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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Jason Burke on the London Bombings

Jason Burke, whose book Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam I discussed back in December, has written two excellent articles in the aftermath of the London bombings on who he thinks the perpetrators are likely to be, how they see the world, and what can be done in the future.

The money section (from Sunday's article):

Historically, this first attack usually prompts the state security machine, after a short delay or period of indecision, to swing into action. Repressive legislation is introduced, intelligence agencies boosted and key militant leaders are killed or imprisoned. This results in more indiscriminate, brutal violence as the terrorist movement, leaderless and rudderless, mutates and fragments. With resources scarce and security high, soft targets are favoured.

What follows is crucial. Egypt and Algeria suffered Islamic militancies in the early 1990s that followed the above pattern. After nearly a decade of increasing horror, they peaked in grotesque violence. In Algeria, more than 100,000 died. But rather than boost the militants, this had the opposite effect. Public support for extremists collapsed; the 'martyrs' became 'murderers'. Reviled by former supporters, the militants became easy prey for security agencies. Now, only a criminalised rump of violent men remains in both countries. Movements that once threatened the existence of the state are effectively finished. And the critical factor throughout was the support of the bombers' own constituency.

The insurgency labelled 'al-Qaeda' fits this paradigm in many respects. The spectacular attack (9/11), then the response (the Patriot and anti-terrorist Acts, Guantánamo Bay). The degrading of the leadership (the invasion of Afghanistan, thousands of arrests ), now a brutal, indiscriminate phase as individuals buy into a hate-filled ideology (Madrid, the Beslan school massacre, London) and conduct freelance operations.

It may be argued that, as Algeria and Egypt (and Northern Ireland and the Basques) were on a national scale and the 'al-Qaeda insurgency' spans the globe, we are in untrodden territory. But I believe the basic conclusions drawn from smaller-scale examples remain valid. No one can claim, given the diversity of this attack's victims, that they were striking simply at the West. The casualties, in our wonderfully varied city, are as globalised as the ideology that caused them. This is a global militant movement working to an agenda that can inspire or repel anywhere on the planet.

Early last week I was in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, where 1,400 Palestinians were massacred in 1982 by Christian gunmen with the tacit consent of the Israelis, and got into a discussion with three brothers. Did they back the executions of Westerners in Iraq? Mohammed said that such deeds were unIslamic and totally unjustified, Bassam maintained that the murders were legitimate given the oppression of Muslims by the West and Hassan was undecided. Hassan's view - and that of his counterpart in Bradford or the East End - is critical. If he decides that the attacks, in Iraq or London, are entirely unjustified, the global 'al-Qaeda' insurgency will wither and die within a decade or so. If he throws in his lot with the militants, we will be plunged into a welter of violence for the foreseeable future.

In our interconnected world, the people who now count most are not our security and emergency services, brave and competent though they are, but the hopes, fears, expectations and views of 1.3 billion Muslims, whether in Beirut, Bradford, London, Riyadh or Kuala Lumpur. They will decide who are martyrs and who are murderers.

Over the last couple of years, I think that Burke has, more than a whole lot of other people, consistently presented some of the most thought-provoking and carefully balanced analysis of the phenomenon of political violence by Islamic extremists. Which is another way of saying that I've agreed with him more often than I have with a lot of other people, of course. I think that he is probably right in that these sort of atrocities are probably going to continue for some time, and that 'the end', such as it is, lies off in the distance, and that it really does depend on those fabled 'moderate Muslims'.

His book is really good, too. Highly recommended reading.

Sort of similarly, tangentially, a little bit, one thing that I've noticed over the last couple of years has been the tendency for some Muslims to complain about journalists describing groups like Al-Qaeda, Hamas, or Algeria's Groupe Islamique Armé as 'Islamic terrorists' when groups like ETA or the Provisional IRA have not been routinely referred to as 'Christian terrorists'. This is a pretty poor complaint because, unlike Marxist-Nationalist groups like the IRA or ETA (or older Palestinian terror groups like the PLO and the heavily-Christian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), more recent terrorist/rebel groups like the ones I've named above are explicitly Muslim in orientation. For descriptive purposes, it is irrelevant whether or not they "aren't true Muslims" or whether "the Koran forbids the killing of innocents", because these groups justify their actions in terms of their own particular interpretation of the Koran and secondary sources like the Hadiths and the Sharia. Men like Mohammed Bouyeri, the killer of Theo van Gogh, see the world through Islam-tinted lenses, and they understand their actions as being justified through their idea of Islam, one that they believe they have scrupulous scriptural backing for. If you read the communiques issued by such groups, you quickly notice how much importance they place on justifying themselves in an Islamic context, through quotations and references to legalistic judgments made by Islamic scholars of the past and present.

In contrast, the propaganda of, say, the IRA was strictly nationalist (the usual stuff about the 32 counties, the history of English imperialism in Ireland, etc etc) and occassionally Marxist. IRA statements did not involve Biblical digressions, or quotations from various popes, and as such it is entirely correct to label them not as 'Christian terrorists' but, instead, as 'Irish terrorists', for Ireland (at least their idea of it) was the key to how they saw the world, the lens through which they focused.

Because Islamic terrorists understand their place in the world, and the role of their movement, only through their vision of Islam, it is surely correct to label them as such, no? Right, Karen Armstrong?

|| RPH || 1:06 AM || |