Airbrushed out of the government’s talk of ‘countering terror’ is any mention of Britain’s long and bloody history of imperialism, writes JOHN ELLISON
OUR government’s Prevent Strategy document, launched in June 2011 and run by police and security officials, aims to “stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.”
The majority of its resources are “devoted to preventing people from joining or supporting al-Qaida, its affiliates or related groups.”
It targets people — before any criminality — suspected of being vulnerable by “referring” them to police, and it has been reported that four-fifths of such referrals (over 8,000 in the year to last April) are not followed up.
Many Muslim people regard the strategy as inherently demonising, and also as a spy operation.
It is a respectable-looking document, running to more than 100 pages. But in addition to its other defects its “don’t-mention-imperialism” dishonesty needs adding.
It is as fit for purpose as an official album of wedding photographs in which the newly-weds are nowhere to be seen.
Nothing is admitted about the massive “Western extremism” contribution made by Britain and other Western countries to the rise of horrific movements such as al-Qaida and Islamic State and to organisations established earlier such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
In fact, at one point it registers the desirability of rebutting claims made about Britain’s foreign policy.
“Extremism” is not defined explicitly so as to exclude those democratically active against Western aggression abroad, and therefore, crazily, the present leader of the Labour Party could conceivably be viewed as at risk of enticement over to the dark side.
In these bizarre circumstances, it has been reported that the Muslim Council of Britain plans to start a Muslim-run community-based alternative programme next year.
A still better scheme would “refer” Western governments to their peoples for imperial extremism.
It would call on Western governments to cease creating the conditions that have created a jihad response — to halt military interventions, to halt the supply of arms to Saudi Arabia and other autocratic Middle Eastern regimes, and to oppose the funding and arming of extremist Islamist groups.
It would call too for support for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and for a halt to Israel’s extremism in continuing to oppose it.
Extremist Islamist groups have grown from a long history of Western imperialism. As long ago as 1883, following aggressive military interventions by empire-building Britain in Afghanistan, Egypt and the Sudan — generating rebellions in response — came a thought-out response from a leading Islamic intellectual whose historical anti-imperialist significance has been — no surprise there — much neglected by Western historians.
Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was a Shi’ite Muslim modernist intellectual of Iranian birth, and possibly “a terrorist” by the standards of today’s Prevent strategy.
He started that year in Paris the first international periodical to call explicitly for the revival of Islamic solidarity in the face of the encroaching West. It was influential across the Muslim world.
Not long before his death in 1897, Afghani summed up the Muslim condition: “The Islamic states today are unfortunately pillaged and their property stolen; their territory is occupied by foreigners and their wealth is in the possession of others. There is no day in which foreigners do not grab a part of the Islamic lands, and there is no night in which foreigners do not make a group of Muslims obey their
rule … England has occupied Egypt, the Sudan and the great Indian peninsula which are large parts of the Islamic states; the French have taken possession of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria; the Netherlands have become a despotic ruler of Java and the Oceanic islands; Russia has captured West Turkestan, the large cities of Transoxiana, Caucasia and Daghestan; China has taken East Turkestan … What a great catastrophe has fallen!”
I have taken this quotation and other references to Afghani from Pankaj Mishra’s impressive From the Ruins of Empire (2012), and rely particularly, for the rest of this article, on the account of later events given by Said Aburish in his very readable A Brutal Friendship (1997).
During the first world war, Britain and France staked out new imperial claims in the Middle East.
Their colonial ambitions thrived from squaring up to Germany’s ally Turkey, which had controlled the region through an Islamic caliphate for over four centuries.
Not much of the allied armies could be spared from the western front, so Arab nationalist uprisings had instead to be coldly sponsored for colonial objectives.
These were nastily confirmed by the 1916 secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, which cut up between Britain and France much of the Middle East, and by the Versailles settlement, which disguised imperial gains by calling them League of Nations “mandates.”
Britain’s present support for the savagely reactionary monarchical rule in Saudi Arabia has its origins in those years.
As defeated Turkey withdrew to its borders, British sponsorship of Ibn Saud, Saudi Arabia’s first king, provided enduring British protection. From the beginning, the Saudi state religion was Sunni Muslim, and took the ultra-conservative form of Wahhabism, which had been developed by an 18th-century theologian, Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab.
Winston Churchill’s description in the Commons in 1921 of the adherents of Wahhabism as considering it “an article of duty, as well of faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions and to make slaves of their wives and children” did not deter him from admiring Ibn Saud as a strong (ie consistently brutal) leader who was loyal to Britain.
It should be said that by no means all Saudis (who are uniquely named after their royal family) are Wahhabites or even Sunni.
Another Sunni Muslim leader friendly to Britain was King Faisal I of Iraq, whose descent from the Prophet Mohammad was to his advantage, and who was enthroned by the British in 1921.
A third was Haj Amin, whose appointment as Grand Mufti of Palestine — a British “mandate” — was masterminded by Britain the same year.
If Iraq was an artificially created state, to be held together by its military over many decades ahead, Jordan was another British-made construct.
Its first king, Abdallah, who in the words of Aburish, “believed in British primacy to the point of never questioning it,” received the country as a prize for loyalty.
In these countries, Islam, so far as Western interests were concerned, was during the 1920s and 1930s relatively compliant. Its “image,” wrote Aburish, “was ‘subdued’.”
The external imposition of Sunni rulers implied discrimination against religious minorities. This was institutionalised in Iraq, where before the appointment of Faisal I as king, the Shia Muslim majority took up arms against the British. Their insurgency was bloodily suppressed.
France played its own colonial role, invading Syria in 1920, and deposing its then King Faisal for insufficiently accommodating French interests.
France, “entitled” to Syria via Versailles mandate, proceeded to maintain its dominance of the country, while deposed Faisal made himself pro-Western enough to collect the Iraqi throne from the British.
France also sliced off Lebanon from Syria, delegating its rule to a Christian Maronite elite which would, though at first a majority of the residents, in time become a minority.
In Palestine, given the British commitment through the “forked tongue” 1917 Balfour declaration, to make it a home for Jewish settlers (without overriding the rights of the Arab population), the wily Haj Amin accommodated the settlers’ interests as far as he could.
As Robert Fisk wrote in his passionately written The Conquest of Civilisation (2005), “both parts of the British Palestine mandate could not be enforced, and nazi Germany’s persecution of the Jews in 1936 … would turn into the Holocaust that would ensure the existence of an Israeli state in Palestine — whatever ‘the rights of the Arab population’.”
Even by the late 1930s, as Fisk points out, it was clear to some observers that such a state could not be established without forcible displacement of the Arabs, a displacement which was to take place — Palestine’s “al-Nakbar,” (the disaster) — a decade later.
Everywhere Western extremism. Everywhere, divide and rule. Everywhere contempt for the people of the region. Such, sketchily, was the first phase of the Western contribution to the escalation of Muslim anger and resistance in the Middle East. Further phases were to come.
• This article is the first in a three-part series. Part two will appear on Thursday December 7.