After the latest horrific incident in the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech had an air of impatience and resolve. Exclaiming that “enough is enough” she cited four key points of action, and stated that there has been “far too much tolerance of extremism” in the UK. She is, of course, right on the latter point — under the guise of free speech, many hate mongers have operated in Britain with impunity over the years, including Abu Hamza (who was eventually handed over to the US) and Mufti Muhammad Hanif Qureshi (who is thought to have inspired Salmaan Taseer’s killer).
And it turns out that one of the London killers, Pakistani-born Khuram Shazad Butt, was linked to Al Muhajiroun, a UK-based extremist group that operated for almost 20 years before being banned in 2004. However, offshoots and sympathisers of this group continue to preach openly in Britain — Butt was featured in a recent British documentary entitled The Jihadis Next Door openly praying in a park to black flag.
The US has also been too tolerant of extremist preaching — earlier this year, in Maryland, a mosque openly held a celebration honouring the killer of Salmaan Taseer, with an advertisement placed in the Urdu Times encouraging attendance of the faithful. Though many complained, the US legal authorities responded that no laws were broken — the event went ahead as planned with good attendance of community members. In Singapore, where I reside, there is zero tolerance for hate speech — an imam was deported last month for making a statement “Grant us help against Christians and Jews”, for which he was promptly charged and found guilty of promoting enmity between religious groups.
In the West, speeches like these are being made all the time, generally with impunity. The Muslim community must accept that there is something terribly wrong with how Islam is being taught by some, and appreciate the lack of ownership many communities and religious leaders take of extremism in their midst, and in some cases, fan the flames. Increasingly over the past few years, firebrand and extremist teaching has permeated into mosques and madrassas, with the result that hate speech has become common and in many places acceptable as simply another point of view.
On the other side of the debate, Theresa May failed to mention perhaps the key reason why all this horror is taking place.
After the terrorist attack in Manchester, Labour Party leader and candidate for Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn took the controversial step of claiming a link between “wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home”. It met with mixed reactions. The Conservative Party cried foul with the predictable horror that the Labour leader should try and explain the actions of those that kill and maim innocent men, women and children. On the other hand, Simon Jenkins of the Guardian penned an editorial “Corbyn is right: of course Manchester was linked to British foreign policy”.
And so the stage is being set for the next level of debate on the topic — a cold hard look at civil liberties that allow extremism to flourish, and possibly a re-evaluation of foreign policy. The truth is, of course, that what happened in Manchester and London is inextricably linked with the wars and happenings in the Middle East. Bombing or invading countries in the Middle East has “blowback”, and any Western political leader who denies this is naïve or not telling the truth. If these wars had not taken place, Manchester and London would almost certainly not have happened. At the same time, Donald Trump just returned from Saudi Arabia having sold tens of billions of arms to a country whose citizens many suspect are the primary financiers of the religious school that inspires the vast majority of these attacks.
Without acceptance of the causes of the problem we are facing, there will be no end to these horrors. Muslim communities and mosques must take it upon themselves to share some of the responsibility for what is happening and not tolerate those who are promoting hatred (for example, by reporting extremists to the authorities, even friends and relatives), whilst Western laws need to change to facilitate the ban of extremist groups and prosecution of hate speech — a zero tolerance approach. Countries such as Saudi Arabia need to do much more to stop the flow of funds to terrorists and the export of an extremist school of thought. And Western leaders need to appreciate that their policies of interfering with governments of Middle Eastern countries have failed terribly (stretching back to the drawing of the Sykes Picot line in 1916, the Balfour declaration in 1917, subsequent removals of democratically elected leaders in several countries, and more recently the Afghan, Iraq, Libyan and Syrian wars). Overall, many parties share collective responsibility for today’s mess, and in order to deal with the problem, there needs to be an honest recognition of how we got here.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 7th, 2017.
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