London bombings: the day after

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

AS THE dust settles on London’s horrific suicide bombings, there are many concerns being expressed. At the international and the political level, this act of some perverted individuals, said to be linked to the Al Qaeda and its affiliates’ network, is seen from the perspective of the war on terrorism.

The question being asked is whether this war, spearheaded by the US and supported by a number of other governments including Pakistan’s, is succeeding in its mission. So many terrorist attacks have occurred in the wake of 9/11 — Bali, Madrid, Morocco, Istanbul and now London — that the focus has shifted more towards an analysis of the failure or success of the anti- terror strategy.

A serious attempt is being made once again to analyze the factors that have spawned the terror phenomenon, especially in view of the fact that many of the explanations given have, over a period of time, proved to be quite off the mark. The new phase of exploration and rationalization as reflected in the press and the electronic media in Britain and the US appears to have prompted analysts and policymakers to revise their understanding of the terrorist’s mind and motives. The main reason for this change is the emergence of, what the British media terms, “home grown” terrorism.

Until now, it was widely believed that if the intelligence agencies could figure out Al Qaeda’s military strategy and stop terrorists from entering the targeted states, they could easily pre-empt fresh attacks. Hence the focus was on stringent immigration laws, airport checks and physical search and surveillance. Now it is being realized that there are other factors that contribute to the rise of terrorism and need to be addressed and rooted out as well.

It is now widely admitted that the earlier belief that poverty and illiteracy make Third World countries the breeding ground for terrorism does not hold true in its entirety. The terrorists are by no means poverty stricken. Many of them have been found to be highly educated and qualified.

So what is it that caused British born young men to turn against the very society and system they were born in and had lived in. This has come as a shock to most Britons since it clearly indicates that they have to do something to address their policy vis-a-vis the immigrants. Three of the bombers were of Pakistani origin and had visited their parents’ home country at one stage or another and some are described as being disaffected. Obviously, Britain’s society and the country’s education system failed to inculcate in them the humanism and the culture of tolerance that characterizes mainstream Britain.

Another hotly debated issue has been in respect of the driving force behind terrorism: is it political or is it ideological? A school of thought, which is articulated by those who opposed the war on Iraq, says that the causes of terrorism are political. It is the high incidence of injustice, especially the excesses committed against the Muslims, in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya and so on, that has angered them and spurred on the fringe fundamentalist elements to resort to violence.

Claire Short, the British cabinet minister who resigned in protest against Tony Blair’s war against Iraq, said, “We are implicated in the slaughter of large numbers of civilians in Iraq and supporting a Middle East policy that for the Palestinians creates this sense of double standards that feeds anger.” This is the widespread belief in the Muslim world as well. The Aga Khan also expressed similar views in an interview after the London bombings.

There are others, at times, the extremists from other faiths or those with not sufficient understanding of Islam, who believe that Islam preaches violence and so the war on terror will have to be fought on the battlefield of ideology alone with strategic weapons as has been done in Afghanistan and Iraq. By weeding out terrorists, arresting them and killing them (the massacre of innocent civilians being unavoidable collateral damage), many hardliners in the West are convinced that they can counteract terrorism. That is the approach that underpins the American anti- terrorism strategy.

Even though this strategy has failed and has spawned more violence in the process, those perceiving Islamic ideology as the root cause continue to push their policy. For them, the long-term options, which also call for the elimination of political and social injustices in the world system, are not so acceptable. They would not produce instant results and would require far- reaching changes in the foreign policy of a number of states.

Where does the truth lie? The fact is that there is an element of truth in all arguments. For instance, while addressing Labour Party activists, Tony Blair did not describe the terrorist attacks as a clash of civilization. He said that all civilized people, Muslims and others, feel revulsion at it. He called it “a battle of ideas and hearts and minds within Islam and outside it”.

For once the British prime minister has hit the nail on the head. For it is now well known, whether we acknowledge it or not, that today’s world is polarized between the radicalized extremists of all faiths — be they Islamists, evangelical Christians, the Hindutva brand of Hindus and the orthodox Jews — and moderate elements from all sides of the religious spectrum who respect human life and uphold the dignity of fellow men and women. After all, it cannot be denied that terrorism was unleashed even before Iraq and 9/11. But, at the same time, the current phase of violence and denial of rights of the Palestinians began much before the Arabs began hitting back. But it is no use trying to play the blame game, which is now futile.

What needs to be realized is that the underlying causes of terror are basically political — it is a struggle for power — with an ideology, such as religion, being used by all parties to strengthen their hands and mobilize support. That is why God is invoked so freely today to reinforce the struggle for a political cause. Did not the Americans support the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the eighties? The Mujahideen’s battle cry was ‘jihad’ and Islam.

Israel has used Zionism as its rallying cry to occupy Palestine and to regain Jerusalem. Hasn’t it been easier to mobilize the faithfuls of any religion by asking them to come and fight a religious war? Even the Crusades had a political war aim. Religion has been used as an instrument in politics for centuries, but more for expediency than out of spiritual reasons.

Not surprisingly, when carried to the extreme, religion has contradicted modern day secular values and human rights. It is the ferocity of the attacks, the use of modern technology and the easy mobility terrorists enjoy across borders by virtue of globalization that have made the phenomenon of terrorism such an unprecedented and dangerous exercise.