The spreading chestnut tree

[Revised 15/7 in response to Jarndyce’s comment – thanks, J.]

More on terror. I think Pearsall‘s right to say that refusing to describe the bombers as Muslim is wishful and self-deceiving. They’re not representative of Muslims – any more than they’re representative of young British men or of the population of Leeds – but, insofar as they describe themselves and their activities as Muslim, the world of Islam is stuck with them. (Just as Christians are stuck with Mary Whitehouse and Fred Phelps, Marxists are stuck with Lenin, and Germans… well, you know.) I also think Jarndyce is right when he says (in comments here and here) that there are people out there whose political project is based on the restoration of the Caliphate, from Jerusalem to Andalusia, and that there’s nothing in this project that we can negotiate with. In short, I agree with the basic premise that there is a strand within the global Muslim community which is profoundly inimical to the existing world order, wishes to assert the dominance of a form of political Islam and is prepared to use terror to further its cause.

It would seem that a separation between this small, violent, revolutionary-Islamist strand and the great majority of Muslims is profoundly desirable; you might think I’d endorse the appeals we’ve heard recently from Blair, Prince Charles (God help us) and Blogland’s own ‘Harry’. But there’s a problem with this approach, as Chris says:

We have been granted the courtesy, by society at large, of the assumption that we abhor acts of mass murder. But mainstream liberals and racist reactionaries alike have no problem demanding ritualistic condemnations and apologies from Muslims when an extremist splinter of that massive, mindbogglingly diverse religion commits mass murder. And I have to say I expect it from the reactionaries. But I’m naive enough to be stunned when people who claim to be liberals trot out arguments that closely parallel demands for black obeisance issued by the likes of the White Citizens Councils. And when such people … are presented with evidence that prominent Muslim clerics have in fact denounced the murders, and floridly, that somehow isn’t enough. [They] want Muslims to fine-tune their public statements painstakingly, carefully watching to see if they are being obsequious enough. … Somehow, the average Muslim is exempt from the presumption of innocence, not only in deed but in basic human sympathy.

The point here is that we already know that Muslims are, by and large, opposed to terror, because we already know that Muslims are human beings. Asking the local imam whether he denounces the terrorists is a bit like asking the Russian ambassador whether the Russians do, in fact, love their children too. Viewed as an ethical appeal addressed to the entire Islamic community, the appeal to denounce terror is nonsensical at best, racist at worst. (I use the word ‘racist’, albeit with misgivings, because (like Chris) I think the demand carries with it the assumption that Muslims are less than human.)

There is another possibility. As I outlined here, there are real or imaginable situations – for all but a very few of us – in which acts of terror can seem appropriate, however vile and unforgivable they may be in themselves. There are situations in which politics temporarily trump ethics, in other words – and different groups will identify those situations differently. What we are dealing with is not some Temple of Doom death-worshipping tendency within Islam, but with situations and tendencies, within the world of Islamist politics, which promote the use of terror as a tactic. While they may use the language of an ethical appeal to Muslims at large, the recent appeals to renounce terrorism may best be read as an intervention in that political milieu: specifically, an attempt to steer or ‘orient’ a fringe political milieu, voiced by a ‘gatekeeper’ of the political mainstream. Here’s ‘Harry’:

What is surely needed now from Muslims is more than just a rejection of violent Islamism but a clear opposition to it. It is not enough to regard the terrorists as ‘brothers who have erred’ and simply reject their tactics – there needs to be an active opposition from mainstream Muslims to the Jihadists in the UK, their supporters and apologists. … None of this, of course, would involve any weakening of the Muslim faith on the part of those who would make up an active opposition. None of it would necessitate silencing criticisms of British foreign policy, support for a Palestinian state or other issues that may be of concern to Muslims. It requires only a clear, ideological opposition to Islamism and a commitment to democracy.

(Those who would make up an active opposition, indeed. You could form a kind of coalition, couldn’t you, and it’d be united by its respect for moderate and democratic values. That’d work. Somebody ought to do something.)

What ‘Harry’ really seems to want from the Muslim community is simple: division. Yes, yes, you’re all divided among yourselves already, but this is different – this is a really important kind of division. We’ll get you started – we’ll denounce the extremists and the radicals and the militants and so forth, and those of you who want to can join in. We’ll give you a bit of time to get yourselves sorted out; then, for those of you who haven’t joined in – well, then we’ll know who the extremists are, won’t we! What do you think?

For anyone who’s studied Italy in the 1970s there’s an obvious analogy, which ‘Harry’ himself helpfully drew:

A similar process occurred on the far left in Italy. There were some communists [sic] who saw the murderous actions of the Red Brigades merely as a tactical error and those who carried out the crimes as ‘comrades who have erred’. Their primary mistake was to have adopted ‘armed struggle’ as a method when the correct line was to focus on mass struggles through trade unions and the political process. Through a process of argument and re-positioning this view was widely defeated and the terrorists were named as such and regarded as enemies of democracy and indeed enemies of the left. None of this involved anyone on the far left abandoning their critique of capitalism and their view of the necessity of socialism. It meant drawing a clear line between the democratic left and the terrorists. It meant being prepared to link arms with their political opponents in the centre and the right in opposition to terrorism.

Unfortunately, this is grossly misleading. The Italian left-wing ‘armed struggle’ phenomenon dated roughly from 1970 to the mid-1980s; the Red Brigades were a big part of it, but not the whole thing by any means. The Communist Party – the largest mainstream Left party in Italy – was intransigently opposed to the left-wing armed groups from day one; it was also intransigently opposed to all other groups to the Left of the Communist Party, of which there were many. During the 1970s, the Communists applied labels like ‘terrorist’, ‘provocateur’ and ‘hooligan’ more and more widely, as the party moved to the Right and attempted to stitch up an alliance with the ruling Christian Democrats. By the time extreme Left activism peaked in 1977-8 – followed by the peak years of ‘armed struggle’ activity in 1979-80 – the Communists were outflanking the Christian Democrats in their enthusiasm for a clampdown and their impatience with civil libertarian arguments.

As ‘Harry’ suggests, there was a sizeable contingent on the Left who regarded the armed groups as ‘mistaken comrades’; the big debate on the far Left, in fact, was over whether the armed groups were compagni che sbagliano (‘mistaken comrades’) or compagni e basta (‘just plain comrades’). But those people weren’t persuaded back into line by a “process of argument and re-positioning” – and the idea that lining up with the Communists against the Red Brigades didn’t involve anyone “abandoning their critique of capitalism and their view of the necessity of socialism” is simply false. In fact, the Communists mounted a sustained ideological scorched-earth campaign: anyone who disagreed with the Party’s own abandonment of its critique of capitalism – or dissented from its increasingly frank authoritarianism – could be branded an extremist, a splitter, a provocateur, a terrorist sympathiser, a terrorist. The consequences ranged from being smeared in l’Unita to arrest and detention without trial. Longer-term, the consequences were to wipe the extreme Left off the map for several years, while at the same time removing a large part of the Communist Party’s own raison d’etre as a left-wing party. (The party’s membership declined every year from 1976 on.) For the more organised armed groups, ironically, the crackdown on the extreme Left was good news, as it meant that they were the only game in town: as I noted above, the peak years for ‘armed struggle’ actions followed the crackdown on the mass movements.

There are reasons why this operation failed so badly – and why a comparable attempt to divide the world of political Islam into ‘democratic’ sheep and ‘extremist’ goats would, in all probability, fail in the same way. We could say that the attempt to divide the extreme-left movements into ‘extremist’ and ‘non-violent’ was bound to be resisted, as it didn’t correspond to any pre-existing division within the movements. And we could say that Communist-led ‘orientation’ gave the movements a choice between two equally unacceptable alternatives: either follow the Communists and abandon their own political programme, or retain their independence and be denounced by the Communists. It’s also arguable that the position of the Communists was inherently dishonest: their main priority was to demobilise a potential rival, so the price for political acceptance could be raised any time the movements looked like meeting it. (To quote a typical formulation, written by a l’Unita columnist in May 1977, “while their decision to disown the men of violence must be considered a step forward, the fact remains that this decision was taken late, equivocally and opportunistically”.)

We can see all these traps looming for politicised Muslims who go down the route of ‘moderation’: the need for self-proclaimed ‘moderates’ to prove themselves by finding ‘extremists’ to denounce; the impossible choice between being denounced by New Labour and signing up to a New Labour agenda; the power of political blackmail which this strategy hands to a watchful gatekeeper (“I thought you moderates were opposed to Islamist terrorists?“). The underlying problem is that this strategy is inherently divisive and destabilising. As Salma Yaqoob of Respect writes:

the shoddy theology [which justifies ‘martyrdom operations’] is driven by political injustices. It is the boiling anger and hurt that is shaping the interpretation of religious texts into such grotesque distortions. Such extreme interpretations exist only in specific political circumstances – they certainly do not predate them, and the religious/political equation breaks down if there is no injustice to drive it. This leaves British Muslims in a very difficult place. To bring in these wider questions requires them to dissent from the government line. This is difficult for them, keen as they are to avoid further marginalisation. However, if Muslim leaders succumb to the pressure of censorship and fail to visibly oppose the government on certain foreign policy issues, the gap between the leaders and those they seek to represent and influence will widen, increasing the possibility of more dangerous routes being adopted by the disillusioned.

Unfortunately, if you view political Islam as an incipient rival to New Labour, a strategy like this makes a certain kind of sense. Like the Italian Communist Party, Labour is a ‘gatekeeper’ of political legitimacy faced by a rival from outside the political system; like the Italian Communists, they are dealing with it by sowing division. In effect, what the Italian Communists wanted from the extreme Left – and what Blair, Carlo, ‘Harry’ and the rest now want from political Muslims – is to turn them against one another: more specifically, to turn them into informers against one another. Universal mutual suspicion, the ‘moderate’ against the ‘extreme’, the ‘modern’ against the ‘faithful’: nothing will serve better to undermine the coherence of the milieu and hamper its development as a political force.

It won’t prevent terrorism, of course. By restricting the space in which a British Muslim politics can develop, independent of both Labour and the jihadists, it may even make the terrorist strategy more popular. (It certainly seems to have worked like that in Italy.) But preventing terrorism isn’t really what it’s about; there are much quieter and less divisive ways to divert young British citizens from a path of murderous insanity. Blair’s real nightmare isn’t a British Muslim suicide bomber, but British Muslims capable of denouncing suicide bombers with one breath and denouncing Labour with the next.

I’m aware that this conclusion may seem a bit highly-coloured and conspiratorial; surely I’m not suggesting that Blair is deliberately heightening the risk of terrorism for the sake of political advantage? No, I’m not. I’m suggesting that Blair believes he’s involved in an international war against evil men with evil values, and that the front line runs through both London and Iraq. If a politically united British Muslim community would make that war harder to fight – as it almost certainly would – then dividing the community against itself is actually a constructive strategy, even if it promotes violent reaction in the short term. The bombing made this all the more urgent: given that the government had just been told about some of the issues which were prompting some British Muslims to gravitate towards jihadism, there must have been some concern that Muslim politicians might succeed in articulating those concerns while repudiating the bombers. Blair’s intervention (and those which have followed) warded off this danger by pre-emptively reframing the issue: it’s not a question of Britain vs the Muslim world any more; it’s moderate vs extreme, peaceful vs violent, good vs bad.

One final question: if Blair were offered the choice between a continued British presence in Iraq and another 7/7, or no more bombs and a British withdrawal, which do you think he’d take? Which of the two would involve a smaller incidence of ‘terror’? Which would best represent Britain standing firm against the terrorists?



  1. Jarndyce
    Posted 15 July 2005 at 13:04 | Permalink | Reply

    Listen to their (the suicide bombers’) arguments? I’m not sure what you mean, Phil. What arguments? Their cause is part nihilism, part pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo and sectarian hatred. I’m not saying, BTW, that we should be looking at this without examining the political environment. Just that environment and agency are to be considered separately.

    I do think the ‘Muslim community’ has a role to play in this. Not to apologise – why should they? But to expose and ridicule these people and their supporters. They have a huge comparative advantage over the establishment: they know how to find the salafist-jihadists, they know how and where they operate, they understand why, or at least whereabouts in Islamic scripture the nutters are finding justification. They can strike back. Not by being more ‘moderate’ or ‘sanitised’ for the general (white) public. But by taking on this political ideology on its own ground. The mosque can channel activism through appropriate political channels, ones that don’t involve bombing tube trains. These people will be listened to, not the killers.

  2. Christopher Trottier
    Posted 15 July 2005 at 23:44 | Permalink | Reply

    Damn. You are speaking common sense. Snap out of it!

  3. broke
    Posted 18 July 2005 at 21:43 | Permalink | Reply

    This is a great post. Measured, intelligent, and persuasive. There was some of it I didn’t quite get, and would have liked to have asked you about (eg Italy), but thanks for putting a sane voice out there.

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