Where does terrorism start?
by Soumaya Ghannoushi
It is interesting that while medieval Europe strove to dissociate the great achievements of the flourishing Islamic civilization from the religion of Islam, today's West insists on referring all Muslims' ills, from democratic failure to economic decadence, to the Islam religion. The terrorist plague is no exception. Its agents, we are told, are the product of an "evil ideology which must be uprooted".
Even so, this is only half of the truth. The questions we can not avoid are: why are would-be bombers driven towards this evil theology and not any other, after all it is hardly the only one on offer within the intensely diverse intellectual and political Islamic map?
What propels them to deviate from the mainstream body of Muslims and embrace a perverse interpretation that justifies the slaughter of innocent civilians? What triggers this radical ideology’s shift from the abstract realm of ideas to the concrete scenes of explosives, severed limbs and charred bodies?
If we were Hegelians we would accept Blair and Bush's explanations of historical phenomena by reference to ideology. I, however, prefer to do as Marx did and turn history from its head back on its feet. History is the generator of ideology not vice versa. Rather than explain, ideology is itself in need of explaining. We must go beyond the evil ideology to the evil reality that spawns and fosters it. Ideology can not be the starting point, but the conclusion to the search for causes and origins.
Take the four bombers who a few months ago created carnage and mayhem in London's tubes and buses. The striking picture that emerged from the media's scrutiny of every minutia of their menial lives was of four unexceptional men, with calm ordinary lives, no different from any Brit of their age. Most were born in Leeds and attended its primary and secondary schools. One was a sports fanatic who adored cricket and hockey and worked at his father's fish and chip shop, another was notorious for playing loud music in his Buckinghamshire home, and the third for hiding in back alleys to sip beer with local youths.
Those who bury their heads in the sand and insist that that terrorism arises from an evil ideology need to answer to this question: Why did these young men revert to a terrifying and deviant theology that sanctions the killing of the innocent, rather than their parents' calm traditional faith, the peaceful theology of the scholars, the spirituality of Sufism, or the moderation of mainstream revivalist Islamism?
That these men were radicalised by the stormy political events that unfolded before their eyes on TV screens and brought home to them the scenes of death, misery and destruction in Falluja, Baghdad, Jenin and Gaza is undeniable. A stream of reports by British and American intelligence services, leading think tanks like the Economic Social Research Council, and leaked foreign office memoranda, confirm the link between British and American foreign policies and the current wave of terrorist bombings.
The Chatham House organisation, a respected London based independent think tank on foreign affairs, found that a key problem for the UK in preventing terrorism is that the country is "riding as a pillion passenger with the United States in the war on terror" and that the Iraq war has given a "boost" to al-Qaida's recruiting abilities. As the former head of the Bin Ladin Unit in the CIA put it, "To deny that there is a link between our foreign policies" and terrorism "is madness itself".
Osman Hussain, one of the suspects in the 21 July failed bombings - who is said to have been a notorious womaniser in his earlier days - told his Italian interrogators that he and his friends had watched hours of footage on the war on Iraq, "of women and children killed or wiped out by British and US soldiers, of weeping widows, mothers and children".
The same message was echoed in Siddique Khan's video from the grave, all the more chilling in its flat Yorkshire accent. "Until you stop the bombing, gassing, and imprisonment, he declared ... we will not stop the fight."
In this globalised age dominated by the power of the image, the notion of geography has almost been stripped of content. Tragedies in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and other faraway lands are now part of the fabric of our daily lives. They can no longer be kept away, to rage in distant lands and devour obscure nations. They inevitably spill over our shores, cities and villages, lay bare our vulnerability and put an end to our false sense of immunity.
What happened in London is in fact, a small episode in a still unfolding global drama. Scores of families across the Islamic world, in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Algeria and Tunisia, continue to watch helplessly as their sons suddenly drop out of college courses and university degrees, quit their jobs, and disappear forever to join the terrible death cult of the Iraq suicide bomber.
Such is the spectacular folly of the United States colonial adventure in Iraq that al-Qaida could be transferred from Qandahar's caves and mountains to the very heart of the Muslim world. With its occupation, Iraq turned into a hotbed of terrorism and a magnet for the disenchanted.
It turns out it was not freedom or liberation America's tanks and B52s had brought Baghdad, but death, destruction, chaos, sectarian schism and al-Qaida.What seems to single the London bombers out, however, is their evident sense of alienation and rootlessness. They belonged neither to the majority around them, nor to their ethnic and religious communities. They rejected the wider Western culture of the majority, but also the mainstream Islam of their community. They belonged neither to one nor to the other. They were a minority within the minority.
In al-Qaida's extremism they sought a medium of expressing the profound tensions that seethed deep within them. Ideology, nationalist, socialist, or Islamist is, after all, the medium through which socio-political grievances are translated.Many have been quick to attribute the phenomenon of "Islamic terrorism" to the religious educational system, embarking on a frantic search for links with the traditional Islamic madrassas. Careful examination of the evolution of the bombers in London, New York and Washington throws serious doubts over such claims, however.
None of the young men involved appears to have received a substantial religious education, to have graduated from the theology departments of Islamic universities, or even to have attended a separate faith school. The religious establishment has in fact been the object of fierce condemnation by radical factions for its alleged estrangement from politics and acquiescence to the political status quo.
What appears to be common to all the young men in question is the striking weakness of their religious culture and their profound ignorance of Islamic theology, not the reverse. Following a sudden emotional upsurge, unrestrained by sound religious understanding and adequate political experience, they slip into the bottomless abyss of violent extremism.
Islam has always been the object of divergent strategies of interpretation. The most dominant has always been the calm and dignified Islam of the Ulama (scholars). This peaceful Islam is increasingly undermined by the turbulent reality of post-colonial Muslim society, aggravated by a gamut of myopic western policies that range from the obstruction of political change in the Arab region and sanctioning of genocide and illegal settlement in Palestine, to the revival of the colonial era through the military invasion and occupation of Iraq.
The mere sight of Bush greeting Sharon as a "man of peace" days after the Jenin refugee camp massacre, as though those his bulldozers had buried alive were cockroaches not human beings, would have been enough to turn the moral universe of countless young Muslims upside down and send them on the road to nihilistic perdition. The evils of reality always metamorphose into evil ideologies. The trail of the bombers’ insanity leads back to these insane "foreign" policies, which are destabilising the world, breaking it into opposite trenches and tearing the fabric of nations, communities and families apart.
Unless they are rectified, there can be little hope of our world emerging out of this monstrous pit of hatred and violence.
[Soumaya Ghannoushi is a researcher in the history of ideas at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London.]