The London Bombings: Pride and Prejudice

I’m proud to be a Londoner. Though I am away for now, part of me is always in the vibrant and diverse city that I have grown up in and where I have my home. It has been strangely dislocating to be so far away during the traumatic events of the last week – not knowing what has happened to family and friends, and alienated from the process of shock, bereavement and coming to terms with the attacks. With the luxury of distance, and now a little time, there are two thoughts I’d like us to keep in mind as we think about how to respond to these murders.

  • First, we are not at war. The metaphor of a “war on terrorism” is a useful shorthand, but only in the same sense as the “war on drugs” or the “war on poverty”. This metaphor is now ubiquitous, so that it is almost impossible to speak about international affairs without lapsing into it – we now all routinely talk of battles, defeat and the enemy. But this is not literally a war, and by lazily falling back on military language we risk missing those parts of the problem that do not fit the military analogy. In particular, when we eventually find how to rid the world of this violence, it will not be through a military victory, but because we have somehow created the conditions in which it is no longer in anyone’s interest to prolong the conflict. Just as we did not “win” the “Cold War” in any military sense but through the convergence of ideas, we will not win the “war on terrorism” by killing people. As we look to the future for a long term solution, we should guard against allowing the way we use language to obscure the real choices that we face.
  • If we are to bring violence to an end, we need a better understanding of its causes. Again, there is a danger that political rhetoric will obscure and not enhance our comprehension of the challenge. Despite the repetitive claims to the contrary by some political leaders, it does not seem to be true that Muslim militants are opposed to western democracy and freedom. Many Muslims are enthusiastic supporters of pluralism and freedom – a recent Pew Global Attitude Survey reports optimism among Muslims that they will move towards western-style democracy. The writings and speeches of senior Al-Q’aeda leaders do not attack western countries for the way they organize themselves at home (see this transcript of one of the Bin Ladin videos, for example.) We need to keep clearly in mind that the target of the hatred of the criminal fanatics is not western democracy but western policies in the middle east. Many Muslims believe that Western governments have become one of the most important barriers to freedom and self determination, supporting authoritarian regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Pakistan (as well as Sadaam Hussein, who was installed in Iraq by western powers). Fanatics are exploiting that dissatisfaction with western policies to provide support for their murderous activities. While we continue to pretend – as President Bush did today – that this is a battle for democracy, we will fail to understand the challenge, and we will consequently fail to find a solution to it.

I cannot resist making some less important, and perhaps slightly more partisan remarks:

  • I am impressed by the way that both Tony Blair and Ken Livingstone have responded. They have rightly taken the view that our existing democratic institutions are the best way to find and punish the perpetrators of these crimes, and that it would be a victory for the criminals if they were to succeed in forcing us to dismantle our liberties and change our way of life. There has been no wild talk of invading foreign countries from UK politicians (compare this to Mr Bush’s speech today ). There has been no stoking up of fears and prejudices: just a calm, responsible call for life to continue as usual. Mr Blair, in particular, has displayed an uncanny knack of hitting the right note at times of national importance.
  • It has been impossible not to be moved by the resilience of Londoners. This sign in a window in Covent Garden brought tears to my eyes. London has been attacked: but there has been no backlash, no panic, and no lynch mob. We want our police to find out who did this and bring them to justice, but we will not allow these crimes to change our values. And while I am being sentimental, I am full of admiration for our emergency services. Those guys and gals are saints; and we don’t pay them anything like enough for what they do for us.
  • Surely this must be the final nail in the coffin of ID cards? It could be clearer after the London bombings that ID cards would not have kept us safe. Quite apart from the civil liberties arguments against ID cards, we surely have higher priorities for spending that kind of money?
  • This is another entry in the grim roll of events that the Intelligence Services did not see coming (up there with the invasion of Kuwait). We spend a lot of money on our intelligence services, and we do not get a very good service for it. The budgets should be handed to the “user” departments, such as the FCO and MOD, for them to “buy” intelligence from whoever they want.
  • The events highlighted the importance of the traditional news gatherers – as opposed to bloggers. While conventional news gatherers got information, photographs and news rapidly to the public, the bloggers were reduced to a secondary role, largely reporting on what the primary newsgatherers were saying. Even the photos on Flickr were mainly photos of what was on the TV, or grabbed from the BBC News website.
  • There are people who say that Tony Blair is in some way to blame for the London bombs because he involved the UK in the war in Iraq. I am no supporter of our adventure in the middle east, but I agree with my Dad that this is a quite preposterous allegation. We would have been a target anyway. The killings were the fault of the murderous bastards who committed them, and only them.

17 thoughts on “The London Bombings: Pride and Prejudice”

  1. _We need to keep clearly in mind that the target of the hatred of the criminal fanatics is not western democracy but western policies in the middle east._

    I don’t buy that, Owen. Western policies, plenty of them completely misguided, in the ME area are just the recruiting tool. The jihadis are not prepared to accept democracy at home (or why not stand in the Iraqi elections?) and they don’t even accept that democracy is compatible with Islam. Fortunately, as you say, most Muslims don’t share that sentiment. Interesting thing from that survey you cited was the improvement in views of the US from Lebanon – I wonder why that could be…? These people are nihilists who are at war with us – why else bang on about the ‘return’ of Andalusia, the destruction of Israel, shariah in Europe, all of which have been demanded at various times? Nobody’s ever going to give them that, any of it. The only long-term solution is democracy in the Middle East, but for that to work these people and their apologists have to be beaten (first, in Iraq). It is a war, and they are losing.

  2. Jarndyce – I’d like to know what evidence you have to support the ideas that the fanatics are opposed to western democracy. It is true that their methods are deeply illiberal and undemocratic (as well as murderous) but it does not follow that their objective is to undermine democracy in western countries. All that they say suggests that their anger is directed towards our policies in the middle east, not the arrangements we make to govern ourselves.

  3. From Sayyid Qutb, Milestones, their seminal work of political philosophy…
    “The reasons for Jihaad which have been described in the above verses are these: to establish God’s authority in the earth; to arrange human affairs according to the true guidance provided by God; … the law governing civil affairs will be purely that of God, while no one will be forced to change his beliefs and accept Islam.”

    “Those who say that Islamic Jihaad was merely for the defense of the ‘homeland of Islam’ diminish the greatness of the Islamic way of life and consider it less important than their ‘homeland’. This is not the Islamic point of view, and their view is a creation of the modern age and is completely alien to Islamic consciousness.”

    And… Reclamation of al-Andalus (like they’re gonna get that?). Not US and UK policies towards Israel, but its very existence (non-Islamic power is not permitted on the Arabian peninsula). Countless fatwas on the primacy of shariah over man-made (i.e. democratic) law. And so on. (Note: they are at war against Muslims who don’t buy this shit, too.)

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a foaming-at-the-mouth, “they’re all out to kill us” Islamophobe. The number in Europe who believe this crap is very small indeed. But these people want a Caliphate, not equal oportunities to participate in elections in Saudi Arabia.

    Our non-evenhandedness in parts of the ME aren’t helping. But that’s not the reason for their war.

  4. I’d have thought the return of al-Andalus to the Caliph, the removal of the state of Israel and the imposition of shariah law in Europe (“Those who say that Islamic Jihaad was merely for the defense of the ‘homeland of Islam’ diminish the greatness of the Islamic way of life”) ought to be relevant to liberal Europeans. Let me be clear: they’re not going to get any of this. Not in a gazillion years. There aren’t even enough of them to muster a decent army. Which is why they’re nihilists: They know this, they know their demands (such as they are) will never be met, but they go on killing. It’s utterly pointless. But to imply that the actions of this lot ought to be informing our policy towards democratization in Iraq, even tangentially, is not sensible.

  5. I certainly wouldn’t want to imply that these actions should inform our policy on Iraq. My point is that if we want to bring an end to these acts of violence, we have to move outside the convenient metaphor of “war” and understand the causes of the conflict.

  6. J: Our non-evenhandedness in parts of the ME aren’t helping. But that’s not the reason for their war.

    O: if we want to bring an end to these acts of violence, we have to move outside the convenient metaphor of “war” and understand the causes of the conflict.

    It’s good that you’re using different words – ‘reason’ and ’causes’ – because you’re actually talking about two different things. Yes (J), these people are murderous nutters who need to be stopped; their reasons for doing what they do are incompatible with any political change we could stomach. But (as Billmon recently pointed out) it’s not as if someone’s developed a batch of murderous nutters and unleashed them on the world, and all we’ve got to do is round them all up. All organisations have personnel turnover – people pack it in (or get arrested or killed), people join up. To neutralise a terrorist group – let alone a loose network like Al Qaeda – you have to stop people joining it; which means you have to stop people wanting to join it. Which in turn, I believe, means that you need to take a couple of steps back from the language of reasons and ask about social tendencies and causal mechanisms. Assuming, for the sake of a starting-point, that someone who sets out to kill other people and himself is alienated from his society and discontented with his life, what are the kind of factors which tend to make young Muslim men alienated and discontented – and what can we do about those factors? You can apply similar arguments more globally. If there weren’t any American bases in Saudi Arabia, I’m sure Bin Laden would find something else to rant about – but he wouldn’t be able to attract the kind of people who don’t like American bases in Saudi Arabia. If Israel were living in peace and harmony with a Palestinian state, there would still be people who said the Zionist entity should be destroyed – but far fewer people would listen to them.

    Look after the causes and the reasons will look after themselves. It’s not the nutters you’ve got to worry about – it’s the sane people who listen to them.

  7. Owen,

    I agree with almost everything you say in your admirable post on the bombings, including your demolition of the foolish allegation about the fundamentalist Islamists “hating our democracy and hating our freedoms” (P. Bush, passim). And I’m grateful for your approving reference, towards the end, to the point I have been making in my own blog about it being preposteropus to blame Blair, or even Bush, for the London bombings. But I have a (pedantic?) reservation about part of one passage, where you write that:

    We need to keep clearly in mind that the target of the hatred of the criminal fanatics is not western democracy but western policies in the middle east. Many Muslims believe that Western governments have become one of the most important barriers to freedom and self determination, supporting authoritarian regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Pakistan (as well as Sadaam Hussein, who was installed in Iraq by western powers). Fanatics are exploiting that dissatisfaction with western policies to provide support for their murderous activities.

    I don’t believe that the target of the criminal fanatics is western *policies*: it seems that the target is rather the western presence in the Arab and other Muslim countries and the effects of western culture and influence on the practice of Islam in those countries, including especially the prospects for the installation in them of fundamentalist Muslim régimes on Taliban or Ayatollah Khomenei lines. The distinction is important. If it were only western policies that the fundamentalists were fighting against, there could be a basis for dialogue, even negotiation (although as I have argued at length on my own blog, I don’t think that any government should change its policies, if they are otherwise sound and likely to be effective, in order to appease terrorists or to reduce the danger of further terrorist attacks: and if the policies are not sound and effective, they should be changed to policies that are, for the sake of good policies, not to appease terrorists). If however it’s the incompatibility of western culture, values, and influence with the spread of fundamentalist Islamic regimes in Muslim countries that are the real target of the fundamentalists, as I believe to be the case, then there is nothing we can do to satisfy them. We can’t change our own culture – secular, libertarian, sexually and racially and religiously tolerant and egalitarian, separating church and state – and we can’t prevent our culture from being attractive to many young and other people throughout the middle east and north Africa, much of Asia, etc. Nor can we adapt our culture and values in those areas so that they don’t collide head-on with Shari’a law and the form of government that it demands. Even if, which it clearly isn’t, appeasing terrorists was a valid reason for changing our Iraq and Palestine policies, or for withdrawing support from authoritarian regimes in the middle east (even where the encouragement of democracy is likely to lead to Taliban-type despotic Islamist regimes in their place?), we shouldn’t delude ourselves that such policy changes would cause the murderous fundamentalists to call off their suicide bombers.

    In other words, I don’t think the fundamentalists see western *governments* as among “the most important barriers to freedom and self determination” as you suggest: their culture and influence etc. are the most important barriers to the very opposite of freedom, namely self-determination leading to fascist theocracy. Look at what self-determination and democracy would have led to in Algeria and what they would very likely lead to now in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia!

    Moreover we in the west should not be sheepish about declaring that we have important national interests at stake in the middle east and in other Muslim areas, including most importantly the security of our and our allies’ oil supplies, anyway in the short to medium term, and that we are determined to defend them, although preferably not by using force if they can be protected by other means.

    Of course the implications of this interpretation are grim. But it’s better to be realistic than to act on false premisses about the scope for an ccommodation with the fanatics in the way that the more glib and superficial columnists and commentators in the Guardian have been doing since 7/7.

    Cadenet, Vaucluse

  8. Brian (my Dad) says:

    I don’t believe that the target of the criminal fanatics is western *policies*: it seems that the target is rather the western presence in the Arab and other Muslim countries and the effects of western culture and influence on the practice of Islam in those countries

    This is an important distinction. I think you are right that it is western presence in the Middle East that is the particular policy that is the target of the anger of the fanatics (I regard “being there” as just one aspect of our policies.)

    And the solution to this is to withdraw. As you have argued yourself, we have no business interfering in other people’s arrangements for governing themselves (at least, not without an explicit Security Council resolution).

    I think we should be very sheepish indeed about saying that our policy in the middle east is protecting our oil supplies.

  9. Then for once, alas, we shall just have to agree to differ. There are important western interests at stake in the middle east and there is little to be achieved by pretending otherwise. Governments have a duty to protect their peoples’ interests, and only out-and-out pacifists would deny that this may on occasion entail using force, if all else fails. Certainly the use of force in international relations must always be in accordance with the UN Charter and it must always be a last resort. But if (for example) new fundamentalist Islamic regimes in oil-producing countries were to seek to deny oil to the United States and to other oil-importing western countries, the threat that this would represent to the whole of the world economy would be so obviously dire that action would be both necessary and justified in order to thwart it (not necessarily involving the use of force, but potentially doing just that, faute de mieux.

    For similar reasons, it seems to me simply unrealistic to contemplate a withdrawal of the whole western presence and all western influence from the middle east and other mainly Muslim countries simply because a section of fundamentalist Muslim opinion demands it. That presence and influence are essential for the protection of our national and international interests and it would be a rank betrayal to abandon that responsibility. On a wider view, the consequences for the whole world of abandoning great swaths of the Muslim world to Taliban-type fascist theocracy are too dreadful to contemplate. It’s in virtually everyone’s interests that this should not be allowed to happen, including those of millions of Muslims whose voices can’t be heard under current dispensations.

    None of the above applies, of course, to the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. I believe that should happen forthwith, since their presence makes the bad situation there worse, and its early termination is in the interests of both Britain and Iraq. Having helped to create the tragic situation in Iraq, we should certainly do everything possible to help the Iraqis to resolve their many problems, but there can’t be a role in that for British or American soldiers.

    A lutta continua!

    Brian (still in France)

    Owen adds:
    I don’t think our dependance on natural resources justifies interfering in the sovereign business of other countries. If they have oil that we want, that’s our tough luck. The colonial era was all about occupying other countries in order to obtain natural resources cheaply. Those days are, or should be, behind us.


  10. The Fatwa Urging Jihad Against Americans might shed some light upon the motives of fundamentalist Islamic groups that take their inspiration from Osama Bin-Laden:

    On that basis, and in compliance with God’s order, we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims

    The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty God, “and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,” and “fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God.”

    This is in addition to the words of Almighty God “And why should ye not fight in the cause of God and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated and oppressed—women and children, whose cry is ‘Our Lord, rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from thee one who will help!'”

    We — with God’s help — call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s U.S. troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.

  11. Patrick

    Thanks: this text seems to support the point I was making, which is that the objective of the fanatics is to “to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam”. Their complaint is not with democracy or freedom in America: what they object to is the western occupation of Muslim countries.

    I (obviously) abhor violence and profoundly disagree with the fanatics, but I can’t help thinking that if a foreign power invaded our country, or one of our neighbours and allies, that we might think that it was legitimate to commit acts of aggression against the home territory of the occupying country.

  12. The text of Osama bin Laden’s Declaration of War 2 years earlier to the fatwa I posted above is also instructive:

    …”People of Islam should join forces and support each other to get rid of the main Kufr that is controlling the countries of the Islamic world, even to bear the lesser damage to get rid of the major one, i.e., the great Kufr”.

    If there is more than one duty to be carried out, then the most important one should receive priority. Clearly after Belief (Imaan) there is no more important duty than pushing the American enemy out of the holy land. No other priority, except Belief, could be considered before it; the people of knowledge, as Ibn Taymiyyah said, stated: “To fight in defence of religion and Belief is a collective duty; there is no other duty after Belief than fighting the enemy who is corrupting the life and the religion. There is no precondition for this duty and the enemy should be fought with one’s best abilities.”

    It seems that OBL’s main motivation is the removal of Western troops from ‘the land’ by promoting terrorism at home & abroad. However, I do believe that there are legitimate Western interests in the Middle East, namely oil.

  13. Patrick, Dad

    I agree that we have an important economic interest in oil from the middle east. But I am not sure what you mean by a “legitimate” interest. If something is important to our economy, does that give us the right to interfere in the affairs of another country to ensure that we have reliable and affordable access to it?

    Many African countries have an important economic interest in resources that we have in abundance, including food and money. Would they have the right to invade us if their access to those resources is jeopardised?

  14. I think there’s an important distinction between maintaining a presence (in almost all cases civilian only) and an influence in a country, and invading or occupying it. The US has withdrawn its troops from Saudi Arabia, I believe, and AFAIK the UK has no military presence there, but there are many British and American businessmen in Saudi Arabia (and most other Arab countries) and others such as nurses, doctors, engineers, etc., going about their perfectly lawful businesses and occupations. We have many major business and financial interests in the Gulf states as well as Saudi, none connected with any military occupation such as might justify armed resistance. And we are there with the actiove consent of the legal governments of these countries, whatever we might think of some of them. It seems to me to stretch words beyond breaking-point to call this kind of presence and influence ‘interference’ in their affairs. It’s an active relationship which serves the interests of both sides. We couldn’t ‘withdraw’ our western influence and values even if we wanted to: they are attractive to local people because they deliver much of what people want, and that’s why they obstruct the ambitions of Osama b Laden and the like to install fundamentalist regimes in the whole area. We are as much entitled to resist that ambition by every legal means as the Americans are entitled to use their influence, presence and diplomatic clout to protect their material interests in Britain, and as we are entitled to do the same in the US. That’s what diplomacy is all about.

    What I think should stick in the gullet is the argument whose subtext is: the London bombers were protesting against British policy and actions in Iraq; British policy and actions in Iraq were wrong and reprehensible; therefore the bombers had right on their side; Blair was warned that helping to attack Iraq would increase the risk of terrorism in the UK; terrorists duly attacked London; therefore Blair is responsible for the London bombings. As some Professor writes cogently in today’s Guardian, this kind of woolly thinking, conflating opposition to Blair’s Iraq policy with a supposed duty to adjust policy so as to reduce, not increase, the risk of terrorism at home, is contemptible. Needless to say, I don’t suggest for a moment that any of the contributors to this debate on this blog are guilty of that kind of sloppiness. But it does seem worth knocking it vigorously on the head. And I at least, if not others, would simultaneously assert the right and duty of governments to use all legitimate means to promote and defend their interests (whether these include secure oil supplies or the ability to win lucrative contracts in competition on a level playing-field) anywhere in the world, whether al-Qa’ida approves of it or not.

    I doubt if we’re really that far apart. Presence doesn’t equal invasion, occupation or intereference. If it does, then it can’t properly be defended.

    Over-heated in Provence

  15. You might be interested in this summary of US policy in the middle east by Curtis F Jones, a retired US diplomat.

    The cornerstone of American policy for the Middle East is the understanding reached between President Franklin Roosevelt and King Ibn Sa’ud on the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal in February 1945. … Roosevelt’s implicit extension of a security guarantee to the Saudi monarchy, in return for preferred access to Saudi oil, was to be reaffirmed by every successive administration to the present day.

    Propping up an undemocratic, authoritarian Government is not the same thing as an invasion. But it is unwarranted interference in another country’s affairs.

  16. Actually the “implicit” deal between FDR and Ibn Sa’ud doesn’t seem to me to qualify as unwarranted interference in Saudi affairs. The US security ‘guarantee’ of the regime, whatever its democratic credentials or lack of them, wouldn’t be worth the paper it isn’t written on if the Americans were to decide that the Saudi monarchy had become so unpopular or was so seriously challenged (not necessarily democratically — more likely by a gang of fanatical mullahs bent on imposing an even more repressive regime than the current one) that it could no longer assure the US of secure access to its oil. If that were to happen, they would drop the King and the Crown Prince like a hot cake. Indeed, because of the danger of a clerical fundamentalist challenge in Saudi Arabia, western influence is currently being exerted strongly to urge the monarchy to move towards democratic reform. Is it unwarranted interference in a country’s affairs to use peaceful persuasion in order to encourage reforms that would allow the people of the country a greater say in the way they are governed? Technically, perhaps: but it’s the kind of interference that I find infinitely forgivable, especially as it contributes to stability and democracy in a highly unstable area.

    But this is all academic. As long as the US depends on middle eastern (and especially Saudi) oil to maintain its economy and to safeguard Americans’ standard of living, there’s no way that any regime in Washington would think for one minute of turning its back on the Saudis and telling them to get on with it. That’s not how sovereign (and especially how powerful) states behave in their relations with other countries, and I’m not convinced that any alternative approach would be better. Leaving the Saudis under their present government to sort out their affairs without any peaceful pressures from the US and other interested countries to move towards democracy would serve al-Qa’ida aims very nicely. A highly moral, purist approach, even if one could imagine such a thing being adopted by a country with other options, could easily do more harm than good for the Saudi people as well as the rest of us.

    (Blown about by the French Mistral)

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