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.