Why we should ignore Shehzad Tanweer’s pompous video
One way to deal with angry young Muslims is to stop taking their grandiose claims so seriously.
‘I have forsaken everything for what I believe in. Your democratically elected governments continue to perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world.’
So spoke Mohammad Siddique Khan, the 30-year old ringleader of the London bombings, in a video message he recorded before his death. Responsible for the deaths of 56 people and the injury of hundreds more, the audacity of Khan’s homemade video diary is breathtaking. First he whines to the viewer that he has sacrificed a lot for his cause, and then he claims to speak on behalf of all Muslims everywhere.
Now we have a video from Khan’s fellow bomber, 22-year-old Shehzad Tanweer, who says in his Yorkshire accent that 7/7 was ‘only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq and until you stop your financial and military support to America and Israel’.
What we see in these videos are not soldiers in a war, but self-righteous young men who believe that their own moral certainty absolves them of the need to explain themselves properly. Nobody elected Khan or Tanweer. As far as we know, they did not have relations with anyone in Palestine, Bosnia or Chechnya. Indeed, these two men did not even bother to ask their family, friends or neighbours what they thought. At the local mosque near where three of the bombers grew up, one of the committee members, Muhboob Hussein, reacted with anger to 7/7: ‘This is not Islam, this is not jihad, these people are not Muslim. This man [Khan] never came to our mosque….’ Obviously, Khan or Tanweer did not show much interest in trying to win people over to their
worldview – they thought that ‘democratically elected governments’ had less claim to act on behalf of people than they did.
Khan and Tanweer took a remarkably narcissistic approach to politics, which short-circuited the need actually to engage with the people they claimed to speak for. Yet since 7/7, and straight away following the release of Tanweer’s video yesterday, journalists, politicians and so-called Muslim community leaders have all been duped into taking seriously these loners’ claims to be the voice of ‘the ummah’ and angry Muslims all around the world.
Observer journalist Faisal Bodi sees Khan’s claimed link to victimised Muslims as legitimate: ‘The resort to indiscriminate violence against the homeland is often a reaction to…a lack of identification with a country that is persecuting fellow Muslims abroad.’ Unsurprisingly, the opportunistic Respect MP for Bethnal Green, George Galloway, said we had ‘paid the price’ for Blair’s wars, seeing the 7/7 bombers as Muslims fighting back for their people. The authorities’ response has also taken Khan seriously: they set up the £5million Preventing Extremism Together task force, to show it is ‘listening’.
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has maintained since 7/7 that British foreign policy has driven young men to act violently. Following the release of Tanweer’s video yesterday, Inayat Bunglawala of the MCB expressed his ‘hope’ that it would ‘lift the sense of denial in parts of the government about the link between the 7/7 bombings and its policies overseas’.
Khan and Tanweer had no legitimate claim to speak on behalf of Muslims. Their connection to victims abroad was in their minds, created out of a desire to be part of something global. But in a world where any old hack can be called a ‘community leader’, it is hardly surprising that they also thought they were qualified to speak as one. What Khan and Tanweer’s terrible action shows is the price of endless, meaningless community consultation, where some people are rewarded political power for merely being the right skin colour or religion.
The precedent was set in the 1980s, long before Khan and Tanweer became radicalised. During this period of urban riots and escalating racial tensions British governments tried to deal with ethnic minority communities in cities through ‘community relations’. They set up local ethnic and religious leaders with political influence to represent groups and make demands about their special needs in public services like housing, welfare, education and policing. The long-term effect was to crush internal differences and debates within those groups, and to segregate them off from the rest of society. Religious leaders could complain about a range of issues without any need to prove their mandate. The MCB, set up in 2001 as a way to deal with the terrorist threat after 9/11, has been heavily criticised for excluding the diversity of opinion within the Muslim population.
Even worse, this approach has left a younger generation with a confused sense of who should represent them. The government had imposed a set of leaders on them because they ticked the right boxes, effectively saying: ‘We can’t do anything with you people, sort yourselves out.’ Is it any wonder that in 2005 four young men with no previous political experience or responsibility believed that they could have as much claim on the ‘Muslim community’ as these elders had?
In today’s political culture, if you want to assert influence, you are no longer required to win an argument or build a constituency of support; you merely have to say you are acting out of conscience for the oppressed of the world. Khan claimed to be a victim acting for other victims. The claim of powerlessness, however, is accompanied by a lack of accountability. You no longer need to go through the long, difficult process of winning people over to your argument. You simply act out your frustrations alone and then claim to speak on behalf of others who are powerless to do so themselves. This individuated and self-indulgent emotionalism has become a substitute for political persuasion.
But it’s not just angry Muslims who do it. Numerous protest groups in Britain have developed this anti-democratic character over recent years. In 1999, Lord Melchett and 27 others from Greenpeace were exonerated in court for pulling up GM crops in a Norfolk farmer’s field because they felt they were acting in ‘the public interest’. On May Day 2000, anti-globalisation protesters trashed McDonald’s outlets and vandalised scores of shopping outlets in the city of London because they wanted to express their hatred of ‘the system’ (presumably, they were expecting the poor victimised workers they were campaigning for to clean up the mess).
Animal rights extremists in Oxford have felt no inhibitions about using violent tactics against local scientists, feeling that their moral outrage against the building of a new laboratory is sufficient justification. The list goes on: the environmentalists who claim to speak on behalf of future generations, anti-abortionists who speak on behalf of unborn children, the pop stars who are so convinced of their mission to save starving Africans that they think nothing of lying to the public (see Where are the bodies, Bob?, by Brendan O’Neill).
Abraham Lincoln said ‘No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent’. We need to challenge the anti-democratic nature of contemporary politics and stop flattering individuals who have no claim to speak for anyone but themselves.
Munira Mirza is a writer and researcher based in London.