Thursday, July 14, 2005
We can't blame Johnny Foreigner
Why does everyone seem surprised and shocked that last week's suicide bombers came not from the Middle East but from Middle England?
In an article in Spiked published yesterday, British-born bombers: not so shocking, Brendan O'Neill explains that most al-Qaeda supporters are a home-grown product.
The harsh reality is that these young Brits would appear to be pretty typical al-Qaeda types. For al-Qaeda is not, as many have claimed since 9/11, a bunch of foreigners brought up on the dusty backstreets of Cairo or Ramallah and hell-bent on launching war against a faraway West; they tend to be young, respectable, often middle-class and sometimes naive men, many of whom were born or educated - and even radicalised - in the West. For all the talk of a 'clash of civilisations', al-Qaeda is a largely Western phenomenon.The gradual realisation that the answers might lie closer to home is not necessarily leading to any greater wisdom on the part of our leaders.
...earlier official denial about the nature of al-Qaeda is giving way to something equally problematic: an official panic about the threat posed by homegrown fanatics to the fabric of society... They've gone from denying that al-Qaeda was in anyway a Western thing to claiming that al-Qaeda representatives are running rampant in the West and warping young minds.We need to understand why here, why now. Simplistic explanations about ruthless al-Qaeda recruiters - and the consequent easy, pat solutions - won't wash.
The peculiar end result is that our leaders now overstate the problem of homegrown terrorism and the role played by ruthless recruiters, while underestimating the depth of the crisis in Western society that has allowed something like al-Qaeda to arise.
The drift of young Muslims, whether Western-born or middle-class foreigners, to radical mosques and fundamentalism also surely says something about a malaise at the heart of Western society. Many of these terrorists are not made in Kabul, Cairo or Tehran, but in London, Hamburg and Montreal. Such terrorism, it seems, is less a consequence of far-away fanaticism infiltrating the West, but rather suggests a failure on the part of mainstream institutions in the West to cohere society or to provide individuals with any meaningful sense of identity.Before one can produce the right answers, one must ask the right questions. Read the article in full, not for pat solutions, but as a guide to the sort of questions we should be asking.
The drift of young Muslims, whether Western-born or middle-class foreigners, to radical mosques and fundamentalism also surely says something about a malaise at the heart of Western society. Many of these terrorists are not made in Kabul, Cairo or Tehran, but in London, Hamburg and Montreal. Such terrorism, it seems, is less a consequence of far-away fanaticism infiltrating the West, but rather suggests a failure on the part of mainstream institutions in the West to cohere society or to provide individuals with any meaningful sense of identity.
This is very seductive but very VERY wrong. This conflict stems primarily not from resentment over Iraq or Afghanistan or Israel/Palestine or the presence of troops on the Arabian peninsula, or even the non-existence of the Wahabist inspired Caliphate that these Islamist extremists dream, but really it stems from a fundamental clash of ideology and values - between modernity and non-modernity, between the forces of reaction in irrationality and the forces of liberty and reason. Before you write me off as a neo-con nutter, and ban me from your blog - I'm not. I'm a liberal interventionist who is gradually coming to the view that the worst thing that we can do in response to terrorist attacks is to imagine that we are losing, and back down in the face of decidedly underwhelming force.
So my argument runs like this. The cutting edge of this clash of ideologies is, naturally enough, to be found where the two value sets meet. One contact zone is in the areas of the World where on form of Islamist extremism holds sway in certain spheres of life (if not all) - take Saudi Arabia, Iran and, under the Taliban, Afghanistan as examples. There , when groups or individuals attempt(ed) to assert their individual or group rights they would be both metaphorically and physically throttled into silence. If a woman, for example, expresses her sexual freedom in Saudi, for example, well, we know what happens. Ditto with free speech, political dissent, religious freedom and so on. Where do they get these ideas from in supposedly closed socities? Well, we know what the photocopier did for Soviet totalitarianism and I suspect that if the people the world don't yearn to be free from some innate instinct, the internet and popular/world culture and trade/commerce may well suffice instead.
The other contact zone is, of course, where immigrant Islamic communities have settled in the West. The direct rebuttal to O'Brien's argument is that the vast (overwhelmingly so) majority of British Muslims have taken to the liberties of British life with ease - and why not? There is absolutely nothing in Islam that it not compatible with democratic liberalism the pluaralism of which supports religious freedom with only some constraints.
That some young men from West Yorkshire have turned to a cruel, vicious and seemingly un-Islamic variety of their own religion is reason to suggest that yes, indeed, they may well have taken umbridge at Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, the rights of women in the West, democracy and the non existence of an imagined Caliphate (which, by the way, would necessarily involve the forced conversion of Spain to Wahabist Islam), but there are two things to say to this. The first is that while, perhaps, invading Iraq and Afganistan was preventable (if deemed undesirable) it is now the reality of the situation and we have to deal with it. That means, inexorably, that American and British troops (whether we are riding pillion or not) must stay until a democracy in Iraq is secure under its own terms, or at any rate at least until the Iraqi government ask us to leave. The second thing is that many of the Islamist complaints are not things that we could have ever or could ever do anything about. I don't think that anyone is seriously suggesting that we abandon our way of life, deprive women of rights, surrender Spain to forced conversion or any of the other rather batty religiously, politically and socially extreme ideas that they have for society. Under these circumstances when a few rather stupid young men decide to blow themselves up because they believe in extremist religion, this is no more evidence of a malaise in the West than when the Weathermen killed people in the sixties in the USA, Bader-Meinhof in Germany in the 1970s, the IRA and ETA in Ireland, Britain and Spain in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma, or the Islamist bombs that blew up the World Trade Centre for the first time in 1993. The fact that these terrorists blew themselves up as well as their victims is macabre and shocking, but it doesn't indicate anything special about the general form of this terrorism in comparison with any other (it kills people; it terrorises). My conclusion is that, not for the first time, misguided and possibly "utopian" young men (I'd dsay dytopia, but each to their own), motivated by frustration, fear, stupidity and hate have turned to violence not out of a position of strength, but out of supreme weakness. That they come from the West should be no suprise; that they have brothers and sisters, family and community members who are are as shocked as everyone else is evidence of the strength of pluralist liberal democracy.
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