The Liverpool View: Uncomfortable lessons from Woolwich attack


Dr Leon Moosavi is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool

“We have forgotten we are at war. We find it perplexing that a British soldier could be killed in our streets, near to a school, on a busy afternoon.

We have forgotten we are at war.

We are prone to suffering violence because our nation has been at war, explicitly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and covertly in numerous other nations. We are still an Imperialistic nation that believes it has a right to be at the ‘top table’, and that we are entitled to deploy our military wherever we like so that we can protect ‘British interests’.

Lives detached from war

In this modern era, our everyday lives are absolutely detached from war. We think more about television soaps and football than about the perpetual violence that is on-going in our names, on a daily basis, in faraway lands. As long as politicians deploy violence elsewhere in the world, we will always be vulnerable to counter-violence. As long as politicians enact state terrorism, we will always be vulnerable to terrorism at home.

Despite what we might like to think, foreign policy is key to understanding why terrorists attack us. We may hope they only attack us because they’re barbaric or because they ‘hate our freedoms’. But time after time the terrorists clearly state that they attack us because we attack them.

”We may hope terrorists only attack us because they’re barbaric or because they ‘hate our freedoms’. But time after time the terrorists clearly state that they attack us because we attack them”
And it’s uncomfortable to admit, but these terrorists know they are not lying in saying that our military has been involved in killing and harassing tens of thousands of civilians, whether directly through invasions, bombings and drone strikes, or whether indirectly through propping up oppressive regimes. Our aggressive and utterly selfish foreign policy will always leave us open to attack.

Here is an opportunity to re-evaluate our deployment of soldiers around the world and our alliances with oppressive governments.

But it is not only our foreign policy that is to blame. Surely the mental health of the criminals who perpetrated the act must be examined closely as this may provide answers as to why they could undertake such a brutal act. This attack also raises questions about knife crime in London more broadly, which has become normalised in relation to gang culture and a hyper-masculine conception of living a ‘thug life’.

And it is of course true that Islam is not to blame for the behaviour of these terrorists. Islam is a rich religion that has inspired a huge body of scholarly insights into spirituality, philosophy, social and political discussions over several centuries.

”Just as we would be burying our heads in the sand to say that foreign policy plays no role in causing such violence, we would be equally burying our heads in the sand to say that a twisted interpretation of Islam plays no role”
Some ignorant and misinformed people have already blamed all Muslims for the attack. This is of course a huge mistake as any sensible person knows that the vast majority – and by vast majority I mean more than 99% – of Muslims would never consider engaging in such despicable violence.

However, here is another uncomfortable admission that we must make. There is a literalist and extreme interpretation of Islam that does condone indiscriminate violence. This is a fringe interpretation that has very few adherents and is challenged enthusiastically and regularly by Muslims themselves. Just as we would be burying our heads in the sand to say that foreign policy plays no role in causing such violence, we would be equally burying our heads in the sand to say that a twisted interpretation of Islam plays no role.

Now is the time for communities to stand together, not to start blaming each other.

“Legitimate” to dissent against foreign policy

Muslim organisations have been quick to vehemently condemn the attack. Non-Muslim politicians and journalists have been quite clear that Muslims and Islam must not be blamed. Some have been reactionary in calling for an increase in surveillance and reduction of civil liberties to prevent such attacks from happening in the future. Others have said Muslims must start wearing ‘Help for Heroes’ t-shirts and pledging their allegiance to the British Army.

Neither of these responses are what we should be aiming for.

Instead, we should continue to value our multicultural society, recognise that it is entirely legitimate to dissent against our foreign policy or military activity, and ask more pertinent questions about what our foreign policy looks like, and why some Muslims are finding the literalist and violence fringe interpretation of Islam attractive.

We are after all a nation at war even if we have forgotten.”

Follow Leon on twitter @Leon_Moosavi


8 thoughts on “The Liverpool View: Uncomfortable lessons from Woolwich attack

  1. John Gallagher

    Dear Prof McGuire, having just noticed your response and the tangent argument/debate has taken I feel I have no choice but to reply (and openly on here).

    I can’t help feeling there’s a contemptuous, dismissive tone to your writing. When I said I found the original article conceited it was for not dissimilar reason.

    For personal reasons I let anger get the better of me in my initial response. But I am well aware – and am sure most other intelligent people who follow the news are well aware – of the continued ‘war on terror’. I personally do not like to be castigated for supposed ignorance or indifference – which I felt was a purpose of the article.

    For the record, North Korean style censorship of dissident opinion was far from my mind when I wrote (to paraphrase) ‘how dare you use this appalling murder as an opportunity’ etc. Instead, what did inflame me is the idea that this horrific event was being immediately used, effectively, a means to say ‘I told you so’. I would equally have been inflamed by someone using this murder as a ‘hawkish’ call for increased overseas war. Personally, I was not ‘perplexed’ at all by the murder (the threat has been there some time). I was, instead, thoroughly sickened – and disgusted by a lack of empathy for the victim in some of the media and some reported reactions (and seemingly in your colleague’s article).

    Jonathan Freedland wrote an article which appeared in the printed Guardian Saturday 25th May which happens to articulate some of my own feelings on the matter:

    Also for the record, I feel disgust (and anger) towards politicians and the UK establishment – not only towards warped, murdering ‘terrorists’. But, as you have been keen to stress, I’m no expert and unlikely well informed enough on these issues. (My own feelings about much I’ve read could easily be dismissed as Orwellian paranoia I would expect).

    But not being a well-informed expert on these issues happens to be why I read articles like that here. However, I want reasoned, justifiable argument and evidence for what I’m told. On that basis, one can legitimately find points and language to question and criticize in the original article easily enough I believe.

    But some further points you have brought up: I’m aware of the British Empire’s three wars in Afghanistan (a book on the 1839 invasion was read on Radio 4 this year in fact). But how big a bearing does it have on what was, originally at least, a US led war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda – beyond a general evidence of continued western intervention in the region to protect/serve western interest (and the inevitable response)? I’m not being pernickety – because I do question the references to continued British ‘imperialism’. As ignorant as I am, I would like reason for it’s continued applicability (because I don’t quite see the same ideas in operation). For what it’s worth, wouldn’t much foreign policy and the lust of UK politicians and prime ministers to be world statesmen and women (to the arguable detriment of at least some parts and people of the UK) seem more a post-colonial hangover? (As trivial as it sounds, the mayor of Liverpool says the city will have to take out something like £200 million in loans to patch up the decaying roads/infrastructure here – war in Afghanistan is estimated at something like £37 billion I believe?). And I never encounter – as old fashioned and unfashionable (and probably repugnant to the liberal bourgeoisie) as it no doubt is – the idea that imperialism and empire brought more suffering and misery to the British working or ‘lower’ classes than reward (and perhaps still does – whether it’s still right to speak of continued imperialism or not).

    And you may like to know that I did indeed look into the figures for deaths in Iraq resulting from the 03 invasion when I complained about your colleague’s article. I recall Tony Benn being largely ignored when he warned of ‘opening a can of worms’ if war and ‘regime change’ was brought to Iraq. Are all the horrors and suffering in the ‘Middle East’ (or ‘Near East’ as it once was) to be blamed on the west? There was no mention in the above article of the sacrifice or efforts of ‘our military’ to try and improve the lives of others in ‘faraway lands’ – only that ‘our military has been involved in killing and harassing tens of thousands of civilians’.

  2. John Gallagher

    Prof McGuire (I believe): “He has hardly jumped on it”. This sanctimonious and frankly conceited article appeared before the victim’s name was even released. I’ve made my complaints about the article known in writing to Corporate Communications and others – I’ve not interest in debating them openly here. I’m very happy to forward them to you for consideration as well.

    1. James McGuire

      Dear Messrs Gallagher and Hamilton,
      Sorry for the delay in replying, I’ve been out of my office for a couple of days. Sometimes “sitting at my desk moralising” just gets too much. I have to shift my derrière and do something out there in the “real world” (pretty weird for an academic eh).
      The appalling murder at Woolwich a week ago was universally described in the media as a terrorist act. The intelligence services are reported as having stated that they’d been expecting something like it to happen for some time. It’s true, there have been terrorist acts committed for various other reasons like crime and monetary gain (e.g. kidnappings by drugs cartels, some airline hijacks). But most violence classified in this way in the UK is politically motivated. Of course, the picture could change as further information emerges. Parts of it already look a bit murky (seems MI5 tried to “turn” one of the men now in custody). But as far as we can tell at present, the ghastly killing of Lee Rigby was a political murder. That certainly fits with the statements which one of his attackers (the man just mentioned) is said to have made immediately afterwards. To cut a long story short: I didn’t make this political. It already was. If you think I’ve “tried to politicise”, I suggest you need to find another argument, as that one’s just plain vacuous.
      Based on what we have been told, what did that man talk about? He mentioned deaths of Muslims. Having looked at the news now and then over recent years, I strongly suspect this has something to do with our relationship with the countries we call the Middle East. Are you familiar with the history of that? That we have had troops in Afghanistan several times since 1839? That’s a matter of historical record, not a political opinion. You can check it if you like, and also have a go at this question: have armies from there, or from Iraq or any other countries in that area ever occupied British soil? Or imposed governments on us or on countries nearby? Being unable to “comprehend the realities of the global situation”, that one’s too difficult for me, but if you find the answer is “no”, I’d love to understand how they are a threat to us. If I could, maybe it would dawn on me what we are doing in their countries, and why this has been an appropriate risk of the lives of the fine young men and women who join our armed forces. By the way have you looked at the data on the numbers of deaths from starvation following the bombing of Afghanistan in 2001, or the excess deaths caused by the invasion of Iraq from 2003 onwards? Maybe you think political malevolents just made this stuff up. Or maybe you think those horrors were “legitimised” (…in which case what’s next?). Or just maybe, though highly opinionated, you are just not very well informed about this entire set of issues.
      Now that is a lot of homework, but in between I still recommend that you look closely at the language you use and the attitudes you convey in your comments. Saying to someone “how dare you” express a view (Gallagher), or that someone you disagree with was trying to “refute other’s rights of opinion” (Hamilton), sounds a bit, well, North Korean to me. It is entirely to the University’s credit that there is an opportunity to express views and debate them in this way. If there is the remotest risk that it would be seen as “diluting” its academic position, then we are not enjoying the freedoms our government seems so eager to deliver to others.

  3. James McGuire

    Mr Gallagher, the language you use is pejorative and inappropriate: “jumped on”, “peddle” and “clear sympathies”. The person who wrote this viewpoint is an expert on the area, so he has hardly “jumped on” it. It is imperative that these issues are discussed in a rational manner, and giving reasoned opinions is not “peddling”. The problem of terror attacks has its origins in the factors Dr Moosavi identifies, analysing it is not a demonstration of sympathy with it, and unless that background is better understood, we have no hope of finding a solution to the problem.

    1. The chris hamilton

      Frankly, some people simply do not comprehend the realities of the global situation – sitting at a desk moralising and attempting to refute others rights of opinion. John Gallagher is absolutely correct in what he says and his words are appropriate. Trying to legitimise the murder establishes a complete lack of humanity and a misunderstanding of the situation. Yes, this country conducts activities beyond it shores – do you really believe you understand the ‘why’? Clearly you do not or you would be so critical. Try living under some of the alternate regimes, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe rather than just reading about them. Yes, I have done both. This organisation is supposed to be academic – stop trying to politicise. If you feel you want to make a difference go and ‘educate’ the people that conduct such atrocities and stop the mis-placed moralising.

  4. John Gallagher

    I find it distasteful that this brutal, sickening, and cowardly murder should be jumped upon as ‘an opportunity to re-evaluate’. How dare you use it as an opportunity to peddle your own political interpretation and ‘scholarly’ agenda – one that has clear sympathies with the murderers’ rhetoric.

  5. Ros Rice

    Thank you Leon for a beautifully succinct and pertinent perspective. How can we keep the fact that we are at war in the public’s consciousness and demonstrate the suffering that this is inevitably causing?

Leave a comment