After fifty years of life in Britain, I came to what might seem an unexpected conclusion to my compatriots: the British are exactly the same as other people on earth. On the other hand, this will be taken as an underwhelming revelation by those who live beyond these shores. I know of no people in any country, and I have visited some in my time, who do not believe they are different from the ‘others’. Reading the daily papers, watching the news on television, and listening to radio news bulletins in Britain one is attacked, suptly I must add, by a barrage of assertions that the |British can do no wrong. Our politicians, we are assured, simply seek to promote and protect British interests but their main occupation is to spread democracy and peace everywhere.
I was reminded of all this when a soldier walking peacefully in a London street in late-May 2013 was hacked to death. It is difficult to imagine such brutal behaviour by anyone. However, the casual way in which one of the suspects chatted to passersby was chilling to say the least. Naturally, the media covered events fully. The main complaint, it seems, was why these people were not prevented from committing such an act when their views were known to the authorities. The next issue was whether they were an isolated group or part of a larger operation. There was of course justified concern that the murder might create ethnic or religious backlash. Understandably, Islamic organisations condemned the murder and dissociated themselves from any views that were remotely to linked to the crime.
The elephant in the room was naturally obvious: what turned the perpetrators from ordinary citizens into individuals capable of such vicious acts? Commentators were united in their views. Those who committed the crime were of foreign origin. They had converted to Islam. They were ‘known to the authorities’. And the clincher, they had attended protest meetings. At face value all these statements were probably correct. However, the next half of the truth was left hanging in the air. Experts and academics came and went but the why being a Muslim of foreign origin who attended protest meetings should be so moved as to commit such a brutal act remained virtually untouched.
The nearest anyone came to the other side of the truth was when the Prime Minster said this will not discourage Britain from actions abroad as in Afghanistan. That fleeting remark came and went. Just like any other people on earth, the British do not like to see the truth in the round. Is what we do abroad a factor that creates an incentive for some people to adopt extreme views and sometimes violent actions? Part of that fuller picture might be that there are inevitably people who genuinely think British policies and actions abroad cause objectionable harm to others. It is of course difficult to argue that they are not entitled to hold such beliefs. When some of these people commit crimes they should be tried and sentenced accordingly. Demonising them does not help and not discussing the root causes of their views, irritating as they might well be, does not help in resolving conflicts.
Part of the problem arises from Muslim organisation’s eagerness not to appear unpatriotic. These is, at least in my opinion, a divide between the ‘elders’ and the ‘youth’. I wonder if that divide reflects a similar division in point of view. For understandable reasons, the ‘elders’ are reluctant to come out and criticise British foreign policy in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan for instance. Some, at least, of the younger generation interpret that as lack of sympathy, ignorance, or even complicity. Radicalisation becomes the only path open to demonstrate strong disagreement. There must be a way by which Muslim organisations articulate concerns about British actions abroad, to assure their younger people that they are not oblivious to events, without alienating the rest of society in Britain. This is a must irrespective of how difficult it would be to hold a balance between these considerations.
The same, admittedly more difficult, mental leap must be taken in terms of those who choose to go and fight ‘on the other side’ abroad. Britain has every right to seek them out and prosecute them if they fight against British soldiers or plan violent actions in Britain or encourage others to do so but otherwise it is difficult to condemn and demonise them for fighting with this or that group. There is currently a real dilemma in relation to the civil war in Syria: some go to fight on Assad’s side while others join the rebels. Is one group better or worse than the other? British individuals went to Spain in the 1930s to fight on both sides of the civil war. Some where treated as heroes while others were depicted as romantic loonies. They were tolerated on the whole as people who had strong views one way or the other. Of course there is a much bigger question: why does Britain feel obliged to have an opinion (and worse to intervene militarily) in every dispute that arises especially in the Middle East? Essentially, it seems that the government can take sides on our behalf but individuals are not allowed to be true to their own views as long as they do not break the law.
The determination to see only half the truth is admittedly more convenient than viewing the full picture. In politics as in most other walks of life this certainly simplifies issues greatly. On the other hand, that partial view does not help to lessen tensions between nations or communities. There are issue, some covered here, that merit wider discussion than they are presently given.