Soldier killing and the “war on terror”

Horrific as war
Horrific as war

The killing of a soldier in Woolwich on May 22nd was horrific. The indiscriminate murders of thousands of unnamed civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan by armed drones have been replicating this horror on a much larger scale for years. However no progressive political purpose is served by killings of this sort. We have seen how the event has been used to reanimate the discussion around the further erosion of civil liberties. The neo-fascist right has taken to the streets. British imperialism’s armed organisations have benefitted from a wave of sympathy and popular support which makes it harder for those of us who oppose their actions to have our voices heard.

Although this appears to be a random and macabre act, the response by Cameron was immediately to treat it as an organised terrorist attack.

The government’s reaction fails to deal with the political causes underlying such attacks. There were no such cases before the “war on terror” was launched in the wake of 9/11, which led to the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. The description of this war by US President Bush as a “clash of civilisation” and a “crusade” has provided the context in which the killing in Woolwich occurred. This is understood not just by the left, but also by others such as former head of MI5, Stella Rimington, who said in 2008 that the war on terror in Iraq had influenced young British men to turn to terrorism.

The war on terror has been a failure in its own terms. It has not prevented terrorism but has caused it to spread. Civil war appears to be spreading in parts of Iraq, while in Afghanistan the Taliban is undefeated. In both countries, democracy and civil rights are wanting.

The failure of those supporting the “war on terror”, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq has had damaging consequences: the spread of racism and islamophobia.  There were 38 islamophobic incidents, including three attacks on mosques, reported on the night following the killing. In Woolwich, over 100 English Defence League thugs went on the rampage. British Muslim leaders are expected to condemn the killing in a manner which is not expected of leaders of others faiths when atrocities are committed by white gun men, in Norway and the USA for example, often politically motivated. These killers are rarely described as terrorists, but as “fanatics” or “madmen”. The “war on terror” has also been used to restrict civil rights and instigate extensive and intrusive surveillance, in particular those with a Muslim faith.

In the wake of the events in Woolwich, the immediate issue for the left is to resist the racist backlash, to continue fighting against the “war on terror”, and to defend civil rights.

Socialist Resistance

May 24 2013


  1. The statement correctly condemns the murderous action and also relates it correctly to British imperialism’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The negative political consequences of such individual terrorist actions are clearly outlined.

    While obviously British imperialism’s bloody wars provides the context and bears a great deal of responsibility there is also the responsibility of the political dead end of Islamist jihadism. We must also analyse and oppose the political line of the jihadists – their backward, anti-democratic, anti-woman ideology of fighting for a return of a worldwide caliphate. In practice it sometimes means older preachers ‘inspiring’ and sending out mostly young men on suicide missions. Just as there is a terrible waste of human life with the death of the young soldier in Woolwich there is also the awful stupid waste of the lives of the two attackers.

    Such a political line also has bears some responsibility for the political consequences of such events as we are already seeing. This political/religious line makes it more difficult to build opposition to imperialist wars and to islamophobia. Just because the imperialist wars breed the anger and despair does not mean that we ignore the political responsibilities of the jihadist leadership. Tariq
    Ali’s wonderful letter to a potential suicide bomber could be usefully reproduced as well as classic writings on the disaster of individual terrorism (Trotsky, Lenin etc). Just because there is a far right offensive using the Woolwich murder as a godsend for their faltering movement (they could not have asked for a more useful image to use than the bloodied hands rant) and a mainstream political/media narrative that ignores the imperialist war factor, that does not mean we should remain silent on this aspect.

    Finally such fundamentalist ideas are also much more easily able to find an audience if both the moderate and radical left are unable to reach out and win support among those in the communities that are attracted by such positions. Before the Iranian revolution, the fall of the Berlin wall, 9/11 and the Iraq/Afghan wars young radically minded men in those communities were generally involved in either secular national community organisations (IWA), anti-racist campaigns, community defence (Newham Monitoring group) or in the Marxist radical left. So the weakening of the left over the past decades has also, albeit in a minor way, allowed the jihadists a less contested field of operation.

  2. Agree with Dave above. This is essentially similar to Galloway’s statement that Britain is in a war on Muslims and Islam, an assertion that is not based in reality. You take the words of the killers at face value, as if we all agree that the problem is British imperialism, but they just chose the wrong tactic to oppose it. Why not examine their beliefs and the politics of the global movements of the Islamic Right of which they are a part?
    This war has two sides. You say, “There were no such cases before the “war on terror” was launched in the wake of 9/11, which led to the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq”. What about the 9/11 attacks themselves? Were there only peaceful brown people living in harmony before the big bad Americans got involved? Of course not. Western imperialism has an interest in all the conflicts around the globe, including those between Muslims, and often makes things much worse, but they do not create them all and nor are they the sole aggressors. You make the obligatory reference to drones, but ignore the fact that many more civilians are killed by Islamic Right militants than by western bombs or drones.
    There are two sides in the war on terror, we need to oppose them both. By ignoring this, you miss the chance to create solidarity with the people most oppressed by jihadi violence (and Western imperialism); not uk soldiers, but those who resist them in their own countries: women, leftists and trade unionists, minorities, and in fact most other Muslims. Disappointing.

  3. Your statement on Woolwich strikes exactly the right note: condemning individual terrorism while correctly situating the attack in the context of Western determination to enforce its rule in the Middle East, despite the defeats which they have suffered recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those who urge condemnation without context – the classic liberal response – seem to have forgotten the attitude to the IRA taken by at least one of the political strands of SR. The IRA killed civilians, sometimes deliberately. In the face of the kind of media hysteria which we have seen over the past few days, our members pointed out the likely consequences in terms of more repression etc. but at the same time put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the British ruling class. This is different from Galloway’s daft ‘war on Muslims’ position. Neither does it make any concession to ‘political’ Islam which is a much more complex class formation than ‘Islamic jihadism’ or ‘Islamic Rights’ would allow. We should also remember that the media response is an attempt to create a narrative about what it means to be British – ‘civilised’ and ‘democratic’ counter-posed to ‘savage. ‘barbaric’ and ‘uncivilised’ – seamlessly reproducing racist attitudes to Africans alongside an earlier ‘Christian crusader’ attitude to Muslims and Arabic peoples. Neither should a focus on religion blind Marxists to the politics.

    • David, I’m still hoping to see SRs analysis of Political Islam (if you prefer that term). Have I missed it? I think you do need to decide what your attitude is towards these transglobal Islamic political movements (not ‘Muslims’ – these are political movements) before you try to make comparisons with the IRA. We don’t want to oversimplify (as probably my reference to ‘two sides’ did). So what are the ‘complex class formations’ involved? You seem to see these movements as anti-imperialist and leave it at that. Have you examined what sort of opposition to Western domination these movements really pose?
      David, if the young men in Woolwich had succeeded in getting to Somalia to join the fighting and had killed someone there, could the blame for that have be placed squarely on the shoulders of the British ruling class? The young men who move around the world to fight in jihadi movements don’t respect national borders as much as you do; in fact they are far better internationalists than today’s Trotskyists.
      What’s important isn’t so much the public condemning of the killing as not elevating it up to some sort of righteous cause. The OP bemoans the fact that the oppression of Muslims in the UK will be greater after this act, as if the killers had any concern about that – jihadis have rarely concerned ever themselves with lives of ordinary Muslims; actually they kill them in great numbers. It wasn’t the wrong tactic, it is the wrong cause.
      While I’d like to see SR take some interest in where these young men were coming from politically, we shouldn’t elevate this over other factors like their unhappy lives and their personal problems, criminality, etc. They probably don’t represent a coherent political tendency. But we are very much in the realm of old men sending young men to die for a unjust cause, whether British Army or Islamist. Don’t encourage more of this by dressing up their cause with any righteousness.

      And another point:
      I get frustrated by focus on the media as if Islamism is only some sort of media intervention and spectacle, but I also think the discussion of the media reaction in the OP is quite inaccurate. Yes, there was a frenzy and huge overreaction (I think of the several dozen people with names and stories who have now died as a direct result of the recent benefit changes; we get nothing about this in the news) but the media was not as you say. There wasn’t talk about ‘Crusades’ – in fact there hasn’t been (from Western leaders) for about 12 years now. That is just not the discourse any more, hasn’t been for years. One after another politicians appeared on the television stating that the killers did not represent Muslims and that almost all Muslims were horrified by the killing (it’s sad that Muslim leaders and mosques had to come out with this but obviously they would like to do their best to protect people from the racist backlash). I did see the clown Anjem Chowdhury on the telly but mostly you got a pretty measured response and the insistence that these people while they may be part of larger networks, represent tiny numbers of Muslims (all true).

      Have you considered the media’s depiction of the EDL? It is far from flattering. When Tommy Robinson is given a platform he is humiliated and denigrated by his class superiors even as he is given tacit permission to represent the ‘white working class’. This is really ripe for analysis. I don’t get the impression that the ruling class particularly wants fighting in the streets, though the power of numerically small groups like the EDL to shift the entire public debate to the right is not unwelcome by them.

      Sorry to go on about this. It’s just disappointing that a group like SR that seems a bit different from the other trots (for example your commitment to feminism, at least for some women) should have an article that could have appeared in any lefty outfit like socialist worker/counterfire or socialist unity at any time in the last decade. The reason it’s important is that as we build opposition to the EDL and the far-right we should try to avoid mistakes of the past, including assuming that Political Islam is never to be criticised since everything is always only about the West and ‘Muslims’ can have no real agency.

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