I am haunted by the Manchester bomb attack. Like many other people I’m angry, sad and confused, and have endured a rollercoaster of other emotions as I try to work out why a young British man would carry out such a revolting and savage act in the city where he was born.
To target children in the Manchester Arena deliberately, with the intention of killing, maiming and hurting as many as possible, defies reason. But that’s what Salman Abedi did, with the result that 22 mainly young people had their lives taken from them.
I know many of the British Libyans who live in London and Manchester; I even travelled with a few across Libya as they fought to win their country back from the mad dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Standing in Benghazi in 2011, I watched these Libyans wave British, American and French flags in thanks for the air support they received in getting rid of the brutal dictator. There was even more flag-waving in town squares from Derna to Ajdabiya and Misrata. While, as an anti-war campaigner, I felt uncomfortable about this. Having spoken to the former occupants of the newly-liberated Abu Salim Prison in Tripoli, though, I was left in no doubt that this military intervention had saved the hundreds of thousands of people who Gaddafi and his son had promised to wipe out “street by street”. A massacre of ordinary Libyan citizens had been prevented.
Not only did Britain offer a safe haven to Abedi’s family and scores of other Libyans who had fled from the Gaddafi regime, but many were also able to return in triumph to Libya after military intervention by Britain and other NATO countries.
There has been a spirit of solidarity between Britons and Libyans over many decades. Libyans have had a soft spot for the Brits since World War II, when a series of battles for control of Libya reached a climax at El Alamein in October 1942. Britain’s Eighth Army – including the famed 7th Armoured Division, the Desert Rats – under the command of Lt General Bernard Montgomery inflicted a decisive defeat on German General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, forcing its remnants into Tunisia. By May 1943, thousands of German and Italian fascist soldiers had surrendered and, I’ve no doubt, across North Africa no one cheered louder than the Libyans. Salman Abedi must have known this history and may even have witnessed at first-hand how British, French and American fighter jets provided vital air support to the anti-Gaddafi rebels.
French minister: Manchester bomber had ‘proven links’ to Daesh
Without this support, the rebellion would have been crushed; Tony Blair’s old friend Gaddafi would still be running Libya with cold brutality; and the country would still be a two-bit petrol station for the West and a watchdog to stop asylum-seeking Africans from making the hazardous journey to Europe. The abandonment of the air campaign was typical of Western foreign policy, but that cannot be used as an excuse for Abedi to go back to Britain and bring death and destruction to the streets of his home city.
On subsequent trips to Libya I was introduced to the ex-Guantanamo detainee who formed part of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s protection unit during one of her official visits. I don’t think that she ever knew about the connection but it was amusing, and a classic example of how some Arabs are able to overcome and then move on from trauma and injustice. Another was the rebel commander I interviewed who had been waterboarded and tortured by the Americans at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan; amazingly, he held no grudges and was very grateful when US air support enabled him to take control of his home city of Misrata. A large dose of pragmatism, stoicism and hellfire missiles helped his people move on.
I even met a former Libyan fighter who told me that he had planned to behead me back in October 2001 when I was being held in a Taliban prison in Afghanistan. “You represented the West and we were at war,” he told me. “It was nothing personal.” We both laughed – me probably more nervously then he – and I was suddenly and eternally grateful for the others who prevented him from entering my prison cell and killing me. It was a mystery to me why I was moved suddenly from Jalalabad to Kabul; I discovered why in Libya.
Apparently, the young Salman Abedi was said to be wanting “revenge” for the death of too many Syrians since 2011, but why target young Britons? Bashar Al-Assad is, without doubt, the biggest killer of Syrian children in the Middle East. Abedi’s “revenge” makes no sense.
It is sad that so many Muslims in Britain, people like Abedi, feel that they are victims, although given the level of racism and bigotry to which we are exposed by the Establishment as well as racist individuals and groups, it’s hardly surprising. However, we Muslims have got to stop this wallowing in self-pity and move on. If one Libyan can get over being waterboarded and tortured in Bagram while another can overcome the many atrocities he faced in Guantanamo to work alongside the British, US and French military, then you have to wonder what grievances Abedi actually had to make him kill so many innocent people with his bomb last Monday.
Yes, the Middle East is a basket case because of failed western interventions, but the regimes have to take their share of the blame, not least because of their misogyny, treating women as second-class citizens. If any Muslims are justified in feeling a sense of victimhood, in Britain and overseas, they are the women who keep many communities alive; they’re the unsung heroes, and until and unless the patriarchies put an end to their negative social control, the Muslim world will continue to be a backwater visited only by prime ministers and presidents bearing massive arms contracts just waiting to be signed.
The big question now is who got to Salman Abedi and his network of friends, who may now also be dead or fighting for Daesh? He had no reason to hate his country of birth, but someone obviously messed with his head and took advantage of his immaturity.
Sadly there are scores of young men like him out there, unable to turn to any wise scholars for advice. The dumbing down of western society has extended to a dumbing down and shortage of Islamic scholars as well. Mosques are no longer magnets of learning and teaching; they have been turned into worship boxes, empty except at prayer times and run by committees who are afraid to hold open discussions about “controversial” issues.
Indeed, there are mosques in Britain with posters forbidding any discussions about Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine. This nonsensical self-censorship has come about in part because the Imams and committees have been scared into silence by the government’s failing Prevent anti-radicalisation policy. The mosque wallahs have to second-guess what local Prevent officials will deem to be acceptable. Incredibly, this varies from locality to locality and often depends on the approach taken by the individuals in question.
Young people will rarely turn to their parents for advice and, in truth, technology has advanced so much that they are often way beyond the control of their parents in any case. They are left to roam the darker recesses of the internet where jihadi siren songs begin to poison their young minds.
Instead of being loved and valued in the West, they are told by these faceless voices that Britain is a desperate place where women are not respected; a place where women should be hidden away and protected like precious jewels. This garbage is as damaging to women as it is to those who would exploit women through drugs, porn and alcohol.
The truth is that women are used and abused on all sides. The secret is not to engage with these darkly-dissenting voices. Studying hard at university, holding down a full-time job or making a long-term commitment should be encouraged and not sneered at; our young people need goals and achievements and the loving support of parents and community leaders.
Wander through any Muslim community and it is easy to spot the young people at risk; and if I can spot a vulnerable person then you can bet your bottom dollar that the Daesh recruiters can as well. I don’t know who turned a young man born in Manchester into a mass killer, but somebody does; if they have any sense of honour and self-respect, they will pick up the phone today and call the relevant authorities. We really do have to stop protecting the toxic individuals who use and abuse Islam – or any other faith, ideology or politics – for their own perverse objectives. There is nothing “Islamic” about mass murder, and nothing “cool” about keeping mum.
No parent wants to see their son or daughter’s photograph plastered all over the front pages as either a terrorist suspect or a victim of terrorism. It is incumbent on all of us to do much more to protect our young people, so here are some questions for any concerned parents reading this. Do you know where your son is tonight, who his friends are and what he is doing right now? Do you know who he chats to online, and do you have access to his Facebook and Twitter accounts? If you can’t answer “Yes” to any of these questions, then make it your business to be able to do so. Your kids are not your pals, they’re much more precious than that; they’re our sons and daughters and we need to protect them. This is serious, people; very serious.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.