The UK’s inability to establish a clear, coherent strategy to counter extremism that does not discriminate or marginalise large sections of the population is rooted in self-denial. Rather than assess the impact of UK foreign policy, the government has sought to propagate the narrative of a lack of gratitude amongst Muslims for the benefits they enjoy in the country. This narrative could not be further from the truth and to create a counter terrorism policy that subsequently demands of the Muslim population to consistently condemn terrorism and declare their love and support of the United Kingdom completely misses the point regarding the appeal of ISIS amongst disenfranchised youths.
The key point that is consistently missed by the UK government is that it has itself inadvertently weakened advocates for peace and strengthened advocates for extremism by supporting Sisi’s coup in Egypt, failing to prevent Assad’s retention of power in Syria, and failing to tackle Iraq’s descent into fierce sectarianism as Iran cements its control despite being a key power in the US-led invasion in 2003. Without understanding the impact of UK foreign policy on the rise of extremism, any counter terrorism will inevitably result in unfair discrimination, marginalisation, isolation, and therefore, further extremism.
Insisting on erroneous foreign policy decisions, exacerbated by Cameron’s invitation to Sisi to visit the UK, only further undermines the advocates for peace and democracy within the community and fuels the extremist argument that the ‘West will never allow you to decide for yourselves’. Moreover, the draconian measures being introduced to curb extremism only serves to push those on the border of extremism to extremism itself. Whilst many will proudly point to Britain’s involvement in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, these people fail to realise that the youths joining ISIS were too young to even comprehend Britain’s role in these countries. At the time of Britain’s involvement in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, these youths were not even halfway through primary school. What Theresa May and David Cameron must understand is that this is a generation whose defining points have been the Iraq war, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Syria.
Over the years, there have been two dominant themes in political discourse amongst the Arab World relating to change in governance; democracy versus forcefully seizing rule from the established powers. The former, led by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, successfully succeeded in cementing their popular support amongst the community that eventually swept them to power in Tunisia and Egypt. This provided a check on more radical elements as the Brotherhood successfully demonstrated that democracy did not disadvantage Islamist parties and that working within the system was a viable means through which to implement Islamic rule.
Once in power however, the Brotherhood suffered greatly as it came across as possessing a sense of entitlement that alienated large segments of the population. As governors in various provinces were replaced with ‘loyalists’, the party lent themselves to accusations of power-mongering and seeking to become cemented in government for years to come which rattled the security forces. Their identity as an Islamist party – the fundamental reason for their electoral victory – became tarnished by Morsi negotiating the IMF loan he had previously condemned Mubarak for seeking; and as preachers split the Muslim community by claiming that it was a religious obligation to stand by Morsi and failure to do so was sinful. The latter factor added a dangerous religious element to political differences, inviting the volatile political environment into the only socially unifying institution; the mosque. They then alienated the Gulf countries by publicly opening Egypt’s doors to Iran; a major faux pas.
All this created a sense of disillusion amongst those who had sympathised with the Brotherhood and saw them as a genuine Islamic alternative. The group lost ground in the political discourse to more radical elements that began to argue that the Brotherhood had been allowed to win by virtue of being a ‘diluted’ Islamic party willing to compromise on principles to appease others.
Nevertheless, the defining moment in the political discourse was Sisi’s coup which gave momentum to the sentiment that the ‘West will only ever accept democracy in the Middle East provided we vote for liberal and secular parties’. This argument found a growing resonance within the community as Sisi cemented his rule by crushing opposition demonstrators. Disenfranchised youth began to accept the ‘reality’ that democracy will never lead to Islamic governance so long as the West continued to exercise its powerful influence in the region.
Alongside events in Egypt, Maliki’s 10-year marginalisation of the Sunni population in Iraq fuelled the sectarian divide across the country. After using the Sahawaat forces to fight Al-Qaeda, Maliki crushed them as he feared they would turn against him and created an environment that allowed Iran to establish the Shia militias that are rampant today. Maliki’s systematic oppression alienated tribes in the North who, upon the advent of ISIL, welcomed a credible challenge to the central government in the form of a ‘revolution’. In fact, were it not for the support of these tribes, ISIL would never have been able to seize Mosul, nor would they have been able to cement themselves so firmly within the city. The damage to the relations between the central government and these tribes is so bad that Abadi has found himself in a catch-22 scenario; if he refuses to arm the Sunni tribes to fight ISIL, then they will continue to passively support ISIL. If he arms them and they succeed in overthrowing ISIL, there is no guarantee that these tribes will not set up their own Sunni emirate independent from central authority.
In Syria, the UK and Obama’s reluctance to commit to a genuine effort to remove Assad and arm the Free Syria Army has fuelled ISIL’s image as the only genuine threat to the dictatorial regime. The FSA has been wrought with internal divisions as has the Syrian Opposition council which has struggled even to agree on a spokesperson (some attribute this to divisions amongst the Gulf States who have backed different factions). As a result of this weakness, the FSA has been unable to enforce its legitimacy as the representative army of the revolution, leading to groups such as Nusra and ISIL to gain momentum. The irony is that this failure on the part of the US and the UK has in turn caused them to re-evaluate their stance towards Assad as they wrangles with the question: who will replace him if he falls?
This is not to suggest that the entire blame lies with the ‘West’. Far from it. The Arab states themselves have failed to form a united front with Syria, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar supporting differing factions and other smaller Gulf nations opening their doors to stronger relations with Iran, in preparation for a new status quo that sees Assad remain at Syria’s helm and Iran the new superpower in the region. The Arab states have also failed to grasp their own populations’ sympathies, preferring to stem the ‘jihadist’ tide forcefully rather than adopting a united ideological Islamic front to counter that of ISIL. An example of this failure to grasp the general sentiment is the Arab States’ participation in the Anti-ISIL coalition which has drawn criticism amongst Muslims across the Middle East, who are openly asking why the bombing is centred on Sunni areas and questioning ‘why we are bombing our brothers for the sake of the Americans?’
If a genuine and coherent counter-extremism policy is to be formed, then an appreciation of the above must be shown and a frank and open debate about the role of the UK in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan must be instigated. Such debate as it stands currently neglects the impact of the UK’s role domestically, preferring to categorise foreign policy as just that; ‘Foreign’. Moreover, there is a campaign to stifle debate on foreign policy by suggesting that these people are ‘apologists’ for terrorism. This could not be further from the truth. These are instead the concerned citizens frightened of the prospect of extremism just as much as the government and worried about Britain’s domestic security which is their security. Moreover, these people are the powerful allies and genuine, trustworthy advisers that need to be listened to if Cameron is to win his ‘battle of the generation’.