Tony Blair and the British people seem to be having a disagreement about the cause of the murderous terrorist attacks that have rocked London in recent weeks and left over fifty innocent people dead. Blair has repeatedly attributed the attacks to “an extreme and evil ideology whose roots lie in a perverted and poisonous misinterpretation of the religion of Islam.” Yet, according to a recent poll published in the Guardian newspaper, two-thirds of Britons believe there is a link between Blair’s decision to support the Bush administration’s illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq and the bombings, despite the British government’s assertions to the contrary.
Underlying Blair’s position on the bombings is a Huntington style ‘clash of civilizations’ scenario. In implacable opposition to the Western world’s progressive democratic values are arrayed the dark forces of violent Islamic fundamentalism. The jihad of the latter will only come to an end when an ascetic and totalitarian version of Islam gains ascendancy and eventually becomes the dominant political power. According to Blair, this is the vision that inspired the London bombers to commit their atrocities. Such unrelenting evil requires an equally unrelenting response in order that ‘our ideology defeat theirs.’ Under such conditions, the British and American governments can justify framing the war on terror as a war without end.
The contradictions between Blair’s clear-cut, lines-drawn apocalyptic narrative and the complexities of the real world provoke serious doubts about his sincerity and underlying motivations. Any casual observer of the region will notice that the phenomenon of suicide bombing invariably occurs in or is exported from countries under foreign military occupation, either by the U.S. or by one of its close allies, Israel being in the latter category.
Iran has no shortage of radical Islamic fundamentalists who engage in critiques of the West’s “culture of decadence and moral degeneracy,” and yet no Iranians took up box cutters and turned Manhattan into a living hell. Although it was common knowledge that Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship was supported by the U.S. throughout the 1980’s, no Iraqi ever resorted to bombing the regime or its sponsor. It was only when the U.S. and U.K. invaded and occupied the country that the suicide bombings started. Since they were expelled en masse from their homeland in 1948, the Palestinians have been engaged in acts of violent resistance to Israel. Although violent resistance has been a constant, radical Islam has not; in 60s and 70s, the ideological framework that guided resistance activities was either secular nationalist or leftist.
There’s another question that seems to conflict with the apocalypse theory, one that requires an explanation. If what is at issue is Western values and our “way of life,” then why does Al Qaeda not attack Norway? After all, it’s difficult to think of another country that better exemplifies a progressive social agenda, true democratic participation and equality between men and women. To understand why similar countries are not targeted, we have to understand a frequently overlooked distinction between what drives the leadership of Al Qaeda and what motivates the actual cadres that execute terror operations.
It’s a basic principle of politics in the modern era that ordinary people will not give up their lives in the service of an openly imperialist agenda. This is why the Bush administration had to package the war in Iraq first as a campaign to forestall future terrorist attacks against the U.S. and then as a war to liberate the Iraqi people from totalitarian rule. Otherwise, soldiers wouldn’t be persuaded to use deadly force in areas where civilians reside.
Similarly, the leadership of Al Qaeda is unlikely to persuade well-educated, upper middle-class, successful and socially integrated people like the London bombers to end their lives for the sake of re-establishing the Islamic Caliphate. What will persuade them is not desperation or insane fantasies but their anger over the tens of thousands of innocent civilians left dead by the U.S./U.K. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the death and destruction caused by the sanctions imposed after the first Persian Gulf war, the unconditional U.S. support for Israel in its war against the Palestinians, U.S. support for fascist Arab regimes and the presence of U.S. armed forces in the birthplace of Islam. It’s no accident that a Saudi poll conducted after 9/11 showed that 95 percent of educated Saudi males between the ages of 25 and 41 agreed with Bin Laden’s stated goal of driving the Americans from Saudi Arabia.
Whether Bin Laden views the end of Western occupation and influence in the Arab and Islamic world as the first step in a campaign for Islamic world domination is less important than whether he has the capacity to recruit the cadres who will actually implement such a plan. So far, the United States and its allies are playing right into his hands. The invasion of Iraq confirmed the Arab and Islamic world’s worst fears. While the U.S. is being steadily weakened in the war, the ranks of Al Qaeda have swelled and global terrorism is on the rise.
The Jewish thinker and activist Simone Weil said “the cause of wars: there is in every man and in every group of men a feeling that they have a just and legitimate claim to be masters of the universe.” Blair, Bush and Bin Laden seem to think they can justify the murder of innocent civilians for the sake of some amorphous or nebulous ideal. There’s no moral distinction between knowingly killing civilians by dropping bombs on or near them and detonating a human bomb on the London underground, but this point seems to have been lost on the pro-war politicians currently occupying the White House and No.10 Downing Street.
A greater capacity for inflicting harm carries with it greater moral responsibility. Part of being morally responsible is to realize that the use of means that obliterate the concept of humanity itself renders your ends, even if they are just and good, meaningless. Tony Blair has not shown any sign that he’s a leader with these capacities, as more and more citizens of Britain are beginning to realize.
The ‘war on terror’ need not be a war without end. To end terror, the Western powers must reevaluate their policies towards the Islamic and Arab world. The most important change would be to remove any impediments to genuine self-determination, independence and democratization for the region. As the neo-conservatives are fond of saying, ‘freedom is messy’ or ‘freedom is hard work.’ Positive social change in the region would be far less laborious and bloody in the absence of unjust foreign intervention. It’s a basic fact about human beings that we gain a sense of accomplishment and pride to be the authors of our own achievements. Furthermore, internally generated social change is almost invariably more stable and long lasting.
Throughout history, politically reactionary forces have used external threats to justify curtailing basic human rights and the advances of movements for social progress. The situation in the Arab and Muslim world is no different. With true freedom, independence and a progressive engagement with the Western powers, the Arab and Muslim peoples can move forward to an era of peace, justice and mutual aid across religious and cultural differences. If Tony Blair listened to the British people more, perhaps he would realize this.
Mohammed Abed ([email protected]) is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s also an activist with the Palestine Right to Return Coalition.