy McVeigh, he laughed and agreed. But people like Olivier Roy had spotted it, even if he didn't layout the specific English/Pakistani dimension. And as Malik points out in the piece, people in Khan's community knew what was going on, but just thought they were angry young men mouthing off and who ultimately wouldn't really do anything.

But they did. They stepped across the line that divides the Salafi fundamentalist (who despite having, to my mind, a reactionary and intolerant theology remains peaceful) from the violent jihadi. It seems easily done in some cases, but many thousands of others stay resolutely on the legal side of that line. It's a hard distinction to see from the outside, but I know that at least parts of the police and security forces are trying to understand better where that line is, and how to keep angry young men, like Khan, on the right side of it.

*Malik uses the term Wahhabi in his piece instead; I thinks it's inaccurate but it is a rather complex and not very important point.


KGS said...

Hi Toby,
Interesting post as always.


1.) Is the Salafist ideology a local "hown grown" variant, being the natural response to "the ultra-conservative traditions brought to the UK by the country-bumpkin Pakistani parents", or a direct by-product of imported Salafist ideology by immigrant Imams and other Islamist preachers and teachers that have built a base in Britian over the decades?

2.) What effect or role has the imported televised sermons by radical Saudi preachers of hate had on the local British Muslim community?

3.) Where the Imams and other Islamic leaders brought to the discussion table by British leaders just after 9/11, completely caught unawares by the sudden phenomenon....?

If so, how does that jive with open incitement caught on live cameras in their mosques?

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

1) The salafi interpretation is there because, predominantly, of Saudi funding over the last 25 or so years. Just like everywhere else in the world really. Hence when young Muslims reject the traditional Islam of their parents, or the pub and club culture of the majority of young Britons, they see what they are told is the pure, real, global version of the faith. Oddly the same thing is happening in the UK with Christianity. New, very conservative, evangelical churches are spreading rapidly particularly in London. Some are very much US exports, but the most ardent seem to be African. Very different from the traditional Afro-Caribbean churches. As ever, some parts of the young tend to go for the hardest interpretation of any ideology.

2) I'm not really sure about this. Remember the vast majority of British muslims don't speak Arabic, so aren't likely to be watching aljazeera for example, either for religious or news programmes, more the South Asian channels. Stuff broadcast in English I'm sure would have exactly the impact you would expect on its target audience, which will be the young and radical.

3) You are refering to the Channel 4 programme I guess? Wasn't one of those preachers - ironically enough - an American? I think basically you're mixing two groups up, there are and have been since the late 80s salafi mosques around the country, where I suspect incitement like that is nothing new. It goes back to Bosnia at least. Then there are the majority of UK local mosques, predominantly Pakistani (or Bangladeshi in London), where that sort of thing wasn't (isn't?) an issue. The "war on terror", Iraq, anti-terrorism laws, mass arrests and general politicisation of Muslim communities over the last 6 years has stirred the pot a lot, which makes people more willing to listen to that sort of stuff, but its not everywhere. There are also very conservative mosques that will have none of that sort of talk inside. The salafis of Brixton mosque confronted the jihadis - Abu Hamza's lot if I remember right - back in the late 90s, physically picking them up and carrying them out of the mosque; despite being threatened even with guns. The police back then didn't really get it and weren't very interested, but now obviously its much more important that the divisions with the Salafi groups are better understood, let alone the divisions between them and the much wider, more boring Muslim communities.

Many British S. Asian Muslims are sufi-influenced, and therefore get slagged for not being 'proper' Muslims by the more Wahhabi influenced groups. They, are understandably pretty pissed off with this, and tend to be a lot more hardcore than even the police - lumping all salafi groups, political Islamists, HuT, Jamat Tabligh etc. together and calling them all extremists. There is a new organisation that claims to represent this silent majority (always an interesting claim) that definitely has the ear of certain ministries of the govt.

KGS said...

Hi Toby,

I concur with your statement in (1), "As ever, some parts of the young tend to go for the hardest interpretation of any ideology".

No religion is exempt from that phenomenon, "purest ideology" will always attract those who are disillusioned, especially with the young. Fortunately for us --as well as the Brits-- these evangelicals aren't interested in violence, though they do have a master plan for us all, at least they do understand the concept of pluralism within a democracy.

(2) I think that any divisions that exist inside the Salafi camp (in Britain and elsewhere) is a point that needs to be explored in greater detail. Just what exactly are those points of differences? As you know from our prior discussions I view the violent strain of course being the more dangerous of the two for all the obvious reasons, but the two camps, IMHO are as equally dangerous for society in the long run.

The non-violent Salafi version (if I understand things correctly) embodies all the needed ingredients to launch the frustrated adherent to Salafism to the next "logical" stage, with taking things into his own hands. But perhaps we are witness to the age old "chicken and the egg" dilemma?

(3) You are (as you Brits put it) "spot on" about the Sufi branch of Islam, who are indeed pissed off at the Salafi/Wahhabi extremists who are intent on marginalizing the leaders in their communities. That is what is happening all over the world not just in Britain, with the Balkans being a prime example.

[I am guilty of lumping both Salafis and Wahhabis together because according to Efraim Karsh, (who stated to me personally) that there is little difference between the two, akin to the splitting of hairs, so I'll take his word for it.]

The Sufi's IMHO are the ones with whom the whole Muslim and non-Muslim world should look to, as the answer to the problems that face their religion, it's an inside problem that can only be handled within their circles.

That said, going back to number (3), I am still not convinced that the politicians --either in Britain or elsewhere in the west-- truly have a handle on who to trust. YES, there are Islamic leaders in the west who exist and need to be given front stage, but western leaders have proven themselves time and time again, to have chosen the wrong "horse to back".

I remember back in March when I attended Daniel Pipes' award ceremony/speech in Copenhagen, this very issue came up. It was also underlined by some modernist Muslims (one was an ex-pat Iranian) in the audience who spoke during the question and answer period. They hate to see their modern leaders who embrace pluralism being sidelined by their non-Muslim politicians time and time again. There is also the issue of intimidation and coupled with a lack of confidence --that they will not be left hang out to dry-- in local and state politicians, many a good men and women will not venture to stick their necks out due to this very issue.

One man (the Iranian ex-pat) said that he fled Iran to escape the very same specter of fear and intimidation that he experiences in the Muslim community in Copenhagen on a daily basis. Anyways, something has got to change.

Later/ KGS

Tom Fuller said...


Re: "As ever, some parts of the young tend to go for the hardest interpretation of any ideology.
", do you think it's the hardest or just the most dramatic/exciting?



Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

Tom - I think that's exactly right, but the most dramatic and exciting version of any ideology or religion is likely to be the most extreme.

When you're 17 being a marxist seems far more cool than being a wishy-washy centrist social democrat for example!

KGS said...

The devil is in the details. When a religion's leader is viewed as the embodyment of the "perfect man", and the main exhorter of violence for his followers, it makes it that ideology much more dangerous an attractive to the youth and other age groups as well.