Brendan O'Neill
Brendan O'Neill

Anti-imperialism reduced to an emotional spasm

Do you have to brown skin, a Muslim moniker, a beard, and a passing or preferably detailed knowledge of the Koran in order to be angry about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the denial of statehood to Palestinians? Here in Britain, you could be forgiven for thinking so. Many argue, or at least imply, that Britain’s Muslim community has some special right or even responsibility to be furious about Western military meddling in the Middle East.

British commentators, officials and anti-war activists are positively obsessed by “Muslim anger” over British foreign policy. Government officials send each other memos asking what should be done about the Muslim community’s “distress” over Iraq. Muslim groups cite their “community’s anger” as a way of trying to force the government to change its foreign policy. The anti-war movement tries to harness this “Muslim fury” by pushing Muslim youth to the front of its otherwise dull demonstrations.

Recent terror attacks and plots in Britain, carried out by disgruntled Muslim youth, have been cited as evidence that Muslims are uniquely, and understandably, angry about Britain’s foreign ventures. Some commentators described (almost justified) the murderous attacks of July 7 2005 as an “understandable” reaction by four angry Muslims to Britain’s bloody wars. This week, three men were convicted of conspiring to cause mass murder by blowing up transatlantic flights, and again the media repeated the “furious with foreign policy” line, without interrogating what underpins this alleged anger, or asking why on earth Muslims should feel it more strongly than other sections of British society who passionately opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, many British Muslims are anti-war. But so are many British blacks, white people, Polish immigrants, pensioners, schoolchildren, dog-owners, homosexuals and so on. Yet few would say it was “understandable” if a member of one of these groups decided to blow himself up on a train, and pensioner groups do not warn the government about the brimming “pensioner anger” with the war in Iraq.

The idea that Muslims have a special insight into the suffering of their “co-religionists” in the Middle East is nonsense. I was a campaigner against Western militarism for far longer than Mohammad Sidique Khan, the 30-year-old ringleader of the 7/7 attacks who killed himself and six others on a train at Edgware Road. I marched and argued against the first Gulf War, the American invasions of Somalia in 1993 and Haiti in 1994, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, the Afghan war of 2001 and the Iraq war of 2003. So would it make sense if I blew myself up on the Tube to work one morning, or perhaps wandered into a crowded restaurant and stabbed strangers with a knife to register my implacable anger with Western warmongering? Why not? Because my skin is white where Sidique Khan’s was brown? Because I have Irish Catholic origins rather than Pakistani Muslim origins, and thus I cannot feel Iraqi people’s pain?

The uncritical privileging of “Muslim anger” over any other argument against Western military interventionism is a terrible blow for progressive politics. Implicitly making Muslims the key critical voice on British foreign policy degrades anti-imperialism. That political tradition was based on universalism and solidarity. It took as its starting point the idea that people around the world had common interests and a great deal to gain by standing shoulder-to-shoulder. A French anti-war activist could take the side of a North Vietnamese villager; a Norwegian radical could support the street struggles of republicans in Belfast or Derry.

Today’s “Muslim anger” takes the opposite starting point: that only Muslims can really understand the pain and suffering of people in Iraq or Afghanistan or Palestine because they have a special religious/emotional connection with them. This represents the triumph of the personal over the political; the particularistic over the universal; the politics of “shared victimhood” over solidarity. It shows the extent to which even the once-honourable politics of anti-imperialism have been submerged beneath the narrow and divisive politics of identity, where one’s skin colour, national origins and religious background count for more than one’s humanity. It is anti-imperialism reduced to a childish emotional spasm, an opposition to war based on DNA rather than principle or passion.

There is also something racial about it. The assumption seems to be that there’s something in British Muslims’ ethnic or religious make up, or perhaps in the water they drink, that makes it more acceptable, or at least understandable, for them to carry out murderous acts in response to wars abroad. The view seems to be that they are unthinking automatons, driven more by emotion and instinct than rational political thought. The danger, of course, is that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more that “Muslim anger” and potential Muslim violence are normalised, the more that some young Muslims might consider it legitimate to use individual terror rather than political campaigning to register their natural, ingrained fury.

  • Hard Rain

    You’re severly misguided if you think violent actions carried out by Muslims in the name of Islam is solely to do with the arbitrary foreign policies of Western nations.

    Why then does the jihad reach from Indonesia across to South America?

    You are right about Muslim sentiments of entitlement, though. They clearly believe they are superior to their dhimmi peers in dar al-harb. I should know, I’ve been attacked and abused many a time in London for being a “nosey infidel”.

  • Bonginkosi


    Your argument, on the surface, is sound. However, I dare say that there is something that the general society does not understand about the feelings of alienation of Muslims. I do not know this for a fact; I am deducing it from my own experiences. Let me explain.

    Black people are and have been on the receiving end of racism for many years. In SA, the last bastion of legislative racism, the idea of racism is supposed to have died at least 14 years ago. However, as much as my White compatriots protest about not being racist, most of it is so ingrained in the language that even when they definitely are being racist they do not recognise the fact. However, most Black people are acutely aware of those nuances of language that imply racist intent. This results in an age-old argument between the Black people and White people as to whether the White people are being racist when they say the things they do. And typically my White compatriots cry foul over these accusations.

    This argument does not justify blowing things up, you understand, but it just questions whether we all fully understand what the other side feels. Why do things become SO emotional? Why do they need to become violent? Is anyone in Britain right now even attempting to understand what persecution the Muslims may be feeling? Why does it run so deep that they may even feel the need to blow things up?

    As far as your argument that you have protested against British foreign policy, let me point out that as much as this may be true, you have NOT been on the receiving end of British foreign policy; you have absolutely NO idea how it can ingrain feelings of helplessness etc. because despite what you SAY and protest about, what matters more is the ACTIONS of your government!! Those actions have a far larger consequence on an IRAQI or an Arab in general than any of your protests against your government.

    Think about that. To be a suspect by pure accident of being born with a darker skin is a crime against common decency at least. To be on the receiving end of that can elicit a chuckle one day or a shaking of the head in disbelief another day or a throwing of a punch another day.

    Human emotions are complex. Let’s treat them as such.

  • Colin

    The “understandable anger” against the Danish cartoons reminds one of the “understandable anger” by the “we’ll kill for Jacob ‘bring-me-my-machine-gun’ Zuma” brigade over the “rape” cartoon.

    In both cases, self-appointed arbiters taking their wrath out on the messenger. This has been called the politics of resentment. Politico-narcissim seems more appropriate to me.

    Maybe the pen is mightier than the sword (or machine gun)

  • Oh Please!


    What a waste of space. Try being at the end of U.S. missile that has just taken out 60 kids. The Afghans, Iraqis, Palestinians can’t get a good night’s rest because of the very foreign policy you want others to simply march against.
    Is Britain not at war at the very moment? So why on Earth don’t you expect to be attacked at home?

  • Malusi

    I have would have taken your post seriously had it been serious. By the very fact that you spell the Holy Book as Koran and not Qur’an is your first mistake. That in itself shows just how much research and thought went behind this post.

    People will never be able to understand the plight and struggles of black people unless your black. No matter how much white people might side with and fight for these “issues” you truly can not and will not ever be able to relate or fully understand the emotional cause behind it. Because you as a white person are not black!

    You my dear friend are not Muslim. You come from an Irish Catholic Background. When we as muslims are making salaah for Fijr, Zohr, Asr, Maghrib & Eisha you are doing other things. When we fast in the month of ramadaan you write posts like this. My point is that if you feel that our bond as Muslims that we share worldwide with each other is one big farce. Then I beg of you to put your money where your mouth is. Come and live like a Muslim for a period of time. Embrace it as we do. Make it your life’s ambition and goal. Make it your way of life. Then comment on whether we have the divine right to be angry with British Foreign policy.

    You can be an expert on a countries history. You can know every part of the country in books that you have read. You can be the leading authority on a specific countries facts, stats and other details. But until you have been to that country yourself, and taken in the breath of fresh air on that countries soil, you are but a spectator who does not have the right to comment on something you do not know about.

    Its easy to sit on the fence and make stories. Anyone can do that. If all you are doing is filling your blog with posts and text then find another subject to post about. But if you genuinely want to know why we as muslims have a general hate not just against british foreign policy but western Imperialists in general then investigate, study and understand our unified hate before you comment.

  • Grant Walliser

    Solidly well put.

    Is it just me or are the rest of you also getting sick of stepping on eggshells around the ‘easily angered’. That surely includes the angry Muslim lobby as well as a ton of other groups of special people, religious, racial and national who believe they deserve special treatment for being what they are or for what their ancient ancestors were subjected to. Grow up.

  • Lyndall Beddy

    The objections by the indigeneous population to the Muslim fanatics in France and Britain has to do with their trying to impose their culture, not the colour of their skin!

    They would not have a hope in hell of doing so in China, or much of South America.

  • Sammy

    The post is cleverly put but filled with pretentious and condescendng nuances. For hundrends of years oppressed people of color, muslims who happen to live in geo-strategic and mineral rich parts of the world, Latin Americans and other indigenous people have been on the receiving end of bombs, missiles, bullets, murder, rape and untold brutality by Europeans and Americans. In case you havent noticed, that means chidren, women, fathers and mothers have been slaughtered. Get off your high horse and face your inhumanity.

  • Siviwe Viddo

    Mr O’Neill musttry to research futher he seem to be blank about Islam.Basically he seem to be very ignorant about Islam,insomuch that he needs at least 10yrs of research before he can say anything about Islam.

  • Hugh Robinson

    You may have a point but this seems to have upset the pro anti West Muslim. I have but one question that never seems to be answered.

    We oft hear of Islam’s call to peace and that they are a peaceful people. They try their best to promote the peace be with you on one hand while wielding a big stick with the other. I call it “Quite hypocrisy”

    Was it not Mohammed, God bless his name, that stated that Islam was to be spread by the power of the sword. Those who did not follow the one true God were to be put to the sword.

    Are these fundamentalists not believer in that all who do not follow the true faith should be put to death or subjugated.

    Why then such massive support and deafening silence from those who say Islam is faith of peace when the opposite is true.