Arun Kundnani on rethinking radicalisation and extremism since 7/7

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In the second of our blog posts to mark ten years since the 7/7 bombings, we bring you an extract from The Muslims Are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror by Arun Kundnani, a powerful critique of the surveillance and prosecution of Muslims the UK and US since in the wake of 9/11 and 7/7 terror attacks.

In this passage, Kundnani traces the formation of a globalised, politicised branch of Islam in the UK, shaped in large part by the endemic racism experienced by Muslims day-to-day.  Kundnani, as with the first extract published earlier today from Tariq Ali's
Rough Music, also questions why narratives of terrorist violence are detached from the wider context of Western governments’ foreign policies.


Islamic movements like HT, founded in Jordan in the 1950s, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt, and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) in South Asia, which had emerged in the context of decolonization in the mid–twentieth century, were essentially attempts to respond to the legacy of colonialism at the cultural level. Frantz Fanon, the psychiatrist from Martinique who joined the Algerian anticolonial struggle, had noted: “Colonial domination, because it is total and tends to oversimplify, very soon manages to disrupt in spectacular fashion the cultural life of a conquered people.”(1)  Like all colonized peoples, Muslims in the Middle East and South Asia recognized that formal political independence did not by itself resolve the issue of how to reconstruct identity. Leaving the nation-state structures established by colonialism in place and simply replacing Europeans with native leaders was insufficient: it ignored the more complex question of what kinds of political subjectivity they would need to create to sustain newly decolonized states, what Fanon described as the demand for “not only the disappearance of colonialism but also the disappearance of the colonized man.”(2)  For the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the JI in Pakistan, the answer was to be found in turning Islam into a form of identity politics. It was as Muslims, rather than as nationals of a colonially defined territory, that a sense of shared belonging was to be established and a more fundamental breach with European cultural domination enacted. In this respect, these Islamic movements were similar to groups mobilizing other religious identities in decolonizing settings—such as the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in India. In practice, as these movements began to increase their influence in the 1970s, they tended toward stabilizing the social inequalities left behind by colonialism. They campaigned for conservative positions on gender relations and mobilized support through agitation against minorities, whether it was the Ahmadiyya minority in Pakistan or the Copt minority in Egypt. They bore little resemblance to Fanon’s hopes of setting “afoot a new man” in the aftermath of colonialism that would offer new models for humanity.(3)

The appeal of these movements to some young Muslims who were living as minorities in Britain in the 1990s therefore seems hard to explain at first. The political program of HT, for instance, had little to say about Britain itself. Before the Rushdie affair, HT’s UK-based leadership did not even target British-born Muslims for recruitment, preferring to focus on visiting Arab students and professionals who might participate in an HT-led coup d’état on their return home. Such a program was of little practical relevance to minority Islam in a secular Western state such as Britain.(4) HT’s success in this period rested not on its political program as such but on its ability to act as a vehicle for a new kind of globalized Islamic identity. As the French scholar Olivier Roy has argued, this notion of a globalized Islam is not the product of any specific “Islamist” organization but a broad sociological trend that has developed across Europe as a result of racism, migration, and globalization.(5) Young Muslims felt alienated not only from the racism of the wider society, but also from the inward-looking mosque life of their parents, which was centered upon specific ethnic identities (for example, Sylheti, Gujarati, or Mirpuri) and mingled Islam with South Asian folk traditions. The idea of identifying with the global ummah proved an attractive third alternative to either assimilating into a racist society or following the inherited religio-cultural traditions of their parents. The version of Islam that suited this approach was one that was delinked from the ethnic folk practices drawn from South Asia (such as reverence for holy men, or pirs); these were to be stripped away on the grounds of their being impure accretions that had contaminated the original universal message of Islam. While their parents had imbibed their religion through an oral tradition bound up with South Asian languages and poetry, the new, globalized Islam was at home in English and on the printed page (and later, the Internet). It was this concept of a globalized Islam rather than a Pakistani Islam or a Bangladeshi Islam that appealed to some young British Asian Muslims in the 1990s, whether it led to the ranks of HT or, as for Farasat, to Salafism. Through these new Islamic movements, young Muslims thus carried out their own globalization, transcending inherited ethnic and national belongings in favor of an allegiance to the global Islamic community. As new immigrant communities from Somalia, Afghanistan, Algeria, and Iraq began to form in the UK during the 1990s, the idea of a global Islam, as opposed to a mosaic of ethnicities, made all the more sense. The world was now pictured differently.

The South Asian neighborhoods of Britain and the original towns and villages of South Asia from which communities had migrated remained the central axes of young Muslims’ mental geography. But alongside them came a growing knowledge of other parts of the world where the ummah was oppressed: Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq. In principle, all the struggles for justice of Muslims around the world were to be regarded as equally important. Ultimately, there was no homeland and no diaspora but a global Islamic consciousness unbounded by geography. This new sense of identity was fundamentally political: It provided a new language for describing injustice and offered a way of filling the void opened up by the decline of the Left. It countered the globalization of capitalism not with a return to local tradition but with a transnationalism of its own.

There was a range of ways in which this trend manifested. For some, having stripped Islam of South Asian cultural accretions, it was easier to establish a sense of belonging as a Muslim in Western society. This was the model offered by reformists such as the Swiss philosopher Tariq Ramadan, who emphasized the need to apply Islam’s universal principles to the specific context of when and where one lived. By going back to the original sources, Ramadan argued, universal Islamic values, after being separated from the particular immigrant cultures with which they had become bound up, are found to be broadly compatible with liberalism. This then provided an Islamic basis for active citizenship and engagement for social justice rather than isolation or a one-sided adaptation to British cultural norms.(6) The unities between Muslims and others in the movement against the 2003 Iraq war rested on this assumption, that Islamic and liberal values could be aligned on specific political struggles. For others, like Farasat Latif, the path led to literalism and the attempt to model one’s life as closely as possible on the Prophet’s. While both of these approaches involved issues of identity, they could only be fully understood in the context of a political history of racism, the decline of leftist politics, and Western  neocolonialism.

Three of the four men who carried out the 7/7 terrorist attacks on the London transport system in 2005, resulting in the deaths of fifty-two passengers, had also been shaped by the generational gap between a parental folkloric Islam and a new global Islam. In the aftermath of the attacks, the pundits, think tanks, academics, and intelligence analysts who were called on to explain this new threat of “homegrown” terrorism tended to assume because those perpetrating the violence had made a break with their parent’s Islam in favor of something called Salafism or Islamism, that these isms must be the cause of their violence, the drivers of their radicalization. In the most influential study of the causes of 7/7, the journalist Shiv Malik argued that the bombers were the product of a much wider trend in Britain’s Muslim communities, of a younger generation using Islamism to reject the traditional practices of their parents.(7) The claim that the cultural origins of homegrown terrorism could be found in the general trend of young Muslims rethinking their identities was a convenient alternative to recognizing more political factors, such as Britain’s foreign policies. And such a claim had the implication that a whole range of behaviors associated with this generational conflict could be used by security officials as “indicators” of the risk of radicalization—for example, choosing to leave the congregation of one’s parents’ mosque in favor of an attachment to one with a more globalized idea of Islam. It also meant that government projects to intervene in the cultural dynamics of Muslim life to try to shore up alternatives to Islamism could be legitimized as part of a counterterrorism strategy. Finally, it implied that multicultural tolerance of these new forms of identity, in which Muslims identify with their coreligionists around the world, was in itself a national security risk.

Such analyses became the main lens through which Muslim identity in the West was viewed. In Prime Minister David Cameron’s much-discussed speech to the Munich Security Conference in 2011, he made the same argument: behind Muslim terrorism lay “a question of identity”; “the passive tolerance of recent years” had to be abandoned in favor of a much more assertive defense of British values against “Islamist extremism”; Muslims had to privilege their Britishness over their global allegiance to Muslims.(8) On the same day, the far Right English Defence League marched through Farasat Latif ’s hometown of Luton making roughly similar demands in less genteel language. By remaining within an exclusively cultural analysis, and ignoring the political histories of racism and the foreign policy practices of the war on terror, Cameron’s speech was unable to come to grips with the real roots of political violence. Ironically, demanding that Muslims be more British simply reminded them that as things stood they did not have an equal say in what Britishness meant.

In later chapters I argue that analyses of terrorism that locate its root cause in Islamist ideology and underlying cultural conflicts are conceptually flawed and inconsistent with the available evidence. In short, there is no demonstrable cause and effect between holding an Islamist ideology and committing acts of terrorist violence. The notion that “extremist ideas,” perhaps enabled by identity conflicts or group dynamics, by themselves turn people into violent radicals does not stand up to scrutiny, and it detaches the question of terrorist violence from the wider context of Western governments’ foreign policies. It is noteworthy that in the July 7, 2005, bombings the usual theories of radicalization, such as Shiv Malik’s, have to ignore the story of Germaine Lindsay, the suicide bomber who killed 26 people and injured over 340 on a Piccadilly line underground train between King’s Cross and Russell Square stations. He was born in Jamaica in 1985 and immigrated to Britain with his mother as a young child. His mother converted to Islam when he was fifteen, and he followed immediately afterward, before she left to live in the US. Thereafter, Lindsay seemed to live a life of petty crime but engaged in some political activities. He was reported to have been a drug dealer for a time, who was “always going on about racism” and “thought all white people were trash.”(9) He attended a national demonstration in October 2002 against the impending war on Iraq and for the rights of Palestinians; there he met a woman with whom he would have a long-term relationship and two children. He was only nineteen years old when he carried out his act of mass murder. There was nothing in this story to correspond to the generally accepted radicalization models, which is why pundits normally neglect to discuss him.

In later chapters I argue that analyses of terrorism that locate its root cause in Islamist ideology and underlying cultural conflicts are conceptually flawed and inconsistent with the available evidence. In short, there is no demonstrable cause and effect between holding an Islamist ideology and committing acts of terrorist violence. The notion that “extremist ideas,” perhaps enabled by identity conflicts or group dynamics, by themselves turn people into violent radicals does not stand up to scrutiny, and it detaches the question of terrorist violence from the wider context of Western governments’ foreign policies. It is noteworthy that in the July 7, 2005, bombings the usual theories of radicalization, such as Shiv Malik’s, have to ignore the story of Germaine Lindsay, the suicide bomber who killed 26 people and injured over 340 on a Piccadilly line underground train between King’s Cross and Russell Square stations. He was born in Jamaica in 1985 and immigrated to Britain with his mother as a young child. His mother converted to Islam when he was fifteen, and he followed immediately afterward, before she left to live in the US. Thereafter, Lindsay seemed to live a life of petty crime but engaged in some political activities. He was reported to have been a drug dealer for a time, who was “always going on about racism” and “thought all white people were trash.”(9) He attended a national demonstration in October 2002 against the impending war on Iraq and for the rights of Palestinians; there he met a woman with whom he would have a long-term relationship and two children. He was only nineteen years old when he carried out his act of mass murder. There was nothing in this story to correspond to the generally accepted radicalization models, which is why pundits normally neglect to discuss him.

Notes

(1) Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, London: Penguin, 1990, 190.
(2) Ibid., 198.
(3) Ibid., 255.
(4) Suha Taji-Farouki, A Fundamental Quest: Hizb al-Tahrir and the Search for the Islamic Caliphate, London: Grey Seal, 1996, 187.
(5) Olivier Roy, Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, London: Hurst, 2004.
(6) Tariq Ramadan, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 22, 35.
(7). Shiv Malik, “My Brother the Bomber,” Prospect, no. 135, June 2007.
(8) David Cameron, Speech to Munich Security Conference, February 5, 2011.
(9) Anne-Marie Bradley, “Bomber Was Huddersfield Drug Dealer,” Huddersfield Daily Examiner, August 8, 2005.

- The first of our extracts published to mark the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings can be read on the Verso blog.