Liberal Western pundits – what’s the outrage over moderate Muslims?

Clear majorities across the Muslim world are increasingly reviled by al-Qaeda terrorism and Islamist extremism

Dr. Nafeez Ahmed

Published: Updated:

In his recent Times column provocatively titled “Moderate Muslims – it’s time to be outraged,” David Aaronovitch asks why, despite record levels of violence across much of the Muslim world, the civil war in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), persecution of minorities in Muslim states, “medieval” forms of Sharia implemented tyrannically by countries like Brunei all constituting late examples, there is no Muslim peace movement.

“Moderate Muslims,” he says, should be “outraged” at such crimes. The fact that they aren’t indicates how entrenched among them is a “victim mentality” which “casts Muslims as being eternally oppressed and eternal victims.”

The Muslim states which so often persecute minorities and implement harsh, repressive legal codes under the rubric of “Sharia,” are largely staunch Western allies where internal political dissent is harshly silenced by deploying Western arms and military training

Dr. Nafeez Ahmed

The fundamental problem with Aaronovitch’s argument, though, is his simplistic diagnosis which paternalistically homogenises well over 1.1 billion Muslims: all such instances of violence are being committed by Muslims, largely against Muslims, and therefore we should expect Muslims to be the most vocal in opposing them. But, supposedly, they are silent.

Convenient narrative

This convenient narrative obscures the fact that while, of course, the Muslims carrying out such crimes bear direct and overwhelmingly responsibility for their crimes, so do the policies of the U.S., Britain and other Western countries which have empowered the very Muslim regimes behind violent extremism.

Why is it that Aaronovitch doesn’t see fit, for instance, to highlight the resounding silence of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited the Sultan of Brunei last October, lauding the country as an “Abode of Peace?” Neither Kerry nor other Obama administration (nor British) officials have said anything publicly about Brunei’s harsh new penal code.

“The interests of the Obama administration are clear,” reports the Boston Globe. “It wants to stay close to the oil-rich nation because it is located along the strategically vital South China Sea and is a participant in high-level trade talks. That makes it a key ally in the administration’s so-called Asia pivot, which is designed to strengthen U.S. economic and security alliances in the region to counter China’s rise.”

Indeed, Brunei is currently in negotiations to join the Obama administration’s favored pro-corporate Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Rise of ISIS

As for the rise of ISIS and the civil war in Syria, Aaronovitch’s framing of these conflicts as mere local problems to do with mad Muslims once again ignores the West’s role in fomenting regional crisis. In February last year, in a ridiculously ignorant Times column, the pro-Iraq War Aaronovitch claimed that: “Ten years after the war began, the country [Iraq] is more secure and democratic. The alternative was Syria on steroids.”

Only a month earlier, Washington DC’s Institute for the Study of War had highlighted escalating sectarian clashes showing that “Iraq may be tipping toward a destructive civil war.” Around the same time, one of the few unembedded journalists who has reported extensively from Iraq since 2003, Dahr Jamail, said that the country was a “failed” and “lawless state,” with most Iraqis living in “utter devastation” and facing fear of bombings, executions, kidnappings and widespread state-sanctioned torture.

Aaronovitch ignores that this situation, along with the rise of ISIS in Iraq, was rooted in a U.S.-UK divide-and-rule strategy to deliberately stoke sectarian conflict in Iraq.

Deploying Western support

Needless to say, the Muslim states which so often persecute minorities and implement harsh, repressive legal codes under the rubric of “Sharia,” are largely staunch Western allies where internal political dissent is harshly silenced by deploying Western arms and military training. In his book Why Muslims Rebel, Professor Mohamed Hafez - a lead investigator at the U.S. Homeland Security Department-funded National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) – documents how a combination of Western-backed rampant torture, political exclusion, state-surveillance and “predatory” state repression have played the central role in fuelling the grievances that have led to increasing extremism amongst Islamist movements.

What he thus misses by his skewed analysis is the fact that Muslims and non-Muslims have been direct and indirect victims of these short-sighted and self-serving policies, implemented by a partnership of Western states and their regional allies in the Middle East and North Africa.

In this respect, why aren’t Aaronovitch and his fellow liberals outraged by what their own governments have been up to over the last decades?

By accusing Muslims wholesale of a “victim mentality,” Aaronovitch in effect silences the voices of the many and varied Muslim civil society movements across the region and the West which oppose Western wars as well as Muslim terrorism and extremism.

Clear majorities across the Muslim world in places like Pakistan, Jordan, Tunisia, Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories – among other countries – are increasingly reviled by al-Qaeda terrorism and Islamist extremism, according to last September’s Pew Global Attitudes survey of 11 regional Muslim publics.

Curiously, Aaronovitch makes no mention of the new Pew survey released the same day as his column which shows that Muslim opposition to extremist groups has escalated rapidly since last year.

Such global Muslim public opinion has translated into action. The “Muslim voices against extremism and terrorism” resource compiled by Sheila Musaji, founding editor of The American Muslim journal, collects in one website literally hundreds and hundreds of fatwas, formal statements, initiatives, and non-violent solutions by Muslim leaders, organizations and civil society movements vehemently opposing extremism and terrorism. Part of this collection includes innumerable calls for non-violence inspired by Quranic texts and Prophetic traditions by Muslim groups and leaders in the U.S., UK, Western Europe, India, Pakistan, Iran, Jordan, Egypt – to name just a few.

The lack of a successful terrorist plot

As Jamie Bartlett, head of violent extremism at the UK think tank Demos, points out in a recent report, the lack of a successful terrorist plot in the UK since 7/7 “owes much” to the “sustained effort from Muslim communities to fight terrorism.”

But while such initiatives “need to be heard and amplified,” Musaji says, “The tragedy is that such voices just don’t sell newspapers.”

Indeed. Aaronovitch’s rant drowns out the cries of this growing, disparate global Muslim peace movement which he is so determined not to hear. The way forward is to stop framing violent extremism as an exclusively “Muslim” problem: Western and Muslim states bear co-responsibility for fanning the flames of terror, of which both Muslims and non-Muslims are victims. Pundits like Aaronovitch should do their bit by highlighting the Muslim voices for peace rather than pretending they don’t exist.


Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is a bestselling author, investigative journalist and international security scholar. He is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London, and author of A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization among other books. His work on international terrorism was officially used by the 9/11 Commission, among other government agencies. He writes for the Guardian on the geopolitics of environmental, energy and economic crises on his Earth insight blog. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed.

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