In the aftermath of the recent spate of atrocities by Islamic fundamentalists it is probably worth focussing on a couple of points that have been obscured in the rush to condemnation.
First this sort of atrocity is nothing new in modern history. Ordinary Germans routinely massacred civilians in Eastern Poland during the Second World War. Much of the RAF bombing campaign on Germany during the same war was indiscriminate and killed thousands of old people, women and children. American troops in Vietnam regularly butchered Vietnamese civilians. Irish paramilitaries slaughtered both compatriots and British civilians alike. The last vestiges of the notion of Israeli “purity of arms” died in the slaughterhouse Prime Minister Netanyahu created in Gaza in the summer of 2014. In fact in the sweep of human history the idea of refraining from making war on civilians has been rather unpopular, and the wars emanating from, and waged in the contemporary Middle East are no exception.
The notion that Muslim atrocities are somehow qualitatively different and beyond the moral pale of what the Western world would contemplate is laughable, and must be even more laughable to those who, in recent years, have been on the receiving end of the violence of the West and its allies.
However it does seem plain that at this point in history there is a significant sub-culture within the European Muslim community which is alienated from the democratic ideals of wider European society, and within that, a smaller minority which is prepared to resort to violence and terrorism both in Europe and abroad as an expression of this alienation.
A lot of the focus in the aftermath of the most recent attacks has been on the need for European Muslim community leadership to combat this alienation. Such leadership has and will continue to have considerable potential to lead young people away from violence and towards more constructive roles for their community and wider society. But it is disingenuous to presume that the reason that young people are engaged in violence to the current extent is because of failures in the leadership of the Muslim community.
To presume this may be comforting to non-Muslims, as it implies that we have no responsibility for Muslim alienation. But it is not a response to the violence that will leave a single individual anywhere in the world any safer or more protected from random and brutal terrorism.
Because, of course, alienation and terror on this scale never occurs in a vacuum. Just because the wider society is unaware of the narrative that is justifying that terrorism to its perpetrators does not mean that such a narrative does not exist. And just because the narrative may be filled with distortions and logical inconsistencies does not mean that it is any less compelling to its adherents.
What should be apparent to even the most myopic of observers is that the fundamentalist violence that we have witnessed in Europe over the past 10 years comes in the context of a much wider system of violence. And, as Patrick Cockburn has put it, “It is inevitable that sparks from these conflicts land in Western Europe and other parts of the world.”
For many in the West this cycle of violence started with the attacks on the World Trade Centre. However Muslim grievances predate that. For example the West’s acquiesce in an emerging system of Israeli imposed apartheid in Palestine or the horrific brutality of the wars in Algeria are both capable of providing alternative points of origin for a narrative in which 9/11 seems no less and no more justifiable than Dresden or Nagasaki. And the brutal conduct of the bloody fiasco in Iraq has sustained the flow of grievance.
European Muslims are likely to have similar reactions to injustices against Muslims in Gaza or elsewhere as Irish Americans had against British injustice in the North of Ireland. However the danger, from a contemporary point of view, is that the US wasn’t seen as being complicit in British injustice. Today Europe, in particular the UK, may be closely and ignominiously identified as being complicit in the bloody mess of Iraq and Israel’s violence against Palestinians.
In other words, distasteful as it may seem to some, the current spate of Islamic fundamentalist terror is a political problem. It is not an Islamic versus Western ‘clash of civilisations’, though some would like it to be portrayed as such: Netanyahu’s cynical elbowing to the front of a Parisian photocall with international leaders in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack was a physical assertion of this idea. He intended to convey to Europe and beyond that it has no choice but to stand alongside his militarism. Rather what we see is a set of wars of varying sizes and asymmetries that are born from fundamental human and therefore political issues of injustice, violence, alienation, cruelty and stupidity.
But if we can accept that this fundamentalist violence is the consequence of a more mundane set of political problems then we can recognise that it requires political solutions, or at least a political process, to address the causes of alienation alongside the security response necessary to attempt to fend off future attacks.
The full extent of the political agenda that should be followed will be considerable and international in scope. It may necessarily include consideration of the question of reconciliation between French and Algerian peoples. It should probably include confrontation of Pakistan and in particular Saudi Arabia as countries that have been the ideological reservoirs, financiers and facilitators of much of the terror that is currently plaguing the Middle East and the world. Unquestionably one element must be the robust pursuit of a just peace between Israel and Palestine, instead of the international acceptance of the quasi-apartheid that currently pertains. This will require the Jewish community bearing a heavy burden of leadership comparably to that required of non-violent Muslim leaders: the one thing the current Israeli government and its apologists seem afraid of is ordinary Jews publicly repudiating the Israeli government’s extremist policies and racist attitudes. Such sanction carries with it a credibility that non-Jews, lacking links to the appalling tragedy of Jewish history, could never hope to attain.
An international political process that openly seeks to deal justly with grievances would provide political weight and credibility to those leaders and citizens, particularly Muslims, who wish to pursue the path of non-violence. Without it, those same advocates for peace will be rendered much less effective, twisting in the wind as the West blunders on repeating the patterns of the past 10 years with brutal and inept military responses to problems emerging from countries and societies that we barely begin to understand.