LONDON — A few thousand antiwar protesters gathered outside the House of Commons last week to lobby members of Parliament, to take part in a silent vigil or to attend one of several — to the annoyance of those who would have liked unity — antiwar meetings.
The day before this event, the first in an escalating campaign against war on Iraq, tens of thousands of British soldiers were dispatched to the Persian Gulf. No one outside the tight circles of military control and intelligence knows what the game plan is for the troops. A shrinking minority of British people, down from over half to under a third, supports British involvement in an attack against Iraq if it is undertaken without another U.N. resolution.
That proviso may be an unnecessary cavil, expressing British unease about an attack. It says people here do not want to act simply as an unthinking support arm for U.S. foreign policy. It says people here are not convinced that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein constitutes a threat to his neighbors or anyone else outside Iraq. It says we don’t really care what Hussein does and says, it does not affect us. It says any attack against Iraq would be understood as an attack against all Muslims everywhere and the very existence of the Islamic religion and communities. It says Britain does not have the money or the manpower to launch wars against anybody. It says the Middle East is so unstable that any intervention could provoke terrible mayhem.
In other words, reasons for opposing a war are, as always, many and range from the principles of pacifism and sharing the world with all sorts of people, including those who excite revulsion, to calculations about share prices and national budgets.
The day before the lobby there was a mass police raid on a mosque in Finsbury Park, North London. This was not done in the name of blocking Hussein. It was done in the name of the war against terrorism.
This particular mosque, which was built a few years ago, with its shining golden crescent standing proud of the dingy environs, is a magnet for Muslims newly arriving in Britain. Some of these new arrivals are Pakistani and Bangladeshi; but many, coming to this new mosque, are North Africans and men from the Middle East.
It is this link that so alarms the British government, as well as some local people. Although most of the mosque’s work is the usual work of any mosque — religious services, prayer and teaching, welfare and advice — the mosque has also served as a meeting place for the angry Muslim vagrants of a world jihad against Western imperialism.
Much of this jihad is rhetoric, a war of words only. It is similar in tone to the wars against sin and corruption preached by Christian evangelicals who urge their followers, in fervent language, to be constantly vigilant and do battle against the devil in all his many guises. It is very like the rhetoric used in socialist sects for whom life is nothing but a lifelong battle against capitalism, waged in the most bloodthirsty of language.
But the instability and civil wars of Somalia, Algeria, Iraq and Afghanistan have produced a number of young men with combat experience. “Shoe-bomber” Richard Reid and other al-Qaeda suspects have visited here. To the gullible and battle-hungry, fighting men can gain a heroic status that the scornful young withhold from the Islamic elders and teachers of peaceful and contemplative religion.
A number of Muslim clerics teach at the mosque, but the dominant imam is an Egyptian man, Abu Hamza, who could have been designed by a committee of rightwing British newspapers. He was blinded in a military adventure that also destroyed his hands. These were replaced by hooks. As a result he looks appropriately mad and horrible and feeds every British terror about dangerous Muslims. He, in turn, vaingloriously feeds the media with words of rage and relentless war.
In most developed nations, the violent feelings of young radicals have been confined to small and marginal sects in the last 20 years. A wild-eyed young British anarchist would never be mistaken for a typical representative of British, or Christian, feeling. British ignorance of people and life in Muslim countries is so huge that the enormous disparity of sects and traditions and ethnic groups that constitute the Muslim world is largely unknown. Thus can an imam such as Hamza be taken as representative of all Muslims everywhere.
Hamza has less power over the Muslim population of North London than does Hussein over the people of Iraq. Most British Muslims can and do choose to worship outside the aegis of this one imam. Yet something happens when a man deemed typical or representative is attacked. Even those who loathe him feel obscurely that they are being attacked too, in his name. Hussein (not a good Muslim, but one in name) has no known friends or admirers in Britain. Yet an attack on him can be and will be understood as an attack not only on all Iraqis but also on all Muslims.
The same goes for the raid on the Finsbury Park mosque. Because most British people feel the raid to be an attack on a dangerous and repellent phenomenon of modern times — the Islamic jihad against the West — so most Muslims feel themselves to be attacked in the name of a war against Islam. (As one member of the Muslim Association of Britain told me, “Israel, Palestine, Iraq, to me it’s one situation.”)
One of the most popular slogans among those demonstrating against an attack on Iraq is “Not in My Name.” Whatever the economic and military realities of the Bush regime’s armoring against the Hussein regime, however specific to the Bush regime or American oil interests it may be, U.S. and British military preparations are being undertaken in a blizzard of abstract, universal notions about peace and justice and safety. We have the terrifying prospect of the world being launched into war under cover of impenetrable clouds of rhetoric.
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