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The recent wave of bombings in London has shifted the jaded attention of the world’s media on the ‘war on terror’ in Iraq to Europe. And of course the immediate suspects responsible for the bombing are thought to be Al Qaeda, either directly or indirectly.
It soon emerged of course, that those responsible were young British born men, from Leeds, who were Muslim. It was then a matter of uncovering which external enemy had manipulated these innocent young men into becoming suicide bombers. It is indeed a tragic affair, in this sordid mess that has followed the so-called war on terror, the latest tragedy being the massive loss of life in the Egyptian coastal town, Sharm-al Sheikh
That these young men were from London has been presented as an even greater shock, since they were ‘one of us’. One of us should know better than to communicate a political grievance through mass killings. One of us- rather than one of them- should know better than to blow up people on trains and on busses. If one of us does something like this, then it must be due to external influences. We are born civilized, but become uncivil. They are born uncivil and can be expected to behave in that manner. This seems to be the general sentiment. Or perhaps I am reading too much into it. Perhaps it is the more benign but acceptable sentiment that since they were born into the political community known as England, that they would share enough of a fraternal sensibility with their fellow citizens, and therefore feel and identify sufficiently with them to not want to cause their fellow citizens harm. After all, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau optimistically thought, what made us unique as humans was that we felt ‘pity’ for those who shared our species identity, and we therefore would not enjoy seeing one of ‘us’ in pain.
The explanations for the actions of these young men are complex. And they cannot be reduced to a single causal explanation, like religion, class, masculinity, or history. But they certainly are shaped by, and the product of all of these factors. The most inadequate and short sighted approach, but unfortunately the one that seems to be enjoying the most currency, is to explain these actions through the religious identity of the perpetrators. Whilst their religious identity might frame their logic, their actions cannot be reduced to it automatically, since that would mean that everyone who shared that religious identity would be going about doing the same thing, as the Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani has pointed out in a new book on the roots of terrorism in the world today. What concerns me most in the shock about them being British is the question that is not being asked publicly when responsibility is taken for the actions of these young men. If you recall, responsibility it is said, lies with their religion, with certain Imams, or bearded foreigners who arrive and depart mysteriously. But the compelling question must surely be why was it, that these young men, born in Britain, did not feel the supposed fraternal relations of compassion for their fellow nationals? This is surely a question that needs exploring too? To ask this question however is to distribute the ethical burden of the actions of these men more widely, to people and institutions who seem to want to be entirely the victim in this story while not wanting to acknowledge any role whatsoever in creating the conditions for the kinds of tragic actions unfolding as we speak in England and Iraq today
The individual biographies of these young men are important, and so too are the very local chronicles of their communities in Leeds, in Birmingham, in Bradford. Experiences so sensitively recounted by British authors like Hanief Kureishi, in the 1997 film My Son the Fanatic, for example. But it also the tale of other places in Europe and the United States, where seemingly well intentioned, well mannered, compassionate young men have gone off to fight wars in distant lands.
Why is it that they do not conform to the conventional story of modern nationalism? Why is it that they chose not to give their life to the country of their birth, but chose to give it against the country of their birth? Why has the story of modern nationalism – the story of hundreds of thousands of young men and women who have spilt their blood in the name of patriotism in two world wars and many smaller ones- failed so dismally here?
The violence of these young men must, I am suggesting, not only be understood through religion and culture, or through the politics of the Middle East, but also in terms of the political history of their citizenship in Europe- the experience of generations of young people who have witnessed the humiliation of their parents who went to England, to seek a better life or to flee a war, as economic migrants or as political refugees.
The story of many immigrant communities who have never been made to feel completely welcome, since, as British-Caribbean sociologist Paul Gilroy was to succinctly put it: ‘there ain’t no black in the Union Jack’. Modern European liberal democracy, which prides itself on tolerance, plurality and diversity, surely needs to account too for the intolerance that those of other skin colours, other faiths, and other geographies have experienced in places like France, Germany, and England which has made them, even after successive generations, so at odds with their new found homes as to not completely feel ‘at home’. The profoundly challenging question also raised by these events is therefore how to construct a political community which is substantively more tolerant of different ways of being in the world, that is open to truly cosmopolitan encounters with the Other, in which both sides are mutually transformed rather than requiring one side to assimilate in order to be truly acceptable as ‘European’, or ‘British’, or ‘French’. This should be amongst the long term answers to the present insecurity, rather than putting all hopes in greater policing, monitoring, and surveillance, because the failure here is a matter of politics not policing. And therefore the challenge is a political one, not a military one. And it is a political challenge to the modern liberal democratic state in particular, so long seen as a culturally neutral set of rights, against which all others’ ways of life are to be measured.
SUREN PILLAY, a lecturer in the Dept. of Political Studies at the University of the Western Cape, can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org