Londonstani on twitter
Previous posts




Al Qaeda's Western DNA

How do you spot an Islamist extremist?

It's not as easy as it sounds. Want to blow stuff up? Well, a whole bunch of ideology-driven crazy people want to do that, not just Islamists. Know a Muslim who believes it's their religious duty to grow a long beard or wear a long black robe that leaves only the eyes uncovered? They might just be extremely devout, and complete pillars of their (multi-religious) community. 

What sets a real Islamist extremist apart is the zealous need to embody the complete antithesis of mainstream Western society as an expression of an authentic Islamic world view. So, if most men are clean shaved, they feel it's a "duty" to have a free-flowing beard. The law in most Western countries says a man can only have one wife; they say you MUST have four. If society expects you to get a job and pay your taxes, they'll implore you to claim state benefits while you spend your days calling for the state to be overthrown. If most people's trousers come down to their ankles, they'll find an obscure religious ruling that says you go to hell if your trousers aren't cut off mid way down your shin. If politicians say civilians shouldn't be killed in war, the proper extremist finds ways to justify expressly targeting them as a sanctified strategy of war.

It doesn't take long to realise that if you are going to define yourself by always being the opposite of something, you are - by nature - intrinsically linked to what you claim to hate most. Al Qaeda - as the poster boy of Islamist extremism - exhibits this dichotomy most clearly. The organisation's stated aim is to fight Western influence (economic, military and cultural) in the Muslim world, while its very existence is a product of a "Westernised" world - not the tooled up response of a unsullied Muslim essence, as it likes to portray.

Al Qaeda's DNA is a Western product. Even while it claims to fight the West, its way of doing things is - at its core - very Western. This can be seen coming through in the group's use of very Western practices such as branding, off-shoring, sub-contracting and franchising. In many ways, al Qaeda was the ultimate example of a successful Western company (apart from the murdering) operating in the post-Regan/Thatcher era of deregulated markets, media saturation and globalised finance.

Letters written by Osama Bin Laden captured during the raid that killed him (a selection of which were published last week by West Point's Combatting Terrorism Center) show that, in the end, al Qaeda's Western DNA was its greatest liability.

The global franchising that expanded al Qaeda's reach led to loss of control. And, the brand that Osama Bin Laden had nutured through careful plotting was destroyed by the actions of late arrivals (in Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia) who wanted in on al Qaeda's mystique but didn't understand that the rest of the Muslim world were horrified by the slaughter of Muslims with the wrong views, and Western civilians. In the end, like many Western media companies, al Qaeda was feeling the world change under its feet, but it couldn't stop itself from losing its footing.

According to Jason Burke writing in the Guardian:

"They [the captured letters] show bin Laden still committed to a campaign of violence but so concerned by an apparent loss of support in the Muslim world that he considered a major rebranding of al-Qaida, to allow it to better exploit the Arab spring revolts.

"A month before he died, bin Laden described the Arab spring uprisings as a "tremendous event" but clearly felt that al-Qaida had been marginalised."

US News Business Correspondent Rick Newman explains how this happened in the language of simple, clear-eyed business reporting:

"Bin Laden faced the kinds of challenges many business leaders confront at key junctures for their companies... As more terrorist groups adopted the al Qaeda name, it created the ominous impression that al Qaeda was aggressively expanding. But the bin Laden documents suggest it was a fractious arrangement that was never likely to gel... He personally disapproved of suicide bombings and other terrorist operations that killed innocent Muslims, worrying that they could sully al Qaeda's image when carried out in its name. He tried to centralize control over all operations carried out by any branch of al Qaeda, but failed to rein them in."

The whole idea that there are Western ways of doing things and "Islamic" (or any other way) of doing things is only compelling on a superficial level. There are really only good and bad ways of doing things. By constantly pitching itself as the antithesis of the West, the ideological trend that al Qaeda springs from mortgages its own horizons for a fleeting feeling of "up yours!" satisfaction. In the end, though, it suffered the worst of both worlds.


Mona Eltahawy and the treatment of Arab women - detoxifying the debate

Mona Eltahawy's article Foreign Policy article Why Do They Hate Us? about the treatment of women in Arab societies has stirred up some serious debate, but from reading online comments and articles in response, the discussion has drifted - again - from the treatment of women to the nature of Islam. 

In Londonstani's view this is a shame. Although he doesn't know Mona personally, she was a close contemporary at the Reuters Cairo bureau and Londonstani has followed her writing and activisim for a long time since. So before everyone goes into Ayan-Hirsi-Ali mode because Mona supported the French niqab ban, it's worth re-reading Mona's activism against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well the "Ground Zero mosque" debate. Mona is not "anti-Muslim", a "repentant Muslim" or a "self-hating Muslim". Dismissing her as such does nothing to address the abuse she raises. 

In the article Mona raises important points that need to be addressed, not swept under the carpet because 1) the West is equally bad in a different way 2) dirty laundry should not be aired in public 3) it's disloyal for a Muslim to criticise the actions of other Muslims. 

There is a tendency for discussions around Islam and rights to rapidly veer off course. On one hand, there are those looking to make the point that there is something fundamentally wrong with Islam. While on the other, there is a feeling that Islam as a religion is being attacked, and by extension all Muslims are potentially under threat of physical harm.

Somewhere in the middle, the possibility of an honest reflection of attitudes and practices in the Muslim world (yep, these issues are also present in Muslim Asia and Africa) get squeezed out of existence - which is a tragedy because the conversation needs to happen for all the reasons Mona points out. 

In general, efforts to promote rights in Muslim societies tend to follow two routes; the first seeks to justify rights through religio-legal reasoning and portray them as already existing within the religious framework, while the second castigates religion as the source of the problem. 

Both have their limitations. The first elicits a theological debate that ends up lost in the intricacies of competing interpretations of religious texts and the second is perceived as an attack on Islam so has limited traction outside a small clique of ideologically driven campaigners. This isn't new. The Muslim world has straight jacketed itself to a limited, black and white, emulate-or-reject-the-West argument since Napoleon seriously fractured its self confidence in 1798 with his occupation of Egypt. In recent decades, this myopic approach has become even more warped by an increasingly popular perception that "rights" and "freedoms" are "Western" concepts with no precedent in Muslim history. 

Londonstani thinks Mona is exactly right in saying; "Our political revolutions will not succeed unless they are accompanied by revolutions of thought..." However, the way this article will be perceived will limit the potential for her argument to stir that revolution. 

Responding to Mona, Nesrine Malik writing for the Guardian sees patriarchy rather than all men as the root of a problem that submits weaker sections of society to inequality and injustice at the whim of those who wield power. She points out that "in Saudi Arabia women cannot drive, but men cannot elect their government, instead they are ruled over by a religiously opportunistic dynasty. In Egypt, it's true that women were subjected to virginity tests, but men were sodomised. In Sudan women are lashed for wearing trousers, but ethnic minorities are also marginalised and under assault." Does Darfur ring a bell?

The solution she says is "a more generous political space will allow for the challenging of patriarchy, which in turn extends the roots of political reform deeper." 

The real tragedy of the Muslim world, Arab or otherwise, is political culture has lost any connection to justice and equality, which used to define the discourse between the rulers and the ruled. Now, to be popular you need to prove how "Un-Western" you are. And, women's rights are seen as a Western concept. It's the opposite of Garbzadegi, the Persian concept of "Weststruck". If you want the Muslim world to jump off a cliff, tell it cliff jumping is Western culture's ultimate expression of personal freedom, and the US administration is committed to championing its cause across the world. 

There is reason to be hopeful. As Londonstani argued in a book he wrote a couple of years ago (plug: The Long Struggle) the Muslim world will only be able to deal with issues related to religion and rights when it detoxifies its relationship with the West. 

As political changes in the Arab world allow space for much-delayed discussions about religion, politics, rights and responsibilities, the West's loss of economic primacy is leading to a decline in cultural authority. These two processes together could, perhaps, encourage the re-birth of that space for honest reflection that has been squashed to death over the past few decades. 


Arab world, culture, Islam, ideas - Stuff you need to read

While Londonstani has been distracted by the waiting for, and then arrival of, Junior Londonstani he's come across a few good blogs and online magazines that you wanna follow if you are into the Arab world, culture, belonging etc.:

1 - The Muslim Institute, a UK-based collection of thinkers, has launched an online magazine called Critical Muslim . Definitely worth looking at articles like Zia Uddin Sardar's Islam: What's the big idea? and Michael Mohammed Knight's The Taqwacore Version. But be warned, it's behind a paywall.

2 - Critical Muslims is the blog of Carool Kersten, a scholar of Islam at Kings College London

3 - For those interested in Syria, there's Creative Syria , which features articles by the likes of Camille Otrakji analysing Bashar al Assad's support inside the country. Oh, and while you are at it, check out the old Middle East photos at the imaginatively titled MidEast Image blog

4 - For more Middle East related life and culture take a look at Emanuelle Esposti's blog. And wait in eager anticipation for her latest offering, The Arab Review, to launch in a couple of weeks.



Posting has been limited recently. I'd like to take full responsibility for this. But, unfortunately I can't because, in fact, a little squirming poo generating machine is to blame.

Meet my son, Zakaria Romer Naseem Khan, born on April 3.

Posting will be patchy while junior helps us discover a new world of sleeplessness.


Gorgeous George's British Muslim Spring

Ok, well, the Bradford Spring... according to Gorgeous George Galloway.

For those who don't follow British politics,; last month serial MP George Galloway (who is probably best known outside the UK for humbling US Senate comittees) contested and won the previously safe Labour seat of Bradford West. His victory, for many UK politics watchers, wasn't a huge surprise. Gorgeous George has made a habit out of wresting seats from his former party by campaigning against UK foreign policy in the Muslim world in areas with large Muslim populations.

It's quite common to hear GG called a single-issue campainger. Former Labour MP Oona King, who he defeated in the 2005 general election, said he was a "one-man band."

Researcher and scholar Parveen Akhtar says its not quite that simple. In an article on Open Democracy, Parveen argues that Galloway isn't merely whipping up support amongst Muslims by denouncing policies they don't like, he's making young Muslims feel like they are being listened to on global and local issues. 

In Londonstani's view, Parveen makes two key points, which are summed up by the words "young" and "local issues".

But first, a little background from Parveen based on ethnographic research conducted in Birmingham:

Pakistani immigrants arriving from the 1950s onwards, "drew the attention of the mainstream political parties to the emergence of a numerically significant - and thus potentially influential - Pakistani electoral constituency. Most Pakistanis were working class and therefore tended to support the Labour Party, though on social issues their values bore closer resemblance to those of the Conservative Party. For their part, both parties viewed the community as impenetrable without the help of community mediators, but they also came to realise that if kinship (biraderi) elders could be got "on side" this would be helpful in securing both their votes and the votes of their wives and voting-age children. The relationship with these elders thus led them to use the internal community kinship structure as a means of accessing a potentially election-winning bloc vote."

The next part is key:

"The consequence was a system of patronage whereby local politicians of all political parties (but especially the Labour Party) built links with community leaders in the Pakistani community, who became their gateway to the Pakistani vote....The local leaders were given minor positions of power and help in figuring out the political system, so that they could stand for council seats or influential roles as subaltern aides. Some community leaders negotiated for community provisions such as neighbourhood centres, whilst others were content with the status conferred on them in the eyes of their compatriots."

As time went on and the British-Pakistani community evolved from being predominantly foreign born and older to British-born and under 30, the cozy mutually beneficial tie-up became a distortion in the system of local politics, the aim of which should be to identify and address the needs of local communities. Instead, local issues went ignored (in many cases the "older generation" simply had no idea they existed.)

Parveen touches on how these "unseen" issues came to find expression through extremism:

"The result was a generation gap, where the older generation were not aware of the frustrations of the young - something clearly highlighted by reactions to the wave of riots in northern English cities in 2001, and by the radicalisation of some young people in colleges and on university campuses."

How does this connect to GG's popularity?

"Pakistani Muslims, like their co-religionists from other regions, certainly do have an interest in middle-east politics, but they are also deeply concerned with what are often seen as unglamorous local-level issues: the economy, housing, work and life opportunities, street-lighting, children’s schools, rubbish-collection. It may be then that in electing George Galloway, at least some Pakistanis have made a cognitive leap by calculating that if Galloway is speaking positively about Muslims abroad he will care about them here and help to "fight their corner" - a fight which they believe the older generation of Pakistani community leaders has abandoned, by accepting patronage roles from mainstream politicians."

GG suggested his "Bradford Spring" was about a community of British Muslims sticking it (democratically) to rulers who don't represent them or have their interests at heart. It might be more accurate to look at it as a democratic revolt by young British Pakistanis against the vested interests of their own self-appointed community leaders. This maybe specific to Bradford, but it may be also be emblematic of a wider trend. The make up of British Muslim and British Pakistani communities is evolving. The proportion of those under 30 is growing. Elders no longer hold a monopoly on what is deemed to be acceptable - there are new sources of information. Views are fashioned by experiences common to non-Muslim, non-Pakistani peers. All of which, is mirrored somewhat by sociological changes in the Muslim world. This British experience is what GG could have called the British Muslim Spring.

Maybe he didn't want to put it in those terms, because, after all, taking on Tony Blair and George W. Bush is one thing, the aunties and uncles of Bradford, are quite another.