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.