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Ian Buruma, author and luce professor of Democracy, Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College, New York, answers reader questions here about the roots of Islamic extremism and the motivations of homegrown terrorists.
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Some of the responses to the bomb attacks on London were predictable. Of course Tariq Ali, the journalist and former student agitator, would blame it all on Tony Blair. It’s Blair’s fault for backing the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s also Blair’s fault for supporting Israel. “The principal cause of this violence,” he wrote in The Guardian, “is the violence being inflicted on the people of the Muslim world.” And the “real solution lies in immediately ending the occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine”.
Tariq Ali, himself a secular member of the Pakistani gentry, finds ready support among the believers. In the same paper, Faisal Bodi, news editor at the Islam Channel, opined that “the bloody trail of blame leads straight to 10 Downing Street”, for when Blair “led us into the war on terror, he knew that a country with which Islamist networks had no immediate axe to grind would be drawn into their sphere of hate as a consequence”.
Similar views were aired immediately after the carnage in New York and Washington four years ago - that is, before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It had to be the fault of the west, since it was the west that once colonised much of the world, and it was the west that supposedly invented capitalism.
It would be foolish to deny that western powers have done many bad things, but the arrogant assumption that almost all the world’s ills, from African hunger to mass murder on the London Underground, can be laid at the door of western politicians is not only stupid, but deeply harmful to those who live outside the western world. It lets their own rulers, however murderous, off the hook, and prevents people from taking responsibility for their own societies. After all, if everything is the fault of Blair or Bush, or “neo-colonialism”, or “globalisation”, why bother?
The war in Iraq may not have been a sensible move. It probably did galvanise religious extremism. For the record, I was against it. But to claim that we should not have gone to war with Saddam Hussein because it puts us in the firing line of holy warriors seems a bad, and certainly cowardly argument. Britain would have been in their firing line anyway. Contrary to what Faisal Bodi says, jihadis do have an axe to grind with the western world. Long before Iraq was a gleam in Blair’s eyes, the west was in the holy warrior’s “sphere of hate”. Another false argument against action against Middle Eastern despots is that “we put them there”. Even if it is true that, say, Hussein or Osama bin Laden once had the support of Britain or the US, this is hardly a reason not to oppose them now. Should we have turned a blind eye to their crimes just because Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney once did business with them? This smacks of the same perverted logic which holds that an imperial past should prevent Europeans from condemning the bloody dictatorships that followed the independence of former colonies.
Equally predictable, and misguided, was Ken Livingstone’s attempt to see the attacks on his city in terms of class war. The targets of the underground bombers, he said, were not attacks on “the powerful” but on “working-class” Londoners. Now, it is true that many powerful people might normally prefer to take taxis, but if one thing defines the atrocities in the Tube, it is their indiscriminate nature. The British men police believe perpetrated these murders made no class distinctions, or indeed any other distinctions. Muslims died too.
One reaction that did surprise me somewhat was the rather touching editorial in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It waxed most sentimental over the chimes of Big Ben, which sounded bravely through the Blitz, when German bombers did their best to pulverise London, and will no doubt continue to mark the hours through many perils to come. Such nostalgic tributes to the bulldog spirit also cast a warm glow over some of the British media, but were rarely as heart-warmingly expressed as in this deeply conservative German organ.
Predictable or not, however, all these reactions miss the point. The Islamist revolutionaries who are assumed to be behind the murders are not like the Luftwaffe, or the IRA, or any other enemy that Britain, or indeed the world has faced before. The Germans were deadly, but at least one knew who they were; their bombers bore markings that were familiar to any schoolboy plane-spotter. Their pilots wore uniforms, their raids were ordered by a state, with which Britain was at war. The IRA was the armed wing of a political party, whose aims, as we now know, were at least negotiable. Suicide bombers and jihadis, however, represent no state; indeed they do not recognise one outside the wholly imaginary community of pure faith. There is nothing to negotiate with people who wish to kill as many infidels as they can to establish a divine realm of the faithful. Worse, those holy warriors who see mass murder as an existential act, who cannot conceive of themselves as anything else but divinely inspired assassins, are even beyond the pale of religious orthodoxy; they are pure killers.
If only it were as simple as Tariq Ali seems to believe. If only western governments had the solution to this type of terror in their gift. In fact, there is no reason to think that the withdrawal of US, British or Israeli troops from Arab countries would solve the problem at all, for the religious war would continue. And the assumption that Britain, or the US, are targets only because of the “war on terror” unleashed by George W. Bush, and backed by Tony Blair, is equally misconceived. In October 2000, when Bill Clinton was still in power, the USS Cole was bombed and 17 US sailors died, not because of any war on terror, but because Osama bin Laden opposed the presence of infidel troops on Arab soil.
Just imagine the results if the advocates of immediate western withdrawal from the Middle East got their wish. There would be a Hobbesian mayhem of battling warlords in Afghanistan and an all-out civil war in Iraq. This might well enable a small number of bloodthirsty religious fanatics to achieve what has so far eluded them, namely to grab the power of a major Arab state, with all its resources, to carry on their holy war against all those who do not submit to their totalitarian fantasies.
The reaction of most Muslims to the London bombings was commendably robust. The controversial Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, writing from Switzerland, hit the right note, telling his fellow Muslims that they “must have the courage to denounce what is said and done by certain Muslims in the name of their religion”. This many of them did. But when one hears Muslim representatives in Britain repeat the mantra that jihadis are just common criminals who have nothing to do with Islam, one’s heart still sinks a little. It is of course vital to isolate the killers from the peaceful, law-abiding Muslim majority. Tony Blair has done his best to do just that. One can only agree with Robin Cook’s opinion, expressed in The Guardian, that “Osama bin Laden is no more a true representative of Islam than General Mladic, who commanded the Serbian forces, could be held up as an example of Christianity.” Quite true. But does that mean that Osama bin Laden’s ideology has nothing to do with Islam?
There are at least as many variations of Islam as there are of Christianity, not just Shias and Sunnis, but a large number of sects, movements, counter-movements and so on. At least Christianity has institutions with the authority to decide on certain criteria for Church membership. Islam lacks such a hierarchy. It has no Church, and its clerics are often freelances. Christianity has a fair number of those as well, of course, some of them quite zany, and some pretty violent too. Evangelical vigilantes in some bleak part of the American heartland, who seek to establish God’s Kingdom after Armageddon has struck the sinners down, may not be truly representative, but they are Christians. You need to acknowledge that to explain their motives and their actions. If Bin Laden or the killers in London claim to act in the name of the Prophet, they must be taken at their word, not as representatives of the mainstream, but as an extreme offshoot, which needs to be understood. Refusing to accept any link with religion or Islam is a form of denial.: The reason Britain is in the sphere of jihadist hate is not because of Blair’s policies, or Israel, or “US imperialism”, but because ours is the world of jahilliya. The same goes for all other western countries, and indeed all countries not under pure Islamic rule, which is practically the entire world. Jahilliya, referring to the time before the Prophet, is literally the state of ignorance, but it also means barbarism. Those who lived before Mohammed’s rule could be excused for their ignorance of Islam, but we who live in the corrupt, licentious, perverted, idolatrous, money-grubbing, soulless, savage world, cannot. That is why we must be destroyed. Because the secular rulers of nominally Islamic societies have grown fat off western materialism, the holy revolution has two aims: to topple those debased rulers and strike at the source of their corruption, which is the west.
Because many rulers in the Arab world are indeed corrupt and oppressive, revolutionary fervour is unlikely to lose its heat before the politics in that region change for the better. Apart from encouraging Arab liberals and loosening our ties with Arab dictators, there is not a whole lot that western governments can do to help bring this about. The war in Iraq is a highly ambiguous enterprise. It is, on the one hand, a welcome departure from the automatic support of anti-communist dictators in the non-western world. Arab liberals, usually sotto voce, do acknowledge this. But it has also inflamed the passions of those who see the west as the source of all evil.
It is hard enough to deal with such enemies when they arrive from outside: Moroccan suicide bombers in Madrid, Egyptian and Saudi terrorists in New York and Washington. Far more dangerous are the revolutionary converts among our own citizens, for that exposes us to that most explosive and socially disruptive phenomenon: the enemy within. One of the suspected London bombers was the 22-year-old son of a Leeds fish and chip shop owner originally from Pakistan. Friends said the young man had grown up in the suburb of Beeston, studied sports science at university and had been an all-rounder for a local Asian cricket team.
Mohammed Bouyeri, meanwhile, on trial in Amsterdam this week, had been a model student and youth organiser before he cut the throat of the Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gogh. The son of a non-devout Moroccan gastarbeider (immigrant worker), Bouyeri seemed to be a perfect example of successful integration, friendly and full of ambition to do good, for himself and his community. Quite what turned him into a jihadi is still unclear, but his struggle to bridge the gap between the over-worked, unassimilated, ignored generation of his parents, and the complicated, bureaucratic, not always hospitable country of his birth, was harder than people thought. It made him, and many others like him, vulnerable to the sort of communitarian, revolutionary, utopian dreams that have seduced many young people through the ages. The promise of escape, of a new collective identity, of heroic martyrdom, the ideal of dispensing with all rational thought in the name of a great cause, the thought of reaching for Heaven - these things will continue to attract second and third generation immigrants who feel rejected by a society that consequently fills them with such hatred that they dream of blowing it up.
In this respect, the home-grown jihadis are no different from feverish young men and women who joined revolutionary sects in the 1970s: the Red Army Faction in West Germany, the Japanese Red Army, the Red Brigade in Italy. They were fighting the phantoms of nazism and fascism which their parents failed to resist. But the real romance for these fanatics lay in the brutality of revolution. Like the modern jihadis, they were often misfits who wished to lose themselves in a purist cause and purge the world of corruption by engaging in acts of extreme violence. And although they saw themselves as Marxists (though not representative, naturally), they had links to some of the same organisations that still engage in terrorism today. Cash flowed from Iran, Libya and Syria, and training was provided by Hizbollah, among others.
One can draw other parallels too. In 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult murdered 12 Japanese commuters and injured more than 2,000 by gassing them in the Tokyo subway. Led by a half-blind guru who spouted a mixed bag of quasi-Buddhist, Shinto and Christian mumbo-jumbo, they too were purists who believed that the world was so corrupted by greed and degradation that only Armageddon would bring forth an unsullied utopia for the chosen ones. Mass murder was the purists’ way to bring on the end of the world. Far from representing the downtrodden, most Aum followers were highly educated, usually in the sciences - engineers, chemists and the like. The same was true of some of the men who brought down the twin towers in New York.
There is an important difference, however, between these revolutionary desperados and our contemporary jihadis. They, too, were the enemies within, but they sprang from the mainstream of settled societies. More than that, they were the sons and daughters of a prosperous bourgeoisie. Their aim was the destruction of the world of their parents, the world that produced and nurtured them. The Mohammed Bouyeris - and the suspected London bombers - are members of vulnerable minorities, outsiders who can be easily singled out as aliens in our midst. If the links between western or Japanese revolutionaries and the Middle East were largely opportunistic, the ties between Muslim immigrants in Europe and the Islamist jihad are existential; in the extremists’ fantasy world, the holy war, preached by religious zealots, funded by Saudi and other Middle Eastern sources and carried out by true believers, is the core of their identity. And even if only a tiny proportion will take to direct action, many thousands of confused young Muslims are fed daily, through internet chatrooms and other media, with anti-western, anti-Semitic propaganda.
The murders in London are unlikely to be the last of their kind. Even worse may still be to come. Containing this is going to be hard enough. It will have to be done with due consideration for the very freedoms that extremists can exploit. But it is a conflict that can only be won if law-abiding Muslim citizens in Britain and elsewhere are made to feel that these freedoms also benefit them, and for that reason are worth defending. Distrust of the outsider, especially if he or she dresses like a follower of Islam, is bound to grow with every step of the holy war. That is part of its purpose. If the violence of a tiny minority should provoke mainstream violence against a much larger minority, the holy war will not be won, but our societies will be wrecked in the process.