Sunday, 15 November 2015

Islamist terror is about political power not faith - which is why we must help Muslims defeat it

Eduard Steinbrück, Die Magdeburger Jungfrauen

Then was there naught but beating and burning, plundering, torture, rape and murder. Most especially was every enemy bent on securing much booty. When a marauding party entered a house, if its master had anything to give he might thereby purchase respite and protection for himself and his family till the next man, who also wanted something should come along. It was only when everything had been brought forth and there was nothing left to give that the real trouble commenced. Then, what with blows and threats of shooting, stabbing and hanging, the poor people were so terrified that if they had had anything left they would have brought it forth if it had been buried in the earth or hidden away.

In this frenzied rage, the great and splendid city that had stood like a fair princess in the land was now, in its hour of direst need and unutterable distress and woe, given over to flames, and thousands of innocent men, women and children, in the midst of a horrible din of heartrending shrieks and cries, were tortured and put to death in so cruel and shameful a manner that no words would suffice to describe, not no tears to bewail it… (from a personal account of the sacking of Magdeburg on May 20, 1631)

It's terrible. It's terrible wherever it happens. It was terrible when some young Irishmen blew up a pub in Birmingham. It was terrible when Brigate Rosso kidnapped and murdered Aldo Moro. Terrible when Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhoff murdered their way across German politics. It's terrible when a young woman blows herself up on a Tel Aviv bus. Or some young men do likewise on a tube train. And it was terrible when eight young Arabs machine-gunned their way across Paris last Friday.

The terror isn't simply because of the guns, the bombs, the violence. The terror is that it could be you or I sat there on the restaurant terrace, on a bus heading for a day's work, or letting our hair down at a rock concert. The effectiveness of terror is how close to home it is - and no-one knows this better than the innocent residents of middle eastern countries as suicide bombers target crowded markets, busy streets filled with outdoor cafes and even beaches.

We ask why? What possible purpose does this serve - the terrorists are facing any existential threat, this isn't a matter of kill or be killed. Yet they choose to commit foul acts of violence against the innocent to make a political point, to play a part in some deranged strategy dreamt up by persuasive maniacs (albeit persuasive maniacs safely ensconced elsewhere - it wasn't Gerry Adams who planted that bomb in the Mulberry Bush back in 1973 and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wasn't in Paris wearing a vest of explosives last Friday).

A simple and common response - we've seen it a thousand times over the past couple of days - is to say that somehow the terrible murders in Paris are a direct consequence of foreign policy decisions, that the ideology of Islamist violence would not exist had Bush and Blair not invaded Iraq, had France to taken part in air strikes against Syria. As if there is either excuse or justification in murdering people having a glass of wine at their favourite restaurant because you disagree with their government. Just as the IRA had no political justification for killing 21 people and injuring over 300 more on that day in 1973, the Islamists who rampaged through Paris had no political - let alone religious - justification for their murderous destruction.

Terrorists have agency. The decisions or actions of others do not - and never have - forced them to engage in acts of violence. The murders on Friday were a matter of choice - those men chose to arm themselves, chose to drape themselves in high explosive, chose to target unarmed people having a good night out, and chose to murder them. They were not made to do this by Tony Blair, Binyamin Netanyahu or Francois Hollande - they chose. And this choice was part of a political campaign not an act of defence or the consequence of vengeance. The leaders of ISIS want power just as all political leaders want power - but those Islamist leaders reject democracy and prefer violence as the route to that power. It's not about defending Muslims - after all most of the people killed by ISIS are Muslims - nor is it about protecting Muslim lands.

And because these terrorists have agency - they act out of choice not compulsion - the rest of us have every right to respond. And I assume this is the basis for Hollande's describing last Friday's terror as an act of war against France. That statement - just as with George Bush's 'war on terror' words after 9/11 - is one of intent. But one that - if the past fourteen years are a guide - requires us to be very clear about who the enemy in this war might be. And, in doing this, it is necessary to have the support of Muslims - those Muslims who are as shocked, scared and angry about ISIS as the rest of us. I'm not talking here about the governments of Muslim countries but about those millions of ordinary Muslims who hate ISIS just as much as many non-Muslims.

The problem is that this engagement seldom happens. To be sure, if you talk to a Muslim he or she will tell you they reject terrorism, loathe the terrorists and don't believe that the murderers are truly Muslim. But if you ask for their support for actions to defeat the terrorism - especially if that includes some form of military action - the response is 'no'. It's almost as if there's a preference for putting our head in our hands and hoping against hope that it will all end. The problem is that, as too many Muslims discover, the cost of doing nothing is abuse and hatred. You can choose to call it 'islamaphobia' but it's grounded in the belief that those who yell 'Allahu akbar' as they machine-gun innocent folk sun-bathing on a Tunisian beach are Muslims.

And so long as this situation persists, so long as young men and women decamp to Syria to join ISIS, so long as terrorists blow up innocents in a Beirut rush hour because they're the wrong sort of Muslim, many non-Muslims will still look on in horror asking how anyone could claim it's a 'religion of peace'. There's a job resisting this but that's not the only job, for unless the distinction is made between Islam and the warped creed of Islamism those non-Muslims will remain distrustful of Muslims and Islam.

At the top of this article is a description of how the army of the Catholic League destroyed Magdeburg - just one of the atrocities in Europe's last great religious war. This is, as it were, intended to make the point that we can come to live peacefully alongside those whose faith or race is different from ours. But to achieve this it's necessary to learn Europe's lesson that, so long as religion and government are one and the same, there is no chance of peace. Yesterday, writing on The Spectator blog, British Muslim doctor, Qanta Ahmed said this:

The repugnant creed of the Islamic State is certainly related to Islam – but it is also inimical to Islam. The scenes in Paris will shock Muslims world over; indeed, when we Muslims hear of gunmen shouting “Allahu akbar” before committing the very acts of murder explicitly prohibited by the Koran, our repugnance is joined with a sense of desecration. To assert that this Islamism is un-Islamic is not a kneejerk response to the atrocities we saw last night, and so many times around the world. It is the only conclusion that can be drawn after serious consideration of its principles.

To win this war it's not enough to beat ISIS militarily. Nor can we win without defeating the men who would visit death on shoppers in Kenya, villagers in Nigeria and diners in Paris. And the war isn't a war against Islam but, I hope, a war to defend Islam from those who would use it - as with Christianity in 17th Century Europe - as a route to power and to the imposition of a violent totalitarian death cult. To win the war with ISIS - however it is conducted - requires Muslims everywhere to show why Islamism is a rejection of their faith. For it is - in truth - as much your war as it is ours.


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