The Brussels bombings: no, Islamist terrorism is not a response to a western war on Islam (with clarification of 27 March)
Western governments, including our own, have made plenty of mistakes in the middle east and the Balkans since the blundering NATO attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 and the aggression against Iraq four years later, but it is wrong and dangerously misleading to blame these gross western policy failures for Islamist terrorist attacks on western cities. The worst act of terrorism against the west so far has been al-Qaeda’s attack on New York and Washington DC in 2001, forever labelled 9/11, and that occurred before the western military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Before 9/11 the biggest western military interventions were actually in support of Muslim communities and against predominantly Christian forces that were oppressing them – in Bosnia and Kosovo: hardly examples of a western ‘war against Islam’.
There seems to be an incurable itch affecting mainly leftish observers of the international scene in the west (who include myself, although I’m not afflicted by this particular itch) to blame ourselves for the misery and suffering caused by the wickedness and criminality of others. To scratch the itch, these compulsive penitents urge a change of attitudes and policies — not those of the criminal terrorists, but our own. An admission of western guilt for the phenomenon of international terrorism is demanded, including the grave western offence of ‘Islamophobia’. The only cause of Islamist violence that it is forbidden to mention is Islam itself, and the effects of Islam on the behaviour of some, but not all, of its adherents. Passionate adherence to particular religious sects, Christian (Protestant and Catholic), Jewish, Hindu and many more, has been a major cause of man’s inhumanity to man (more often man’s than woman’s) down the ages; it just so happens that extreme forms of Islam are currently the principal causes of international violence and murder. The idea that a solution to the problem of Islamist terrorism is to be found in a change of our own attitudes and policies is both perverse and naïve. There are many powerful arguments for various changes in western policy in the middle east and elsewhere, but putting an end to international terrorism is not one of them.
A friend recently passed on to me an article in Ceasefire magazine by a writer who exemplifies many of the psychological inhibitions and compulsions that I describe. Here are some extracts from the article, with my comments.
Deep down, I knew that as long as we bury our heads in the sand, as long as we do not face a problem that seems more existential by the day, what happened in Brussels on Tuesday, will happen, again and again, more ferociously, everywhere in the world. I think of it like I think of global warming. If you do not try to understand where it is coming from, and try to fight it, at its roots, try to make the sacrifices it requires and the changes it needs, the storms will become more fierce and the hurricanes and the tsunamis will destroy everything in their paths.
So we have to understand it and to “fight” it, presumably not militarily or physically, just by reasoned argument. But passionately held religious belief is notoriously proof against reasoned argument: otherwise our churches, synagogues and mosques would have gone out of business long ago. Worse still, it is argued that it is we in the west who must “make the sacrifices [terrorism] requires”. What sacrifices are these? Must we sacrifice our values of justice, tolerance and personal liberties, and substitute the cruel injustice of Sharia law, in order to placate those who threaten to kill us because our western values threaten their religion?
Despite the rage that we are feeling today, we must try to think rationally and try to understand, which is very different from condoning, what led them to commit such terrible and heinous crimes. It will not help anyone, and it will definitely not save future lives, to be hateful ourselves, to ask for revenge and demand ‘an eye for an eye’. The perpetuation of the cycle of violence has to stop. The racist rhetoric of “they do not love life the way we do”, is utter nonsense and needs to be carefully refuted.
This is a wonderful example of tilting at imaginary windmills. No-one in the west, bar a handful of psychotics and criminals on the distant right, is asking for “revenge” against Muslims or advocating a “cycle of violence” against them. The policy of western governments everywhere is to denounce anti-Muslim actions and attitudes, to represent Islamist terrorism as a perversion of genuine Islam, and to seek official Muslim leaders’ support in eradicating violence, not in practising violence in revenge for Islamist violence. I have never heard it said that “[Muslims] do not love life the way we do”, but to call such a statement ‘racist’ is nonsense. In fact the phenomenon of suicide bombing does imply an attitude to death, and belief in an afterlife in which the indiscriminate murder of non-Muslims is rewarded by unlimited access to virgins, that differ sharply from the attitudes to death of the great majority of ordinary people in the west, probably including many Muslims. To try to suppress the expression of this obvious truth by calling it ‘racist’ is unacceptable.
What is certain is that the people in power, despite telling us that they want to protect us, actually care very little about the safety of their citizens. The response of the Belgian authorities following the Charlie Hebdo and the Paris attacks was to put thousands of soldiers on the streets and raise the security alert. Despite this, and the massive and pretty much unlimited funding that the intelligence services enjoy, two of the most obvious targets for terrorists, an airport and the metro system, were hit. It can only be called what it is, an utter failure on their parts, both in their overall strategy and in the specific response they adopted to “defeat terror”.
It’s difficult to believe that a rational adult can have written this rubbish, and that even the most dementedly ideological organ can have agreed to publish it.
The terrible crimes they committed may have made sense to them, and to their twisted vision of the world, but I struggle to believe that anyone could kill another human being for fun, for the sake of it. Their journey from disfranchised youth to murderous terrorists is one that we need to study, seriously, step by step, to move forward and hope for a better future for society as a whole. … If you look at what happened in France and Belgium, if you study all the footage and read all the media reports and analyses, you will realise most of them focus on “security”, “militarisation” “hitting back” and “war”. Only a few are concentrating on what the terrorists said or wrote. Why did they do it? What did they say while doing it? If you read these … you will realise that all the attackers are talking the same language. They were politically educated out of the destruction of Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan, the drones bombing in Pakistan, Yemen, the torture of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and the colonisation and occupation of Palestine. While most identified themselves as Muslims, they also said they were horrified by the ideological war the West has carried out against what it wrongfully calls “the Muslim world”. This is the main motivator behind them becoming killers…
No-one is suggesting that Islamist terrorists kill “for fun”, although the hope of reward in a supposed afterlife, a kind of posthumous fun, does seem to be a recurrent motive. As for the need to study “seriously, step by step” (what does that mean? not frivolously, not all at once?) what causes young people to become terrorists, that exhortation is surely redundant: this is a major subject for study and possible explanation all over the western world. Anyway, we already have a pretty clear idea of the basis for the Islamic extremists’ violent hostility to the west and their passionate desire to damage it – i.e. us. They hate many aspects of western culture as it has evolved in recent years, rightly regarding them as not just incompatible with Islamic teaching and values, but also as a direct threat to them: the sexualisation of western culture apparent in (e.g.) its advertising, literature, entertainment and women’s clothes; the belief in gender equality (increasingly replacing the assumptions underlying male domination of women) and respect for gays and other practitioners of variants on traditional sexual relationships, including sex workers; the steady erosion of religious belief and growth of indifference or hostility to organised religions (not just Islam); the inherent frivolity of pop music and the titillating character of some styles of dancing; the prevalence of alcohol and other drugs; decline of respect for the old and for religious authority; freedom of speech and of the press that licenses insults to venerated religious icons, both personal and literary, such as the Prophet and the Koran, Christ and the Bible; and acceptance of intermarriage between different religious and racial communities, which progressively weakens the coherence of each community and the authority of its traditional leaders. Islamists rightly fear that the magnetic attraction for young people and others all over the world of these features of western culture pose an existential threat to the practice of Islam and to the authority of Muslim leaders, so grave a threat, indeed, that resistance to their spread by all available means, including the mass murder of ‘innocent’ practitioners of this infidel decadence, is not only justified but actually obligatory. No deep research is required to confirm any of this. And a vital but little noticed corollary of it is that there is nothing that the west can do to satisfy these Muslim objections to so many aspects of our culture: the possibility of compromise over them is zero. We do what we can to encourage the assimilation of Muslims into our wider community, but since Islam encompasses a whole way of life and not just a set of religious beliefs, the practical difficulties of assimilation are necessarily formidable; and Islamists naturally resist assimilation as a threat to their religion and to the authority of their leaders.
Islamists and many other more moderate Muslims do of course object to what they regard as unwarranted military attacks by western powers on Muslims in, for example, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other parts of Africa, and Syria, which impinge on the widely held and inherently creditable sentiment that all Muslims belong to the same community, the Ummah, and that therefore any attack on some Muslims is an attack on them all. It is relatively easy to exploit these strong feelings of indignation in order to aggravate anti-western sentiment and to recruit young Muslims to the cause of jihad and ultimately of murderous terrorism, even suicide in the cause. But it does not follow from this that western governments have a duty to change their middle east policies and actions, if they are necessary and justified on other grounds, in order to appease Muslim objections to them and in the hope of reducing the risk of terrorist atrocities in their own cities. Appeasement of what amounts to blackmail is almost always doomed to failure. In any case, a western decision to take or not to take military action against, for example, an Islamist movement such as ISIS in Iraq and Syria can have no effect whatever on the real roots of Islamist terrorism, namely Muslim objections to the fundamental features of western culture described above, objections with which obviously no compromise is possible.
What we need is a total, radical and deep rethinking of the way we see society, of how we see each other within it, of who makes decisions on our behalf. In short, a spiritual and philosophical revolution is what it required… It is also time to look at the policies of European governments towards immigrant youth, who are very often, from the earliest age, vilified for every problem their societies face. We need to challenge our governments and the decision-makers every step of the way. For our own sake.
Where is the evidence for the astonishing assertion that European governments pursue a conscious policy of “vilifying immigrant youth… for every problem [our] societies face”? What kind of “spiritual and philosophical revolution” on the part of western society and culture is being demanded here? It’s hard to resist the suspicion that underlying these prescriptions is the old familiar itch to blame our own culture and history for all the ills that beset and challenge us, with the necessary implication that it’s up to us to abandon our fundamental values in the vain hope of appeasing and placating those who hate them because of the threat that they pose to their own mediaeval doctrines, and accordingly believe themselves to be justified in killing us on a grand and growing scale.
Is this ‘Islamophobia’? Certainly not. Islamists who espouse mass murder and mayhem as a just response to western culture are a small and unrepresentative minority of Muslims world-wide. But the article in Ceasefire magazine, and so many similar commentaries, reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the real motives of the Islamists for wishing to attack us and the misguided nature of the response to terrorism that they consequently advocate. Such misunderstandings, and such misguided prescriptions for our response, only aggravate the threat they pose to the security of our society. The west has been responsible for plenty of costly and murderous crimes around the world over the centuries, without the need to invent yet more by blaming terrorist atrocities on our own societies when in sober fact we have no responsibility whatever for them. We need to support our police and intelligence services in seeking to detect and pre-empt terrorist crime and criminals, not to apologise for them or invent excuses for them.
Footnote (27 March 2016): I am mortified to discover from a friend’s private email that my blog post (above) is open to misinterpretation on at least two counts — obviously in both cases the result of my own lack of clarity. The first relates to my catalogue of aspects of western culture to which some Islamists take literally violent objection: i.e., the list beginning “the sexualisation of western culture…”. I have been castigated for seeming to lump gay people in with sex workers by including them all in the same list, and for implying that same-sex partnerships are not “traditional”. I should have made it clear, or clearer, that I regard the items on my list as having only one thing in common, namely their rejection by some Muslims as incompatible with and a threat to their own religion and culture. Some of these aspects of our culture deserve our pride and approval, such as full equality of respect for all kinds of partnerships and sexual orientations, freedom of speech, and gender equality. Other items, such as the over-sexualisation of many aspects of western life, alcoholism and drug addiction, are obviously negative and to be deplored. The inclusion of the negative and the positive in the same list in no way implies equating them. I am all for same-sex marriages and partnerships if people want them, and in mentioning them in the same breath as “‘variants on traditional sexual relationships”, I was referring only to relationships that were regarded until relatively recently in most western societies as legally, morally, religiously or aesthetically unacceptable, but which are now generally regarded as normal parts of the human condition. Secondly, I evidently need to make it clear that in writing of western “acceptance of intermarriage between different religious and racial communities, which progressively weakens the coherence of each community and the authority of its traditional leaders”, I strongly welcome intermarriage between people of different racial, religious and national backgrounds, precisely because it weakens the coherence of exclusive racial or religious communities whose persistence is an obstacle to their members’ assimilation into our western society, and because it undermines the authority of those communities’ leaders who too often have a vested interest in keeping their members fenced off from the language and culture of the country in which they or their parents or grandparents have come to live, and in perpetuating some of the retrograde aspects of the culture of their country of origin. As the product myself of the intermarriage of a parent of Polish-Jewish ancestry with a gentile parent with German Lutheran (and several other) roots, I have always loved the lyrics of the old Blue Mink song, which rightly says, among other excellent prescriptions, that –
What we need is a great big melting pot
Big enough to take the world and all it’s got
And keep it stirring for a hundred years or more
And turn out coffee coloured people by the score.
Amen, or rather hear, hear, to that!