British society, including its Muslim communities, needs to move beyond the routine condemnation of terrorist attacks and plots – there have been dozens since 9/11. We need instead to address the extreme Islamist ideology that al-Qaida and its sympathisers promote to incite attacks against soldiers and civilians worldwide in both war-torn and peaceful countries. Muslim leaders need to take ownership of the specifically religious aspects of the problem, that is to say the twisted theology that easily brainwashes vulnerable people, some of whom are intelligent university students and graduates.
The key planks of this extremist ideology are: that the west is at war with Islam and Muslims; that Muslims cannot ultimately live in peace with non-Muslims or in "non-Muslim" societies and that Muslims must live in an "Islamic state" that enforces the narrowest and harshest interpretations of sharia law. All these arguments are utterly simplistic and destroyed by any in-depth reading of scripture, history or Islamic jurisprudence. Regrettably, however, these divisive and hate-filled messages are still very common in Muslim discourse, here and abroad.
For example, I was present at City Hall in 2004 when Ken Livingstone, then mayor of London, welcomed Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the influential cleric with a global audience of tens of millions. In his talk, to my horror, the relatively progressive Qaradawi said that there was no such thing as an Israeli civilian, and that all Israelis were therefore legitimate targets. "Their women are not like our women, since military service is compulsory," as he put it. His translator did not translate this part, so to this day Livingstone and the BBC and Channel 4 crews present probably do not know what was said.
The sheikh justifies terrorism against Israelis but insists that no other land is a land of war. But it is very easy for al-Qaida to extrapolate from his logic and justify terrorism in the west, where according to them taxpayers, never mind serving soldiers, are complicit in murdering Muslims in western-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This logic was explicitly used by the 7/7 ringleader, as well as dozens of British Muslim terrorists since: "We will attack and kill you until you get out of Muslim lands." The Woolwich terrorists are only the latest in a long line of deluded young men.
Democracy must be strengthened for extremist thinking to be exposed and defeated, whether it is from Islamist fascists or rightwing fascists. In particular, Muslims must be clear that democracy is fully compatible with Islam, including the right of free societies to choose whether or not to follow religious codes – there must be no compulsion or coercion in matters of religion or faith, as the fundamental Qur'anic principle states.
It should be clear that the war on terror has been very short-sighted and, in many cases, a failure: while al-Qaida has been defeated in Afghanistan, it has established other strongholds in parts of Mali, Yemen, Somalia and Syria. There is no military solution, as exemplified by the drone strikes that kill civilians as well as terrorists, and breed more generations of grievance-filled victims.
There is a responsibility then for all of us to learn lessons: for Muslims to take ownership of the fight against extremist ideology; for all of us to expand the opportunities for democratic participation, and for the US to rethink its counter-productive war on terror.
We need to stop state warmongering as well as militant religious fundamentalism, and concentrate instead on pre-emptive peacemaking. Let these be the lessons of Woolwich.
This article first appeared in the Guardian