That fine French historian of the 1914-18 world conflict, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, suggested not long ago that the West was the inheritor of a type of warfare of very great violence. “Then, after 1945,” he wrote, “… the West externalised it, in Korea, in Algeria, in Vietnam, in Iraq… we stopped thinking about the experience of war and we do not understand its return (to us) in different forms like that of terrorism… We do not want to admit that there is now occurring a different type of confrontation…”
He might have added that politicians – and here I’m referring to Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara – would deliberately refuse to acknowledge this. We are fighting evil. Nothing to do with the occupation of Palestinian land, the occupation of Afghanistan, the occupation of Iraq, the torture at Abu Ghraib and Bagram and Guantanamo. Oh no, indeed. “An evil ideology”, a nebulous, unspecified, dark force. That’s the problem.
There are two things wrong with this. The first is that once you start talking about “evil”, you are talking about religion. Good and evil, God and the Devil. The London suicide bombers were Muslims (or thought they were) so the entire Muslim community in Britain must stand to attention and – as Muslims – condemn them. We “Christians” were not required to do that because we are not Muslims – nor were we required as “Christians” to condemn the Christian Serb slaughter of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica just over 10 years ago. All we had to do was say sorry for doing nothing at the time. But Muslims, because they are Muslims, must ritually condemn something they had nothing to do with.
But that, I suspect, is the point. Deep down, I wonder if we do not think that their religion does have something to do with all this, that Islam is a backward religion, un-renaissanced, potentially violent. It’s not true, but our heritage of orientalism suggests otherwise.
It’s weird the way we both despise and envy the “other”. Many of those early orientalists showed both disgust and fascination with the East. They loathed the punishments and the pashas, but they rather liked the women; they were obsessed with harems. Westerners found the idea of having more than one wife quite appealing. Similarly, I rather think there are aspects of our Western “decadence” which are of interest to Muslims, even if they ritually condemn them.
I was very struck some years ago when the son of a Lebanese friend of mine went off to study for three years at a university in the south of England. When I passed through London from Beirut, I would sometimes bring audio tapes or letters from his parents – these were the glorious days before the internet – and the student would usually meet me in a pub in Bloomsbury. He would invariably turn up with a girl and would drink several beers before setting off to her flat for the night. Then in his last term at college, he called home and asked his mother to find him a bride. The days of fun and games were over. He wanted Mummy to find him a virgin to marry.
I thought about this a lot at the time. He was – and is – a most respectful, honourable man who has passed up much wealthier job opportunities abroad to teach college kids in Beirut. But had he been a weaker man, I can imagine he might have quite a few problems with his life. What was he doing in Britain? Why was he enjoying himself like “us”, only to turn his back on that enjoyment for a more conservative life?
Take another example – though the two men have nothing in common – that of Ziad Jarrah. He lived in Germany with a Turkish girlfriend – not just dating but living with her – and then on 11 September 2001, he called up the girl to say “I love you”. What’s wrong, the young woman asked. “I love you,” he said simply again and hung up the phone. And then he went off to board an airliner and slash the throats of its passengers and fly it into the ground in Pennsylvania. What happened in his brain as he heard the voice of the girlfriend he said he loved? His father, whom I know quite well, was as stunned as the parents of the London suicide bombers. To this day, he still cannot believe what Ziad Jarrah did. He is even waiting for him to come home.
It’s not difficult to be cynical about the way in which Arabs can both hate the West and love it. In Arab capitals, I can read the anti-Bush fury expressed in the pages of local newspapers and then drive past the American embassy where sometimes hundreds of Arabs are standing round the walls in the hope of acquiring visas to the US. The Koran is a document of inestimable value. So is a green card.
But from the many letters I receive from Muslims, especially in Britain, I think I can understand some of the anger generated among them. They come, many of them, from countries of great repression and from lands where the strictest family and religious rules govern their lives. You know the rest.
So in Britain – and even the Muslims who were born in the country often grow up in traditional families – there can be a fierce dichotomy between their lives and that of the society around them. The freedoms of Britain – social as well as political – can be very attractive. Knowing that its elected government sends its soldiers to invade Iraq and kill quite a lot of Muslims at the same time might turn the “dichotomy” into something far more dangerous.
Here is a land – Britain – in which you could live a good life. Pretty girls to go out with (note, we are talking about men), or marry or just live with. Movies to watch – no snipping of the nude scenes in our films – and, if you like, a beer or two at the local. These things are haram, of course, wrong, but enjoyable, part of “our” life. Most British Muslim men I know don’t actually drink alcohol and they behave honourably to women of every religion (so please, no angry letters). Others enjoy our freedoms with complete ease.
But those who cannot, those who have enjoyed our freedoms but feel guilty for doing so – who can be appalled by the pleasure they have taken in “our” society but equally appalled by the way in which they themselves feel corrupted (especially after a trip to Pakistan for a dose of old-fashioned ritualised religion) have a special problem.
Palestine or Afghanistan or Iraq turn it incendiary. They want both to break out of this world and to express their moral fury and political impotence as they do so. They want, I think, to destroy themselves for their own feelings of guilt and others for the crime of “corrupting” them. Even if that means murdering a few co-religionists and dozens of other innocents. So on go the backpacks – whoever supplied them is a different matter – and off go the bombs. Something happens, something that takes only a second, between saying “I love you” and then hanging up the phone.
ROBERT FISK is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s collection, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. Fisk’s new book, The Conquest of the Middle East, will be released this fall.