Secret Affairs, Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam. Mark Curtis. Review.
Secret Affairs. Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam Mark Curtis. 2010. Serpent’s Tail.
Hat-tip to Paul Flewers who suggested I read this book.
“Egypt’s future is uncertain after the death or fall of Mubarak and, whether there is a revolution or not, the Brotherhood could play a role in government or in the transition….Britain is the largest foreign investor in the country, amounting to around $20 billion. British elites want to be in a better position than after the fall of the shah of Iran in 1979 in 1979, and cultivating the Islamists is likely regarded as critical.”
“Britain likely sees the Brotherhood – as it did from the 1950s to the 1970s – as counter to the secular, nationalist forces opposition in Egypt and the region….” Pages 308 – 9. Secret Affairs. Mark Curtis. 2010.
Secret Affairs is a pioneering and unsettling study. It unravels how British officials have worked with apparently ‘anti-imperialist’ Islamists that they have found “useful at specific moments.” It sheds light on one of the less publicly acknowledged sides of British global policy – its “collusions” with Islamist groups and parties. Mark Curtis writes, “With some of these radical Islamic forces, Britain has been in a permanent, strategic alliance to secure fundamental long-term policy goals; with others, it has been a temporary marriage of convenience to achieve specific short-term outcomes.” (Page xi) Two geo-political aims have guided this policy, to keep control over energy sources in the Middle East and maintain the City’s place in a stable international financial system. More than out of sheer delight in the undercover world British intelligence agencies have pursued these rational, foreign policy, objectives.
For many it will be a mental wrench to consider that the British State could be complicit with Islamism. Islamists, in all their heterogeneous forms, are, according to a refrain that tends to drown out all others, a real or exaggerated threat. To the right they are from a civilisation out to clash with the West; to most of the left, a riposte to its imperial, Crusader, ambitions. After digesting Secret Affairs the claim that the West has declared a no-holds barred ‘war’ on Islam, sounds hollow. On occasion even the most extreme Salafist inspired Islamists have been in the loop of the secret services, though more public state policy has been to nurture “moderate” Muslims, a moderation that exists sometimes only in comparison with the most violent Jihadists. If one turns the study’s conclusions upside down, one can also see some interesting aspects of Islamist politics: why, and how, they expect to use their contacts, half-hostile, half-respectful, with countries like Britain. Mark Curtis equally offers important signposts to the future direction Whitehall policy will take towards a key Islamist actor in post-Mubarak Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood.
State Islamist Sponsors.
The thread tying together Secret Affairs is an account of its relations with “the two most significant sponsors of radical Islam” – Pakistan, which promoted “the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the terrorist cause in Kashmir and its surge in central Asia” and Saudi Arabia, “the largest financier of the Islamist cause worldwide. “(Page 223 – 4) Mark Curtis is a master of weighing up what governments have considered to be the national interest beyond alliances with these states. He enters the murky intelligence world without his vision becoming darkened by the complexity of the dealings involved. The author argues that Britain has “long connived with Islamist forces and their Pakistani state sponsors.” (Page 293) He cites Martin Bright, “it is depressing that so few of the left have been prepared to engage with the issue of the Foreign Office appeasement of radical Islam except to minimise its significance.” (Page 307) He comments, that this is not so much appeasement, as an effort to “achieve key British foreign policy goals” (Ibid).
In 2011 the arguments of Secret Affairs are extremely important. The euphoria surrounding the popular uprisings against the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, and the demonstrations unrolling from Algeria and Tunisia to Libya, Jordan, Yemen, and the Gulf States with its waves reaching Tehran, has spread across the world. It is more than welcome. Liberals and the left have greeted the democratic aspirations and secular demands of the protesters.
Some ‘anti-imperialists’ consider the unrest to be the much-waited-for blowback to a Western ‘crusade’ against Islam that carries social opposition in its train. Its client dictators, Mubarak and Ben Ali, gone, they hope for a more radical moves, revolutions with wider ambitions, social and international. They may even be, it is often whispered, occasionally said out loud, radical forces, potential allies in a push for deeper change. Comforting stories, about veiled women involved in the struggle, have circulated, sometimes designed to demonstrate the irrelevance of religion, other times to indicate its ‘progressive’ role. Islamist groups, swathes of which have, on Curtis’s evidence, had ambiguous contacts in the past with Western states, are now held to be potential allies of the left. In the Iranian revolution, and its aftermath, such a common front has functioned to political Islam’s advantage and has not benefited any popular interest. If some Islamist groups have been prepared to work with Britain in the past, one wonders what kind of present-day agreements rival leftist suitors will reach, and what will be the result.
Divide et Impera.
Mark Curtis (interview here) takes us back to Britain’s colonial empire and its mid-twentieth century dissolution. The Raj was, he alleges (on the balance of evidence), kept in control by a strategy of divide and rule, between different groups in the sub-Continent. In the 19th century “promoting communal divisions” was deliberate policy. (Page 5) Religious identity, a kind of ‘multiculturalist’ separate development, as promoted. From its 19th century origins in the Aligraph movement, the British looked favourably on the party that drove the demand for partition and the formation of Pakistan, the Muslim League. The ‘Muslim card’ was used against the Indian National Congress. After Indian independence the Pakistani glacis was a “strategic asset” for the Anglo-Americans. “Narenda Sarila notes that ‘ the successful use of religion by the British to fulfil political and strategic objectives in India was replicated by the Americans in building up the Islamic jihadis in Afghanistan’. (Page 34)
Geopolitics and high strategy are a specialist area, subject to infinite shifts, changing alliances, and differing judgements. But Secret Affairs unearths some coherent policies towards Islamism. In the post-Great War Middle East Britain the manager of ‘protectorates’ such as Palestine and Iraq, pursued such a complicated strategic course that there will never be a consensus about its course. Faced with the creation of the State of Israel at the end of the Second World War, “there remains disagreement as to whose ‘side’ Britain was really on ..”(Page 41) One theme however did emerge. As Curtis notes, it was during this period that British officials began to regard Islamists, of various stripes, as “bulwarks” against communism. (Page 43)
This has been a long-standing reason to collaborate with Islamism. Readers will stop at particular details of this history. Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of a galaxy of anti-communist causes (including those of the international far-right, and outright anti-Semitism), in tandem with its promotion of the “global Islamic mission” has been given free reign from the Cold War onwards. Curtis describes Indonesia’s Western endorsed massacre of up to a million ‘communists’ in 1966. “Islamist groups, trained and equipped by the Indonesian army, played a critical role in the slaughter.” (Page 97)
Britain Sends Communists to their Death.
One specific example sticks in my mind. In 1982 the Khomeini regime was brutally repressing the left, and executing thousands of them. The British obtained a list of members of the Tudeh (Iranian Communist Party) members from a Soviet defector, Vladimir Kuzichkin. MI6 and the CIA jointly decided to pass on this list to Tehran. Dozens of alleged agents were executed and more than a thousand arrested, while the party was banned. There were show trials of a 100 members (where some were sentenced to death). The British operated “in pursuit of specific common interests – the repression of the left – even though Iran was by now considered a strategic threat and overall anti-Western force.”(Page 130)
Back in the ‘sixties Islamism was also opposed to a far greater perceived threat, Arab nationalism. This is a tangled tale, with the British sometimes trying to use the Muslim Brotherhood against pan-Arabism, yet often being repulsed by the organisation’s ingrained hostility to the ‘Crusaders’. The pro-Western Egyptian President, Sadat, went with the grain in using Islamists to smash his country’s Marxist and nationalist student groups. Islamic parties and groups attracted the “urban poor”, and, more significantly, “the devout bourgeoisie, a class hitherto excluded from political power.” (Page 108) Encouraging Islamisation turned out to be double-edged sword. Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel further pushed them towards maximalism; he ended up assassinated by al-Jihad in 1981.
The alliance between the Western powers and Islamism formed during the Afghan jihad against the rule of the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was infinitely more solid and direct. Britain appears to have helped the Afghan opponents of the left before the Soviets sent in troops in 1979. When tanks rolled in Margaret Thatcher gave full backing to those fighting the “godless communist system.” US allies, Saudi Arabia, Egypt (sending Islamists radicalised under Sadat) and Pakistan undertook the practical organisation of the war against the PDPA and their Soviet backers. This shored up the Saudis, already funding Islamist causes around the world, and Pakistan, then promoting an Islamisation programme and boosting its domestic far right (notably the Jamaat-i-Islami), under General Zia.
Muscular Liberals for Islamism.
Many of the ‘muscular liberals’ who now frenetically oppose Islamism, were as enthusiastic as Thatcher for the Afghan jihad. French nouveaux philosophes (such as the ubiquitous Bernard-Henri Lévy) saw it as the high-point of the fight for freedom against Moscow. There were also ‘leftists’ who saw the Mujaheddin as combatants against ‘Russian imperialism’. They failed to foresee the fruits of their surrogates’ victory. As is well-known the fall-out from this war, which created a pool of violent Islamist activists ready for global combat, led to the Taliban regime, and, ultimately, provided a base for al-Qaeda, neither bolstered liberalism nor the left.
Amongst the Mujaheddin supporters, whether Tory, liberal or leftist, few seem to have taken seriously the ideologues who would eventually emerge to announce, that, “This [Clash of civilisations] is a very clear matter, proven in the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet, and any true believer who claims to be faithful shouldn’t doubt these truths, no matter what anybody says about them.” That “we are in a strong and brutal battle, between us and the Jews, with Israel being the spearhead, and its backers among the Zionists and Crusaders.” (Messages to the World. The Statements of Osama Bin Laden. Edited by Bruce Lawrence. 2005).
Many recent theatres of war, Bosnia, Albania, and Algeria, are covered in Secret Affairs. Again the traces of Western co-operation with various Islamists, and the half-wary, but intimate, relations between them are described. But perhaps the most memorable chapters are concerned with those at a distance from the battle-fields, in ‘Londonistan’. “London in the 1990s was one of the world’s major centres for radical Islamic groups organising terrorism abroad.” (Page 256)
Hw could this happen? It is claimed that a “covenant of security” was reached: that as long as the Islamists did not commit acts of terrorism in the UK, they would find this country a “safe haven”. Readers of the French press will be well aware of the anger felt in that country at the UK’s sheltering of brutal Islamic activists in the Algerian GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé). – responsible for attentats in Europe and sadistic murder in Algeria. Other lands, where it could legitimately be shown that these refugees faced considerable danger, were also vociferous in complaining about the UK authorities’ tolerance. At times this lenience reached extraordinary levels. In 1994 Osama Bin Laden had a London office, even visiting that year. His Advice and Reformation Committee were permitted to continue (despite its transparent violent intentions) until Al-Qaeda’s East African bombings in 1988. (Page 182) There was little outrage in Britain at the murder of 224 people, mainly Africans, in these attacks on US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The policy did not end there. In the late 1990s Abu Hamza, a Special Branch contact was allowed to organise military training in England for his Supporters of the Sharia organisation. (Page 267)
Why would the British authorities have allowed Londonistan to develop? Curtis considers the view that it enabled the intelligence services to monitor and infiltrate Islamist groups. It may have been a way of cultivating relations “with possible future leaders”, help give the British a certain “influence” or “leverage” “over the internal politics” of Arab and other states. More crudely, “another major advantage of hosting radical Islamist groups in London, linked very closely to fundamental and current British foreign policy aims – the promotion of international divide and rule.”(Page 265) The Raj and the Middle East were templates of a kind. But in present conditions encouraging divisions between states, and the Balkanisation of existing states (literally in the case of the former Yugoslavia), may be also factors. Some people in the “intelligence community” many have, even if not by formal policy, have therefore continued the policy of diviser pour mieux régner.
The public side of the British state, and the ordinary population, not to mention the left, only seem to have become concerned about Islamism in the wake of 9/11 and London’s own carnage on 7/7. The assault on the Twin Towers, that led, after the ousting of the Taliban to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, was followed in 2005 by the London massacre. Suddenly heavy-handed anti-terrorism legislation was passed. the Labour government began to differentiate between ‘good’ moderate Islamists and ‘bad’ ones. On the left some claimed that Britain was indeed at “war with Islam.” Sections of the left expressed at least “understanding” of why people would want to murder Londoners as a “legitimate target”. This is a sordid evasion of reality. Curtis remarks that, “The bombings were, to a large extent, a product of British foreign policy, not mainly since they were perpetuated by opponents of the war in Iraq, but because they derived from a terrorism infrastructure established by a Pakistani state long backed by Whitehall and involving Pakistani terrorist groups which had benefited from past British covert action.”(Page 285) Britain, he observes, prepared the ground. It “has helped marginalise secular nationalist and democratic forces within the country..”(Page 294) In the political void the Islamists have grown. Its goals, and its targets, have no anti-imperial core: they are directed towards creating a purified Islamic state and against all who will not fit into this vision. The present vicious reaction in Pakistan in favour of killing ‘blasphemers’ illustrates the priorities of this movement.
Britain and Islamism’s Future: Slouching Back to Egypt.
Secret Affairs is an eye-opener. It is primary an investigation, that rarely gets an airing, into British Realpolitik towards Islamism. It dredges up its deep roots in Britannia’s imperial past. It is also thoroughly modern. Not only are the UK’s declining international strategic interests at stake, but far-from shrinking financial ones, including Saudi financial investment and the City’s part in so-called Islamic banking and ‘Islamic finance’. There is much further light shed on the complexities of British and American alliances, and hostilities, with Islamist forces in occupied Afghanistan and Iraq. Relations with regional competitors, including the Islamic Republic of Iran, and US patronage of regional insurgency against Tehran, are given due weight. From geopolitical analysis Curtis moves to political judgement. There is an underling continuity, not rupture between British Cabinets’ approach to Islamism. That is, its willingness to negotiate as well as threaten, to use, to co-opt the most acceptable elements, as well as imprison the recalcitrant. Curtis has his finger on the faults in this approach. He points to the foolhardy agreements made with Islamists who operated on British soil, and the failure to grasp how the intelligence and diplomatic services’ strategies overseas can literally ‘blow back’ towards home. Internationally, collusion with radical forces has contributed to “the rise of radical Islam and the undermining of secular, nationalist, more liberal forces…”(Page 346) If one would wish for a wider explanation of the crisis of anti-colonial nationalism, and the decline of the left in countries with Muslim majorities, Curtis’s observations should play a major part in building up a fuller left picture of the place of Islamism.
Secret Affairs has been listened to in some expected quarters. Even some who generally subscribe to the Crusader view of the West’s role in the Orient, such as John Pilger and the SWP’s Socialist Review, have reacted positively to its analysis. But how far have they thought it through ? An obvious conclusion is that Islamism has gained more from its dealings with the British state than Whitehall has. Operating with much weaker forces, the small factions of the pro-Islamic left, if they ever reach agreements with them, will see their interests overshadowed. Strong parties, notably those in the ‘International’ of the Muslim Brotherhood, who intend to use the state as a moral actor to enforce Islamisation on people’s private lives, may find some minor advantage in encouraging a radical veneer. Justice, as for political religions of all faiths, is a slogan that only lightly covers a commitment to free-markets. The Brotherhood apparent liberal and democratic Constitutionalism has made them politically acceptable, their liberal economic policies, potential partners. *If they have some support from the urban poor, it is their base in the pious bourgeoisie that counts. They play little role in the social unrest sweeping the working class (here). It much more likely that they will return, strengthened by the crises sweeping the Middle East, to the High Table of global politics, to negotiate, this time openly, with the British and Americans.
* See their attempts to whitewash their racist and totalitarian past here.
“The publication of Qutb’s book, which called for the reinstatement of Sharia as the basis of Egyptian law and for the overthrow of what he labelled the “Jahili” (i.e. pre-Islamic) system prevalent in the country, led to his execution.
That Milestones is today considered the principal reference book for a myriad of armed Islamic groups across the world is testament to its influence. The book was used to discredit the entire Muslim Brotherhood with accusations that it advocated the violent overthrow of secular regimes. Anti-Ikhwan proponents felt little need to explain the circumstances under which Qutb penned his treatise: The fact that he was utterly disillusioned with the prevailing system after being subjected to years of solitary confinement and torture for his political beliefs made little difference to his opponents who sought to characterise his rejectionism as representative of Islamic political movements in their entirety.
Despite proclaiming to be a bottom-up “reformist” movement and eschewing violence, the charge of extremism has subsequently hung over the Brotherhood….
It is essentially a grassroots movement campaigning for the betterment of Egyptian society. That the movement gained an impressive 88 seats in the 2005 parliamentary election, or 20 per cent of the total, despite widespread electoral fraud (in 2010 it lost all its seats after Mubarak’s National Democratic Party massively rigged the election once more, this time leaving nothing to chance) speaks volumes about its popularity.
Even in districts that are predominantly Christian, many voters opted to back the Ikhwan against the regime. Christian protesters are as resolute against Mubarak’s dictatorship as their Muslim counterparts and many have expressed little worry about the Muslim Brotherhood despite the fear perpetuated by the regime.
In talks with senior US officials in 2006, the newly-appointed Egyptian vice-president, Omar Suleiman, termed the Ikhwan’s parliamentary success in 2005 “unfortunate”. Private US cables released by Wikileaks (from where the previous quote was taken) reveal starkly the obstacles that the Brotherhood has faced under Mubarak.
Opponents of the movement will continue to stoke fears about its apparent “clandestine” motives. The cry of “one man, one vote, one time” will be heard loudly and relentlessly from those seeking to deny the Brotherhood a role in Egypt’s political future. This is one scare tactic, however, that the people of Egypt will not fall for. Political Islam is a force with strong roots in the country and in the wider Islamic world and will continue to remain so. ”
One can remark that while it is true that political parties change, they remain profoundly marked by their origins.