Islamists Again

William Dalrymple gets to grips with Islamism and social class in today’s Guardian and shows considerably more insight than most of those commentators who have ventured onto the same territory.

The men who planned and carried out the Islamist attacks on America were confused, but highly educated, middle-class professionals. Mohammed Atta was a town planning expert; Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s chief of staff, is a paediatric surgeon; Omar Sheikh, the kidnapper of Daniel Pearl, is the product of the same British public school that produced the film-maker Peter Greenaway.

Peter Bergen of Johns Hopkins University recently published the conclusions of his in-depth study of 75 Islamist terrorists who had carried out four major anti-western attacks. According to Bergen, “53% of the terrorists had either attended college or had received a college degree. As a point of reference, only 52% of Americans have been to college.” Against this background, the backgrounds of the British bombers should not come as a surprise.

The French authority on Islamists, Gilles Kepel, has arrived at a similar conclusion. The new breed of global jihadis, he writes, are not the urban poor of the third world – as Tony Blair still claims – so much as “the privileged children of an unlikely marriage between Wahhabism and Silicon Valley”. Islamic terrorism, like its Christian predecessor, remains a largely bourgeois endeavour.

That needed saying. There are still too many people in this country who think Islamism is a movement of the third world masses led by representative tribunes of the people with progressive political goals. It is not. Attempts to square the circle between the actual make-up of the Islamists and the perception of that make-up runs up against the same hard wall of reality that is reached when a similar exercise comparing the freely-stated goals of Islamism with its perceived aims is undertaken.

History demonstrates that wherever Islamist movements have been handed unlimited power – sometimes aided by the left as in Iran – historic goals of the left have been the first to be discarded: womens rights, seperation of church and state, protection of minorities and political freedom in general – all were put to the sword in the Islamic Republic of Iran and its neighbour the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan after the mullahs had outmanoeuvred their naive opponents.

Dalrymple’s conclusion however needs qualifying.

Unless we attempt to understand the jihadis, read their statements and honestly analyse what has led these men to blow themselves up, we can never defeat them or even begin to drain the swamp of the grievances in which they continue to flourish.

Understand them yes. I can agree with that. We have to. Draining the swamp of their grievances is much, much trickier. Dalrymple lists to the invasion of Iraq and the abuses of Abu Ghraib in the article in a way which seems to suggest that these events are the most significant grievances the Jihadis have. It’s a common way of approaching the problem by Western commentators. If we leave them alone they might ignore us. It’s the wrong approach.

Who can disagree that events in Iraq post 2003 have now been added to the list of grudges against the West the Islamists use for their propaganda. What Dalrymple does not do, however, is list all the grievances the Jihadis have stated they intend to put right just as soon as they get the opportunity. In this category we have to include the setting up of the state of Israel in the 1940’s, the secularisation of Turkey between the wars and the loss of Muslim Spain at the dawn of our own period of history. They all appear regularly in lists of Islamist grievances, so there’s no excuse for ignoring them.

The fact is that people whose explicit and often repeated intention to wage war on secularism and modernity would not have been diverted from their political goals had the West left Saddam Hussein in peace or had Abu Ghraib been more humanely run. There’s an argument to be had about how much extra rage it has produced but that’s not an argument that illuminates much.

The Islamists want Turkey and Spain back in the Caliphate and Israel expunged from the map. Iraq is just the last item in a long, long list of so-called grievances. It’s miles from being the whole story. So can we anything about these grievances? That question does needs an honest examination.

Where do we draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate grievances? Would sacrificing the fledgling Iraqi democracy appease the sort of people who are doing their best to spark a civil war in that country? If that isn’t enough to keep them happy maybe should we give Afghanistan back to the zealots who blow up statues? And if that’s unsuccessful at extinguishing the grievances maybe we could convince ourselves that secularism in Turkey isn’t worth a fight. What about Israel? It’s only been around for for fifty-odd years after all. Why not give the dog a bone?

The trouble with that approach is that it’s impossible to draw a line once you get started. The Moors used to control Spain until the early modern era so why don’t we admit that there were human rights abuses during their expulsion from Iberia and add that country to the list of bargaining chips we’re prepared to give up to make amends. Bin Laden has said quite openly that the expulsion of Muslims from Andalus grieves him personally. I’m sure it does. No doubt the waning of Muslim rule in the Balkans during the Nineteenth Century also vexes him. And other events all the way back to the defeat of the Muslims at the battle of Poitiers by the Frankish infidel Charles Martel in 732.

Modern Islamism is fed by grievances all right but even if we agreed that the borders between secular Europe were fixed at the gates of Vienna and the departement de la Vienne this would still not drain the swamp of Islamist grievances.

The real source of grievance among Muslims (as opposed to Islamists) is the relative backwardness the Islamic countries have to put up with in relation to not only the infidel West (Europe, North America), but also the idol worshipping East (the Pacific Rim and increasingly South East Asia). The latter group of countries had until recently shared similar living standards to those prevailing in Arab countries, though they have raced ahead in the last few decades causing much soul searching. This Islamic backwardness shows itself both in economics and politically but it is caused primarily by the poor governance nearly all Muslim countries have had to put up with. The good news is that this grievance can be fixed, but the right approach has got to be taken.

Relative backwardness can not be put right by territorial conquest, the obliteration of Israel or restoring the ancient Caliphate to Spain. The fact that must be faced is that only the application of modern science, the promotion of literacy and the agreement to be ruled by laws not men (or God) can help Muslims out of their present problems.

Saddamite Dictatorship, Iranian style theocracy and the practice of pretending major Arab and muslim woes would vanish the day after Israel was destroyed are false gods which need to be decisively rejected if actual grievances have any chance of being put right.

“Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”

wrote Eighteenth Century French philosopher Denis Diderot.

If we take that statement metaphorically rather than literally it actually makes a lot of sense in the context of the present day Islamic world. Substitute King for despot and priest for mullah and it fits perfectly.

There is a battle going on for the soul of the Muslim world today. On the one side are the grudge-nursing backward-looking theocrats who have been unable to do anything about the backwardness of the Islamic countries; on the other side are those Muslims who look to the future – who seek to live in harmony with their neighbours and who have had enough of the economic and political backwardness brought about by their corrupt and despotic rulers.

If the concept of solidarity is not to be debased any more than it has been by those who think the deliberate targetting of Iraqi children is an act of political ‘resistance’ then we need to be on the side of the people in the Muslim world who reject the central tenets of Islamism. That means understanding the Jihadists, but only for the purpose of outflanking them, outmanouevring them and eventually defeating them. There are hundreds of millions of people in the Muslim world whose lives will improve immeasurably once this important political task is achieved.