Michael Burleigh: Some European Perspectives on Terrorism

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Michael Burleigh has held posts at New College, Oxford, the London School of Economics, Cardiff, Rutgers University, Washington & Lee University, and Stanford University before becoming a full-time writer and commentator for several national newspapers in the UK. His books include Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (HarperCollins 2008). This essay is based on his presentation to FPRI’s Study Group on the West on April 7, 2008; the full-length paper will be published in Orbis.]

History and Policy
“History” crops up a lot in our conflicts with violent jihadists. A war on terror was proclaimed, and then rejected, because the term was belatedly deemed as descriptively meaningless as a “war on Blitzkrieg” and as futile as a “war on drugs.” Among alternatives that have been put forward are “the long war,” “the first global terrorist war,” the counter campaign against the “global jihadist insurgency,” and an “anti-Islamic extremism” battle.

Commentators and politicians seek to give our opponents a historically familiar face by substituting steel helmets for the chequered keffiyahs and turbans. We have heard about “Islamofascism” and “Islamobolshevism,” both of which terms risk boxing our thinking into the past even as they give needless offense to Muslims by claiming that they are latter-day Nazis.

Since we are also engaged in a “war of hearts and minds,” there has been much talk of a Cold War, running parallel to three wars—in Afghanistan, Iraq and against the “global jihadist insurgency.” As an American commentator recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, if we take 9/11 as the equivalent of 1947, we are only six years into a struggle that may abate in 2043 if our descendants are fortunate.

Jonathan Evans, the director of MI5, claims that “culture” will play a significant role in this generation’s conflicts with jihadists without spelling out what that means. These claims would be more credible if there was more money for public diplomacy, which in the U.S. receives a significant percent of the vast Defense budget. But the West need not be concerned how it represents itself, if that merely means dispatching the Boston Symphony Orchestra once more, to prove that there is more to us than MTV or Baywatch. If the problems are primarily in the Muslim world, then we need to be doing things like supporting an Arabic Booker Prize and gradually expanding a liberal artistic and media culture in the Arab world. A large cosmopolitan bourgeoisie constituency exists in Cairo; our task is to discreetly help organize them, perhaps along the lines of Freedom House’s role in the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine. For they will be one of the building blocks from which a more pluralistic greater Middle East will emerge.

During the Cold War, great enterprises like the Congress for Cultural Freedom confronted state propagandists in the eastern bloc. Now we have international media like al-Manar, as-Sahab, and al-Jazeera, plus 6,000 or so jihadist websites, along with chat rooms and social networks, often the real sites of auto-radicalization among young Muslims. Given the confusions in our own culture, how do we project a single view of Western society’s values? What do we do about the growing number of people who inhabit a virtual world where, as in The X-Files, everything is a hidden conspiracy?

No significant section of Western elite opinion is sympathetic to the jihadists, as many were to Marxist-Leninism in the 1930s, but throughout Europe and even in the U.S. there are left-liberals whose hatred of the U.S. is so ingrained that they have become apologists for the most reactionary elements within Islam. Think of the activist human rights lawyers who are prepared to believe every crime ascribed to the U.S. or UK governments and their collusive involvements with terrorists. British lawyer Madassur Arani has an entire West London practice dedicated to frustrating attempts by UK security services to recruit agents from within the British Muslim community. Her website gives step-by-step advice on how to resist recruitment.

There is also a larger penumbra of people who have migrated from the extreme Left to supporting parties that are halfway houses to the Islamists, e.g. George Galloway’s Respect Party. In 2006 we had the spectacle of middle-class demonstrators bearing placards reading “We are all Hizbollah now,” and more recently of the Archbishop of Canterbury seeking to make common cause with Muslim clerics by contemplating the licensing of enclaves of “soft” sharia law, a concession that would wholly undermine the Common Law of England while paving the way to “hard” sharia law in future.

Islam in Europe is a proselytising religion which asserts its presence—most recently with demands for amplified muezzin in a predominantly non-Muslim suburb of Oxford or a 12,000 capacity mega-mosque to be situated next to London’s 2012 Olympic complex. There are also quotidian acts of minority-within-a-minority self-assertion, ranging from schoolgirls insisting on wearing the hijab and jilbab to imams petitioning National Health Service hospitals insisting that patients’ beds be turned to Mecca five times a day, to female Muslim NHS surgeons refusing to scrub their bare arms.

Throughout Europe, we are witnessing the gradual emergence of Muslim no-go areas, of enclaves based around nodal mosques and community centres, and public housing projects or rows of private terraced housing from which the indigenous population is decamping. Lax immigration policies, cheap flights and phone calls, and satellite TV mean that many immigrants do not make the mental break with “home.” They simply transplant their home village to British cities.

So far, governments, notably in Britain and the Netherlands, have responded with state programs to inculcate local values through such things as formal citizenship tests. In these countries in particular, there has been a rapid abandonment of multiculturalism, but no commensurate attempt to uproot its massive bureaucratic expression in education, the media, and local government.

Cultures of Terrorism
Amid the incessant debate about the U.S.-led war in Iraq, we have lost sight of the fact that terrorists are the problem. Their culture and way of life invariably result in chaos, death and, when they succeed, the hardwiring of political violence into the resulting political system, as we can see in Hamas’s reign of terror in Gaza. Unfortunately, the glamour extends far beyond the small numbers of youths who with bewildering speed auto-radicalize to the point of becoming active jihadis.

Two great novels, Fydor Dostoevsky’s Possessed (1872) and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), highlight the moral squalor in which terrorists operate and the murderous chaos they inflict on those around them. Their subscription to a “higher” cause serves to camouflage the congruence of the psychopathological and the political.

Like the Irish loyalists before them, the jihadists have a culture in a limited, fashionable sense. The (Christian) Lebanese singer Julia Boutros has raised millions for Hizbollah with songs that set the sermons of Hassan Nasrallah to music. Both Hamas and Hizbollah have developed visual cultures—colorful posters of the leaders and their martyrs, plastered all over Gaza or South Beirut, the suicide bombing videos; Al-Qaeda inspired jihadists have a common iconography involving lions, stallions, certain flowers, mountains, trees, as well as masked men with swords. The jihadists have developed computer games for youth that usually involve killing President Bush or U.S. soldiers, and they are currently exploring 3-D programs with a view to lessening the risks of bomb-making and reconnaissance. The primary role of the internet in these circles is to forge a surrogate sense of Islamic nationhood by showing Western “Crusader-Zionist” aggression and the “defensive” jihadi response of suicide bombings and cutting people’s heads off. According to Marc Sageman, Internet chat rooms are especially dangerous in sealing off participants in a partisan reality where emotions are unmediated and especially intense—as one can see from Japanese sites that have been responsible for teenagers killing themselves.

“Culture” in the deeper sense encompasses the rationales for terrorist violence as well as the individual and organizational sociology of terrorist groups. Many terrorists act out of a frustrated desire to “do good”—physician terrorists include Egyptian surgeon Ayman al-Zawahiri and the NHS doctors who incinerated themselves trying to blow up Glasgow airport in 2007. Most European jihadis come from technical education backgrounds rather than the arts and have a very limited grasp of Islamic theology.

The backgrounds of some prominent inciters of jihad in Europe suggest that terrorism may be a compensatory mechanism for a life of dissolution. Abu Hamza, currently awaiting extradition to the U.S., worked as a bouncer at a London strip joint. In Paris, Omar Saiki “went to bars and frequented prostitutes more often than he attended the mosque or went to listen to Abu Qatada’s sermons…. Saiki was typical of those who have landed in the Islamist movement by ‘accident’ and whose zeal redoubles when they find themselves in terrorist cells which provide them with a remedy for the frustrations felt by a whole group of North African men.”

Low-level European jihadists are not people of great sophistication. Take Parviz Khan, the Birmingham welfare recipient recently convicted in England of conspiring to kidnap and behead a British Muslim soldier. As a young man, Khan had shown no interest in religion. He drank, smoked, went clubbing and supported a local soccer team. All changed when he went to Pakistan, after which he began shipping night-vision goggles and camouflage gear. Conversations MI5 bugged in his home show his efforts to beat his worldview into his five-year-old son Abrar, who like his siblings was living in a mock mujahadeen camp in the family’s living room:

Abrar: ‘I love Sheik OBL. Khan: ‘Allah and?’ Abrar: Sheikh Abu Hamza. Khan: ‘And who else do you kill?’ Abrar: ‘Bush I kill’. Khan: And who else?’ Abrar: Blair- I kill’. Khan: ‘And?’ Abrar: ‘Both, I kill’. Khan: ‘I speak, my son. Who else you kill? Kuffar.’ Abrar: ‘Yeah, kuffar’. Khan: ‘What do you do with these people?’ Abrar: ‘Shoot them’. Khan: ‘How do you kill them? Cut their neck. Show me. Good.’

This brings us to the role of excitement, most crisply expressed by the nineteenth-century Russian nihilist who dreaded a life of endless suppers of grilled lamb cutlets. Despite their leaden New Left ideology, the Baader-Meinhof group that plagued West Germany consisted of dissatisfied middle-class kids bored with the country’s stolid consumer culture. Certainly they felt guilt about the Nazi era and about the Palestinians or Vietnam, but their crimes—including bombing Jewish cultural centres—were often committed in a drug-induced haze as they sped along the Autobahns in stolen BMWs reverberating with the music of Eric Clapton or Ten Years After.

In Europe, most terrorists are products of the expanded higher education sector who are disappointed when their low-level qualifications do not translate into rewarding careers, let alone the capacity to dictate our foreign policy. They are also recruited from the expanding underclass, with its subculture of absent fathers and prolific mothers. Richard Reid, the Afro-Caribbean shoe bomber currently incarcerated at a supermax prison in Colorado, converted to Islam while serving one of many sentences for petty offenses. The Brotherhood provided the warmth and purpose his life had not known, the entry stage on a trajectory that finished when he was prevented from exploding the bomb concealed in his shoes.

The frisson of conspiracy and life in the revolutionary underground is often joined by another powerful motive: a burning resentment against the affluent. The Jemaah Islamiyah team who killed more than 200 people in 2002 when they bombed Paddy’s Bar on Bali were strongly motivated by the desire to incinerate what they called “white meat.” In Britain, the Islamist terrorists recently jailed in the wake of “Operation Crevice” were similarly driven by the desire to visit carnage on what they called “dancing slags” out and about in a South London discotheque. It is not enough to inhibit human behavior with disapprobation, as supremacist Islamists do when they are dominant; they must seek out and obliterate the offenders.

But there is more involved in killing people. A former Red Brigade terrorist admits that “arms have a fascination of their own, it is a fascination that makes you feel in some way more virile.” German or Italian leftwing terrorists did not pore over Marxist-Leninist tracts, but preferred Alain Delon gangster flicks or Sam Pekinpah’s existential splatter-movie “The Wild Bunch.” Apparently, after a hard day’s training in Afghan camps, Al Qaeda recruits were shown Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Worryingly, European security agencies think that the continual replaying of scenes of violence on 24-hour news channels is in itself all the incitement some people need.

There is a terrible narcissism in these circles—the idea that they are chosen to give History a huge jolt—and if we are intent on deglamorizing terrorism, History is a good place to start.

Global Jihad and Europe
Terrorist groups can be based on a military-style hierarchy, or a loose franchised network. As with Al Qaeda, terrorist groups can evolve from the first structure to the second under pressure of external necessity, only to reestablish the hierarchy and the training camps again, as Al Qaeda seems to be doing in North-Western Pakistan. It can also exaggerate its global reach through regional affiliates: hence Al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and, if it is to be believed, Al Qaeda in Britain. It is seeking to appropriate local conflicts, to reorient these fighters against Western targets by redirecting the alleged source of local ills.

Clearly, a prime aim of Western policy should be to reverse this process—to disaggregate local causes from attempts to incorporate them into a globalised Islamist insurgency. This is why it is necessary to resist all efforts by, for example, the Russian or Chinese governments to lump their problems with the Chechens or the Uighurs under “our” global war on terror.

Another response to external pressure has been to shift fronts, so that if the organization is suppressed in Algeria or Morocco, it will soon bob up in the Sahel. A series of shady deals seem to have allowed the jihadists to reestablish some sort of presence in Yemen. That strategy will change again should Al Qaeda regain a territorial base in some collapsed state—this is one of the reasons it is imperative to continue fighting the Taliban and to maintain operations in and around Somalia and Yemen.

In some respects Al Qaeda is beginning to resemble the (ineffectual) Black International founded in London in 1881, which claimed to be behind worldwide anarchist activities which were unrelated except in the type of person responsible. Even the Internet had its forerunners in the form of newspapers (the Dynamite Press) and posters explaining bomb manufacture. British security services speak of “Al Qaeda-inspired” violence, since the group’s primary function is to exhort Muslims everywhere to undertake violence. British intelligence calculates that some 2,000 individuals are currently engaged in conspiracies of one kind or another; similar figures probably exist in other western European countries.

Terrorist groups have internal structures and hierarchies. Most revolve around a charismatic leader, whether bin Laden or merely the most charismatically emphatic in a smaller cell. Different risks and legal punishments attach to raising funds, laundering money, or planting a bomb, which is a potential weakness in an organization like Al Qaeda, where only Egyptians or Libyans are the strategists, while Moroccans and Yemenis do the dirty work. That is why we need to encourage a process of reversion from the global jihad to the local conflicts from which the jihadis originally came.

Although Europe undoubtedly hosts some professional Al Qaeda terrorists, in practice we are witnessing auto-radicalising groups who seek to fight in Afghanistan or Pakistan but are deemed all but useless on a foreign battlefield. At that point their contacts in Afghanistan or Pakistan stress the necessity of bringing chaos to the tax-paying/voting enemy on the home front—a process of “green-lighting” attacks that have mercifully been frustrated. The latest major conspiracy, frustrated in January 2008, was that of eleven Spanish-based Pakistanis and Indians who were plotting to blow up Barcelona on March 11.

Implications for the U.S.
The current condition of Europe has triggered much alarmism, with talk of a neutralized “Eurabia,” a future Muslim Holocaust, or “Last Days.” The overheated transatlantic rhetoric can only give our enemies cause for hope. I hope the rhetoric will tone down under the next U.S. administration, although I can’t vouchsafe for those who get into government in Berlin or Brussels.

Terrorists offer no hope, only a dead end, as can be seen by the air of decay that surrounds earlier views held with no less passionate intensity. We need a much more universalist approach to the chaos and suffering jihadists have inflicted around the world, most notably on their fellow Muslims. Not only do the jihadists spread chaos and death, but in some peculiar way this is their element. We need to pick up on the revulsion often expressed in the Arab world to, say, the 2005 bombing of the Amman wedding that wiped out entire families. We need to publicize the ways in which otherwise anti-coalition Sunni insurgents have mutinied against the reign of terror which foreign jihadists inflicted on parts of central Iraq, and which the Taliban is seeking to restore in Afghanistan.

We should be countering the jihadist grand narrative of universal Muslim victimhood with a broader message of hope. Until we can offer a more positive vision of the future for the societies concerned (especially young males age 15-35), we will see no end to this conflict. The Pentagon chiefs’ current interest in “global branding” is in this sense fully justified.

Less attention should be paid to Islamic studies and the vain expectation of a Euro-Islamic “reformation,” while more emphasis should go into stimulating and expanding other forms of cultural activity, from literature to pop music as well as small-cap business ventures of the sort the Egyptian and Saudi governments are using to wean former jihadis from their wrong turn in life.

We tend to allow the noise emanating from the Islamists to drown out the substantial numbers of people in these societies who are not unlike ourselves. We need to encourage the Muslim world to speak through other voices than its clerics. We should not avert our eyes from these people because we are reliant on the Bouteflikas, Mubaraks and Musharrafs in the war on terror or as dams against the tidal flood of Islamists who we imagine would win fair elections. Likewise, Western oil and gas companies could play a much greater role than they do in ensuring that revenues from these resources are shared out more equitably or invested in new sectors that could give work and purpose to millions of unemployed males in these societies.

The educated cosmopolitan bourgeoisie are one element in the block of people who may eventually replace the autocracies and absolutist monarchies of the greater Middle East. Other elements may be moderate Islamists or those of the ruling elites who realize the game is up. We need to know whether support for fundamentalist parties is a form of protest vote against widespread corruption in such societies. Judging by the lack of success of Islamist parties in the recent Pakistani elections, this subject needs to be urgently investigated. Of course, this is not Eastern Europe or Spain making a transition to democracy. The institutional framework for civil society is virtually nonexistent. Nor is it Indonesia, Turkey, or Pakistan where powerful militaries can stabilize the transition process. Iran after 1979 shows the worst-case scenario. That is the outcome we need to avoid when massive change sweeps those regions.

The majority of the world’s Muslims are in Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey, where, with the exception of Pakistan, the nation distinguishes itself from the purported global ummah of the radical Islamists. Recent developments in Indonesia and Turkey are encouraging—notably the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs’ attempts to drop sections of the Hadith better suited to medieval times. Paradoxically, while Europe should be witnessing the growth of a similarly modernized Euro-Islam, Gulf money is ensuring a sort of Arab recolonization through the dissemination of the most retrograde forms of Islam. We should therefore insist that the Saudis stop clerics on their payroll from propagating doctrines which are inimical to Western interests and demand the complete cessation of Saudi monies being put into mosques, madrassas and Middle Eastern studies departments in the West until we are persuaded that this money does not represent a subversion of our values. The more authoritarian French have put in place mechanisms to monitor what is said in Friday sermons, with the withdrawal of funding—and the right of foreign imams to remain in France—as the penalties for noncooperation.

I do not foresee any resurgence of cultural Christianity in Europe in the near future. Christianity has been so squeezed from our school curricula that soon it will be as mysterious as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Compared to the noise generated by aggressive atheism and secularism, Christianity is pretty timorous in Europe. I cannot foresee any circumstances where churches hopelessly suffused with secular liberalism are going to make a defensive Western ideology, a neo Christendom, part of their pitch to refill empty pews, no matter how many mosques appear on their doorsteps. Europe lacks the sort of muscular lay Christian intellectual that America has in the shape of a George Weigel and many others; we have muscular atheist scientists.

Nor do I foresee either a strong, confident political identity at the European federal level, when citizens of major states have voted so negatively against it. Nor do I see that countries which are themselves mostly federal, composite, mini-empires, are going to have any success in rebuilding core national identities. When our government essayed this recently, the Scots and Welsh were immediately on their feet protesting their separateness. Much the same might happen in Belgium, Italy or Spain.

One response to terrorism is obviously that of the police and security services. As in the U.S. it took time to introduce coordinated thinking and structures, MI5 and MI6 have been encouraged to cooperate; MI5 has established 8 regional sub-offices; and the Special Branch has been merged into a single Anti-Terrorism Branch. There are also cross-bureaucratic organizations working at countering radicalization, and intra-European intelligence efforts seem to have gone past the stage of regular meetings. In Britain, prevention of terrorism legislation derived from the thirty years war against the Provos has been tightened by the Blair/Brown governments, although on every occasion such measures have been contested by the civil liberties lobby and liberal senior judges in the House of Lords, some of whom seem to imagine they are living in Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa.

Judging by the amount of restiveness indigenous peoples (including Chinese, African, Afro-Caribbean, Hindu and Sikh immigrants) are expressing at the incremental demands of assertive Islamists, it will be a rash politician who fails to accommodate such sentiments in making policy. Indeed, we are likely to sound more Australian in the future—i.e., politicians of all party persuasions will sound like a united front in making it clear that there are lines in the sand regarding the liberal democratic nature of our societies. Interestingly, liberal Protestant clerics seem to provoke the clearest responses. It was made abundantly clear to the Dutch bishop “Tiny” Mertens when he suggested calling God “Allah” and to Rowan Williams with his donnish enthusiasm for licensing sharia law that these were steps too far.

Across Europe, conservative parties have found an anodyne way of talking about immigration as “population movements” that neuters charges of racism that in themselves no longer work with the debate-silencing effects they had even a decade ago, especially since it is older immigrants who often lead the way in calling for restrictions. Borders will be policed by dedicated policemen, there will be stronger efforts to ensure that immigrants master the relevant local language, and a more graduated, extended process of achieving citizenship after fulfilling various reciprocal requirements. In other words, citizenship is going to be conditional or probationary. We could go further in restricting access to state benefits, it being striking that so many of those plotting to kill us accept substantial welfare entitlements.

Of course, actions by the state are nothing besides stealthier secular processes that are just as apparent in urban middle-class Tehran as they are in Madrid, Munich or London. Economics may result in the adjustment of Muslim families to European nuclear norms, just as education and social mobility will mean that future generations seek to escape what are tantamount to ghettos. Let’s all hope so, for the sake of all our countries.

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