Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Foreign Policy and Suicide Bombing

There has been some discussion recently about what it is that turns young, well-integrated, and reasonably well-off British Muslims into suicide bombers. A complete explanation is, I suspect, elusive. The reasons are probably hugely complicated and multi-causal and, for me, ultimately beyond comprehension. Yet it is, as it were, puzzling that we should be so puzzled. Political murder is hardly an historical aberration: what motivates a sectarian killer in e.g. Ulster, Rwanda, Sudan, or the Balkans? There is also a puzzle about the special horror we seem to feel for suicide bombings as compared to other kinds of bombings. Why is it more wicked for a suicide bomber to target civilians than it is to do so from the safety of a high-altitude aircraft or a pilot less drone? Does wearing a uniform and acting at the behest of a government really make such a critical moral difference? Does calling it “war” make all the difference? Or is it the “up close and personal” nature of suicide bombings that so horrifies us? Or is it the fanaticism of killing oneself as well as others? Or is it that we are the targets? Is it less horrifying if other people do the dying? I don’t know the answer to these questions (except the last two); but there are about a thousand dead Lebanese civilians and I detect no moral outrage and a great deal of specious hand-wringing on the part of western governments. It also seems to me that whatever it is that turns British Muslims into suicide bombers it has something – at least something - to do with British foreign policies, such as its participation in the illegal invasion of Iraq and its unjustified one-sided support for Israel. Many Muslims perceive these policies, not just as mistaken or misguided, but as profoundly and deeply unjust; they see them as involving an attack on their co-religionists, a western “jihad”, if you like. They can see, in the Middle East, a powerful US-equipped military machine – Israel – bullying, strutting, arrogant, convinced of their racial superiority, treating Arab Muslims as lesser beings to be either subjugated or ethnically-cleansed. The Islamic extremists see themselves as engaged in a war and sadly the targeting of civilians in warfare (from Bomber Harris to Henry Kissinger to Ariel Sharon) is not uncommon. They can see, what is plainly true, that the western powers place very little value on the lives of brown-skinned Muslim civilians (in Iraq the occupying forces don’t even bother to count the dead). Muslims do have a legitimate grievance. Of course, it is a long way from justified anger to suicide bombing; and it is that part of the journey which I suspect most of us find baffling. And obviously the fact that people have a legitimate grievance does not justify immoral or wicked actions such as suicide bombings targeting civilians; in Britain there are other (democratic) ways in which they can try to seek redress of their grievances. But it would be foolish to say that suicide bombers are simply evil and leave it at that; as though this “evil” comes out of nowhere, and is inexplicable. Simply from a strategic point of view, this makes no sense. Defeating extremist Islam – which is certainly a backward and loathsome ideology - involves police and security measures against those who are already involved in extremism; but it also means trying to dry-up the reservoir of future recruits, seeking to form alliances with moderate Muslims, and trying to isolate the extremists from the Muslim community. It means winning the political argument; the “war” will not be won by force alone. Instead Bush and Blair blunder around the world as if it were their mission to antagonise and alienate and embitter as many Muslims as possible. To fail to recognize that there are legitimate grievances, and to refuse to recognize any causal link between Islamic terrorism and the foreign policy of the UK/USA, makes winning the political argument harder. It is to thrust one’s head deep into the sand.


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