The London bombings in July shook the capital and spread fear throughout British society. Peter Taaffe assesses the situation in Britain after the bombings and outlines a programme for the anti-war movement.
Bombings have left a huge imprint
The London bombings on 7 July, followed two weeks later on 21 July by an attempted bombing, represent Britain’s long expected ‘11 September’ moment. The scale of the attack – with over 50 victims in London compared to just under 3,000 in New York – was not the same as 9/11. The ramifications internationally are not as great because of the obvious difference in weight between Britain and the US on a world scale. Nevertheless, the bombings have left a huge imprint on Britain. It was an earthquake in its effect of terrorising millions of innocents. Panic and fear grew with the realisation that a routine journey on the London transport system could end in being blown to smithereens by unknown fellow passengers.
After an earthquake comes an aftershock, in this case the revelation that the 7/7 bombers were ‘home-grown’, British-born Muslims. Hysterical fear has been engendered by right-wing commentators, and even some Muslim Labour MPs, with talk about a ‘fifth column’. This has created the impression that the 1.6 million Muslims in Britain were complicit in the bombings and had nurtured and encouraged it. In its wake has come an upsurge in reported ‘race-hate’ crimes and the murder of two completely innocent black and Asian people.
One parallel with 9/11 is Tony Blair’s attempt to follow George Bush by using the bombings for an unprecedented assault on democratic and civil liberties. In the manner of Bush’s infamous Patriot Act – which led directly to the horrors of Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib – the government has floated a raft of repressive legislative proposals. A police shoot-to-kill policy exists, sanctioned not just by the government but, disgracefully, by Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, which has already led to the killing of an innocent Brazilian man, Jean Charles de Menezes. This was a policy criticised – and subsequently widely discredited – in the report by the former deputy chief constable, John Stalker, into its use against the IRA in Northern Ireland. It is to be buttressed now by proposed semi-dictatorial measures which, in the main, will be used not against alleged ‘terrorists’, or ‘mad mullahs’ who support them, but against those who are innocent.
Britain already has the most sweeping ‘anti-terrorist’ legislation in Western Europe. This did not stop Blair, at a press conference, from brutally declaring: “The rules of the game have changed”. The fact that such a serious issue as terrorism, and the gnawing fear which this has engendered, can be referred to as a game, earned Blair the scorn of even capitalist commentators for his light-minded approach. Policies such as ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) can be improvised ‘on the hoof’, only to be undermined the next day. But the issue of terrorism is of a different order. Proposals for the setting up of special, secret anti-terrorist courts, the granting of punitive powers for investigating magistrates (on the pattern of what happens in France), and the right to detain people without charge in terror cases for up to three months, have even the judges up in arms.
If bulldozed through, this will amount to the introduction in Britain of internment without trial, for the first time in peacetime outside Northern Ireland. When introduced by the Tories in Northern Ireland in 1971, it acted as a huge boost and recruiting sergeant for the Provisional IRA. It is a direct infringement of the historic legal principle in Britain of ‘innocent until proven guilty’.
Another half-baked measure was the threat to reactivate the ‘treason laws’, last used against the British Nazi collaborator, William Joyce – ‘Lord Haw Haw’ – in the 1940s. This was hastily dropped when it was realised that their sweeping character would have found the most unlikely people in the dock: for instance, James Hewitt could have been indicted on treason charges for having ‘relations’ with Diana, Princess of Wales, the wife of a future monarch!
Equally perfidious is the attempt to criminalise anybody who, in the government’s view, is guilty of “condoning, glorifying or gives justification” to terrorism anywhere in the world. Supporters of Nelson Mandela and the struggle of the African National Congress against apartheid would have fallen foul of this measure. As some commentators have pointed out, Cherie Blair, who stated in 2002 that Palestinian youth, in desperation, resort to ‘suicide bombing’, because they felt “as if they have no hope”, would find herself in her husband’s courts.
The proposal to deport ‘extremist preachers’ back to countries with a history of torture also seeks to break a traditional right of asylum with a long historical precedent. Those fleeing from feudal lords found refuge in the Christian abbeys of the Middle Ages. Those persecuted by despotic regimes have traditionally found sanctuary here, including Karl Marx in the 19th century, as well as Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. The British bourgeoisie found their views ‘repellent’ but, nevertheless, protected them from persecution so long as they did not organise for the ‘forcible overthrow’ of the British state. Such is the fear created by the bombing, however, that this proposal will probably receive majority support from the British people.
The proposal to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, which claims not to ‘incite violence’, unlike the now formally disbanded al-Muhajiroun, breaks this tradition in violating the general principles of the right of asylum. The banning of such groups, even al-Muhajiroun, will not weaken but reinforce their attractiveness for disillusioned Muslim youth. Muslim representatives have correctly pointed to the hypocrisy of the government which, while it threatens these Muslim ‘extremists’, does not intend to extend the ban to the far-right British National Party. Even tabloids like the Daily Mirror, quite apart from The Guardian (in its editorial, Worse Than The Disease, 6 August) and The Independent, have warned that banning organisations like this will not effectively ban their mistaken ideas. It is discussion and debate, combating false ideas, which are the ways to politically undermine these organisations, both the parties of the extreme right and of right-wing political Islam.
Capitalism, which alienates the young and reinforces poverty and discrimination, is incapable of effectively countering the ideas of right-wing Islamic fundamentalism. It is not an accident that the 7/7 bombers were representative of disconnected, alienated Muslim youth from towns in Yorkshire blighted by poverty and unemployment. They see no hope in the blind alley of British capitalist society and, therefore, take refuge in the reactionary utopia of a return of the seventh century Caliphate. Their inchoate anger was expressed in one poll which showed that 5% of Muslims – 7% under 35 years old – ‘justified’ further suicide bombings in Britain. Two thirds of Muslims expressed a wish to leave Britain following the atmosphere created by 7/7.
One thing is certain, the battery of repressive legislation being considered by the Blair government will not strengthen its ‘war on terror’ but can, as the experience of Ireland and the Prevention of Terrorism Act show, widen the discontent which already exists of Muslims as a whole. While being ineffective against the Provisional IRA, the terrorism acts caught up innocent Irish people, such as the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six. The intention to put wide-ranging powers, including ‘stop-and-search’, into the hands of a police force not democratically controlled, will result in similar miscarriages of justice, further alienating Muslims, young and old.
Socialists, while opposing such undemocratic actions, in no way condone the bombers or oppose effective class measures which defend innocent Londoners or assuage their fears. The website, We Are Not Afraid, it seems, has received the support of four million people. Some of this support, however, comes from those like ‘Lars from Norway’ who, while he may not be afraid on the streets of Oslo or other Norwegian cities at this moment, does not reflect the view of Londoners. Travel on the tube has dropped by 30% and there has been a big increase in cyclists terrified of venturing onto the underground or taking a bus. The fear that exists was most graphically reflected on a London bus in early August when smoke appeared on an upper deck – not linked to any bomb – resulting in people jumping from the top of the bus and seriously injuring themselves.
The only way to meet and counter this danger is to, firstly, understand the roots of the violence which has been inflicted on Londoners and now hangs like a sword of Damocles over their heads. Secondly, clear measures should be taken by the labour movement to show a way out. While the fear is real, the government is using this as a means of strengthening its own wrong policies, to deflect responsibility from itself and vilify anybody who seeks to explain the roots of modern terrorism, as well as those with the political means of answering the terrorists and undermining their base of support.
The ideologists of capitalism, in conjunction with ‘moderate’ Islamicists, are engaged now in a struggle against right-wing political Islam. One of the forms this takes is to point to the fact that Islam as a creed has not yet experienced a ‘reformation’, like the development of Protestantism within Christianity in the Middle Ages. There is a grain of truth in the argument of these capitalist ideologues that, in Islam, no equivalent of Martin Luther and his counterparts in Europe have appeared. Protestantism was progressive, at one stage, in channelling the mass opposition to feudalism into a revolt against the Catholic church. Historically, Luther represented the rising bourgeoisie and led the plebeian masses in attacking the Catholic church hierarchy, which was a pillar of feudalism.
However, the history of Islam is not at all monolithic. There have been many liberal strains and schools of thought within Islam which contradict the dogmatic and narrow interpretation of the Koran by the proponents of right-wing political Islam today. Like the Christian Bible, the Koran, the teachings of which were mostly absorbed in the oral rather than the written tradition throughout most of its history, is open to many interpretations.
The teachings of Wahhabism, which condemns as unbelievers all those who do not subscribe to its doctrine, including Muslims, is not representative of most Muslims. Both the capitalists of Britain and the US, as well as the ‘moderate’ figures in the Islamic population, will now, no doubt, seek to draw on the experience of the ‘less dogmatic’ and more open trends within Islam in the past in order to isolate the ‘extremists’. However, this exercise at a latter day Islamic reformation, an attempt to reconcile the teachings of Islam with ‘modernity’, that is capitalist society, has come too late. Luther represented progress, the interests of the bourgeoisie, leading ‘the nation’, the majority, against reactionary feudalism.
Today, however, taken on a world scale, but particularly in the neo-colonial world, capitalism and its representatives are thoroughly reactionary. Their system compounds the problems of the majority of the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world – working class, urban poor and poor farmers – from Chechnya to Palestine and Iraq. Falling back on the Manichean view of a world divided into the ‘good’ (Blair and Bush) and ‘evil’ (suicide bombers), Blair sought to evade any responsibility for the London bombings. With the courageous exception of the Respect MP, George Galloway, for ten days after the bombing, Blair, alongside the Tories and Liberals in parliament, sought to deny (like the character in Monty Python: “This parrot is not dead”) any connection between the bloody scenes in London and the occupation of Iraq. This ‘national consensus’, however, was broken by a poll in which two thirds of the British people stated that there was a direct connection.
There was massive discontent in the Muslim world before Iraq – because of the first Gulf war, Palestine, Afghanistan, etc – but the war, with 100,000 Iraqi civilian victims, has enormously compounded this. Iraq, in the words of the CIA, has become the ‘flypaper’ for attracting Muslim terrorists from all over the world (most of the Iraqi insurgents, however, are ‘home-grown’). Moreover, it was obvious that this would happen even before the war began. Robert Baer, a former CIA agent, commented to The Guardian: “Every time you kill a Muslim, whether it’s an Israeli killing them or an American or a Brit, there is humiliation, anger, reaction and bombs go off somewhere”. (18 March) He further stated that he “believes the allied intervention in Iraq was a disaster and has triggered the bombing campaign in London… It was a war against the Iraqi state, against an Arab country. That creates the humiliation and anger which fuels suicide bombing attacks. If you keep it up, you are going to get hit. You can’t go and randomly kill Muslims and not expect a reaction here”.
This simple truth, recognised by the mass of the British people, is not accepted by Blair because it would wreck his policy of support for the US in Iraq. However, to recognise the causal connection between the Iraq war and the terrorist bombings of Madrid and now London is not to excuse terrorism, or in any way to give a shadow of support to terrorist ideas or methods. This is particularly the case as far as al-Qa’ida and its acolytes, like the brutal Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, are concerned.
Marxism has always been opposed to terrorism, whether it be of the state or those groups which believe that through these methods they can weaken and even overthrow abhorrent regimes. Lenin, whose brother was hung for his involvement in an assassination plot against the tsar in the 19th century, was implacably opposed to individual terrorism, as was Trotsky. The latter characterised the proponents of terrorism in Russia as “liberals with bombs”. Liberal capitalists believe that the replacement of a minister or cabinet can result in a decisive change. Socialists, on the other hand, believe that only by changing the system, introducing socialism through the method of the mass mobilisation of the working class, can a fundamental change be carried through. Al-Qa’ida is not made up of ‘liberals’ but reactionaries with bombs. Their philosophy and actions, rather than taking society forward and liberating the masses, have the opposite effect.
Whereas the terrorists of old directed their actions against the leaders of capitalism – ministers, army chiefs, torturers and despots – al-Qa’ida launches its ferocity against the ‘guilty masses’. Although not a fascist organisation in the classic sense of the term, in its actions, the ‘mass terror’ of 9/11, Madrid and London, it is ‘fascistic’ – similar to the 1980 Bologna bombing by Italian neo-fascists – in targeting the innocent, who it holds as culpable for the war in Iraq as Blair. This is despite the fact that two million people marched against the war in the biggest demonstration in British history. The protest was not successful in preventing the war – only the threat of a mass general strike and the overthrow of the government, in this case, would have achieved this – but the anti-war movement of the British, European and American people, and the resistance of the Iraqi people themselves, will ultimately be more successful than the bombs or bullets of al-Qa’ida in defeating Bush and Blair.
Al-Qa’ida, as we have written before, is not a genuine national liberation movement of the Arab peoples against imperialism. It has none of the identifiable aims of former guerrilla or terrorist organisations, with the goal, for instance, of the liberation of a particular country – such as the Provisionals’ struggle for a united Ireland, or Basque separatists for an independent Euzkadi – but has its origins, particularly Osama bin Laden, in the feudal society of Saudi Arabia. Moreover, bin Laden and his family trace a connection back to the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood, nurtured by an Egyptian civil servant, Sayyid Qutb, who reacted against the ‘gross materialism’ he perceived after his stay in a small town in the US – Greeley, Colorado – in the 1940s.
On his return to Egypt in 1948, Qutb joined the right-wing Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose origins go back to the late 1920s, when it was formed by Hassan al-Bannu. He joined in the attempt to assassinate the Arab nationalist president of Egypt, Gamal Nasser, in 1954 and was subsequently arrested and hung in 1966. His brother, Muhammad Qutb, however, escaped to Saudi Arabia, found succour from the reactionary theocratic kingdom and taught Ayman Zawaraahiri, later number two in al-Qa’ida, and also bin Laden, the head of the organisation. Qutb believed that the only acceptable form of government for a Muslim was a god-given Islamic theocracy – a return to the ‘Khilafah’, the Caliphate, in effect, that existed in the Ottoman empire up to 1924. In other words, he and now bin Laden stood for a worldwide Islamic state, including a ‘reconquering’ of lost Islamic ‘territory’ such as Andalusia in southern Spain.
Rather than being an advance on capitalist society, such a state would be an enormous historical regression. It would be a recreation in the modern context of an Islamic empire ruled by mullahs and reactionary feudal lords, with the masses, particularly women, completely subjugated. This was the backward-looking movement which the US recruited, under the presidency of the ‘Democratic’ and ‘liberal’ Jimmy Carter, to wage its proxy war on Stalinist Russia in Afghanistan. It financed, organised and armed to the teeth bin Laden’s mujaheddin which, once they had finished with the Russians, turned back to wage war on ‘infidel’ Middle Eastern regimes and their former benefactor, the US, culminating in the ‘spectacular’ of 9/11.
At the time of 9/11, al-Qa’ida was the equivalent of an Islamic holding company, with different franchises throughout the world. It was like an Islamicist vanguard party, a small organisation of terrorist cadres, which sought to electrify the Muslim masses through its actions. However, while there may be broad support amongst Muslims for some actions against US imperialism, which they identify as their main oppressor, bin Laden and his organisation have not increased dramatically in size, influence or support since 2001. It is, today, more of an idea, a brand name which ‘inspires’ the bestial actions of those like al-Zarqawi in Iraq, rather than a coherent mass international organisation. It has, moreover, failed to mobilise big support, its actions being restricted to relatively limited operations since 9/11.
Limited mass appeal
The Bush regime, having leaned on al-Qa’ida and its perceived ‘threat’ to bolster itself, has now decided to effectively wind up ‘the war on terror’. One of the reasons for this, as a US general has admitted, is that it is ‘a war that cannot be won’. This is a tacit acknowledgement that capitalism results in such national, ethnic and economic inequalities that the revolt against these conditions is inevitable and can sometimes take the form of terrorism. It has now decided to ‘calibrate’ its efforts in a war against ‘Muslim extremists’. This will be as unsuccessful as in the past, given the methods that it employs, whether it be the ‘hard’ variety, as in Iraq, or the deployment of so-called ‘soft power’ elsewhere.
In Iraq, Bush’s plans for an easy occupation and, in its wake, cheap oil, are bogged down in a quagmire. On top of the calamitous economic and social situation Iraq, in the words of the Financial Times, “is on a slow slide into civil war”. Rather than the creation of Bush’s model ‘democracy’, which would then be emulated in the rest of the Middle East, the escalating sectarian conflict threatens to completely dismember the country or set in train a conflict like the civil war in Lebanon from 1975-90. This, in turn, could reverberate throughout the Middle East, unleashing centrifugal tendencies leading to the disintegration of ethnically or religiously mixed neighbouring states. The solution in Iraq, as elsewhere in the Middle East, as well as the ‘Muslim world’ as a whole, lies not in the theocratic, backward-looking ideas of al-Qa’ida and right-wing political Islam, but in a class and socialist solution.
The attitude of the Muslim masses towards fundamentalism differs depending mainly upon their position as a majority or minority in a particular society. The 50-year experience of a theocratic regime in Pakistan, and of right-wing political fundamentalist organisations like Jamaat Islami which shelter under it, means there is limited support amongst the workers and peasants for these ideas. On the 39-strong central committee of Jamaat Islami, 34 are rupee billionaires. In so far as they have a base, it is amongst the middle classes, who are disenchanted with the regime of Pervez Musharraf but do not yet suffer the same degree of grinding poverty as 63% of the population, the workers and peasants. In other states, where Muslims are a minority, such as Sri Lanka, they are persecuted and can yearn for the perceived security of a ‘Muslim state’. However, a class appeal – particularly through the United Socialist Party (the Sri Lankan section of the CWI) – has found a ready echo amongst Muslim workers, fishermen and peasants, and can unite them with their Sinhala and Tamil counterparts against capitalism. As the class conflicts and contradictions develop, whether that be in Britain, Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, the majority of Muslims – composed overwhelmingly of the working class, the most oppressed – will respond to the appeal of socialism and the class struggle.
It is not an accident that in Iran, after more than 25 years experience of the Islamic regime, in the last elections the figure of Hashemi Rafsanjani was rejected, symbolising as he did the ‘get-rich’ mullahs and capitalists who had made good at the expense of the masses in the aftermath of the revolution. The new Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, although identified with the conservative wing of Iranian Islamicism, nevertheless, won support amongst the poor and working class primarily because he denounced the new rich and invoked the slogans of the 1979 Iranian revolution, particularly the demand for a ‘republic of the poor’. He also promised that the Iranian masses would share in the increased oil income accruing to the country, with the oil price now over $60 a barrel. If he ‘forgets’ these promises and concentrates on a return to the rule of the right-wing political Islam hardliners, the basis of this support, already limited, will melt away. Iran is an entirely different society to 30 years ago, with an overwhelming majority of the population under the age of 15 with no experience of the Iranian revolution and its aftermath. Big sections of the new generation, if not the majority, have had a belly full of the empty incantations and hypocrisy of the mullahs and yearn for a freer, more open and democratic society. Only a new democratic, socialist Iran could open up the possibility of satisfying these aspirations. Below the surface, forces are gathering in support of precisely such a movement and programme.
Stop the war
In Britain the bombings mark a big, possibly decisive, change in the situation. Two roads open up before us. One leads to a disastrous ethnic, religious polarisation and a retreat into a ghetto mentality. The other leads to a coming together, a determination by working-class people that the bombings, rather than sowing further division, will cement closer integration and common action to eradicate the underlying causes of terrorism, poverty and racism.
Not the least factor in shaping the situation is whether or not a decisive lead can be given by the organised working class and labour movement. Islamic fundamentalism has been undermined, sometimes severely set back for a long period, when it has decisively clashed with the economic and social needs of the masses it purports to represent. Thus in Egypt, the terrorist attack at Luxor in 1995, and the subsequent collapse in the tourist trade, undermined those responsible for this outrage. There was the same reaction amongst the Egyptian tourist workers with the recent bombing at Sharm el-Sheikh. Despite the much greater numbers and impact of the bombing in London, it was not here but in Sharm el-Sheikh that the masses took to the streets to protest their opposition to terrorism. In London, there was widespread solidarity and determination to oppose the bombers, as manifested in the unprecedented ‘two-minute silence’ shortly after, which blocked the streets of the city. This was followed by a mass rally in Trafalgar Square, convened jointly by Livingstone and the TUC. Unfortunately, all that was offered was vague promises of ‘solidarity’ and pious hopes that the events of 7/7 would not be repeated.
Here was a golden opportunity for the organised working class to step in and cement the incipient class unity that was behind these demonstrations. But neither the TUC nor the Stop The War Coalition (STWC) responded to the call of the Socialist Party to take a lead, on the slogans of No To Terrorism and No To War. The proposal of the Socialist Party at the STWC steering committee for this body to organise an emergency demonstration was turned down, with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) leading the opposition. However, following a lobby of the TUC initiated by Socialist Party members on the executives of some unions (particularly the civil service union, PCS), and where our proposals found an echo, the STWC belatedly called a demonstration for September. But the demonstration is unlikely to be organised under slogans that will clearly express a socialist and working-class standpoint.
This arises from the influence of the SWP which has adopted an ambiguous stand, from 9/11 onwards, on the issue of terrorism. We oppose the state terrorism of Blair and Bush in Iraq and elsewhere. We call for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq. We agree with the slogans of George Galloway in Socialist Worker: ‘Bring the troops home – defend civil liberties – defend Muslims’, as a starting point. But they do not fully point a way forward. Why do the SWP and George Galloway not come out in support of our slogan, No To Terror? It is because they completely misunderstand how the traditional Marxist approach on terrorism can be applied in a modern context and, specifically, against the background of the London bombings. The Socialist Party is not pacifist. We are in favour of the right of an occupied and oppressed people, as in Iraq, to defend themselves arms in hand against US and British imperialism. We are not in favour of the barbaric methods of British imperialism in the past or the British troops in Basra, as have been revealed recently. But we also implacably oppose the methods of al-Zarqawi’s group, of indiscriminate suicide bombings and his sectarian campaign against the Shia. We also oppose the counter-terror methods used by some of the Shia militias against innocent Sunni people. What is required in Iraq is a clear class position, seeking to unite Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, and which also opposes terrorism by the occupying forces or by unrepresentative Iraqi groups. In Ireland and Britain we opposed terrorist methods where they were used by the Provisional IRA and we oppose the even more heinous methods of small groups of bombers today who wish to destroy the lives of ordinary working people in order to ‘put pressure’ on Blair.
The anti-war movement should clearly oppose terrorism. We should demand the immediate withdrawal of the troops, not a phased withdrawal ‘by Xmas’ or any other extended period. We are in favour of Galloway’s call to defend Muslims and oppose hate crimes, but also to defend other sections of the population, including all ethnic groups in London and elsewhere, from the outrages of terrorism. Even the demand for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq will not get the same kind of support now as it did in the past, precisely because of the complications of a sectarian conflict in Iraq. The arguments of those in favour of maintaining the troops will now be that they are there, like they were in Northern Ireland, to ‘hold the ring’ and prevent a sectarian slaughter of one side by the other. There is a big danger of an outright slide to civil war. But this will not be prevented by British or US troops remaining in Iraq. They should be immediately withdrawn and in their place joint militias of Shia, Sunni and Kurds should be formed on a class basis to defend all ethnic groups and communities against the sectarian butchers on either side of the divide. Why do the SWP and the STWC not make such an unequivocal call? It is because they repeat empty formulas from the past without taking into account the concrete situation which is developing at the present time.
We are implacably opposed to capitalism in all its forms. We also oppose the messianic, dystopian ideas of bin Laden and right-wing political Islam. They do not offer a future to the majority of the 1.3 billion Muslims on the globe. On the contrary, if they are not undermined and politically defeated they can create a sectarian nightmare of endless religious and ethnic conflict. The London bombings, in a sense, are a wake-up call to the organised working class in Britain. We have already witnessed in the past the horrors of a sectarian conflict when it gets out of control, both in Northern Ireland and, more devastatingly, in Bosnia. In the wake of these bombings there is an element of Northern Ireland now stalking London and other cities of Britain. It is the working class which holds the key to preventing such a catastrophe by opening up a new, positive, socialist road on which religious and cultural values can be maintained, but in the context of a democratic socialist transformation of society. No to terror. No to war. No to racism. Withdraw the troops. Fight Blair’s neo-liberal policies. For a socialist, democratic, planned society.
From the September edition of Socialism Today, the monthly magazine of the Socialist Party in England and Wales.