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Gaza and the radicalisation of British Muslims

By Susannah Tarbush

As shock waves from the catastrophe Israel is inflicting on Gaza spread across the world, it has become clear that Britain is one of the countries outside the Middle East where the impact of the Israeli onslaught is being most immediately felt and is likely to be longest lasting.

British Muslims are feeling such anger and frustration that there are concerns this will be translated into social unrest, extremism and even terrorism. The reactions to Gaza bring into question the government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy which it has introduced over the past few years to try to combat radicalisation.

British Muslims number up to 2 million, and the population is young, with an estimated 54 per cent under 25. The head of the security service MI5, Jonathan Evans, warned that as a result of the Gaza war extremists would “try to radicalise individuals for their own purposes.”

The Justice Minister Shahid Malik, the first Muslim to become a minister in Britain, told the Guardian newspaper that the Israeli attacks on Gaza have caused “immense anger” among British Muslims. “There is a real feeling of helplessness, hopelessness and powerlessness”, Malik said. “The sense of grievance and injustice is both profoundly acute and obviously profoundly unhealthy.”

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Hazel Blears told the BBC: “I am very concerned indeed that the events in Gaza could well be used by those people who want to peddle pernicious extremist views to draw particularly vulnerable young people into that kind of extremism.”

Following the attacks in the US on 9/11 2001, the four suicide bombings on the London transport system on 7 July 2005, and a series of terror conspiracies since then, the government has poured millions of pounds into a strategy to try to  counter terrorism. The strategy has four main strands, including ‘Prevent’.

The ‘Prevent’ strand aims to tackle radicalisation, partly through a “battle of ideas” to challenge extremist ideologies.  The government has worked with certain Muslim groups and individuals to dispute these ideologies, and has financed certain Muslim organisations it sees as “moderate”. 

But now some of the Muslims at the heart of helping with the ‘Prevent’ strategy have spoken out both against the Israeli onslaught, and against British government policy towards Gaza which they see as “too little, too late” and not independent enough of the US. They include Ed Husain, co-director of the Quilliam Foundation. He told Al Hayat that a lot of young Muslims who had previously been “sitting on the fence” regarding radicalism may now tip over into extremism as a result of the Gaza war.  He describes the Palestine and Gaza situation as a “cocktail” of elements that make it a particularly potent issue and a rallying cry for young British Muslims. “We are repeatedly told that the government has done what is possible, but that the ball is in the court of America.”

Husain argues that the Muslim anger over Gaza could damage the ‘Prevent’ strategy, and could also undo the efforts that Foreign Secretary David Miliband has been making to engage with Muslims abroad (including his recent trip to Syria, which went “exceptionally well”) and in Britain (including discussions and visits to mosques).

Already violence has erupted at some of the Gaza demonstrations in British cities. The Israeli Embassy off High Street Kensington in London has become a flashpoint for confrontations between demonstrators and police. On January 10, during the largest-ever demonstration for Palestine in Britain – attracting some 100,000 demonstrators – Muslim youths hurled down barricades and smashed into and looted shops and cafes.

There is said to be increased activity on Islamist websites and in Islamist recruitment efforts. Usama Hasan, a senior lecturer in computer science at Middlesex University, and also a part-time Imam at an East London mosque, said on BBC TV’s Newsnight: “We thought we were winning the battle against violent extremism  - but if there is anything that will inflame people’s emotions and actions more it is the perception that the British government is siding with Israel in this conflict”.

He added:  “For example in my local area, posters went up over the weekend saying ‘Jihad – the only solution to Palestine.’ And by that they mean terrorism, or armed conflict, for ever, rather than peaceful negotiations.”

The leader and co-founder of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain Dr Ghaayassudin Siddiqui, who has often spoken out against extremism, told Al-Hayat: “I would like Muslims not to take the Israeli bait, and not to respond in an emotional way”.  He compared it to the way in which Israel used Hamas in the past and built it up to marginalise “sensible and moderate” Palestinian groups. He said: “We want to see a pluralistic society in Palestine” and “We say no to an ‘eye for an eye’ response. “ He says “we want to make a huge movement for peace” and thinks violence will lost the movement friends. He calls for “a mature, measured response and a condemnation of killings of all innocent people on all sides. We have to stake out the moral high ground.”

Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz jointly founded the Quilliam Foundation last year as “the world’s first counter-extremism think tank”. They are former members of Hizb Ut-Tahrir, which they now denounce as an extreme Islamist organisation. Not surprisingly, there have been some suspicions about the Foundation and its links with the government.

But now Husain and Nawaz have criticised Israel and the British government, and also Hamas. When the onslaught on Gaza began, their Foundation issued a press release saying: "The UK Government cannot seek to win hearts and minds across Muslim communities while failing to stop Israel from murdering Palestinians en masse.” The Foreign Office and Downing Street had a duty “to condemn, and call for immediate cessation of Israel's military operations, and end the siege".

The statement added that “perceived double standards from our government and the current green light (from Washington and London) to Israel's killing machine” would strengthen Al Qaeda's grand narrative and “radicalize yet another generation of young Muslims”.
Husain says that within moments of the Foundation issuing the statement, “we had complaints from senior officials in the US and others who blindly support Israel.” He said in an article he wrote for the Guardian’s Comment is Free site that “Israel has just helped create a new generation of suicide bombers, prepared to stop at nothing.” But at the same time he criticised Hamas as an “Irresponsible, senile and fanatical organisation that repeatedly puts its people at risk.”

Husain’s position has earned him bitter criticism from the journalist, author and broadcaster Melanie Phillips, who is one Israel’s of the most vocal supporters in the media. Two years ago she was full of praise for Husain’s “courage”, on publication of his book: “The Islamist: Why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left”. But today she says: “Ed Husain has shown that in the great battle to defend civilisation against barbarism he is on the wrong side.” She adds: “Disgustingly, he draws a moral equivalence between Palestinian human bomb attacks and Israeli’s operation in Gaza which he calls Israel’s massacre of innocent Palestinians.”

In a joint article published on Comment is Free, Husain and Nawaz rejected the various criticisms levelled at the Quilliam Foundation – on the one hand  (by figures such as Phillips) that it is Islamist, on the other that it is neoconservative. They wrote that for months, “our detractors have accused us of receiving tens of millions of taxpayers’ money. In reality we have received £514,000 for this [year] and last year from the Home Office, and £139,000 from the Foreign Office for the work we do in countering extremism in Muslim-majority countries. Much of this is used to support 18 full-time staff across three continents to tackle radicalisation. To put this firmly in perspective, central government has allocated a total £79.3 million so far for the ‘Prevent’ agenda.”

Another indication that Muslims on whom the government was depending to help counter radicalism have turned against it over Gaza is an open letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown signed by 14 people (including Husain and Nawaz) described as some of the government’s leading Muslim advisers on counter terrorism. The letter warned that Israel’s use of disproportionate force to combat threats to its security has revived extremist groups and empowered their message of violence and perennial conflict. They said it is imperative that Britain makes its differences and views with the US clear. “For Muslims in the UK and abroad, we run the risk of potentially creating a loss of faith in the political process.”

Separately, a letter has been sent to Brown by the Young Muslim Advisory Group which was appointed by the government last October as part of the ‘Prevent ‘strategy. The government sees the 22 members of the group – who are aged between 16 and 25 and have outstanding educational and community work records – as the next generation of Muslim community leaders. The group’s task was to talk regularly to ministers and policy makers about the issues affecting their day to day lives, and to help the government deepen its engagement with young Muslims. 

The letter, the text of which was revealed by the Muslim News newspaper, demands that the British government see the killing of hundreds of innocent Palestinians in Gaza at the hands of the Israeli government as an “act of state terrorism” and as a form of “violent extremism” that “must be clearly condemned”.

The letter says that in the current political climate, “there is a real danger that young people who witness the impotence of institutions that are supposed to be protecting innocent life will turn to other organisations in an effort to make their voices heard and the violence stop.” It adds that “our failure to take clear action also jeopardises our efforts to achieve the objectives of the ‘Prevent’ agenda, as we will be seen to be inconsistent and hypocritical in our approach.”

The government faces the dilemma that it cannot be seen to change its foreign policy under the threat of a possible increase in radicalisation. Foreign Office minister of state for the Middle East Bill Rammell responded to the letter from the 14 Muslim advisers with a letter of his own to the Guardian: “Nothing justifies violent extremism and in fact the UK has led international efforts for an immediate and sustainable ceasefire. Criticisms of our approach are neither fair nor accurate.”
The government has been making considerable efforts to engage with Muslims during the Gaza crisis and to explain its policies. David Miliband and Hazel Blears have met representatives of the Muslim community. A foreign office spokeswoman notes that Bill Rammell has been briefing Muslim organisations, parliamentarians and community leaders, and she says that ministers and officials will continue to discuss developments with Muslims at grassroots level over the coming weeks.

But the government is having much difficulty getting its position understood and accepted. Justice Minister Shahid Malik said that during meetings he had held with Muslim communities over Gaza “I was extremely concerned that many British Muslims had failed to distinguish between the UK’s current response and the response in 2006 during the Lebanon crisis. People have become so disillusioned that they almost appear to have stopped listening to politicians.”

Nick Clegg, head of the Liberal Democrats, is the only leader of a major political party in Britain to have strongly condemned Israel. He said that Brown, like Tony Blair, has “made British foreign policy effectively subservient to Washington.” Brown “must condemn unambiguously Israel’s tactics, just as he has rightly condemned Hamas’s rocket attacks. Then he must lead the EU into using its economic and diplomatic leverage in the region to broker peace.”

Clegg called on Britain to halt its arms exports to Israel, and to persuade its EU counterparts to do the same. “Britain is selling more and more weapons to Israel, despite the questions about t he country’s use of force.” In 2007 Britain approved arms exports to Israel worth 6million Sterling. In 2008 it licensed sales 12 times as quickly: £20 million in the first three months alone.

Clegg insisted that the EU must immediately suspend the proposed new co-operation agreement with Israel until things change in Gaza, and should also apply tough conditions on any long-term assistance to the Palestinian community.

Chris Doyle director of the Council for Arab British Understanding (CAABU) welcomed Clegg’s statement, and said in a letter to the Guardian that an arms embargo should be the absolute minimum international action. “From 1982 to 1994 the UK joined a UK-wide embargo as a result of similar Israeli atrocities in Lebanon, a reflection of Israel’s propensity to use massive, overwhelming force against civilian targets in total defiance of international law and morality. The case for an embargo is perhaps even stronger now.”

[English original of article published in Arabic in Al-Hayat newspaper on 19 January 2009]




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