A series of high profile raids, together with claims that a major terrorist plot had been uncovered, dominated the headlines and the news channels last week.
But the government moved quickly to try to crush any suggestion that the risk of terrorism could be connected to British foreign policy in the Middle East.
Three Muslim Labour MPs—Mohammed Sarwar, Sadiq Khan and Shahid Malik—together with 38 Muslim organisations signed a letter warning that “current British government policy risks putting civilians at increased risk both in Britain and abroad”.
Their statement was met with scorn from the government. Foreign office minister Kim Howells dismissed it as “facile” and “dangerous”, while home secretary John Reid called it a “dreadful misjudgement”.
These ministers must be the last people on the planet who believe there is no link between British foreign policy and an increased risk of terrorism.
Harris Bokhari is a spokesperson for the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), one of the organisations that signed the letter. “We have been saying that British foreign policy is a problem since day one, even before the war in Afghanistan,” he told Socialist Worker.
“And it is not just Muslims saying this. The two million who marched against war in Iraq were not majority Muslim. The 100,000 that marched against the war in Lebanon and Gaza are not majority Muslim.
“The Chatham House foreign policy research institute has been saying it. A lot of people up and down the country are very upset about Britain’s foreign policy.
“We would be ignoring our moral duty if we did not speak out. And it’s very naive for ministers to say that this not a problem.”
Neil Gerrard is the Labour MP for Walthamstow in east London, where several people were arrested in last week’s raids. He is one of over 150 MPs campaigning for a recall of parliament to debate Israel’s attacks on Lebanon.
“I believe that Iraq has pushed Britain right up any target list for terrorism,” he told a Stop the War Coalition meeting in Walthamstow on Monday.
“Our foreign policy is having a very negative impact both outside and inside the country. Now Lebanon is going to be added to Iraq unless more is done—not just a ceasefire—to help the Lebanese.”
In a statement attacking the letter from Muslim MPs, a Downing Street spokesman argued that “nobody could have worked harder” than Tony Blair to achieve an end to violence in the Middle East.
Mohammed Sarwar MP told a 7,000 strong anti-war demonstration in Edinburgh last weekend why he disagreed. “I say to Tony Blair that I stand with the people who are marching here today, while you stand with George Bush,” he said.
“We condemn the action of our government for standing back and allowing the Lebanon conflict to continue.
“It is not just the Muslim community that is against the Israeli aggression in Lebanon. It is all of us here today and the many communities we represent. But our prime minister does not represent the people here today, the people he was elected to represent. Instead he goes on blindly supporting President Bush.”
Blair has consistently tried to deny any link between Britain’s foreign policy and the risk of terrorism. He recently complained that Muslims have “ a false sense of grievance against the West.”
Faisal Raja from the London Association of Muslim Professionals believes this attempt to clamp down on discussion about Britain’s role in the Middle East is counter-productive.
“Tony Blair said last month that Muslims don’t have any grievances,” he said. “But it’s not just Muslims—non-Muslims have real grievances too.
“Only recently Muslim MPs and others sent a letter—an absolutely benign letter—to Tony Blair. What happens? John Reid attacks it. What ever happened to debate?
“This is stopping people from discussing in the community as a whole. We need to encourage young people to discuss and to engage in legitimate political action—demonstrations, meetings, debate.”
Because Blair and Reid refuse to address the link between foreign policy and terrorism, they rely on increasingly repressive measures, scapegoating and attacks on civil liberties.
Last week Reid said that those critical of the governments attacks on civil liberties “just don’t get it”. He argued that human rights legislation is out of date, saying, “Sometimes we may have to modify some of our own freedoms in the short term in order to prevent their misuse and abuse by those who oppose our fundamental values.”
Last weekend, in the midst of the terror scare, he signalled that he plans to make a fresh attempt to push through 90-day detention without charge for terror suspects—a move defeated in the Commons last November.
The “war on terror” has been accompanied by an increase in racism against Muslims and has created a climate in which the police have shot two innocent men.
The most recent terror raids have been a huge media spectacle. As Neil Gerrard points out, “We should remember that anyone who is arrested is innocent until proven guilty. Arrest should not equate with guilt.”
He told the Walthamstow meeting that he had been contacted by a national TV station that wanted to run an interview with him outside a local mosque. When he said that he wanted to be interviewed somewhere else because he didn’t think that all the focus should be on the mosque, the TV station dropped the interview.
“We have to stop the demonisation of people in the area,” he said. “It’s not perfect here, but relations are generally good. Don’t let the appalling negative coverage affect us.”
Harris Bokhari from MAB echoes this. “We’ve noticed that after the 7 July bombings last year, Muslims have been targeted by far right groups and far right elements of the media. Our community has become a target—but we are not willing to be divided,” he said.
A community responds to the terror raids: 'People are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty'
People from across Walthamstow, east London, are fearful, angry and suspicious of the police’s terror raids conducted on houses in the area last week.
Many of them expressed their concerns at a Stop the War Coalition meeting held in the area on Monday.
“War and terrorism are not the solution in any part of the world,” said Hanif Qadir, a youth worker with Active Change Foundation in Walthamstow.
“Israel is following what the US has done in Iraq and Afghanistan. We don’t want this to happen. We have to unite to have a bigger say.
“We need to address the foreign policies—these absolutely have an impact on our young people.
“We also have to engage more with our young people or we leave the door open for young people to be confused and distracted by other ideas. We need more resources and more forums for discussion and more support for our young people.”
Mattab Aziz is a lawyer and former Respect candidate in Waltham Forest. “The government has to recognise its foreign policy is the reason for so many disaffected people,” he said.
Kate Lord is vice chair of governors at Edinburgh primary school in Walthamstow. “We can’t go along with this atmosphere of ‘we have terrorists in our midst’,” she said.
“People are also frightened because they think that people can just be arrested and taken away. I think that we have a cohesive community—I don’t want them to wreck that.”
Imtiaz Qadir of Waltham Forest Islamic Association spoke about the atmosphere within the Muslim community.
“After Friday prayers, a lot of people were saying that they felt that the raids had been done to distract from what is happening in the Middle East. They may be right,” he said.
“I am Muslim and I was born here. I think that if the police need to, they should take action against terrorism.
“But there are questions about the way that this was carried out—and the way it was thrown to the media.
“People are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but this looks more like guilty until proven innocent.
“It is not good for the relations between Muslims and the police.”
Hamara Rauf is an education worker who lives in Walthamstow. “I am horrified about the arrests and about how no one is being given any proper information about what is going on,” she said.
“I think that in a lot of ways that I am very cynical about what is happening—and I think that this is a distraction from what is happening to Lebanon.”
Read Alex Callinicos's column, Who are the true terrorists?