Western foreign policy is something that western governments do not like talking about. It comes to the fore when highlighting the “brave Muslims” who fought for “our freedoms” during World War I and conveniently omitting the slaughter of Ottoman Muslims demanded of them. Or when Western leaders, like David Cameron explicitly try to refute the notion that foreign policy has anything to do with terrorism and fail miserably.
A similar trend of avoiding Western antics in the Middle East exists when discussing ISIS. The press and political rhetoric has often focused on the religious characteristic of the enterprise, often ignoring the foundations of ISIS, which rest upon former US detained, “bitter” nationalist, secular Iraqi Ba’athists who have adopted the garb of religion to amass control. The relevance of Western policies and escalation of violence in the Middle East is regularly demonstrated in the use of orange Guantanamo-style jumpsuits in their propaganda videos – something even Obama noted when he described Guantanamo as an “enormous recruiting tool for extremists”. To this end, it is difficult to envisage a glorified gang with a religious twang forming without the provenance that was the neoconservative foreign policy in Iraq. Even Tony Blair had to chokingly admit that there are “elements of truth” that the Iraq invasion helped feed the rise of ISIS.
In short, to deny anger and violence resulting from Western foreign policy in the Middle East is a delusion designed to whitewash Western militarism and its often catastrophic consequences.
Cue then, Azeem Ibrahim’s recent piece in the Telegraph. After noting Western foreign policy is “hugely dysfunctional” and that the Iraq war is part of this paradigm which “stretches back an entire century” he sets this aside, without any further argument as to why it should be set aside in the unravelling discussion, only to then abruptly declare the following:
“…the notion that people both in the Middle East and in the West get radicalised in response to Western interventions in the Muslim world is nonsense.”
The claim is made in a generic form which sees the categorisation of such a factor in radicalisation as “nothing more than a rhetorical pillar for the grievance and victimhood “theology” of jihadism”. This has the effect of discrediting and trivialising this factor by making it part of mere propaganda and therefore an element to be discarded. Setting aside Iraq is convenient, because even the likes of Eliza Manningham-Buller, former director general of the Mi5, has said in her comments to the Iraq inquiry that the Iraq war “undoubtedly increased” the level of terrorist threat and that involvement in Iraq radicalised “few among a generation”.
Ibrahim therefore proceeds to base this grand generic claim on a restricted evidence base: the “current incarnation” of Jihadism in the form of “Isil and their ilk”. Examples provided to support the claim are then further restricted to ISIS. In short, the evidence base to prove his broad sweeping point is a single group which has served the interests of the Russo-Assad alignment. Ibrahim makes an allusion to what is a cause for radicalisation, when he presents the example of Indonesia:
“Indonesia has had absolutely nothing at all to do with Western foreign policy. Its only “sin” is that it largely practices a very tolerant and inclusive kind of Islam, and does so very successfully. And to the likes of Isil, there is nothing more threatening than a representation of Islam which is at peace with the world, and very successful for it.”
In other words it is ISIS intolerance born of their “kind of Islam” which resulted in the attack. According to Max Abrahms, an assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston, the reason for the broadening geography of attacks is because “they are under duress in their stronghold” and with the mounting pressure “in order to survive and stay relevant [ISIS] will have to increasingly delegate operations to people further and further away.” Indonesia, if the attack was indeed perpetrated under the command of ISIS, is the victim of collateral damage, the debris of which trace back to Western intervention of Iraq.
Ibrahim then tries to make the same point in the Western context, by not actually providing hard evidence which does away with the notion that Western intervention is a factor in radicalisation. Thus we are told, quite rightly, that “radicalisation is a complex phenomenon”, with perpetrators of attacks in Western streets having “complex mix of reasons”. But foreign policy is not one of them. Except, against the backdrop of French bombing, during the attacks in Paris, witnesses stated that the gunmen shouted, “this is for Syria”. The Guardian similarly reported that,
“Another survivor remembered one of the attackers telling the crowd they were about to pay for French airstrikes in Syria.”
Moreover, when Cameron was set to vote on strikes in Iraq, Boris Johnson was urging London to “remain vigilant”. Cameron himself warned that Isis had declared war on Britain and the West as he set out the case for air strikes.
The citation of reasons derived from Western foreign policy is a consistent trend in attacks in the West.
“Exercise in Denial”
What then follows is one of the most outrageously reductionist claims in the entire article, which truncates decades if not centuries of history and politics. In short, we are led to believe that the foreign policy complaint is in fact an “exercise in denial”, and that Muslims are solely to blame for issues which are localised, such as sectarian/tribal differences, socio-economic factors and “a tiny elite who monopolise oil”. These factors have “next to nothing to do with the West, or its foreign policy in the region.”
Indeed Muslims are to blame also for the situation in the Middle East. They allowed themselves to be played and divided along sectarian and ethnic lines by those who saw the Islamic world as a game of chess. However, to claim Muslims are solely to blame for the present crisis is in fact a delusional “exercise in denial”.
It is as if the colonialism that eventually saw artificial boundaries imposed in the Middle East and which exasperated “sectarian and tribal” differences did not occur. The imposition of nationalism, secular liberalism and capitalism in one go and the British funding of the House of Saud to create a makeshift Caliphate as a replacement for the dismantling of the Ottoman Caliphate which was amenable to British control, must also be “nonsense”. Perhaps the CIA involvement in the Iranian coup d’état of ‘53 was also perhaps a “conspiracy theory” augmented in the mind of a Muslim youth somewhere in the sand dunes of Arabia. The persistent Western support of oppressive dictators to exploit the “tiny elite who monopolise oil” and advance Israeli interests was a figment of the denial-riddled imagination of those complaining Muslims.
To elucidate further my point if it is not brazenly clear enough, we shall take a two contemporary examples. The Arab spring began with Tunisia. Since its “independence” from French colonialism, the country had been gripped by two puppet dictators, President Habib Bourguiba (1956-87) and Zine El Abdine Ben Ali (1987-2011). Amy Kallander in her essay on French collusion with authoritarians notes that the two presidents had,
“…both solicited Western approval and French partnerships, cultivating the reputation of moderate Arab Muslims rulers in terms that resonated with the Cold War and later the US-led War on Terror.”
The reputation of moderation, and “modernization” was constructed through co-opted journalists, partisans and ex-patriots in France as well as family members of Chirac and Sarkozy. France financed despots in a reciprocal arrangement which saw persecution and human rights abuses brushed under the carpet in exchange for cheap labour and security cooperation. Kallander notes,
“Ben Ali’s desire to eliminate activist Islamic currents within Tunisia and police national frontiers was well-appreciated… Appreciation for Tunisian presidents coexisted with an awareness of their authoritarian practices, human rights abuses, and the climate of corruption.”
This was done under the cover of the War on Terror as an ally and “friend of the West”, a “cooperative ally committed to eliminating terrorism”.
This close relationship saw, after weeks of French silence, the French foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, offering to lend France’s own police “knowhow” to help Ben Ali’s forces “maintain order” as human rights groups condemned murders carried out by Tunisian police.
Egypt has been little different. During the brutal reign of Hosni Mubarak, Washington was providing Cairo with $1.3bn annually in foreign military finance, which ensured Zionist security and US military priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace. Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair claimed that Mubarak was a “force for good.” When the Mubarak regime was overthrown, Britain allowed key members of Egypt’s toppled dictatorship to retain millions of pounds of suspected property and business assets in the UK, potentially violating a globally-agreed set of sanctions. Under his successor, Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, massacres of innocent protestors have taken place and close-society, police state policies have been aggressively instituted. Director of Amnesty International Karen Allen described the post-Morsi-era as seeing a “surge in arbitrary arrests and detentions” punctuated with “harrowing cases of torture in police and military detention”, numerous deaths in custody, and thousands of death sentences through kangaroo courts. Despite this, Britain and Israel share security arrangements with Sisi, whilst Cameron has had no qualms in sipping tea with the murderous dictator at Number 10. Obama, meanwhile, has resumed the $1.3bn in annual military funding to Egypt.
There are so many more examples one can delve into. Do I really need to discuss in detail decades of brutality and land-grabbing occupation by a belligerent State armed to the teeth by the US and Britain against a defenceless people?
After simplifying the Western foreign policy factor, Ibrahim declares that blaming Western foreign policy is a “conspiracy theory solution”. These are rich words coming from a person who truncates and decontextualises history and events, and negates Western foreign policy as factor in radicalisation based off the sole example of ISIS. To use this one recent phenomenon which has gestated from the political context established by the Iraq war to effectively excise Western foreign policy and interventions as a factor in radicalisation across the Middle East is crude chicanery. This is a conspiracy theory. And a poor one at that.
It is a curiously neoconservative analysis; one which protects Western foreign policy from proper accountability and continues the demonisation process of couching Muslims as irrational and intolerant for protesting the exploitation of their resources or being recipients of benevolent bombs dropped by peaceful democracy-spreaders.
But then, as we shall see in an upcoming blog, this is perhaps no incident.
 Kallander, A., In Gana, N. ed. The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Contexts, Architects, Prospects, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013, p.103
 Ibid. p.112
 Ibid. p.103
 Ibid. p.113