Illusory ethics

Secret Affairs: Britain's Collusion with Radical Islam by Mark Curtis (Serpent's Tail), reviewed by Jonathan Steele
July 2010

Five years since the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London, which killed 52 people, critics on the right still cite Britain's failure to 'clamp down' on radical Islamist preachers as the main reason for British-born Muslims turning themselves into bombs. Critics on the left point to the anger aroused by British military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and Whitehall's soft approach to Israel's repression of Palestinians.

There is a missing link in all this commentary, Mark Curtis writes in his book's introduction, before setting out its main thesis. 'British governments, both Labour and Conservative, in pursuing the so-called "national interest abroad", have colluded for decades with radical Islamic forces, including terrorist organisations,' he writes. 'They have connived with them, worked alongside them and sometimes trained and financed them in order to promote specific foreign policy objectives.'

It is a powerful charge, and Curtis has done a service in raising it, just as his two earlier books on British foreign policy (Web of Deceit and Unpeople) were valuable in raising other questions that most analysts avoid.

At a time when right-wing historians like Niall Ferguson are trying to rehabilitate the British empire, books that expose its crimes and injustices are a vital antidote. As for current UK foreign policy, the British left too often ignores it on the grounds that the real target should be the US.

US support for Osama Bin Laden during the 1980s jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is the best-known example of 'blow-back', but Curtis complains that Britain's part in fostering Islamist terrorism has been left out of the account. This collusion, he asserts, has had more impact on the rise of the terrorist threat to the UK than either British tolerance of radical preachers or its recent occupations of Muslim countries.

While Curtis is right to scrutinise UK policy with more scepticism than is usual in the mainstream media, the way he marshals his evidence is often flawed. Random press clippings are cited as fact even when the quoted reporter has no strong proof or no strong reputation for accuracy. Partisan sources are sometimes used unquestioningly.

A case in point is the assertion that around 2,500 Afghan fighters took part on the Azeri side against the Armenians in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1993. Curtis bases this on 'Russian intelligence', a notoriously unreliable source. He further claims that this large contingent took high casualties, though one might have thought reporters or others on the ground would have run into at least a few wounded prisoners or dead fighters and thereby found evidence to uphold such an unlikely claim.

On Kosovo he relies heavily on two writers who are passionate supporters of the Serbian side in order to assert that the Bosnian government 'and its Islamist sponsors' had been actively preparing to assault the Serbs, this time in Kosovo, as soon as the Bosnian war was over. Curtis is loose in describing the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) as having the goal of a Greater Albania. That was the position of some, but not all its leaders.

At times he describes the KLA with apparent sympathy as a mixture of nationalist intellectuals, influential local families and radical young people, but then condemns its assassination of Serbian civilians and Albanian collaborators. Virtually every resistance or national liberation movement has done similar things, even if its basic cause was just, which is partly why Britain and the US called the KLA a 'terrorist organisation' even as they supported its objective of throwing off Serbian rule.

The moral complexities that arise from expediency and short-term pragmatism are well-explained in Curtis's account of the debates in the Foreign Office over whether to have contact with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as the main opposition to Mubarak. They are not laid out so clearly when it comes to Britain's role in Basra after the 2003 invasion. He accuses the British of 'handing' southern Iraq to the militias. Others might argue this was good, since the parties that run the militias won the 2005 elections. Was Britain to ignore their popularity, instead of doing what it eventually did in conducting a phased withdrawal to barracks, then to Basra airport, and finally out of Iraq altogether?

The fact that Britain has for decades fostered good relations with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan's intelligence service (ISI), two of the major funders of Islamist extremism, including terrorism, in Afghanistan, central Asia and the Middle East, is no secret. Yet it stretches the point to suggest that Britain shares the blame for what these regimes do because it 'acquiesces' in it by not breaking contact.

We are right to be angry at the hypocrisy and deception that underlie many of the policies conducted in our name, and it is important that they be exposed so we can judge their wisdom clearly. But to expect any state to conduct an ethical foreign policy is a false hope.


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