Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Islamist Terrorism: Shouldn't We Ask Questions? (Part 1)

This article was written soon after the 7/7 London bombings and published first at, a website that still hosts a bank of my writings. I have long wondered about the growing phenomenon of Islamist terror and perhaps the essay reflects some of those doubts. It also holds the anger I felt at the bombings in London, same as the rage I felt at the Sankatmochan bombing in Varanasi, my home town, and the ones in Mumbai and Delhi. Its time we stopped making liberal excuses and started asking some tough questions. Yes a community should not be held responsible for the acts of a few. But at the end, it is the community's responsibility to control its young. Just as we cannot and do not use "history" or "poverty" or "perceptions of victimhood" to justify the destruction of the Babri Masjid, we should not use those excuses for jihadi violence!

The past few weeks have raised some of the usual questions about Islamic fundamentalism and, more importantly, Islamist terrorism. After two rounds of London bombings, (not to mention the Egypt bombs and the recent Imrana case and the Ayodhya temple attack in India), one is left with more questions than answers. Some questions I haven't found answers to despite reading dozens of commentaries, analyses and essays from around the world are as follows:

1. Why would European-born young men choose to blow themselves and innocent people up?
2. If they are truly a minority within the British-Muslim society, why did no one know about their plans or inform the authorities about their increasing radicalisation?
3. And worse still, how many more such young men are out there biding their time until the next attack?

Questions two and three have perhaps simpler answers. Various newspapers in the UK have already carried accounts from Pakistani relatives of the bomber Shahzad Tanweer about how they had warned his parents that he was fraternizing with members of jihadi groups during his visits to Pakistan. They have provided revealing details of how the young man carried a picture of Osama bin Laden in his wallet. A cousin simply commented that "if he has done what they say he has done, he has done the right thing." No guilt, no remorse, no condemnation to be found then in Pakistan's villages where the 7/7 bombers were mourned as heroes by thousands who gathered in the mosques.

At the same time, a neighbour in Beeston explained that the baby-faced picture carried by international media of Hasib Hussain was misleading, because by the time of the London bombings, he was a hulking frightening man with a thick beard and a propensity for getting into street brawls.

All this unfortunataly means one simple thing that so much of the media has been refusing to put in words: People knew! There are people - family, friends, colleagues and neighbours in Beeston, Dewbury and Pakistan - who knew that these young men were on their way to becoming suicide bombers. And they chose to let them go ahead with their heinous plans. How come we have absolved them of all responsibility? Simply in the name of general civic harmony? Or community relations?

The third question is related and perhaps even easier to answer: obviously there are many more young men in Britain and other countries who are willing to die and kill in the name of Islam. A recent Guardian survey of the British Muslim community showed that 5% of those polled believed that the London bombings were justified. Moreover, another survey showed that nearly 10% of the British-born Muslims polled felt no loyalty towards Britain, but felt they owed their allegiance to Islam. While this figure forms only a small percentage of the population, it could still mean that numerically thousands of British Muslims support the London bombings. We are in for troubled times, indeed!

The first question, however, is possibly the most difficult to answer. Left-leaning analysts in the UK have argued that economic deprivation and cultural isolation led these young British-Pakistanis to radical Islam. A large percentage of the local population has blamed British involvement in the ill-advised and unpopular occupation war in Iraq. Yet all these claims require some refuting, and not only of the neo-con variety that promptly announces that "9/11 happened before Iraq war" or that some how centuries of Western imperialism are to bla me for the rise in fundamentalism Islam today, basically because it has created conditions of economic deprivation, social alienation and political powerlessness.

None of the above arguments hold up to closer scrutiny. While it is true that Arab/Muslim sense of grievances goes much further back than the war on Iraq, as the neo-cons have pointed out, there is a clear line to be drawn when we get to history.
We in India are constantly told to let the past lie for the sake of "communal harmony" and not grudge the widespread destruction of temples all through north India and the subsequent construction of mosques on the same sites. We are told that is history, and with surprisingly little resistance, most of us agree with that view and move forward. So why do we permit a double standard for the Arab/Muslim sense of grievance? Much has been made by British-Muslim commentrators about the West's hypocrisy, yet they hardly pause to consider their own.

Furthermore, just how far these grievances are based on facts is open to debate. Various fundamentalist organisations, ironically based in or linked to Pakistan, and apparently fighting a world-wide jihad, use Palestine or Kashmir as their raison d'etre. However, we also know that neither the Hizbollah or the Hamas, two of the best known "fundamentalist" Islamist organizations in the Middle East, have shown any interest in any action beyond their localized freedom struggles. Both have made necessary adjustments with other religious and political groupings to continue their fight, with the Hizbollah initiating and forming alliances with not only Lebanese Christian groupings, but also with the extremely secular Lebanese Communists. Same is true for the Hamas.

A closer scrutiny also shows that the Palestinians, as a people and as political organisations, have little sympathy for the apparently "international" Islamist groups. Most Palestinians feel that their legitimate freedom struggle is hampered and harmed by the fundamentalist hijacking of that fight for purposes of an "international jihad."

Similarly, the use of "Kashmir" issue as a justifiable grievance for Muslims world-wide is equally suspect. The Kashmiri population - both Muslim and otherwise - enjoys far greater civil and political freedom than that enjoyed by populations in most self-proclaimed Islamic countries. If there is a section of the Kashmiri population that has been systematically harassed, terrrorised, killed and hounded out of the region, it is that of the minority community - the ill-fated Kashmiri Pandits. So how does ethnic cleansing of the non-Muslim minority population provide grounds for grievance to wage jihad?


  1. It's just not Kashmir- India also has insurgencies in the North East (led, at least in Assam by a Brahmin led group ULFA). There is no doubt that Delhi has tried to rule over the North East/ J&K via puppet governments after independence, creating resentment at the ground level.

    The point about the Kashmiri Pandits is well taken, though. They are a people whom everone seems to have forgotten. Even the BJP a party which does not hesitate to shed crocodile tears for the community, did nothing for them when it was in power.

  2. Bhupinder, point is that there are insurgencies in other countries too. Spain and UK have their internal political problems as does the US. That isn't the same as Islamist terrorism. Thanks for the comment though.

  3. chanced upon this article. good points. you seem to have analyzed it from various angles.. how about a bit more from the historic and the scriptural perspective ?

  4. Thanks drisya. Because scriptures aren't destiny even for fundamentalists even if they are selectively used to justify actions. Also I am all for historicity except most people involved in terrorist attacks have zero clue of history and use it selectively to justify their immediate grievances. And that would be another article. :-)

  5. Some Theodore Dalrymple may do some good.

    When Islam Breaks Down


    "And there is enough truth in the devout Muslim’s criticism of the less attractive aspects of Western secular culture to lend plausibility to his call for a return to purity as the answer to the Muslim world’s woes."

    "One sign of the increasing weakness of Islam’s hold over its nominal adherents in Britain—of which militancy is itself but another sign—is the throng of young Muslim men in prison. They will soon overtake the young men of Jamaican origin in their numbers and in the extent of their criminality. By contrast, young Sikhs and Hindus are almost completely absent from prison, so racism is not the explanation for such Muslim overrepresentation."

    "What I think these young Muslim prisoners demonstrate is that the rigidity of the traditional code by which their parents live, with its universalist pretensions and emphasis on outward conformity to them, is all or nothing; when it dissolves, it dissolves completely and leaves nothing in its place. The young Muslims then have little defense against the egotistical licentiousness they see about them and that they all too understandably take to be the summum bonum of Western life."

    "Observing this, of course, there are among Muslim youth a tiny minority who reject this absorption into the white lumpenproletariat and turn militant or fundamentalist."

    "The fanatics and the bombers do not represent a resurgence of unreformed, fundamentalist Islam, but its death rattle."

  6. Arun: agree for most part w/Dalrymple. Islamism was a colonial product and in 2007 much has changed. The Arab Spring has hastened the end....if you look at both parts of the blogpost, my major point of criticism is the media narrative and its inability to ask hard questions.
    Many thanks for reading and commenting.
    Best wishes