Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Ian Buruma, author and Luce professor of Democracy, Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College, New York, answers your questions on the roots of Islamic extremism and the motivations of homegrown terrorists in response to his article Homeland insecurity.

* * *

How is one to deal with people who seem to be in the grip of a delusional view of the world? According to the recent Pew survey, 80 per cent of UK Muslims believe that UK and US actions in Afghanistan and Iraq constitute an attack on Islam. These views are held by people who have been free to practice their religion in Britain and enjoy all the civil rights of UK citizens.

Would you agree that the only response to extremist views is absolute firmness in maintaining the common values of British society? More specifically, would you agree that the views of British Muslims about British foreign policy should count for no more and no less than any other group of comparable size in Britain?
Nick Oulton

Ian Buruma: I would certainly agree that firmness is in order when it comes to political violence. But how does one define ‘common values’? A devout Catholic Englishman may not have the same ‘values’ as a Marxist don, or an advocate of free sex. But as long as they observe the law, they should be able to live in the same society without killing each other. These laws do of course follow a certain consensus about what is right and what is wrong. If a Muslim or anyone else is unable to make the necessary compromises to abide by the laws, based not on the revealed truth in the Bible or the Koran, but on acts of parliament, then they will face the same consequences as any criminal offender.

* * *

In his FT article Homeland insecurity, Prof. Ian Buruma omitted an important distinction: Embedding one’s acts of indiscriminate violence within the Revealed Word of the Creator provides a justification and motivation for violence far more powerful than any mortal source (e.g., Marx or Lenin) could ever provide, not just for committing acts of brutality and barbarism against innocents, but for voluntarily laying down one’s own life in the execution of the mission.

The implications of this “new” terrorism for eventually translating into a chemical, biological, and/or nuclear assault on some unsuspecting city somewhere down the line are particularly ominous.
Dennis J.D. Sandole, Ph.D, Virginia, USA

Ian Buruma: The motivation for self-sacrifice is mysterious. Normally a warrior will try to save his own life. Suicide attacks combine the urge to kill with the desire for self-destruction. This impulse appears to be strong among certain young men in many diverse cultural, social and political circumstances. Religion plays a strong role, but is not always the prime inspiration. Tamils in Sri Lanka who sacrificed themselves for their cause were often secular, and so were many kamikaze pilots, who did not always subscribe to the imperial cult. Sacrifice is possibly a human impulse that can be exploited for terrible ends.

* * *

The real problem is not the extreme minority that interpret the faith in a warped manner, but rather the vast majority of Islamic leaders that condone this interpretation.

I have yet to see serious attempts by any Islamic leader to tackle the problem, and worse, I have yet to hear an Islamic country speak out consistently condemning these attacks.Do you agree?
Luciano Tess

Ian Buruma: While it is certainly true that Saudi money, say, or Syrian and Iranian complicity, helps the jihadis, the actual situation is more complicated. Most Arab countries are not officially Islamic, and the holy warriors’ primary goal is to topple the regimes of secular police states and replace them with religious ones. The Syrian government, for one, has cracked down very violently on religious rebels inside its own country. What has happened in most of these countries is that the governments have made a kind of devil’s pact with religious revolutionaries; by supporting, or at least condoning their activities abroad, they hope to keep them from causing trouble at home.

* * *

It is wrong to say that we should not be in Iraq because Britain would then be less of a terrorist target. The demands of the jihadists are not negotiable. Would you not agree though that victories, real or imagined, fuel their fanaticism?

The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan is still viewed as their great victory. Detaching Britain from the US-led alliance would be another big victory. Analogies with 1930’s appeasement, though often misused, could well be right here.
David Pickering

Ian Buruma: Victories in the holy war are certainly an excellent way to gain more recruits and enhance the prestige of the jihadis. It is of course not only Islamists that underestimate the capacity of liberal democracies to fight back. Fascists, Nazis, and Communists also thought that democratic societies were too decadent and addicted to comfort to engage in wars. This attitude can encourage extremists to strike out in ultimately self-destructive ways.

However, the fact that a victory for the jihadis and ex-Baathists in Iraq would be a disaster, not only for the democratic world, but especially for most Iraqis and their neighbours, does not mean that the war was justified or wise in the first place. But having started this war, the United States should do everything in its power to help Iraqis cope with the consequences. Whether the US has the goodwill, the skills, the knowledge, or the power to do this, is of course another question.

* * *

Is Islam fundamentally incompatible with a pluralistic, secular democratic framework?
Rahul Kalla

Ian Buruma: This is the million dollar question. Optimists can point to the relative success of democracy in Indonesia – the largest predominantly Muslim country in the world – as well as in Turkey, now governed by a Muslim party. Malaysia, with a population of more than 50 per cent Muslims could easily be a functioning democracy, and so could Iran. India, with its huge Muslim population, already is.

The problem lies perhaps with the Arab states more than with Islam. Arabs have a long history of sultanates and empires where the first loyalty was to family or tribe, not to a nation-state. In the Ottoman Empire religious and secular authority was de facto separate, but all attempts to replace this empire with pan-Arabism or with various kinds of nationalism appear to have failed. This leaves dreams of pan-Islamism, in more or less extreme and violent forms, which cannot lead to liberal democracy.

* * *

Would you agree that there is a strong degree of incompatibility between practising a radical orthodox form of Islam and living in a western liberal 21st century country? It would seem to me that it is hopeless to talk of assimilation unless either one or the other gives way.

Ian Buruma: First of all, those whose values are so different that they lead to murder are still a minority. Most immigrants can live more or less easily in Western societies. The question is what to do with the violent minority. If their public statements incite violence, they should be punished. If they commit violent acts, they must of course be put away in prison. The question is how to stop other young people, distressed or confused for one reason or another, from joining the revolutionary minority. For this the cooperation of the mainstream Muslim population is a necessity. This cannot be obtained if we see them all as aliens whose values we can never, under no circumstances, share.

* * *

What steps do you think the Muslim community should take to fully integrate with the wider British community? Should a position such as Chief Imam of UK Mosques be created, whose occupant would be responsible for giving guidance to the Muslim community, at large, and whose position and status would be recognised by the wider community, and who could act as bridgehead between the communities.
Christopher Mallen

Ian Buruma: This would be quite difficult, since Muslims are probably too divided to agree upon a Chief Imam. The problem for all Islamic leaders, or official representatives, who try to bridge the gap between Muslims and others, is that they are never trusted by the true radicals. The simple fact that they cooperate with non-Muslim society and recognize its laws brands them as traitors and even infidels. What can be done more effectively, perhaps, is closer monitoring within Muslim communities, so that extremism in individual cases can be nipped in the bud – not by the police, who will always be too late, but by Muslims with the authority to speak to potential recruits to the holy war.

* * *

Is it not time that Western leaders responsible for Iraq, and the consequential violence in the East and in the West apologise to all the victims and step down. New leadership may be able to create more credible policy avenues.

If it is true that the intrusion into Iraq, and the continuing engagements in Iraq and in Afghanistan are critical for the survival of the West, but cost lives abroad and probably also more at home, should there not be a debate, or at least a warning of the continuing risks: it still is a “war of choice”.
J Riegstra.

Ian Buruma: Even if Tony Blair’s policy of backing the United States in Iraq was mistaken, I’m not sure apologies and a hasty withdrawal constitute the right answer. It would give the radicals – and the ‘good’ Muslims – the impression that the holy war is working, that violence against innocent civilians pays off and can influence foreign policy. The government should base its policy decisions on their own merit, and not on the way it might play in Bradford or Leeds, and certainly not on the potential actions of terror groups.

* * *

Click here to read Ian Buruma’s FT article on homeland insecurity.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article