Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Unspinning the accusations of violence against Islam

Some commentators have asserted that the trend towards greater Islamic practice combined with political concerns over events in the Muslim world has made the Muslim community more vulnerable to the use of violence to counteract perceived injustices. The Policy Exchange report describes how "Islamism is not only a security problem…" implying that it is at least that. Tony Blair's recent announcement to make Islamic studies 'strategically important' to the British national interest, arguing it will help prevent 'violent' extremism, demonstrates that the study of Islam by the Muslim community is thought to be associated with an increased threat from violence. As a result, the logic requires this Islamicisation of Muslim politics to be treated with suspicion and, at some level, stymied and prevented from growing in influence.

It is important to reiterate that while in a secular framework politicisation may be supported, a growing awareness of Islam and its use in politics is seen by some to stand at odds with secular, irreligious politics. In this sense the trend is unconventional and outside the prevailing political culture in the West which has led some to describe it with terms that undermine their credibility. The terms 'radical' and 'extremist' misrepresent the changes in the Muslim community, and misrepresent the phenomena of Islamicisation, but have a powerful impact in the manner in which the argument is extended to include the possibility of violence.

In this section, we argue that:

• The trend towards greater Islamic political practice, far from being a precursor for violence, often provides people with an alternative.

• Politically motivated violence is a wider issue most often occurring as a response to political oppression and injustice rather than because of ideology or theology. Hence, the association of Islam with political violence is misleading.

• There is little support for violence as a means of change as demonstrated by recent polls of Muslim opinion, which also show increasingly levels of support for Islamic politics.

• It is important to separate goals from means so as to not to link widely held legitimate political ideas with violence.

Decoupling Political Violence from Islam

Violence is Driven by Political not Theological Factors

Violence cannot be treated as an extension of the trend towards greater Islamic political practice within the Muslim community. The history of political violence demonstrates that it is cross-cultural, cross religion and ideology and is driven by a number of factors often born out of a sense of political injustice, occupation or invasion. An academic study by Professor Robert Pape, an Associate Professor at Chicago University, published in his book 'Dying to Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism', demonstrates that the advent of suicide bombers is not unique to Muslims but is rather a generic cross-human phenomena driven by a number of political factors rather than theological beliefs.

The study included the first complete database of every suicide attack around the world from 1980 to early 2004 and conducted in native-language sources - Arabic, Hebrew, Russian, and Tamil, and others - that allowed it to gather information not only from newspapers, but also from products of the perpetrating organisations. The study found that:

• The world leader in suicide attacks was the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka – a Marxist, secular group.

• Two thirds of Muslim 'suicide bombers' have been from countries where US forces have or are still maintaining military forces.

• The presence of US forces is creating suicide attackers in Iraq which was a country that had never previously had a suicide attack in its history prior to the 2003 invasion.

Political injustice provides oxygen for the proponents of such attacks to justify such actions. It is therefore crucial that acts of political violence are analysed as a separate phenomena based upon the individuals who choose to engage in them, their justifications and the role that local and foreign political injustice has in providing oxygen to justify such acts.

Foreign Policy and Political Injustice

Regarding the July 2005 bombings in London, as is now common knowledge, the British government was forewarned that its involvement in the catastrophic US invasion of Iraq had increased Britain's vulnerability to the threat of a retaliation attack. The leaked report from the UK's Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), which predated the attacks, warned:

"Events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist related activity in the UK".

In April 2005, a report drawn up by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) entitled "International Terrorism: Impact of Iraq" was even more explicit, stating:

"We judge that the conflict in Iraq has exacerbated the threat from international terrorism and will continue to have an impact in the long term. It has reinforced the determination of terrorists who were already committed to attacking the West and motivated others who were not."

Amongst numerous other voices, a report in July 2005 by the foreign affairs think-tank Chatham House, also effectively expressed the view that the invasion of Iraq had made the world a more dangerous place. In their view, there was "no doubt" that the invasion of Iraq had: "given a boost to the al- Qaida network" in "propaganda, recruitment and fundraising". Also that "riding pillion with a powerful ally has proved costly in terms of British and US military lives, Iraqi lives, military expenditure and the damage caused to the counter-terrorism campaign."

It is essential to understand and acknowledge therefore the role that foreign policy has played in exacerbating the sense of political injustice and in driving individuals to undertake acts of political violence against those they perceive as aggressors, whether the rhetoric of legitimisation is religious or otherwise, following the conclusions of Professor Pape's study. This is particularly important given the Muslim world is a region already at the mercy of despotic rulers and tyrants. Rather than blame a whole community or its leanings towards Islamic politics generally, it is important to understand the political nature of the factors that drive such acts as opposed to solely attributing them to Islamic theology or ideas, which does not take account of the history of political violence across cultures, religions and ideologies.

Islamic Politics is an Alternative to Violence as a Means of Change

The phenomenon of Muslims using violence on Western soil is a relatively recent phenomenon and brought to the fore by 9/11. Non-violent calls for a political vision of a Muslim world governed by an Islamic political system - or Caliphate - have been heard ever since the Caliphate was formally abolished at the beginning of the twentieth century. These calls and this vision therefore predate this modern phenomenon by more than fifty years. Talk of establishing an Islamic political system has continued to feature across the spectrum of political debate in the Muslim world even after its demise.

For numerous organisations, the goal of returning Islam to state and society features at the root of their political activity. The means they employ differ, as does their vision of the Islamic political system's exact workings. Some opt for a gradual reform of the political system using existing structures and mechanisms. Others encourage individual reform, whilst others, like the Islamic political party Hizb ut-Tahrir, opt to operate through a different model of political activity. Most such organizations are non-violent, have not endorsed attacks such as those in New York or London, and do not advocate violence as a methodology for change. Indeed, amongst those Islamic organizations that seek to establish a Shariah-based government the overwhelming majority do not advocate violence and have refused to endorse the attacks on civilians in Western capitals.

Regarding the use of violence more generally, the ICG report on Islamism makes a clear distinction between Islamic political activity and violence. The report concludes that while hostility to Western policy is widespread this does not necessarily translate into support for violence:

"Suspicion of, if not opposition to, the behaviour of al-Qaeda and its imitators is widespread within Islamist circles and all but unanimous among political Islamists…at the same time, hostility to Western and especially U.S. policy is very widespread but does not translate into support for, let alone participation in, al-Qaeda's global jihad except for a tiny minority."

Islamic Political Activism is an Alternative to Violent Expression

Islamic political organisations have played an influential role in directing Muslim concerns towards non-violent political activity. Some organizations have chosen the democratic process, while others have advocated non-violent political expression outside of existing political structures.

For example, Hizb ut-Tahrir has been at the forefront of working for a Caliphate in the Muslim world since 1953 through urging Muslims to engage in a nonviolent political struggle against the rulers of the Muslim world. Its literature and behaviour prepare its members only with the political means for change. In fact, globally, it remains a fact that large numbers of people who joined Hizb ut-Tahrir left armed militancy after being convinced of Hizb ut-Tahrir's political methodology on the basis of Islamic evidences. In Uzbekistan, for example, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group that has advocated armed struggle, witnessed a large turnover from its ranks to Hizb ut-Tahrir. The commitment of Hizb ut-Tahrir not to be involved in any violent activity is based on its faith and understanding of the revelation of God, which makes its involvement in any terrorist or violent activity impossible, either in theory and practice. No person can join Hizb ut-Tahrir until he or she adopts this political and intellectual methodology and approach.

To be continued…

From a report by Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain
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