Adrian Hamilton: It's too convenient to blame it all on religion

It suits Blair, because that way he avoids any connection with British policy abroad or at home

Adrian Hamilton

Published: 21 July 2005

What do Kenya, Tanzania, Bali, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Turkey have in common? The answer is that they're all part of a litany of countries where bombings took place before Britain joined the US in invading Iraq, and are now being learnt, parrot-like, for every minister to recite when asked about Iraq's connection to the London bombings.

To which one can only put one's head in one's hands and weep. If this is really what Tony Blair and his government believe, then there is no hope of their ever understanding what happened.

We all know why they're doing it. It's political convenience. It suits Blair to say that the bombs are all down to an "evil ideology", because that way you avoid totally any connection with British policy abroad or at home.

It's equally convenient for the middle-aged mullahs meeting the Prime Minister on Tuesday, since blaming all the violence on radical young clerics enables them to reassert their authority over their communities and to sweep the problems into a corner marked "brainwashing of the young from outside".

But you can't divorce religion from politics, belief from circumstance. Read the ancient historian Josephus on the Jewish revolts against Roman occupation. Look today at the manipulation of religion in the violence at Ayodhya in India or the Christian-Muslim clashes in Nigeria. Religion has always been as much the effect as the cause of fervent political feeling.

Nor do you need religion to persuade young people to sacrifice themselves for a cause, as the history of the Red Brigade and the Tamil Tigers would show. Blaming it all on mad mullahs makes it easier to "do something" in response - close down mosques, refuse entry to preachers, gather a chorus of rejection from community leaders - but it doesn't begin to get to the root of the problem.

For a start, to wrap up every bomb in an Islamic land with the epithet "Muslim extremism" is grossly misleading. The circumstances of southern Thailand are quite different from conditions in Palestine or the stirrings in Central Asia. Even in Europe it is quite wrong to lump Moroccan immigrants in the Netherlands, Kurds in Sweden, Algerians in France or Turks in Germany with Bangladeshis in London or Pakistanis in the east Midlands. They may be all Muslims, but their circumstances are specific to themselves, as are the causes of alienation among their young.

Where a common religion comes into play, and where it becomes a means of identity, is in the sense that globalised communications have given the impression of Muslims everywhere being the victims of injustice and oppression. That assumption (for assumption it is) may be exaggerated or heightened by the media which radicalised young British Muslims watch and read. But it is not without foundation.

Most of Muslim "hotspots" are in areas of "occupation" of Muslim communities by non-Muslims, from Chechnya through Palestine to Kashmir. Arabs may find it difficult to accept their own responsibility for their misfortunes, but it is hard to deny that the Middle East is a mess of Western making, from the post-First World War carve-up to the exploitation of oil.

You don't have to be a susceptible youth going to the wrong mosque to develop a sense of anger and injustice at what is happening in Palestine and Iraq. Indeed, al-Qa'ida recruits are usually from a quite different background to the poor, ill-educated children from the slums and the rural backwaters educated in the madrassas of Pakistan. If anything, these are more likely to be aroused to violence against other sects of Islam than against Western targets.

Would it make much difference if all the radical preachers were silenced, gagged or jailed? Probably not. There is a case for clamping down on incendiary speeches of whatever sort, certainly anything that promotes violence. But that is not where the impressions which radicalise the young probably come from.

Would Muslim youth feel so strongly if they were not already alienated at home? Not easy to decide. Although much has been made of the middle-class background of the bombers, such factors have always been true of revolutionary cadres (think of early communism in Europe and China). The driving force remains the original alienation of the individual, for whatever reason, and the general environment in which it develops.

Would alienated youth still take to the bomb if there weren't the issues of Palestine and Iraq to inspire their sense of injustice? Again difficult to weigh precisely. But opinion poll after opinion poll does suggest that feelings within British Muslim communities run very strongly on these international questions.

If that is so, then it has to be said that the future is very gloomy indeed. Look at the latest news from Dagestan and Chechnya, never mind Gaza and Iraq. In the Islamic world at large conditions are getting worse, the causes of outrage greater, and the more the West trumpets the issue of terror to support repression the worse it will get.

If Tony Blair really believes what he says, that the task of government and society now is to engage the Muslim community in debate and to win its arguments with reason, then one might ask this: does he think he will engage his audience better by talking religion and its perversions or discussing frankly why he went into Iraq and what he intends to do there now?