In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks…After and since 9/11 the debate on the driving causes underlying these attacks has been raging in full. The more recent bombings in Istanbul, Madrid and London have once again reopened the debate regarding the nature and motives behind fundamentalist Islamic terrorism.
The explanations that have been offered by some, in particular by leading politicians on either side of the Atlantic, have unfortunately exacerbated the situation, and will in my view only throw more oil on the flames of what is increasingly, albeit wrongly, being seen as a conflict between Christianity and Islam.
The need to provide a rationalisation of what is essentially a very complex problem with root causes going back to the middle of the last century, in itself inspires many (on both sides of the divide) to seek solace in simplistic, linear reasoning and rallying cries for revenge and more hatred.
It is my conviction that the kind of “good v. evil” thinking that’s being bandied around by so many, causes further and a more dangerous polarisation between the Muslim and Christian worlds. And pitching these historically competing faiths against one another opens up the possibility of a worldwide conflict of previously unseen dimensions, fought as much at the battle fields as in our home towns and cities, by soldiers and civilians alike.
The West’s failing Foreign policy in the Middle East and AfghanistanThe West’s position on most Middle Eastern matters has been extremely self-serving, negligent and contradictory for several decades. In particular the US’s realpolitik, which often boils down to: “the enemies of our enemies are our friends” has left a trail of destruction and failed “nation-building”, much of which forms the basis of the hatred so many in the Muslim and Arab world feel towards us.
Whilst not everything we’ve done or failed to do in the Middle East comes down to oil, hydrocarbons have played a major part in our shortcomings to address the real issues which continue to haunt us today, even if some of the root causes lie buried decades in the past.
Many Americans do actually ask that very legitimate question: “why do so many people hate us?” Well there are quite a few reasons, so let’s look at a few examples.
Iran and IraqOne of the most poignant cases is perhaps Iran, since “Death to America” was practically the official state slogan of the Islamic revolutionaries, led by the late Ayatollah Khomeiny.
Previous to the current regime, Iran was governed by an American puppet regime under the Shah of Iran. The Shah’s rule enforced Western values (but without the democratic element), using a brutally oppressive army and secret police. Islam was suppressed and Khomeiny was exiled, until his return to Iran in 1979, after the collapse of the regime.
When the regime was toppled by the Islamic fundamentalists, years of hatred towards the US for their part in installing and supporting (in return for oil) the Shah of Iran, boiled over, resulting in extremely strong anti-US feelings that even in today’s more moderate and more open Iran still survive.
But there is more to Iran than just the Shah and Khomeiny.
When in 1979 Saddam Hussein took control of the Bath party in Iraq and started his own harshly tyrannical administration, the West should have known better than to choose this criminal as a bed fellow. Instead the US supplied arms and ammunition, as well as technical support. Europe supplied parts and chemicals, as well as smaller amounts of weapons.
Parts for a nuclear reactor in Osirak (in 1981 bombed to pieces by the Israeli air force, before construction was completed) were also supplied to Iraq, by France and Italy.
The motive behind this folly? We believed that a strong Iraq would provide a firewall against the fundamentalist Islamic movement of their neighbours, Iran. Besides that, supplying Iraq was of course also very lucrative.
But rather than just providing a firewall, Saddam decided to start his own fire by invading Iran in 1980. In this little known war, which lasted 8 years and cost an estimated one million lives, the US turned a blind eye, until things, rather incredibly considering Iraq’s American based military supremacy over Iran, actually started going wrong and it began to look as if Iran was actually gaining the upper hand. The Americans then supplied much needed satellite photos of Iranian troupe movements to Iraq and the conflict ended in a stalemate and fragile new peace.
Again, it’s hard not to understand what the Iranians felt about all this and in particular the American attitude towards that part of the region.
2 years later in 1990, Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait, a conflict now known as Gulf War I, which ultimately also proved to be his undoing.
It’s also a mistake to think that Saddam’s regime was Islamic. The Baghdad strongman had little time for religion and led an essentially secular state. Only during the last 2 years of his reign did he become a born again Muslim, presumably to provide distraction from his failing rule and in a last ditch attempt to gain more popular support in the region.
Without the West’s ill-advised and stubborn support for what was obviously a criminal regime right from its conception, many of the events described above, as well as some that happened in the wake of GW I, would almost certainly never have happened…
And, do we ever learn? Whilst I am not in favour of Iran’s nuclear program because I’m convinced that its end-use will be the production of nuclear weapons (I see no need for civilian nuclear power production in an oil rich country), there must be another way to convince the Iranians to relinquish their uranium enrichment plans. But guess what: the US is already threatening with the use of air strikes against Iranian nuclear installations…
AfghanistanThe emergence of Osama Bin Laden and what is now collectively known as Al-Qaeda, starts in 1980, when the US semi-covertly starts sponsoring the Taliban in its fight against the Soviet invaders. This operation, in which an estimated $ 6 billion of financial aid was poured into a loosely affiliated group of mujahideen freedom fighters, involving local Taliban warlords and many foreign Muslims from all over the world, is relatively little known by the American public but is nonetheless extremely well documented.
Osama Bin Laden, from a wealthy and influential Saudi family (quite a few of which lived in the US up to 9/11), was therefore clearly backed by the US as well as his own family members.
In Afghanistan, the US once again ally themselves with a “friend” of dubious credentials because it was more convenient to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in this indirect (and rather under-hand) way, than face open conflict with the USSR. Al-Qaeda, is therefore to a large extent an American construction.
One of the main causes of the rift between Al-Qaeda and the US is the stationing of US troupes in Osama Bin Laden’s homeland, Saudi Arabia. The presence of American armed forces, near one of Islam’s most holy places, is regarded by many Muslims as seriously offensive. Although the US has shown some sensitivity to this fact, the troupes remain nonetheless firmly in place.
As regards the actual invasion of Afghanistan by the coalition forces in October of 2001 (Operation Enduring Freedom) as a direct response to the 9/11 attacks, suffice it to say that relatively little has been achieved, apart perhaps from a fledgling and fragile emerging democracy in that country.
Osama Bin Laden was of course never captured. The sophisticated command and control structure in the form of an elaborate network of mountain caves, which we were promised by Cheney (if I remember correctly) in a presentation including three dimensional models and other state of the art presentational aids, also never materialised.
As regards Al-Qaeda itself, the adventure in Afghanistan, as well as other events, has shown that it exist mainly as an idea, an inspiration to terrorists, rather than as a concrete, multi-national, multi-tentacled organisation, with a clear command structure starting at the top, Osama himself, all the way down to executive cadres and “sleeper cells” in various nations. That depiction of Al-Qaeda is convenient for most governments because it is easy to understand and speaks to the imagination of often poorly informed and often not even all that interested citizens of our countries.
And although a large number of so-called “illegal combatants” were taken prisoner during Operation Enduring Freedom, to the present day it remains totally unclear what on earth these people actually have to do with orchestrating the 9/11 attacks. Fighting a foreign invader like the Soviets does not make one a terrorist, at “worst” it makes one a Muslim freedom fighter, but that is not a crime. In the mean time most of them remain incarcerated without charge or trial in Guantanamo Bay, for well over an incredible 4 years, in far from optimal conditions.
If Muslims did the same to Christian soldiers, the outcry and call to arms would be deafening.
Many people do not just consider Guantanamo Bay a violation of Human Rights, personally I think it looks more like a crime against humanity.
I do not find hard at all to believe that the imprisonment of so many Muslims, without charge, defence or the chance to a fair trial, causes many young Muslims to feel belligerent and hateful towards the US and the Western world in general.
Palestine and Israel
Israel started its relatively young existence as a British protectorate in the wake of WW II, as a safe haven for the many post-war displaced members of the Jewish Diaspora and many survivors of the Holocaust. It was a laudable initiative to provide a homeland for these people. But with hindsight, the creation of Israel can also be considered a historical mistake.
After the British were kicked out rather unceremoniously in 1948, the independent state of Israel was declared by UN resolution 181. It is important to recognise that prior to 1948 there was no such state of Israel and that its presence in an area called Palestine is in fact an artificial geographical construct. In 1940 only around 80,000 Jews lived in Palestine as an ethnic minority. At the beginning of 2003 the entire Israeli population was estimated at 6.6 million.
Today, no one seriously challenges the right to existence and independence of the state of Israel, and the Palestinian people don’t either. The PLO has recognised the existence of Israel in 1993. The conflict is not about Israel’s right to exist.
However, in a succession of Arab-Israeli wars, Israel gained more and more territory, today known as the Occupied Territories, in particular Gaza, the West Bank and the Syrian Golan Heights.
Israel has always maintained that the Occupied Territories were intended as a security corridor or zone, protecting Israel against further attacks and ensuring its National Security. In itself that is a point that is not so easy to argue with.
But if we, for argument’s sake, assume that the occupation of mainly Palestinian land was indeed necessary to ensure Israel’s survival, then Israel made one tragic mistake. To allow fundamentalist Jewish settlers to move in to these Occupied Territories, thereby effectively carrying out a land grab. The settlers believe it is their God given right to do so, and literally believe they are the chosen people. Many only recognise the Old Testament as a source of authority and not common law.
Whilst under Yitzhak Rabin, the late Israeli PM who was later assassinated by a radical Jew, some early attempts to remove settlers were made, successive Israeli Governments first became resigned over the settler issue, later supportive of the settlers, even actively encouraging more fundamentalist Jews to start new settlements. Most Jewish settlements are heavily guarded by the Israeli army, and they are modern compounds, clearly built to last, on land that belongs to the Palestinian people.
The systematic conversion of occupied Palestinian territories into Jewish settlements makes it hard not to see the whole situation as an Israeli bid to create a Greater Israel.
It is also often overlooked that all this has led to a situation wherein an estimated 1.2 million Palestinian refugees are forced to live in refugee camps in Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. Another estimated 3 million refugees live in these areas too, albeit not in refugee camps.
A UN resolution (242) that calls for Israel to withdraw behind pre-1967 borders (the year of the 6 day war) has been ignored all these years.
The resistance (Intifada) of the Palestinian people in the shape of the PLO is not about challenging the mere existence of Israel as a sovereign state, its objective is to obtain what is rightfully theirs: the parts of Palestine that are outside of Israel’s pre-1967 borders. This would allow the Palestinian people to establish their own state. I am nonetheless convinced that a Palestinian military victory is an extremely unlikely achievement. Attempts to defeat Israel by force are futile and counter-productive.
Without a state of their own, the Palestinian people’s future will remain forever bleak and peace in the region remains an extremely unlikely prospect.
So where does the West figure in all of this? Firstly, the Israeli state has been heavily supported by the US, economically, financially as well as militarily. Israel is the US’s most powerful and reliable ally in the Middle East. The complete total of US grants and loan guarantees to Israel for fiscal 1997 was $5,525,800,000, most of which the Israelis plow back into the US in the form of arms procurements.
Secondly, whilst the US, laudably, has engaged both parties in various initiatives to try and find a compromise that would ensure both Israeli security as well as an autonomous state for the Palestinian people, the US has not applied enough pressure on Israel to start withdrawing from the Occupied Territories, which would be a first major step towards a resolution of the conflict, as well as quite simply the right thing to do.
The US’s inaction and reluctance to force Israel to take those steps is also due to the 5 or 6 million Jewish American voters who can make quite a difference in any type of election and which remain firmly on the side of Israel, no matter what.
As regards Europe, it looks too much to the US and should try and apply more pressure on the US and Israel itself, to try and resolve the Jewish/Palestinian conflict.
In the Arab world, the US’s blatant support for Israel is often (wrongly) perceived as anti-Muslim. Israel’s brutal suppression of Palestinian resistance to the occupation, using sophisticated and powerful weapons like the M1A1 Abrams tank leads to further perception of America’s role as an oppressor of the already oppressed Palestinian people.
Palestinians fight back with sticks and stones, catapults and… human bombs. That suicide bombers invariably target civilians is despicable. But so is raising entire villages to the ground using tanks and specifically designed armed and armoured military bulldozers, by the Israeli army.
As in most conflicts, both parties carry blame. The third party that carries blame is the West and we should do the right thing by putting more pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories. We have that obligation towards the region because without the West, the state of Israel would never have come into existence.
The recent withdrawal from Gaza is a first step towards resolving the situation, but it is only that. It does prove that removing settlers can be done, even relatively peacefully. But only time will tell whether evacuating Gaza was merely a tactical move or the beginning of real changes. Much of the outcome also depends on the Palestinian reaction. If the withdrawal of Gaza will be seen by Palestinians as the succesful result of Palestinian violence, that will undoubtedly lead to further use of violence to try and obtain more Israeli concessions. That cannot be the road forward to peace. The Palestinian Authority should concentrate on putting its own house in order, rather than continue trying to tear its neighbour's down.
What causes fundamentalist Islamic terrorism?I’ve already answered that question in large part above. Here I want to proceed by elimination and show readers that many of the causes that have been attributed to Islamic terrorism by Western leaders simply don’t make any sense and often have been invoked to conceal our own role.
Islam seeks global dominationNo, it doesn’t. One can of course find references to global domination in both the Koran and the Bible and both texts are in any case completely open to interpretation. Both texts in fact do not have a great deal of meaning without interpretation.
The vast majority of Muslims really aren’t striving for a Global Caliphate to rule the entire Ummah (the brotherhood of all Muslims) at all and would in fact strongly object to such a worldwide Muslim Council. Muslims themselves are rather divided into different factions that do not always see eye to eye, which is one of the main obstacles for agreeing on a constitution in Iraq.
There are a few fanatics who do call for such an unachievable state of affairs but even most of these, call for peaceful means to achieve their goals.
Terrorism is also the least efficient way to strive for global domination, as no amount of bombing campaigns can actually cover any ground, vital for winning a war. Suicide bombings also kill innocent Muslims and generally are designed to hurt rather than enthuse.
Islamic terrorism is sponsored by rogue Islamic statesWhilst there is some evidence that some acts of terrorism around the world have indeed been condoned, supported and even bankrolled by states with Islamic regimes, this is not the case for the attacks that struck the US, Istanbul, Madrid and London.
The most recent attacks, including 9/11 were carried out by largely autonomous groups who weren’t linked to any Islamic state in particular. Even the link with Al-Qaeda is often not so easy to make (and Al-Qaeda itself has only been state sponsored briefly but by the US). 9/11 was probably inspired and possibly bankrolled by Al-Qaeda but to say Osama Bin Laden directly orchestrated and commanded the operation is contentious.
Iran, Iraq, Libya and other Muslim countries or Islamic states played no direct or indirect part in the recent attacks on the West, including 9/11.
Iraq’s alleged part in 9/11 was nothing more than a smokescreen to obfuscate the Bush administration’s real reason to bring down Saddam Hussein: the desire for regime change in Iraq. Subsequently, no evidence whatsoever linking Saddam to 9/11 has been found.
Religious fanaticism causes terrorismIn a very superficial analysis it may look that way but it isn’t quite accurate.
Firstly we have to understand that we live in a society that guarantees freedom of religion. That can indeed lead to fanaticism, as freedom tolerates it. Fanaticism itself is not against the law, no matter how despicable you or I may find it (I do).
Also, how do you define fanaticism? People of all faiths range from non-practicing to those who are living all aspects of their lives according to religious principles.
Religious fanaticism is what you could call a “necessary but not sufficient condition” for religious terrorism to exist. Moderates are unlikely to become terrorists but fanatics do not automatically become terrorists either. Without a real motive, even a religious fanatic is unlikely to resort to suicide bombing.
Recent raids on the Pakistani Madrasses caused outrage for exactly that reason: to assume those that want to study a religion in great detail are in fact visiting schools for terrorism is indeed simplistic, offensive and downright dangerous. Suppressing religion is practically impossible and doing so usually leads to its re-emergence with a vengeance, as happened in Iran, after the Shah’s regime had finally been toppled.
When it comes to religious freedom, there can be no half-way solution: as a society you either accept it or you don’t.
In Britain we have allowed too many Muslims in and we have not insisted they assimilate into our societyAssimilation is a great thing and needs to be encouraged, even nurtured, but it is not something you can impose without riding rough shot over someone’s civil liberties, which most of us hold very dear.
The level of assimilation of ethnic cultures into British mainstream society is in my opinion an astonishing success, rather than a failure. As a multi-cultural society, Britain is on the whole a shining example for the world.
How further assimilation could prevent a very small and determined minority to turn themselves into human bombs is also rather unclear to me.
Acts of Islamic terrorism are the final throes of theocratic regimesNo. Theocratic regimes are far more inward than outward looking. They can inflict serious oppression on their own people but rarely seek to lash out to the outside world. Iran and pre-9/11 Afghanistan are prime examples of such closed societies. Iran is gradually opening up as it is starting to take less of a hard line on religion.
Religion hijacked by Terrorism and Politics
Religion has been invoked in many conflicts around the world but rarely have conflicts actually been religious in nature. Northern Ireland is a fine example: often perceived as a struggle between Catholics (republicans) and Protestants (loyalists), these are essentially labels rather than significant religious denominations. The war between these two cultures wasn’t over the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism.
With Islamic terrorism the situation is very similar. Islam and the Koran are used to justify acts of unspeakable violence, which largely speaking are in contradiction with most religious beliefs, including Islam itself.
Therein lays without any doubt some culpability, for which leading Muslims must accept responsibility.
The Palestinian/Israeli question is a point in case. Even if, hypothetically speaking of course, neither party was religious the conflict would still exist, as it is essentially about distribution of land, not about Judaism v. Islam. That religious zealots on either side abuse religion to recruit and motivate supporters and create martyrs does not change the underlying cause of the conflict.
This is an important point to make because if we really start to believe that the underlying cause of the division between the Arab world and the Western world has its basis in a fundamental polarisation between Islam and Christianity, then we are risking a clash of epic proportions in which most of the victims will be innocent bystanders, as well as good old atheists like myself.
The War that should never have been startedI was always squarely against the second Gulf War right from the start, but my main objections against it are still the blatant lies that were used by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair to justify the invasion, as well as the fact the invasion has made the world a more dangerous place, rather than a safer one. Despite having invaded and overwhelmed two predominantly Muslim nations, we still have not captured Osama Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda, let alone put an end to fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. Instead, we’ve caused even more anger amongst a lot of already irate young Muslims who are ready to die to inflict pain and suffering on us.
These were the lies used by Bush and Blair to justify the invasion of Iraq:
1. Weapons of mass destruction: despite very extensive inspection by Mr Blix’s team of experts, nothing had been found that could vaguely constitute a weapon of mass destruction. The inspectors were called out of Iraq before they could completely finish the task, which opened the door for claiming: “they [WMD] are definitely there but we haven’t found them yet”. Today, Iraq is under full control of the coalition and it is crystal clear that WMD are nowhere to be found, simply because they weren’t there in the first place. During and after GW I, militarily speaking at least, Saddam had been reduced to a paper tiger, no longer capable of posing a threat to the outside world.
2. The “45 minute warning”: claims that the Iraqi could deploy chemically loaded missiles in 45 minutes later proved to be based on 10 year old intelligence, which wasn’t even completely correct at that time. It was clear that there was only the remotest of possibilities that Iraq had any deployable scud missiles left.
3. Saddam Hussein’s involvement in 9/11: this sounded extremely unlikely at the time and still to date no evidence has been presented, not even a shred, despite Saddam Hussein himself and many top officials of the Bath regime being held in captivity.
In spite all of this and in the absence of a second, decisive UN resolution, Bush and Blair decided to forge ahead anyway. Expecting to face a tough enemy, the Iraqi army more or less evaporated before the Coalition’s forces and securing military success has proved to be a walk in the park, compared to creating a peaceful and stable Iraq in the aftermath of the actual invasion.
For the sake of the Iraqi people, it is to be hoped that the progress that has been made will soon lead to a satisfactory outcome but in the mean time British and American service men and women continue to be seen as occupiers rather than liberators by large swathes of the Iraqi population, as well as by large numbers of Muslims across the world.
Once again, and once again for the wrong reasons, the West has manoeuvred itself into a situation where a small minority of angry Muslims feel ready to sacrifice their own lives to inflict as much damage as they can with low tech means.
Ineffective counter terrorism measuresBoth the invasion in Afghanistan and Iraq are perhaps the most striking examples of counter terrorism measures that are costly (in all respects) and quite frankly completely counter-productive.
Nothing has really been achieved, other than further promoting the image of the West as a bully to the Middle East and Muslims in general, many of which (also wrongly) believe the West is mounting an assault on Islam, another crusade as it were.
In the mean time, people like Tony Blair continue to deny the link between past interventions in the region and Islamic terrorism on British soil, instead claiming there are deeper, underlying causes, without being specific about these causes.
Instead of doing the right thing (see below), Britain’s Government is resorting to a series of half-baked measures, including a disastrous shoot-to-kill policy which so far has only yielded one completely innocent victim and what looks, predictably, like a police cover-up.
Other measures include legislation that will prove hard to use in court, for “new” offences that are almost always already covered by existing legislation. Renaming the same crime several times over and creating bills that use these different names doesn’t change the essential fact that that crime remains the same crime.
Many of these new bills can also contribute to further erosion of Civil Liberties, the rights which some people are willing to sacrifice simply because they do not understand what these rights are and how important to our society they are.
They are also likely to create a further divide between Muslim and Christian communities, as these bills are introduced immediately after the country was subjected to terrorism committed by Muslims. It will be Muslims who will be scrutinised under the new legislation. Issues on freedom of speech regarding some of the proposed new legislation have also been raised.
The Government’s obsession with churning out new legislation is of course inspired mainly by the need to be seen “doing something”, in these times of crisis.
HMG has also been overselling (their words, not mine) the ID cards bill as a panacea for just about everything, including terrorism. In reality, the contribution biometric ID cards can make to the fight against terror is extremely marginal.
As regards the opposition, the Tories have snookered themselves long ago when they made the tactical error of standing shoulder to shoulder with the Government when the decision to launch GW II was taken. Changing position would be perceived as a u-turn by a party that is already strongly weakened by its perpetual leadership crisis. As a result the Government basically has carte blanche. No wonder they get it wrong…
Doing the Right ThingIn the short term, good old police work can be very effective in preventing terror attacks, the foiled 21/7 raid is a good example. But no amount of policing and surveillance will prevent a determined terrorist from slipping through the net. No state in the world has a more elaborate security structure and permanent state of high alert than Israel, but Palestinian suicide bombers still manage to reach their targets is spite of this.
In the medium-long term we need to address the root causes of fundamentalist Islamic terror directed at us. No one can guarantee that the proposed measures below will eradicate the phenomenon entirely. But by taking away many of grudges young and angry Muslim men and women hold against the West, we will strongly reduce the motives they can invoke to wreak destruction upon our communities. This is neither appeasement, nor “giving in to the terrorists”, it is simply the right thing to do.
The US should moderate its often disastrous and self-serving realpolitik in the Middle East. It should also push Israel much harder to retreat behind its pre-1967 borders. The US has the power to do so because it can lever its financial and military support to obtain concessions from its ally.
The UK and Europe must in turn apply pressure on the US for this to happen.
The US and the UK should do what they can to solve the situation in Iraq and consequently reduce as quickly as possible their military presence.
The West in general should support the new Iraq in becoming a democratic, modern nation state.
Israel must accept that the formation of a Palestinian state is inevitable and in the medium-long term favourable also for Israel. For this to happen, the Palestinians must be allowed to return to their land in the Occupied Territories and Israel must withdraw from these areas.
The Palestinians must also relinquish all armed struggle, unilaterally and completely, not just rethorically. Whilst their desire to combat the occupation in every way they can is understandable, it has always provided Israel with a convenient excuse to refuse to negotiate and increase security measures that have turned their country effectively into a Greater Israel. Militarily, the Palestinian resistance cannot win this war and discontinuing it would be an important step forward towards a lasting Israeli/Palestinian compromise.
Unfortunately, only days after the Gaza withdrawal has begun, two Kassam missiles have already been fired from Gaza on two Israeli towns. If the Palestinian hardliners continue to believe that violence will help them obtain further concessions from Israel, they are sadly mistaken. The most important opportunity for peace in the history of the conflict, the 1993 Oslo agreement, was also scuppered largely due to continued Palesinian on Israeli violence. It really is time that the Palestinian Authority starts to learn lessons from the conflict and crack down on the extremist and violent groups orchestrating these attacks.
Keywords: Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, Islam, Muslim, Islamic terrorism, Tony Blair, George Bush, Ariel Sharon, Gaza, West Bank