Dr Joel Hayward
Perceptions that the West’s current wars are “anti-Muslim” do not reflect the full picture.
I am sometimes questioned by fellow Muslims who insist that NATO’s current war in Afghanistan, like that in Iraq before it, is a war “against Islam” and a war for profit. This view, not uncommon among British Muslims, is based on a deep concern over the plight of fellow Muslims, which of course I share. Yet ultimately this view is a bit simplistic and not supported by the evidence. Despite Afghanistan being a confused, confusing, challenging and draining war, its motives have never included the exploitation of Muslims.
I dislike the fact that many innocent Afghans (and Iraqis) have suffered. I pray they will soon live in freedom and security without the presence of any external military forces, including ours, or internal oppressive regimes. Yet as a scholar I have to weigh all evidence and, in my honest judgement, I cannot agree that the wars are about either the exploitation of Muslims or about profit.
Unfortunately, western governments have failed to address the issue of how their foreign policies have inadvertently caused resentment in the Middle East and the wider Islamic world. I wish our own Government would give this serious consideration and try to explain its past and present actions more openly and fully. Doing so might help. Aside from aspects of the War on Terror, which have been disastrous for relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, a more positive and balancing narrative could be constructed that shows just how often western nations have acted to support or protect Muslims (Iraq in 1991, Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1999, Libya in 2011, etc).
Western governments should be actively rebutting, with a transparent case based on authentic evidence, the view of many people here and abroad that their only ventures into Islamic lands have been for shady motives. Yet without providing a positive narrative, which might at least partly offset the perceptions of imperialism or exploitation that many see in the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the only narrative is the entirely negative one that unquestionably fuels the militant Jihadist worldview.
Let me elaborate. When one looks at western military activities throughout the last twenty years, we find that Muslims sometimes actually benefitted (significantly) from our military interventions. For example, when despotic Saddam Hussein’s Iraq overran Kuwait in 1990 and stole its oilfields, Kuwait appealed for overseas help to regain its sovereignty and oil. The Gulf Arab states were woefully incapable of kicking out the cruel Iraqi occupation troops. The US, UK and other nations answered the call and in 1991 fought a tough and costly war that liberated Kuwait. We did not ask Kuwait for thanks, let alone for oil. More importantly, we never used the opportunity as a pretext for deposing Saddam and stealing Iraqi oil.
We were horrified four year later in 1995 when the Srebrenica massacre of 8,300 Muslim boys and men (and the ethnic cleansing of another 25,000) revealed the scale of Bosnian Serb atrocities against Bosnian Muslims. As soon as we knew, our previous neutrality immediately became morally untenable. For the first time ever, NATO used air power in anger, quickly forcing the aggressors to end their murderous ethnic cleansing of Muslims and to accept a US-brokered ceasefire agreement. We then supported the indictment of the perpetrators for war crimes.
Another four years later, in 1999, we were so alarmed by Serbian military and paramilitary oppression in the province of Kosovo that, once we realised that the persecution of the Kosovars — Muslims again, coincidentally — had reached the scale of ethnic cleansing, we immediately undertook a massive and costly 78-day air war against Serbia to end the persecution and create the conditions necessary for Muslims to live peacefully in Kosovo. Despite Serbian claims that NATO was really after precious minerals in Kosovo, those minerals belong to the people of Kosovo to this day. We have taken nothing from those now free, safe and independent Muslim Kosovars.
If we jump forward to this year, we see NATO intervening militarily in another Muslim land: Libya. Regardless of whether we think that Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron and other leaders overreacted to Muammar Gaddafi’s attempt at supressing insurrection, we cannot ignore the fact that the defence of threatened civilians from a tyrant was their primary motive.
We did not fight for Muslims during those three wars and now in Libya because they were Muslims. We did so because they were fellow humans who were being persecuted and we could not avert our eyes or ignore our collective conscience. In other words, we acted out of a desire for justice. That we were able to protect persecuted Muslims was a wonderful by-product of our moral intervention.
Yes, western governments did a poor job in 2001 of explaining the reasons for war in Afghanistan and the strategy adopted has not always, or even often, been effective. Yet we should remember the initial causation. Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked airliners and committed an indiscriminate attack that took the lives of 3,000 innocent people; an attack six times greater than history’s worst terrorist atrocity. Based in Afghanistan and in league with the Taliban who then “governed” Afghanistan, it was Al-Qaeda — not the West — which initiated that war.
When the US had supported the Taliban’s predecessors back in the 1980s and western nations praised them (the Mujahideen) as valiant freedom fighters against the Soviets, we had no idea how the Taliban would ever behave if they later seized power in Kabul. When they did, it proved to be a shocking revelation. Between 1996 and 2001 the Taliban grossly maltreated the people of Afghanistan through a cruel rule without Islamic justice and equality. The Taliban ethnically cleansed uncooperative tribes, brutalised all Muslims whose understanding or practice of Islam differed from theirs, and denied basic human rights to whole sections of the population. We love the Afghan people and surely do not want to see them maltreated like that again.
Despite controversial claims about Iraqi links to Al-Qaeda (which I have never accepted), the invasion of Iraq in 2003 nonetheless involved the removal of a tyrant. It originated in residual anger over 9/11 and had nothing to do with the theft of oil. Neither the US nor the UK has seized or appropriated Iraq’s oilfields and the war never generated a profit. On the contrary, it cost hundreds of billions of dollars. We may disagree with the purpose of the war (I do), but we cannot accurately explain it away as a war against Muslims, or for oil. And Afghanistan, it should also be noted, has no oil.
We all look forward to western armed forces leaving Islamic lands. It will certainly do a lot to ease tensions and end misunderstandings and it will allow Muslim populations to choose how they want to be governed. Yet I have no doubt that, should severe oppression occur elsewhere in the world, our government would, if it judged the grievance to be sufficiently wicked, consider sending our armed forces in to protect the persecuted; Muslims or non-Muslims.
It would be helpful, and morally consistent, if we Muslims living in the West were as critical of the many Muslim governments around the world which brutalise their own people — in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia — as we are of western governments which intervene (sometimes clumsily). Too many of the world’s Muslim-majority nations are governed by tyrants and oligarchs. We should thank almighty God that in this Arab Spring the winds of change are finally beginning to be felt across the Arab world and beyond.
Dr Joel Hayward is a senior academic whose various posts include Dean of the Royal Air Force College. A well-published author and poet, he is currently putting the finishing touches on his second collection of poems (and ninth book), which he has titled Splitting the Moon: A Book of Islamic Poetry. Any views expressed here are only Dr Hayward’s personal views.
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