British Muslims got it wrong on Syria intervention

Yesterday was a momentous day for this country but unfortunately Muslims played little or no part in it, writes Roshan Muhammed Salih.

It was the first time since the 18th century that a British prime minister lost a parliamentary vote about taking the country to war. And in doing so David Cameron’s authority was hugely undermined and the British parliament went some way to redeeming itself as it finally represented public opinion on a foreign policy issue.

But I think it’s fair to say that Muslims didn’t play a significant role in undermining the case for war on Syria. Rather the MPs voted the way they did because they doubted the evidence that the Syrian government really was behind the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta; they doubted the legality of a strike on Syria without United Nations approval; and they doubted whether any military action would indeed safeguard lives.

But they came to those conclusions not because of any hard lobbying Muslims did to dissuade them from attacking a majority Muslim country, but because this is a war-weary nation which is suffering economic difficulties. Foreign war is just not popular these days, apart from with the military-industrial complex and the neo-cons surrounding David Cameron.

Muted reaction

To be honest, I found the Muslim community reaction to the prospect of Syria being attacked extremely frustrating, strange, muted and even suspicious.

Firstly, it was days before anyone truly revealed their hand. All the prominent Muslim organisations and personalities in this country were very slow off the mark. Some have still not uttered a word even though they are rarely short of an opinion.

This could have been due to incompetence but I think the more likely scenario is that they were deeply conflicted over the issue.

When some groups did eventually release statements – such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and the MCB – they were tardy and made no difference to the debate which took place in Westminster. And even those who explicitly opposed the action were hardly chaining themselves to the Ministry of Defence or even doing the media rounds to voice their outrage. Neither did they join the Stop the War demonstration outside Downing St on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, I would say that these groups probably represented the majority of Muslim opinion in this country. They were deeply suspicious of Western military intervention after the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan (and to a lesser extent Libya), but were also so consumed with hatred for Bashar al Assad’s regime that they didn’t want to make a song and dance about it.

All I can say is that they may well be regretting their attitude if the British parliament hadn’t done everyone a favour by preventing military action.

Pro-war Muslims

Meanwhile, other groups and individuals may have unfortunately wanted to see Western military action in the hope that it would have decapitated the Assad regime or turned the tide against it.

I have written elsewhere why I think this is a naive and dangerous attitude so I won’t repeat my arguments here, but all I will say is that these people have failed to learn the lessons of history.

So what an irony! Muslims have spent a decade or more campaigning against Western military intervention in the Muslim world, often in alliance with non-Muslim leftists. And in doing so they have put the greater good of the nation in the West’s crosshairs before any negative feelings they may have had about the nature of the targeted regime. Yet all those efforts were largely failures in the sense that they did not stop military action.

But the one intervention that Muslims were largely silent about (Syria) was indeed stopped, with Muslims largely on the sidelines.

But it could have all been so different. Parliament could have authorised action, the British could have attacked and exacerbated an already brutal and complicated civil war. And Muslims would have been complicit by their silence and indifference.

I sincerely hope we won’t make the same mistake again.


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