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Many British Muslims are blaming their country's foreign policy for encouraging the type of extremism that reared its head Thursday when police arrested about two dozen local Muslims for alleged ties to a plot to blow up international airliners.
Most explicitly, three of Britain's four Muslim MPs and three of the UK's four Muslim peers, as well as 38 Muslim organizations, published an open letter in leading newspapers on Saturday charging that "the debacle of Iraq and now the failure to do more to secure an immediate end to the attacks on civilians in the Middle East" gives "ammunition to extremists who threaten us all."
The letter also claims that "current British government policy risks putting civilians at increased risk both in the UK and abroad" and urges Prime Minister Tony Blair to "change our foreign policy to show the world that we value the lives of civilians wherever they live and whatever their religion," a move that would "make us all safer."
Some of the signatories have said that the advertisement, which declares that "attacking civilians is never justified," was arranged before Thursday's arrests. But the assertion that UK foreign policy - sometimes made with overt references to Israel - is at the heart of forces radicalizing British Muslims has been repeated frequently by Muslim commentators and columnists in recent days.
"Foreign policy seems to be an igniting factor in terms of the potential to drive people to extremism," Fiyaz Mughal, deputy president of the Liberal Democrats, told The Jerusalem Post Monday. Mughal was not a party to the letter, but indicated he generally supported its contents as well as the right to publish it. He stressed that there was no justification for terror, but said the government must examine "flashpoints" such as foreign policy if it wanted to redress areas of alienation for Muslim youth.
The government has largely rejected the letter's views, as have many in the mainstream media. Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett was quoted as saying a link between Blair's policies and the threat of terrorism would be the "gravest error" and was "part of a distorted view of the world, a distorted view of life. Let's put the blame where it belongs: with people who wantonly want to take innocent lives."
Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander this weekend also reportedly called the link "dangerous and foolish," saying, "No government worth its salt should allow its foreign policy to be dictated to under the threat of terrorism."
The mass-circulation, strongly pro-Israel Sun tabloid slammed the Muslims' letter in its top editorial Monday and praised Home Secretary John Reid for describing their perspective as a "dreadful misjudgment." It goes on to accuse Muslim leaders of being "intent on appeasing and excusing Muslim violence rather than condemning it. They run the risk of dividing Britain and doing the terrorists' work."
And the left-leaning Observor, which takes a more critical view of Israel, titled its lead editorial this Sunday "These ludicrous lies about the West and Islam." The piece points out that the first Islamist terrorist plot, on the New York World Trade Center in 1996, well predated British involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan and took place during the Oslo peace process.
"If young British Muslims are alienated, that is sad and their anger should be addressed. But anyone whose alienation leads them to want to kill indiscriminately has crossed a line into psychopathic criminality. Policy cannot be dictated by the need to placate such people," the editorial concludes. "British Muslim leaders are entitled, along with everybody else, to raise questions about the conduct and consequences of Mr. Blair's foreign policy. But they have a more immediate responsibility to promote the truth: that Britain is not the aggressor in a war against Islam; that no such war exists; that there is no glory in murder dressed as martyrdom and that terrorism is never excused by bogus accounts of historical victimization."
Ali Miraj, a Muslim board member of the Conservative Party's policy review on international and national security, told the Post he also criticized the focus of the letter. "You cannot hold a gun to the government's head and say that unless you change your foreign policy, people's lives are going to be at risk," he said. What's needed, he added, is "more lobbying" and other democratic action.
Mughal, however, rejected the timeline laid out in the Observer editorial and repeated by others to repudiate the Muslims' letter.
"We know that Palestine has been an underlying fuel for a lot of this issue, and that's been going back for 50 to 60 years," he said, adding that foreign policy was just one reason for growing extremism in Britain, listing discrimination, unemployment and alienation as other significant factors.
A number of British Jewish officials refused to discuss the letter or its positions with the Post, with a representative from the Board of Deputies of British Jews saying the organization had "absolutely no comment." But Ben Novick, director of media relations for the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Center, called the links made by the letter "dangerous and wrong," also pointing to the timing of the rise of extremism and the history of British foreign policy.
Novick added that while he had been concerned that the connection between foreign policy and terror at home would be made "and that it might wash with the media," he said he had been relieved by the reaction.
"We're very happy that the response from most of the media and the establishment, including the government, has been favorable." He described that response as confronting the issue "head-on" and standing "resolute" against the view.
He attributed that stance to the "highly democratic" nature of the country, which allows people to change policy through voting rather than violence.
Novick also dismissed the theory circulating among some members of the British Muslim street that Thursday's arrests were merely a government fabrication designed to distract public attention away from Israel's actions in Lebanon and Blair's much-criticized support of Israel in that conflict.
"It's a bit ludicrous," Novick said. "Israel believes what it's doing is right. It's not like they've got to hide anything." He added that Blair had no interest in creating travel hang-ups and economic pain at home, since that's hardly likely to increase his public support. "You think he wants this double headache of having terror brought home and disrupting people's lives, as well as what's happening in the Middle East? No way."
But Mughal distinguished the current argument from conspiracy theories of the type that fingered the Mossad or CIA as responsible for 9/11. In this case, he said, the skepticism stems from this scheme being revealed at the same time as the situation with Lebanon was raging, as well as the fact that many previous arrests of alleged terror suspects have ended with the British authorities releasing most of the detainees on minor criminal charges.
He noted that he fully supported the police action in the current case, but said, "We've just got to wait and see what happens with the arrests."