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It made for great television. After the horrors of July 7, Britain watched in real time as police seized three of the men suspected of trying to repeat the carnage two weeks later. Instead of the wreckage of a bombed bus and the twisted metal of Tube train carriages, the television images were of dark-skinned men being led away in handcuffs and white forensic suits.

Most people watching, I would guess, felt a visceral satisfaction along with the palpable relief at the arrests. The would-be suicide bombers ? the qualification ?alleged? seemed somehow to get lost in much of the reporting ? had been humbled. ?Gotcha?, as a famous famous tabloid headline declared during in another conflict.

The broadcasters had other cause to celebrate. For a few hours, rolling news lived up to a promise it rarely keeps. Last Friday?s sieges unfolded before the cameras: the deployment of police marksmen, the shouted demands for surrender, the CS gas explosions and, finally, the appearance of two bare-chested suspects on the balcony of a west London flat.

There was something curiously gripping about the images of police officers in jeans and trainers toting submachine guns alongside bomb disposal officers in what look like armoured space suits. Others, presumably members of the special forces, added black balaclavas. The broadcasters had only to keep the cameras rolling and add a running commentary on all the lethal high-tech gadgetry.

As it happens, there was a small cheat. For a time, the television channels suspended transmission of live pictures at the request of the police. The sequences were stitched together again an hour or so later. Few viewers will have noticed. Instead, they will have cheered the news that a fourth hunted man had been caught by Italian police in Rome.

Real as they are, television pictures such as these mislead us. For all their instant reassurance, they frame the struggle against violent extremism in only one of its dimensions. They encourage us into the same mistake that US president George W.?Bush made when he declared a ?war on terrorism? in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11 2001. Vital as they are, intelligence and force of arms cannot deliver victory.

The Bush administration has begun at last to acknowledge as much. The president?s chosen phrase has been sidelined. Other words must be found to characterise a conflict which US generals have long argued is too complex and multi-faceted to be described in military terms. There are welcome signs too that Washington is opening a strategic dialogue with its western allies on how best to counter violent Islamists.

For all that, it would be a mistake to believe that conventional political grievances provide adequate explanation of, or answer to, a religious extremism that which leads young men to blow themselves up in the expectation that murder will speed them on their way to paradise.

It was to be expected that opponents of the Iraq war would argue that that the cause lies in Britain?s part in the conflict. Expected but mistaken. Iraq, of course, provides the jihadis with rich propaganda as well as a training ground for fighters; likewise, the presence of western troops in support of the government of Afghanistan. The failure over decades to secure peace between the Palestinians and Israelis provides another standard for extremists. We could add to this list the presence in much of the Arab world of authoritarian regimes that rob their citizens of any political expression.

There are compelling strategic reasons to address each of these problems and, in all of them, the solutions are political. Few doubt that a peaceful, more democratic and prosperous Middle East would weaken the appeal of the extremists. These are goals to be shared by moderate Islam and the west.

Yet it is a delusion to think that the real injustices in that region properly explain the profound alienation of the young British Muslims who carried out the July 7 bombings. It is equally misleading to imagine that withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq or the creation of a Palestinian state would somehow satisfy the fanatics who primed these young men for the deadly task.

Anyone who has listened to British Muslim leaders during the past few weeks will have understood that the struggle is as much one within Islam as between the jihadis and the west.

The ambitions of the Wahhabi fundamentalists, who are the ideological inspiration for al-Qaeda, reach well beyond politics. The world they seek is an anathema to moderate Islam as it is to Christendom. It seeks to destroy all who do not share its particular corruption of the faith. The war, if we are to describe it as such, is one between ideas and ideologies. It will be won eventually not in the Middle East nor in terrorist hideouts in London but in a place the television cameras can never penetrate: in the minds of Muslims.

philip.stephens@ft.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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