Surveying the war

Why does the British establishment keep asking Muslims what they think of the war on terror?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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A BBC survey has found that a majority of British Muslims consider the war on terror to be a war on Islam. More than half of those surveyed thought that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network should not have been blamed for the 11 September attacks.

Eight percent of respondents thought an attack on Britain would be justified – which caused much bluster on BBC Radio 4’s flagship news programme, Today.

As with any survey, these results should be taken with a pinch of salt. Eight percent telling a telephone interviewer that an attack would be justified does not mean that eight percent would be prepared to carry out an attack. Even the most militant of Britain’s Islamic extremists, who have travelled abroad to fight in Chechnya or Afghanistan, tend to have considered Britain off bounds.

But the survey does capture a certain mood in Britain’s Muslim community. Why, despite all the assurances that the war on terror is not a war on Islam, do some Muslims seem convinced that it is?

In response to the survey, multiculturalism expert Anshuman Mondal from Leicester University told BBC News that ‘Muslims have replaced communists as the West’s bogeymen’ (1) – but there is little evidence for this. Since 11 September, both President Bush and Prime Minister Blair have made a great show of visiting mosques and claiming to have read the Koran. Even when Bush bombed Afghanistan he declared that it wasn’t a war on ‘my friends, the Afghan people’.

Yet there remains a tendency among some British Muslims to see every British and American action as an attack on Islam. In part, such sentiments reflect British Muslims’ sense of alienation within British society (see Who’s afraid of Islamophobia?).
The confused nature of the war on terror, with its lack of clear goals, generates much speculation about the war’s real motives and aims.

However, the most striking thing about this latest survey has been the reaction to it. Even the fact that the BBC keeps running surveys like these, then making a big deal out of them, indicates a broader defensiveness within the British establishment. This often takes the form of a hyper-sensitivity about offending Muslims – affecting everything from the language used in the war on terror to the window-displays in charity shops. In a bizarre overreaction last week, the Red Cross decided to ban Christmas trees and Nativity scenes from its shops this year, for fear of upsetting Muslims – an episode that revealed far more about the Red Cross’ nervousness on these issues than it did about any offended religious groups.

It is strange that a state purportedly so committed to the war on terror keeps checking the pulse of its Muslim citizens, concerned that its war might be offending them. And, given this defensiveness, it is hardly shocking that such surveys always seem to return the talked-up response.

This and other surveys reveal more about the elite’s uncertainty about the war on terror than they do about Muslim concerns.

Read on:

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(1) War on terror ‘threatens’ UK Muslims, BBC News, 23 December

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Topics Politics


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