Opposing British foreign policy could mean you're an 'extremist'

Oppose American and British foreign policy? Then you might be a 'violent extremist'
6 min read
06 Aug, 2019
Comment: According to a British government-commissioned report, opposing American/British foreign wars and questioning capitalism could be a sign you're an extremism sympathiser. Belén Fernández unpicks the absurdity of these claims.
A British government-commissioned report has linked opposition to UK policy to 'violent extremism' [Getty]
Do you see the US, UK, and Israel as greater threats to world peace than North Korea and Iran? If so, chances are you might be suffering from sympathy for violent extremism.

This, at least, is one of the hypotheses set out by a new study titled "Violent extremist tactics and the ideology of the sectarian far left". Funded by the UK Commission for Countering Extremism, the study is authored by Daniel Allington, Siobhan McAndrew and David Hirsh, all lecturers at British universities. 

The authors use the term "revolutionary workerism" to describe "the belief system disseminated by the sectarian far left"—distinguishable by such concepts as "Capitalism is essentially bad and must be destroyed", "Industry should produce for need and not for profit", and "The wealthy make life worse for the rest of us".

The study compares individual support for the above concepts with support for phenomena like "Violence as part of political protests", "Committing terrorist acts", and "Street violence against anti-democratic groups". Surveyed individuals were also asked to select up to three countries—from a group that includes the US, UK, Israel, North Korea, China, Russia and Iran—that "represent the greatest threat to world peace". (We already know the wrong answer to that one.)

The upshot: while the authors found "no evidence that sectarian groups on the British far left currently have the capacity or the inclination for direct organisational involvement in terror activities of any sort", they have nonetheless determined that there is a "positive relationship between sympathy for violent extremism and both revolutionary workerism and an 'anti-imperialist' geopolitical outlook".

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Which brings us to the question: how can anyone purport to talk seriously about "violent extremism" without acknowledging that so much of what the US, UK, and Israel do is extremely violent?

For the US-UK duo, the recent destruction of Iraq and ravaging of Afghanistan come to mind—not to mention lengthy respective histories of murderous antagonism of much of the world.

There's also Yemen, under brutal assault by a Saudi-led coalition that has enjoyed considerable backing from the Americans and British. In one particularly publicised atrocity last year, a US bomb massacred 40 Yemeni children on a school bus. And British weapons, too, "are doing much of the killing", as a June dispatch in the (not-so-far-left) Guardian notes:

"Every day Yemen is hit by British bombs – dropped by British planes that are flown by British-trained pilots and maintained and prepared inside Saudi Arabia by thousands of British contractors.

The [coalition] has 'targeted civilians … in a widespread and systematic manner', according to the UN – dropping bombs on hospitals, schools, weddings, funerals and even camps for displaced people fleeing the bombing".

Sounds rather violent, if you ask me.

Every day Yemen is hit by British bombs – dropped by British planes that are flown by British-trained pilots and maintained and prepared inside Saudi Arabia by thousands of British contractors

Israel, meanwhile, has spent the duration of its existence engaged in periodic bouts of slaughter of Palestinians and other people who get in its way. For example, the Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip known as Operation Protective Edge, which took place around this time 5 years ago, killed 2,251 Palestinians, most of them civilians, including 551 children and 299 women. Six Israeli civilians were killed.

Somehow, all of this is of zero interest to our study authors, who would prefer to complain about how "the ideology of 'anti-imperialism'" draws the 'sectarian far left' and their buddies into "a position of solidarity with terrorist organisations and violently repressive regimes"—like when these leftists chose to interpret the July 2005 London transport bombings as a reaction to British government policy.

One example, the study claims, was when "the weekly newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party responded… with the front-page headline 'This is about Iraq, Mr Blair'[,] as well as with an article arguing that if Britain wants terrorist attacks to stop, then it should begin by 'ending the occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine'".

Given July 2005 Guardian headlines like "Two-thirds believe London bombings are linked to Iraq war", however, it seems this was hardly a radical fringe view. Consider also The New York Times' report that the Secret Organisation of Al Qaeda in Europe itself declared that "the attacks had been undertaken to avenge British involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq".

Anyway, the authors of the study contend, revolutionary workerism is pretty much "extremist in its own right", since it implies "mistrust of existing institutions… [and] utopian hopes for a future transformation of society". No explanation is offered of what sort of hope for the future there might be under a capitalist system that is violently destroying the planet.

Significantly, the term "violent extremism" is not actually defined anywhere in the report despite appearing a total of 77 times (82 if you count the variation "violent extremist")—and despite the fact that, in another recent report commissioned by the Commission for Countering Extremism, this one on the British far right, the phrase appears not even once despite its involvement in recent acts of violence.

Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, the United States' own Countering Violent Extremism programme (CVE)—launched under Barack Obama—is tragicomic in its own right. After all, even Martin Luther King, Jr. described the US as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world"—an arrangement that doesn't appear to have changed much.

A glance at the bios of the authors of the study on violent extremism and the so-called far left reveals that Mr. Allington is also Deputy Editor of the Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism, while Mr. Hirsh, by coincidence, has written a book called Contemporary left antisemitism. This would perhaps explain how the report has ended up featuring such claims as that "anti-imperialism" is rooted in anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.

In a recent Jewish Chronicle article titled "Our study shows the far left has a soft spot for violence", Allington details how "revolutionary socialist groups stand in solidarity" with an array of international nemeses as well as the "indiscriminate terrorism of Hezbollah and Hamas in the Middle East". Never mind that Israel's own indiscriminate terrorism is responsible for the existence of both entities in the first place; in manufactured realities, context matters not.

And as the deflection of blame for "violent extremism" proceeds apace, it's clear that there is many a soft spot for the violent status quo.

Belén Fernández is the author of Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World (OR Books), The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work (Verso), and Martyrs Never Die: Travels through South Lebanon(Warscapes). She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine and writes regularly for Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, and Current Affairs.

Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.