July 13, 2005

The face of terrorism without a face


So Tony Blair is the leader who has brought suicide bombing to Britain.

Any remaining doubt about the link between 7/7 and the Iraq bombing and occupation was dissipated today when a friend of one of the suspects, Mohammed Sadique Kahn, spoke to - of all things - The Evening Standard. 'The friend ... said Khan, Tanweer and Hussain grew up together and "often talked about their anger at their Muslim brothers and sisters being unfairly treated in Iraq by the US."'

No surprises there. And no surprises, at least not for k-punk readers, that the bombers were British. That, at least, somewhat undermined the racist agendas of European and U.S. 'experts' who blamed the atrocity on Britain's supposedly insufficiently authoritarian immigration and asylum policies, barely concealing their disgust at multi-ethnic 'Londonistan', a stance that echoes Mark Steyn's Islamophobic revulsion at 'Eurabia'. The BNP in Barking found that their predictable attempts to extract political capital from the bombings - a leaflet with a photograph of the trashed number 30 bus over a caption saying, 'Maybe now it's time to listen to tbe BNP' - also fell foul of the revelation that the bombers came from Leeds, not the Middle East. Naturally, that news brings with it the possibilities for other kinds of exploitation by racists. It is a grotesque understatement to say that the next few months will not be easy for Muslims in Britain. Emollient words about 'true Islam' will be as ineffective as they are misleading. There is no true Islam. Islam, like all other religions, is a riot of contradictions, a tissue of interpretations. The words of the Prophet give as much comfort to zealots as to pacificists.

David Davis said last week that modern terrorism is 'terrorism without a face'. Suddenly, however, the terrorists have a face - even though it is not the one that many expected, or wanted. The photographs of the perpetrators and the photographs of the victims - who could tell them apart? There is no tell-tale 'demonic stain' on the faces of the killers. They aren't the austere, obsessive 'foreigners' that the popular imagination had conjured. They wore trainers and tracksuits, they were religious, sure, but no-one thought they were fanatics. They weren't even socially dysfunctional geeks. By all accounts, they were popular, played cricket. Nor was there any obvious lack or deprivation in their lives.

The obvious questions seem to be 'how', 'why'? Yet the same questions do not seem the obvious ones to ask when we see photographs of similar young men who happen to be in in the U.S. or British forces, men who have participated in the killing of very many more civilians.

The Blairite objection to terrorism cannot be its means, since he, too, considers the killing of a certain number of civilians an acceptable sacrifice for the greater Good. (One of the problems this kind of utilitarian calculus has always faced is that there is no obvious point at which to stop counting the consequences. But, as we've already established, surely Thursday must count amongst the consequences of the Iraq misadventure.) It is the ends, then, in which the difference must reside, not the means. Blair is supernaturally confident that he is on the side of the angels, that he is pursuing the Good, whereas his enemies are Evil. The problem is that they think exactly the same way.

He tells us that we are in a war. But to many Muslims - not 'mad mullahs', but , amongst others, young men from 'ordinary' backgrounds - it is as obvious as it is to Blair what the right, the only side, to be on is. It is the side of the poor and the oppressed, not the side of the the hyper-privileged and the massively well-armed. The rage, the righteous sense of injustice that led those four to give their lives and take the lives of others - and please, do not describe what they did as 'cowardly' ; 'brutal' by all means, but not 'cowardly', and certainly nowhere near as cowardly as the Powell doctrine of bombing from a great height - that anger needs to be channeled by other forces, forces which don't counter oppression with repression, which don't transform rage into outrage.


UPDATE: Breakfast TV, BBC1. A group of young Muslims from Leeds - not 'fanatics' by any means - tell the reporter (who has to concede that they are articulate and measured) that Iraq is the major factor in switching young men onto extremism in Britain. They make it clear that they are appalled by the events of last Thursday, condemn them without reservation, but nevertheless are angered by the patent double standards of the British media. The fifty people who died last week - whose deaths they in no way trivialized - seem to count much more than the thousands who die in Iraq. (It makes me wonder what would happen if the media indulged in what Simon Jenkins called 'grief pornography' for Iraqis: if there were back stories and photographs for all of them, would the public mood change?) In the studio, Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam Today, tries to demur, falling back on the standard line that 9/11 preceded Iraq. True enough, but there had never been suicide bombing in Britain until last week. Manji makes some good points: in a piece the other day (I think in the Standard?), she broke ranks with the sentimental consensus about 'true Islam', arguing that there needs to be an Islamic Reformation, with the acceptance within the religion that certain passages of the Koran can be wrong. But the call for Islamic auto-critique must go alongside a recogntion that the 'Crusader' policies of the US and the UK feed an aggrieved militancy that will make that kind of Reformation much less likely.

Fascinating essay here on the psychology of the 9/11 bombers, reinforcing my observation that the motivation for Terrorism is to resolve tensions within the bombers. It seems that al Qaeda deliberately fostered such tensions within the bombers, who were not Wahhabi and were therefore regarded - partly by themselves one assumes - as 'not true Muslims' . Encouraging them to attend strip clubs and drink can only have produced a sense of guilt and self-disgust which made them ripe for manipulation:

'The beginning instructions of the Doomsday Document give us vital insight into how a normal, middle class, secular young man like Ziad Jarrah, a Lebanese engineer with at Turkish-German live-in girlfriend, could become a mass murderer and suicide. He and others were convinced that they were reenacting sacred history. The United States was not a Christian country but rather a reincarnation of pagan Mecca. As Mecca was attempting to invade Medina and destroy Islam, so the United States had invaded the Muslim world to undermine Islam. The hardy band of real Muslims who recognized the extreme threat had no choice but to undertake a raid (ghazwah) against this much superior foe. Just as small bands of early Muslims often inflicted defeats on larger Meccan forces, so a handful of young believers could hope to inflict a grievous blow on the 21st century Mecca of the West.

The hijackers thus saw themselves as holy warriors, as Muslim raiders. Their victims were not even human, but rather mere animals for ritual slaughter. Atta and other handlers convinced them to live a double life. Inwardly they were committed to piety and asceticism and self-sacrifice. Outwardly they frequented bars and strip clubs, both to throw the intelligence agencies off the scent and to get a foretaste of the rewards of martyrdom. If it was Bin Laden who put them up to this double life, he may well have done so with personal knowledge of the kind of guilt it would induce, and the kind of self-hatred and openness to manipulation to which the guilt could lead.

The internal psychology of commitment to murder on a huge scale and to die in the process was underpinned by an almost obsessive-compulsive immersion in the details of repeated rituals. Specific phrases were recited with every activity, constantly. The internal monologue was drowned in a set of sacred mantras, leaving no space for questioning orders. The constant hum of the recitation may have been intended in part to induce a liminal state that was not entirely conscious. The intensity and lack of small talk that those who met them remarked on in the hijackers probably derived from their silent, constant dhikr or repetition of sacred verses. This liminal consciousness may have been reinforced by deliberate sleep deprivation, and by bouts of drunkenness. Employed as they were intended, the techniques of Islamic mysticism have produced saints and sages like Rumi and al-Ghazali. Misused as a form of brainwashing, they appear to have contributed to among the largest mass murders in history.'

Posted by mark at July 13, 2005 10:01 PM | TrackBack