By Rashad Ali
Since the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London, it has been commonplace to hear it argued that the “root cause” of terrorism is Western foreign policy: and specifically, the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Radicalisation is not monocausal. Ideological, personal and psychological factors all have a role to play in the process. But if we are to note the occasions where grievances related to Western military action have been used by Islamist demagogues, we should also acknowledge Western refusal to intervene as a recruiting sergeant for terrorism.
Think of the Bosnian and Kosovo tragedies. Think also about the current situation in Syria.
My political development began during the horrors that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia. We watched the genocide in Bosnia unfold, on TV, before our eyes. It was this experience that led so many of my peers from radicalisation to political violence and Islamist extremism.
The lessons which my generation were taught by that experience was that there was a strong argument for taking up arms against a state to protect Muslim civilians. The initial inaction of the United Kingdom, under John Major’s Conservative government, persuaded many that Western governments were indifferent to Bosnian suffering and they had to travel to Bosnia to stop the genocide.
That inaction was a strongly radicalising factor. A generation experienced an identity shift: from being a British citizen, to being a Muslim who was resident in a Europe which refused to do anything to protect its Muslim population. That the Bosnian Muslims were white and European only underlined the point. If ethnically European Muslims in Bosnia could be hung out to dry, British Muslims too would all ultimately be left unprotected by our “hosts”.
This process of alienation from Europe, and the loss of faith in Europe’s willingness to protect its Muslim citizens, was the wedge issue which allowed extremist Islamist groups to persuade us that only a solution premised on Islamic “ideology” would protect Muslims. It demonstrated the need for a strong Muslim political and military leadership. It made a powerful case that military jihad was necessary. We began to demand, not merely a state which was majority Muslim, but a proper “Islamic State”
I remember the arguments well, and the impact that they had on us. Fighters from the mujahideen came to the UK in the 90’s. They spoke at Birmingham and Leicester, and delivered harrowing accounts of the conflict, and explained the political reality unfolding before our eyes. Then they called for our aid, to join them in the fight. Many joined up and travelled to the war zone. Others did what they could to help. All those persuaded by the Islamists agreed that only an Islamic State or Caliphate could hope to protect Muslims.
A few years later, history began to repeat itself. When the Kosovo conflict erupted, we heard the same Islamist arguments all over again. However this time there was a crucial difference. NATO’s military intervention clearly prevented a genocide. That simple act in defence of Kosovar Muslims presented an unanswerable challenge to the Islamist case. We saw NATO go to war against a European nation to protect a population of European Muslims. Western nations could indeed act to protect Muslims. This undermined the Islamist case. (And the recent display of gratitude from the people of Kosovo at the international football game against England underscored this point).
NATO intervention in Kosovo however had strong opponents, most notably the current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Had this so called “anti-imperialist” position won the day, we would have likely seen another Srebrenica. That, in turn, would have undoubtedly fuelled further jihadism.
Syria provides another example. Assad’s genocide of primarily Sunni Muslims, the vacuum of power, conflicts in regional strategic leadership, were all deployed by groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS to argue that Western inaction required Muslims to step up and protect “Muslim Lives”. Again, Western abandonment of Syrian Muslims was instrumentalised by Islamist ideologues to make the case for a Caliphate. We now understand, too well, the disastrous legacy of that decision.
Ultimately, it is not the mere existence of conflict, but the motivation and rationalisation for participation that determines whether extremists and jihadi “theoreticians” can exploit it in a manner that resonates. Iraq could be exploited in a manner that Kosovo could not, because the latter in most Muslim eyes was a legitimate intervention.
In Syria, Britain was initially aligned with what was apparently Obama’s stated aim, and prepared to back humanitarian intervention. But Labour under Ed Miliband foiled the British government’s plans and blocked any attempt to deter Assad. This also broke American resolve. It is possible that Ed Milliband’s decision was motivated in part by concerns about terrorist blowback. (Though, according to some advisors, Miliband’s logic was more banal, and he just wanted to distance Labour from Blair’s legacy) It is ironic that, in refusing to act to protect Syria’s beleaguered Sunni Muslims, the West validated the perception that it is indifferent to Muslim suffering, thereby making the job of Al Qaeda and ISIS recruiters easier. The results of that choice are now clear to see.
Foreign policy should not be decided on the basis of fear of terrorism. It shouldn’t be the sole justification for either action or inaction. Because just as ill-conceived action can fuel radicalisation, so can inaction in the face of suffering.
(Image credits: cemetery for Christians and Muslims in Bosnia (Photo: PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)