British Muslims are ditching New Labour en masse. According to a recent ICM/ Guardian poll, they are feeling increasingly isolated, and one in four now thinks they have had enough of integration. Worse, one in 10 would now support a terrorist attack on the US. So, is there anything Tony Blair can do to redeem himself in the eyes of the Muslim community?
The only thing that will return the Muslims to the Labour fold is a major change both in strategy and in rhetoric on terrorism. The Prime Minister thinks that the war against terrorism should be approached with all the mass mobilisation and cockney sparrow spirit of the Second World War. Indeed, he has even gone so far as to compare al-Qa'ida to the Nazis. This is patent nonsense.
Al-Qa'ida is undoubtedly an immoral organisation, a malignant tumour. But to liken it to the organised, industrialised, bureaucratised inhumanity of the state mobilisation of Nazism belittles the enormity of what Hitler brought forth. It is an insult to all who fell prey to the mass murder of his genocide, and cheapens the sacrifices of all who were caught up in opposition to the Nazi horror. The battle for wartime Britain is exactly the wrong analogy. Terrorism cannot be resisted by trying to be Churchill and whipping up hysteria about the terrorist threat.
Worse, the comparison and the relentless publicity given to the fiendish ingenuity, cosmic reach, allegedly limitless capability and total impact of al-Qa'ida is the most seductive recruiting poster they could have. Those enticed to the ranks of al-Qa'ida are educated and intelligent men with no political prospects of power, inclusion or relevance in their native lands. These deluded individuals, with a perverted sense of having a righteous cause on behalf of the marginalised, are now being given purpose and direction by the actions and intransigent scaremongering of Bush and Blair. Without the abomination of Guantanamo Bay, without the corporate looting of Iraq, without the obscenity of supporting despotic regimes in Muslim countries, al-Qa'ida could only peddle the promise of irrelevant slaughter. With Bush and Blair, bad, demented and misguided men have real purpose and stand centre-stage as power-brokers.
The irony of Blair's latest tirade about the war on terrorism is that it stands in diametric contrast to his own political record and actions. He had sought to book his place in history as the prime minister who brought peace to Northern Ireland. For 30 years that conflict had the same soundtrack: we will have no truck with terrorism. For 30 years the bombs kept going off, the shootings and punishments were routine. For 30 years the injustices that sustained the men of violence were unaddressed and untreated. For 30 years the gunmen knew they had a grudging and tacit haven among the marginalised, because no credible political option was offered to the minority community, who overwhelmingly rejected violence and were its most likely victims.
Blair followed John Major in being prepared to change the 35-year dynamic in Northern Ireland. Now there is a stalled, flawed, nearly broken but extant political option in Northern Ireland. The bombs have stopped. There are alternatives, however difficult.
Similar routes can be followed in resisting al-Qa'ida. Our first priority should be to ask how can the mass of Muslims the world over be mobilised and empowered to tackle the horror of the terrorist attacks that they have suffered more than any other group - something we in the West tend to forget.
Commitment to active efforts for a peaceful two-state solution in Palestine would erode a great deal of support for al-Qa'ida. Serious investigation of the brutality and massive human rights violation in Chechnya would be another step forward. Handing Iraq to the auspices and authority of the United Nations and permitting it to be a genuine, equitable global forum would further address the pervasive sense of dispossession in the Muslim world. And actively encouraging democracy in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria would have a major impact in winning the hearts and minds of Muslims everywhere. Contrary to popular perception in the West, there is a great hunger for democracy throughout Muslim societies.
It would also help if the Prime Minister openly acknowledged his numerous misjudgements. The appalling Madrid bombings are now being dubbed Europe's 9/11. To insist it is - and must be so - is to compound the political ineptitude that has abounded in Washington and London since the attacks in New York. September 11 was America's awful arrival in the dispensation with which Europe and the rest of the world (Pakistan, Algeria, Israel, Russia) has been living for decades. To see it otherwise is misjudgement number one.
To declare a worldwide war on terror was misjudgement number two. To launch a war on Afghanistan was probably inevitable, a regrettable but comprehensible political strategy. But to neglect Afghanistan, to permit it to sink back into the corrupting grasp of contending warlords, while the living conditions were not addressed, was misjudgement number three. To hitch the miasma of a war on terror to an illegitimate pre-emptive war on Iraq was misjudgement number four. To claim that Saddam Hussein - evil, odious and bestial as he was - would willingly arm his lifelong implacable enemies was misjudgement number five. To assert, and continue to maintain despite all evidence to the contrary, that he actually had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction to disseminate to any and all malefactors, was misjudgement number six. To entertain the folly that Britain's Prime Minister had any influence to contain, redirect, modify or mollify the ideological blindness in power in Washington was misjudgement number seven - and probably the greatest misjudgement of all.
The net effect of all these misjudgements is that Britain is more vulnerable to terrorist attack. Iraq is now more lawless, more a breeding ground and cause célèbre for terrorists than it ever could have been before the war.
Afghanistan is as lawless, as ruined as it ever was. And across the world, Muslims of all varieties are dispirited, convinced that the untold mountain of dead that no one is interested in counting proves Muslim blood is cheap. The dynamic for tacit, grudging indifference to the madmen has been compounded.
It is still not too late for Blair to change direction, particularly if he wants a productive third term in Downing Street. He must learn the lessons. History tells us terrorism is only a tactic; and, as such, it is as old as human conflict. There is no military means to achieve victory over terrorism. And a careful reading of history also reveals that the best way to fight terrorism is to deal with its root causes, the grievances and injustices that motivate terrorists and provide them with communal support.
But Blair is not a listening prime minister. He seems determined to impale himself in the absurd dilemmas he has created for himself. It would be more sensible and humane for British voters to follow the example of Spain - and reject a government that has pursued a futile and fatal policy on terrorism and is determined to increase the feelings of isolation and hopelessness in the Muslim community.
Ziauddin Sardar is author of 'The No-Nonsense Guide to Islam' and 'Why Do People Hate America?'