Can the War on Terror be won?
On the 7th of July 2005 attacks on three London Underground trains and one London bus resulted in the deaths of 52 civilians with many more hundreds injured. Britain had previously been spared from Islamist terrorism whose main victims were and still remain predominantly Islamic countries, although successful attacks had been mounted on Spain in the Madrid bombings and, most notably, the United States in the 9/11 attacks. Britain is no stranger to terrorism – both abroad in its colonial dealings such as in the case of Jewish terrorism in Mandatory Palestine and at home in the example of the IRA. Islamist terrorism poses far greater and far more difficult challenges to British security forces and to the British national psyche, with these challenges as acute as they were on that fateful day in 2005.
How to approach the continuing difficulties faced by Islamist terrorism is a divisive question. Firstly it must be put into a wider perspective – Lee Rigby is the only death on British soil since 7/7 which is attributable to Islamist terrorism. Whether this fact is more attributable to the excellent work of security services or to the possibility that the threat is over exaggerated is open to debate. However the answer, one suspects, is somewhere in the middle ground. With events recently in Tunisia, Kuwait, Australia and France it is clear, nevertheless, that Islamist terrorism does pose a serious threat.
Islamist terrorism, although undoubtedly directed against the governments of Western states, is just as much an attack against Western civilians
As part of an ideological war, the threat posed by Islamist terrorism is conceptually different to the threat posed by Irish Republic terrorism, or Jewish terrorism in the 1940s for that matter. The IRA’s brand of terrorism was focused specifically against the British state and normally looked to limit casualties, often by pre-warning authorities when an attack was going to take place. Islamist terrorism, although undoubtedly directed against the governments of Western states, is just as much an attack against Western civilians – hence the targeting of a resort populated predominantly by Western tourists in Tunisia. It is not possible, as in the case of the IRA, for any settlement to be reached with these groups and thus the threat must necessarily be dealt with through military means.
It is not enough for organisations with important roles in the Islamic community to passively oppose extremism, they must play a role in fighting it
Evidently, there is a further and interlinked issue of radicalisation within Britain as seen in the example of the small but still worrying numbers of new ISIS recruits from Britain as well as other European countries. One complaint made by many British Muslims is the onus seemingly placed on them to apologise for attacks justified by an appeal to Islam. Clearly the blame for attacks must lie solely on the attackers. Yet, as in the case of 7/7, when the attackers were born and raised in the country which is victim to their attack, questions must be raised and one of these must be not only whether Islamic organisations and mosques are responsible for any radicalisation, but also whether they are doing enough to fight against radicalisation. If we accept that the threat is a real, genuine one then it is not enough for organisations with important roles in the Islamic community to passively oppose extremism, they must play a role in fighting it.
Equally, we must address our own prejudices. Islamophobia as a term is conceptually meaningless and should be a term wholeheartedly abandoned as all it serves to do is shield Islam from critique. Even so there has been a worrying rise in prejudice against British Muslims, best epitomised in the example of the EDL. Britain must also do more in its foreign policy to convince Muslims that they are not opponents of the Islamic world in the Middle East and Africa. Libya seemed a positive step in this direction however it has since been abandoned. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan undoubtedly inflamed Muslims attitudes to Western states but far more damaging to the credibility and legitimacy of Western and the British government in this regard is surely the state that these countries have been abandoned in. There were few complaints among Iraqis when Saddam Hussein was initially deposed, it is only since that we have seen opinion change so dramatically.
Even the more moderate strains of Islam hold far more conservative views than most liberal minded Brits would do
Islam, many argue, is stuck in the Middle Ages having not seen the progression that Christianity experienced in the Renaissance, Reformation Renaissance and Enlightenment. There is credibility in this argument when one considers the teachings of Wahhabism and Salafism. Even the more moderate strains of Islam hold far more conservative views than most liberal minded Brits would do. Statistics do show that even in Britain Muslims tend to hold very conservative views and there is a sizeable minority who hold worryingly extreme views; 11% of those polled after the Charlie Hebdo attacks believe that organisations which publish pictures of the Prophet deserve to be attacked. Yet it is a stretch to say that Islam is incompatible with British beliefs – 93% of those polled also agreed that British laws should always be obeyed and this statistic is surely the vital one.
Suspicion of Muslims in general is little more than bigotry and is a problem worryingly on the rise
Ten years on from the worst terrorist attack this country has seen on its soil, few lessons – it seems – have been learnt. Abroad the war on terror seemed tentatively to be heading towards a victorious conclusion with the complete obliteration of al-Qaeda as any meaningful threat. However Western neglect of Iraq since the invasion has allowed ISIS to establish a powerful presence in disaffected Sunni areas, with terrorism now, once again, on the rise as a threat. At home, although suspicion of Islam as a religion and ideology may be justified, suspicion of Muslims in general is little more than bigotry and is a problem worryingly on the rise. Abroad, within Islam, there has been little meaningful progress towards a more accommodating attitude towards the West whilst at home, radicalisation is an increasingly worrying phenomenon. A decade on, the war on terror seems no closer to conclusion.