Wednesday, July 13, 2005

London Calling

I was shocked and dismayed to read today's news that the perpetrators of the most recent London bombings were Britons of Pakistani descent. That young people born and raised in Britain could give their lives in the murder of their neighbors and compatriots must be deemed a major defeat for the forces of moderation, tolerance, and reason in what Gilles Kepel has labeled the "war for Muslims minds." That living all one's life in an open and democratic society is not sufficient to preclude one's being seduced by Al Qaeda's perverted ideology is profoundly troubling.

London's events underscore the vital importance of the cultural-political dimension of the struggle against militant Islamic extremism. Al Qaeda promotes a grand ecumenical vision the appeal of which is not limited to the Middle East. Outsiders might find its tenets and ambitions so grandiose as to be maniacal or absurd, but its sheer brash extravagance is among Al Qaeda's great strengths. For anyone feeling ultimately alienated, frustrated, disaffected, marginalized, or disappointed, Al Qaeda offers a sweeping vision- the prospect that life does not have to be petty, limited or insignificant. Conversion to Al Qaeda's ideology affords one a part in a cosmic drama of Manichean dimensions.

This might seem like a flimsy asset on which to build a global terror network, but Al Qaeda does not need many warm bodies to wreak a great deal of havoc. In the final analysis London's tragedy may prove to be as much a product of the kind of social and psychological forces that caused the Columbine high school shootings or the '92 LA riots as of an international terror conspiracy. Every community contains young people that are adrift, angry, and vulnerable- they swell the ranks of religious cults and fringe political groups throughout the world and occasionally act out in destructive ways that have nothing to do with militant Islam. Al Qaeda stands apart, however, in having the means and the ruthless will to take those young people it can gather, however few, and channel their energies in ways that will be maximally destructive of global order and prosperity.

It may never be possible to totally eradicate the appeal of Al Qaeda's message- there will always be people deluded or vulnerable enough to be drawn in. But defeating Al Qaeda depends on depleting the suasive power of its ideology. Those who stand for reason and tolerance must make it as difficult as possible for Al Qaeda to convince Muslims that its vision can or should give meaning to their lives and actions.

The first essential step in that process is to avoid playing any part scripted by Al Qaeda itself. Al Qaeda's great cosmic drama is predicated on a world divided between Islam and the forces that oppose it. Any move to bring all Muslims under suspicion or blame the Islamic religion itself for current difficulties will play directly into Al Qaeda's hands. This is not just a cautionary principle for governments- all people of conscience must work to demonstrate that participation in liberal democracy, open civil society, and seperation of church and state are wholly compatible with a life suffused by Muslim faith and practice.

Beyond this, anything and everything that can practically discredit Al Qaeda will deplete its fund of ideological capital. At present the greatest opportunity for this lies in Afghanistan. During the years of the Taliban's reign Al Qaeda had free rein to institute its "utopian" vision among Afghanistan's people, producing nothing but tragedy and resentment. If the forces of extremism can be finally defeated and Afghanistan reconstructed as a society founded on openness and tolerance in which Islam nonetheless thrives Al Qaeda will be shown false by the hard test of experience. If Osama bin Laden can be captured and forced to stand accused of his crimes Al Qaeda will be doubly humbled.

What role does Iraq play in this struggle? It is difficult to see how the invasion of Iraq decreased the appeal of Al Qaeda's ideology, as Saddam and his ilk occupied the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, thus their defeat does little to discredit Islamic extremism. Now that Al Qaeda's agents are operating actively in Iraq the situation is of course of crucial importance to the larger cultural struggle. If Al Qaeda were to succeed in creating another Islamist state in Iraq its mystique would increase exponentially, thus that outcome must of course be forestalled. But the prospects of the Coalition to win cultural ground from Al Qaeda in Iraq are much lower than in Afghanistan. Whatever transformation the Coalition is able to facilitate, Al Qaeda will be able to claim that had they been given a free hand they could have produced a more ideal and puritanically Islamic society. Moreover the majority of Iraqis are Shi'ites while Al Qaeda claims to represent the world's Sunnis, thus however Islam may thrive in the future Iraq Al Qaeda will be free to brand it a haven of heresy.


Kate Marie said...

Interesting post, Madman.

I liked these lines: "For anyone feeling ultimately alienated, frustrated, disaffected, marginalized, or disappointed, Al Qaeda offers a sweeping vision- the prospect that life does not have to be petty, limited or insignificant. Conversion to Al Qaeda's ideology affords one a part in a cosmic drama of Manichean dimensions." They reminded me of Whittaker Chambers's characterization of the appeal of Communism in his prologue to Witness -- that it gave its otherwise alienated true believers a "reason to live, and a reason to die."

For that reason, though, I would argue that there is at least one significant difference between the Columbine killers and the London bombers. The Columbine killers acted from basically nihilistic impulses, while, as far as we can tell, the London bombers did not (and that's not in any way to suggest there was any greater nobility to their disgusting slaughter of innocents).

I wanted to say more, but I have to go . . . I'll chime in again later.

Madman of Chu said...

Kate Marie,

Thanks. I didn't mean to say that the perpetrators of Columbine and London had identical motives, only that they might have been influenced by similar forces. Sexual frustration or confusion, social alienation, economic dependency- young people everywhere experience all these things and more to one degree or another. Combine those with relative lack of experience and emotional immaturity and they can produce a profoundly nihilistic state of mind. I suspect that the London bombers must have fallen into such a state before being won over to Al Qaeda's perspective, otherwise the completeness of their conversion is difficult to comprehend. The Columbine murderers' feelings of nihilism led them to a lurid act of destruction. The London bombers' feelings led them to trade nihilistic angst for the comfort of fanaticism, with (thanks to Al Qaeda's perverse political impulses) the same practical result.

Like you said, none of this morally excuses any of these people of the responsibility for their foul actions. Angst and depression do not deprive one of the ability to reason or think morally, and plenty of teenagers make it through this kind of emotional crisis without so much as a body piercing or tatoo. Still, in a world filled with myriad vulnerable young people a group like Al Qaeda is very, very dangerous left unchecked.

Kate Marie said...

This is where defining what where we stand and elucidating Western values to stand in opposition to the ideology of Al Qaeda becomes complicated:

"It has been only over the past decade that radical Islam has found a hearing in Britain. Why? Partly because, in this post-ideological age, the idea that we can change society through politics has taken a battering. And partly because the idea that we should aspire to a common identity and a set of values has been eroded in the name of multiculturalism.

Over the past week, much has been said about the strength of London as a multicultural city. What makes London great, Ken Livingstone pointed out, was what the bombers most fear — a city full of people from across the globe, free to pursue their own lives. I agree, and that’s why I choose to live in this city. Multiculturalism as a lived experience enriches our lives. But multiculturalism as a political ideology has helped to create a tribal Britain with no political or moral centre.

For an earlier generation of Muslims their religion was not so strong that it prevented them from identifying with Britain. Today many young British Muslims identify more with Islam than Britain primarily because there no longer seems much that is compelling about being British. Of course, there is little to romanticise about in old-style Britishness with its often racist vision of belonging. Back in the 1950s policy-makers feared that, in the words of a Colonial Office report, 'a large coloured community would weaken . . . the concept of England or Britain'.

That old racist notion of identity has thankfully crumbled. But nothing new has come to replace it. The very notion of creating common values has been abandoned except at a most minimal level. Britishness has come to be defined simply as a toleration of difference. The politics of ideology has given way to the politics of identity, creating a more fragmented Britain, and one where many groups assert their identity through a sense of victimhood and grievance."