“Dancing slags” and pied pipers

Catherine Bennett on terrorism (from yesterday’s Guardian)

Last Monday, five young British Muslim men were sentenced to life in prison for a plot to set off large fertiliser bombs in southern England. The targets included the Bluewater shopping centre, outside London, and a London nightclub called the Ministry of Sound. The plotters were recorded talking in derogatory terms about the intended victims at the MOS, suggesting that nobody could call them innocent given “those slags [whores] dancing around” (see transcript). This has led to discussion about how the decadence of western society is some sort of recruiting aid for extremist terrorist organisations. I don’t agree.

Two important factors seem to have been missed in the discussions which ensued from Monday’s verdict. The first is that all of this happened not this year or last, but in February and March of 2004, well before the July 2005 bombings. The fact that one group of terrorists used morality, rather than the Iraq war, as an excuse to kill large numbers of people then does not mean that there are plenty of young men willing to do the same now. The other is that the numbers of Muslims willing to do this sort of thing at all is not that high, and that not every Islamic fundamentalist group, violent or otherwise, is al-Qa’ida or has the same attitudes and methodology as al-Qa’ida. Quite simply, only al-Qa’ida is al-Qa’ida. The Muslim Brotherhood, Jama’at-e-Islami, Hizb-ut-Tahreer and even Hamas are not al-Qa’ida, whatever the influence of Muhammad Qutb’s writings on the young Osama bin Laden.

I’ve not come across many Muslims willing to actually excuse the large-scale terrorist actions associated with al-Qa’ida; a common reaction is disbelief, which is often interpreted as denial or as being “in denial” and thus unwilling to co-operate. This does not mean Muslims approve; it means that many of us cannot fathom why Muslims would want to do such a thing, hence the tendency to attribute actions like 9/11 and the July 2005 bombings to some conspiracy originating, or wholly existing, outside the Muslim community. They do not just say this to the media or to hostile non-Muslim questioners. By contrast, I have never heard Muslims attributing Hamas suicide bombings to a Jewish conspiracy to make the Palestinians look bad. There are some who approve and some who don’t, but the reason why Palestinians would want to kill Israelis is well-understood.

On Wednesday morning, the Radio 4 Today programme featured a discussion between Patrick Mercer, the former Tory “homeland security” spokesman, and Bill Durodie of Cranfield University (here’s the interview, in Real format), in relation to this event at the Royal United Services Institute:

Interviewer: But do you accept the thrust of what Bill Durodie is saying, which is that some of the reasons that peole who get involved in this kind of thing cite in terms of the way British society is working, some of those reasons have some justice to them? We are decadent, and so forth.

Mercer: I think that many of the ways we present our society in the media and in society generally play directly into the hands of Islamist fundamentalists. I think, in some ways, we celebrate our decadence; in some ways, we try to inspire our youngsters not to conform, to break the law, to be lazy, to be immoral. Now, all of that is deeply offensive to Islam generally, and of course, is very easily contorted by extremists.

In response to the suggestion that he was excusing extremism and terrorism, Durodie responded that he was not excusing anything, and that he was not arguing that western society was decadent, but that this was a caricature that we had created, but the targets, such as a nightclub and a shopping centre, shows how it “feeds into a debate about shallow, consumerist culture”. Catherine Bennett, in the article linked above, notes that many of the non-Muslims, including Mercer, who would not countenance the idea of blaming the Iraq war for terrorism, are sympathetic to the idea that western decadence is partly to blame and that some targets are more “understandable” than others. I disagree strongly; the UK is by no means the only country in the west in which clubs like the Ministry of Sound exist (and, by the way, the MOS is a music-oriented club, not some kind of lap-dancing joint). As the former CIA agent Michael Scheuer noted, what inspires Islamist extremists is western policies like support for Israel and various Arab dictators, not western decadence. The transcripts did not even indicate that the attack was motivated by disgust at what goes on (or what the plotters imagined went on) inside the club, even if they considered those inside less than innocent. (The fact that the USA has also been targeted, despite its substantial religious Christian contingent, casts doubt on the “decadence” argument as well.)

As for “consumerism”, I really do doubt that this was a major motivating factor. Muslims are not anti-capitalist and do frequent shopping centres, both here and in the Muslim world. There is some concern about such centres, large hotels and western-based fast food chains opening in places like Mecca and Madina, which have spiritual significance, but this is not from an anti-consumerist or anti-capitalist perspective; we already have one Dubai and we don’t need another, especially in Mecca. Bluewater would not have been a target because of its “consumerist” nature, but because there would have been plenty of people there, most of them non-Muslims (as it is located in an area of sparse Muslim settlement), which would have made for serious destruction and loss of life.

I feel somewhat disturbed at the suggestion that disapproval to these aspects of popular culture makes a Muslim an easy mark for terrorist recruiters. Perhaps I am judging all Muslims by my own standards, because like many converts, I have non-Muslim family members (all of them, in fact), some of whom have been known to visit nightclubs if not this particular one. When I read of their comments about “slags dancing around”, I quickly realised they were talking about women a lot like my sister. I think it significant that, while converts have been involved in terrorist plots in the past (such as the shoe bomber), none of those convicted on Monday were converts; all were Asian or north African (Anthony Garcia was, in fact, Algerian and had changed his name, presumably for disguise or during a non-religious phase). I’m not sure that a Muslim from a non-Muslim background, with strong family ties to that background, could hear people say such a thing and not demur.

Of course, in the Muslim community there is widespread disapproval of this part of British culture, and the point about “Westerners are all at it” being a caricature, not the reality, is a perfectly valid one. Not all women (or men) who frequent nightclubs are promiscuous. In fact, not everyone who has sex outside marriage will sleep with just anyone with the right body parts. There is a lot of ignorance among some Muslims about western attitudes to these subjects, but there is a big gulf between thinking this is disgusting and plotting to massacre people on account of it, or the perception of it. These men went all the way to Pakistan, took training and went to some lengths to bring this plot to fruition. It was not a spur of the moment thing.

Some of us disapprove of these aspects of British culture and do not resort to violence; some of us work with Islamic organisations, some of us preach, or write books or articles or blogs. This is because some of us do not belong to sects and ideological groups which legitimise the massacre of non-combatants in order to terrorise and demoralise a population until they get their government to stop whatever they are doing, much as some of us do not think it legitimate to massacre Muslims for belonging to the Egyptian army or for signing up to the Iraqi police force. Al-Qa’ida is not a mass movement and never has been; they could never persuade the mass of Muslims that this sort of action is acceptable. They are the extremist fringe of a minority sect, whose opinion of ordinary Muslims is very low indeed.

At the same time, we should not make the mistake of blaming those who spread ideologies for the terrorist acts and plots we have become aware of. Eddie Nestor, the presenter of the BBC London evening show, on Monday night reflected on the young men who were being locked up while those who recruited and “radicalised” them had left the country; clearly, he was referring in part to Omar Bakri Muhammad, who is only one of a number of such ideologues, and not all of them have got away. However, I believe this takes too much responsibility off the shoulders of the terrorists themselves. They are not innocent children led astray by the Pied Piper of Haringey or Hanwell, but intelligent and educated young men who knew exactly what they were doing.

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