Winston Churchill once scorned Mussolini’s Italy as a monkey dancing to the tunes of the German organ- grinder. There are many who think the same metaphor applies today, only for Italy, read Britain, and for Germany, read the United States. Israel has been reined in, France politely sidelined. Britain, alone among America’s allies, is helping pound elusive targets in Afghanistan alongside the Americans. There is no “moral ambiguity” about the war against terror, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told delegates at the Labour Party’s annual conference in the English coastal resort of Brighton last week.
Surely it isn’t simply a question of Anglo-Saxon affinity? All Washington’s allies voiced their unreserved support, but Washington singled out Britain for the dubious honour of becoming an active partner in the offensive from the word go. The French, still waiting for their turn are understandably miffed, and the world is still waiting for an explanation. Blair has been invited to participate fully in the anti-terror campaign, even usurping the role of official spokesperson for Washington. It was Blair who faithfully echoed US President George Bush on the BBC’s Breakfast with Frost. It was Blair who sang from the Washington song-sheet when he spoke of an “incontrovertible link” between the 11 September attacks and Al-Qa’ida leader Osama Bin Laden, although he gave no details. During his lightning trips to Russia, Pakistan and India he said much the same.
The question uppermost in people’s mind is whether Blair has become Washington’s roving ambassador. True, after the US, Britain suffered most on 11 September. In Cairo, John Sawers, the new British ambassador to Egypt, told Al-Ahram Weekly, “the attacks were appalling; we lost almost 300 British citizens — the single biggest loss to terrorism ever, even though it didn’t happen on British soil.” Neither the IRA nor Ulster Unionist paramilitary groups ever authored an attack that slew so many. Be that as it may, that is still no excuse for Britain to pose as a ventriloquist’s dummy.
Britain is certainly incurring the wrath of “wild” militants the world over by coat-tailing Washington. Islamic Defenders’ Front, a vociferous militant Islamist organisation, threatened to hunt down and kill American and British residents in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. The front ordered the Indonesian government to cut off diplomatic relations with Washington and London, but Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri ruled out any such move, even though like many rulers of Muslim countries, she considerably toned down official support for the air strikes against Afghanistan. Indonesian police fired tear gas and water cannon on hundreds of angry protesters who came menacingly close to the US embassy in Jakarta.
In neighbouring Philippines, and in an unprecedented show of strength, over 5,000 Filippino Muslims demonstrated in the southern island of Mindanao against the attacks on Afghanistan. The US has identified the Philippines Abu-Sayyaf group as a terrorist organisation implicated in last month’s attacks on New York and Washington. Like in Indonesia, American and British citizens are urged to stay indoors.
In Africa, popular demonstrations in predominantly Muslim countries were rife. “We reject any association of Islam with violence and terrorism,” warned Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo. Nigeria has a large Muslim population and the predominantly Muslim northern Nigerian states that have recently instituted Sharia Laws, there were widespread protests and violent clashes with police over the Afghanistan strikes.
But the British government is undeterred. “Military action is inevitable and right. But it can only ever achieve a limited amount,” Sawers explained. “A long-term strategy in addressing terrorism is more about ensuring that organisations have no access to money. We all have to look at our laws and banking arrangements.” But concern about limiting civil liberties in Britain and the rest of Europe is growing, especially among immigrant communities. “We have freedoms that we are loath to curtail. There is a tension here between protecting individual rights and protecting the community as a whole.”
Still, in the wake of the war on terror, Britain has subsequently toyed with revising its asylum policies. “We cannot have a situation where people come in and abuse our asylum procedures,” Blair explained. “We cannot have a situation where if we know someone is a suspected terrorist, we do not have the legal power to detain them indefinitely until we find a suitable country to deport them to.”
Such thoughts won’t sit easily with many in Britain. Britain is a nation of contradictions, and Britain’s Muslims are wrestling with their consciences. “We condemned the attack on the World Trade Centre and we are condemning the attack on the innocent people of Afghanistan by America and Britain,” explained Ajmal Masroor, president of the Islamic Society of Britain.
The Muslim Council of Britain issued a statement urging British Muslims to organise peaceful anti-war protests throughout Britain. “The people of Afghanistan neither planned nor perpetuated terror — they must not be doubly victimised,” the statement read.
Perceptions of the nature and depth of the crisis differ greatly within the country itself. “I have not heard enough condemnation from Muslim priests (sic),” warned former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher. “The people who brought down those towers were Muslims, and Muslims must stand up and say that is not the way of Islam,” she opined. “She obviously has not been listening to the media or reading the press,” retorted Khalid Mahmoud the Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr. British Muslim condemnation of the WTC and Pentagon attacks was, at least officially, near universal.
But after the assault on Afghanistan, British Muslims cannot remain supportive and understanding of the British position. This is no disloyalty to the crown. Osama Bin Laden’s much publicised sermon on Qatar’s Al- Jazeera TV, which aired Sunday night after the British and American air strikes on Afghanistan, urged Muslims to stand against what appears to many Muslims a prejudiced and partial America. Bin Laden hit all the right chords: Palestine, Hiroshima, Vietnam. This put Baroness Thatcher’s “Muslim priests” in a quandary. Their choice was not between the “civilised world” and “Islamist terror” alone, as some Western leaders propose. They had to think of their relations to their communities, many of whom rage at US policy in Palestine. They had to think of their co-religionists in the countries they left behind. Ultimately, their peaceful anti-war protest was their favoured response.
The British government, too, has hard choices to make. Sawers said that the government was looking at a wide range of measures, while maintaining the personal freedoms and individual liberties that multi-cultural Britain celebrates. But the authority to intercept e-mails, bank transactions and mobile phone calls, and the re-introduction of identity cards abolished in the early 1950s threaten to constrain personal liberties in societies feather-bedded by years of prosperity and unbridled democracy. “We are frustrated that people use our laws to advance ideas that foment violence or organise terror. We had a real concern in the late 1990s that some groups, including Egypt’s Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, had links with proscribed organisations in the UK. We issued a new law last year, the Terrorist Act of 2000, [which addresses] conspiracy to commit crime overseas and raise funds abroad,” said Sawers.
Evidence suggests that the “undesirable elements” have either left Britain or their activities have subsided, Sawers said. But the FBI has disclosed that 11 of the suicide hijackers had been in transit through Britain. “We shall keep close tabs on individuals who support Osama Bin Laden,” Sawers stressed. There were police raids and arrests of terrorist suspects in the English city of Leicester, one of several with large Muslim communities. Scotland Yard is shrouding the arrests in secrecy, but the remarkable evidence emerging shows that the suspected terrorists were not unknown to the authorities.
Asked about the underlying factors that trigger inter- racial and religious tensions in Europe — “where every asylum seeker is viewed as a potential terrorist,” as Bill Morris, general secretary of Britain’s Transport and General Workers Union warned — Sawers conceded that “some people on the far right foment trouble” and some problems do persist — especially anti-Muslim sentiments. “Injustices need to be addressed. There are genuine grievances that younger and wilder elements can exploit,” Sawers noted.
Although Britain is growing increasingly reviled in the world for its aping of the US, the British are not as uniformly behind the US as their leaders make out. Given the diversity of British society that is no surprise: and opposition to the war could grow further. In that case, the British may yet stop dancing to the organ grinder’s tunes — and find a melody of their own.