Terror in London

BY Subarno Chattarji| IN Media Practice | 16/07/2005
The contours of the discussion in the West are tied to defending the moral and political primacy of the West. The Arab media has almost universally condemned the attacks but is more reluctant to absolve the West of all responsibility.

Subarno Chattarji

The series of bomb blasts in the London Underground and bus on July 7, 2005 have reinforced the terrible cyclicity of acts of terrorism aimed at civilian targets. Terror is also, in an age of 24/7 media, a world event. This is such a truism that we seldom bother to think of the ways in which events proliferate around the globe within hours of their happening. Quite obviously terror groups have a keen awareness of the media impact of their actions. In terms of sheer numbers the World Trade Center attacks or the Mumbai serial blasts in 1993 were bigger disasters than the present one. The current scenario lacked the spectacle that planes crashing into the twin towers had. Nevertheless, photographs were whizzing along the ether and television crews were on site within minutes to satisfy our insatiable appetite for extraordinary news.

Most media commentators have noted the care with which the Secret Organization of al-Qaeda in Europe, the organization that has claimed responsibility for the attacks, chose the setting. The G-8 summit in Gleneagles formed a stunning backdrop and drove home the point, if at all it needed to be reinforced, that even the most powerful states are impotent in the face of terrorism. As Alex Standish, editor of Jane¿s Intelligence Digest, said, ¿It is absolutely impossible to prevent a determined terrorist - particularly a suicide bomber.¿ Professor Michael Clarke, director of the Centre for Defence Studies at King¿s College London, reiterates the fact that ¿the scale of the attack on Europe¿s premier financial centre and the venue of the 2012 Olympics was carefully calibrated. The bombs that knocked London off-balance must have had at least 24 people involved in planting them, he said¿ (Rashmee Roshan Lall, ¿Attacks a by-product of Muslim rage,¿ Times of India, July 9, 2005). While Professor Clarke is the only one thus far to specify the number of terror agents involved, he is spot on about the symbolic significance of the attack. Mass transit systems being targeted at rush hour drew immediate parallels with the Madrid train bombings in March 2004. In this context Ken Livingstone¿s comment that such attacks target the working people rather than prime ministers or presidents is very apposite. London¿s Mayor overlooked the fact that in his city even wealthy financial advisers take the tube, but that apart he inadvertently highlighted a basic disjunction in the functioning of some democracies.

As some media analysts in the US and UK have noted, there is an air of inevitability about Thursday¿s events, not in a fatalistic sense, but in terms of the politics of Tony Blair¿s support for the US-led war in Iraq. It is common knowledge that Blair stood by President Bush in the face of the largest civil society protests in Britain since the Vietnam War. Those very people who massively opposed Blair¿s policies now suffer for them. Perhaps there is no better example of the dysfunction of democracy in our times. The irony is further strengthened by Blair speaking about the resilience of the British people and comparing their situation to the tribulations of the Blitz. Undoubtedly London¿s citizens have displayed stoicism and courage of a rare order, but to be commended by their leader who is in the main responsible for their targeting may be galling in the extreme. While media reports and analyses have noted a cause-and-effect syndrome they have not seen the deeper malaise that affects modern democracies, where leaders in effect do not need the consent of their people to go to war. Blair¿s grandstanding, of course, totally ignores this. To be fair, Blair is not the only one of his kind. Prime Minister Berlusconi of Italy and the former Prime Minister of Spain, are just two examples. Unlike the unfortunate Aznar who faced and lost an election a couple of days after the Madrid bombings, Blair has just won a third term, albeit with a reduced majority.

Much of the media commentary since July 7 has revolved around the past, present, and future of al Qaeda. For instance, the Washington Post carried a piece which analyzed the ways in which al Qaeda¿s operations have altered since 9/11. The authors highlight the fact that the classic terrorist cells are no longer the mode of organization, that al Qaeda has gained a lot of mileage and recruits from the ongoing conflict in Iraq, and that the corporate hierarchical structure originally attributed to the organization no longer holds true. ¿Indeed, Zarqawi`s pledge to bin Laden has offered a model of the new kind of al Qaeda outsourcing. ?From al Qaeda`s point of view, it makes it look like they¿re in on the biggest action going right now in Iraq,? said the former U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity. ?From Zarqawi`s point of view, it¿s brand recognition - you¿re a franchisee, whether Burger King or al Qaeda?¿ (Steve Coll and Susan B. Glasser, ¿Attacks Bear Earmarks of Evolving Al Qaeda,¿ Washington Post, July 8, 2005, A01). The corporate lingo is indicative of a certain analytical superficiality, as if dealing death or burgers were of equal moral value.

Behind the comparison, however, is the contrast between a corporate West that peddles positive life styles and products (¿Our way of life¿ as Blair and Bush put it) and a corrupt, immoral Islamic civilization that deals in indiscriminate death. The latter is made clear a little later in the same piece. ¿?I do not really believe there is such a thing as al Qaeda, the organization; there is al Qaeda, the mindset,? said Yosri Fouda, senior investigative reporter in London for the al-Jazeera satellite television network, the only journalist known to have interviewed Sept. 11 planners Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh. ?This is what I find much scarier. Your ability to predict is reduced to a minimal level.?¿ Fouda¿s authority is obviously bolstered by his Arab/Islamic pedigree and by the fact that he has interviewed 9/11 planners, but what he says is as essentialist as most non-Arab analysts. The realms of analysis on the al Qaeda almost always end up in this cul-de-sac and in a crucial manner heighten the us-versus-them syndrome that the terrorists wish to foster.

It does not help, of course, that sections of civil society react in atavistic ways and attack either Muslims or Sikhs. One sad fallout of the recent outrage has been the rupturing of tenuous community links. ¿Even as anguished leaders of Britain¿s 1.5 million strong Muslim community told TOI of the hate mails that had started to flood their websites and pour into email inboxes, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) significantly advised the faithful on how to avoid vigilante attacks¿ (Rashmee Roshan Lall, ¿Britain copes with life after mayhem,¿ Times of India, July 9, 2005). More bizarrely Sikhs have been the target of attacks, with a gurdwara in Kent being firebombed (reported in the Sunday Times of India, July 10, 2005). The latter is a replay of the post-9/11 scenario where ignorance and hate coalesce to create fear and loathing within a country. Britain takes justifiable pride in its multiculturalism and the fact that London is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. While hate mail and a firebombing may be seen as stray incidents they give the lie to the strength and depth of that multicultural fabric.

One possible explanation for the disruption of carefully constructed societal bonds is the cause and effect proposition I pointed to earlier. An aspect of this argument is that Tony Blair¿s Britain had this attack coming as a result of his stalwart defense of US policies in Iraq. In fact Tariq Ali believes that ¿it did not matter whether or not London¿s attackers were linked to the al Qaeda. What was certain, he said, was they were a by-product of deep despair, Muslim impotence and rage at Western acts of occupation¿ (Times of India, 13). Ali¿s formulation moves the rage beyond Iraq to other geographies, specifically Palestine, and perhaps a wider historical anger and discomfort at the processes of modernity and their consequences as felt in the Middle East since World War II. The causal framework kicks into motion every time there is such an attack and the ¿Muslim world¿ (as if it were a homogenous entity) is asked to respond to it.

An article on MSNBC.com syndicated by the Associated Press dealt specifically with this aspect of Muslim responses. Datelined Cairo, the piece began with condemnation and cause: ¿Islamic leaders condemned the London bombings, though many on Friday insisted the United States and Britain, with their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are ultimately to blame for fueling militant violence. Increasing voices, however, say the Arab world has to stop adding ?but? to its denunciations of terrorism¿ (¿After bombings, Arabs debate whom to blame: Islamic leaders condemn London attack; some say U.S., Britain fuel violence,¿ July 8, 2005, AP). The fact that US and British policies and actions can have any contributory influence towards creating a sense of hatred is heresy because the former act only for the good of the benighted Arab communities. The same sense of ingenuous innocence was expressed after 9/11 when President Bush, among others, mused why the US was hated and came to the conclusion that it was because of the freedoms and the way of life that the West represents. The post-9/11 debate allowed minimal space, if at all, for distinguishing between analysis and justification. This distinction is made and then blurred in the AP article:

The chain of blasts in central London, claimed by an al-Qaeda-linked group, once again had Arabs walking a fine line: denouncing bloodshed and terrorism while trying to explain the growth of Islamic militancy. ?We are not trying to justify, only to analyze,? wrote Abdel-Bari Atwan, who lives in London and is editor-in-chief of the Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper. ?We or any of our family members or friends could have been among the victims in London?but we must emphasize that the wars being waged now against Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan and Palestine are the best way to recruit more terrorists and to expand the circle of armed attacks in the entire world,? he said. That stance was exactly what Khaled al-Huroub, a Palestinian writer living in Cambridge, England, said Arabs must avoid. ?It¿s wrong even to say this is a crime we condemn but we must understand the reasons behind it ? this could be seen as a justification,? he wrote in the London-based Arab daily Al-Hayat. He called for ?a clear-cut position, with no ¿buts,¿ calling a crime as it deserves to be called.? (www.msnbc.com) 

The article couldn¿t be more accurate when it describes the ¿fine line¿ that Arabs have to take in such a situation. Khaled al-Huroub¿s refutation of Atwan¿s argument points precisely to the cleft in which Muslims find themselves. There can be little doubt that certain policies accentuate ¿the circle of armed attacks in the entire world¿ or they serve, as King Abdullah II of Jordan pointed out in an interview with CNN International on July 9, to provide an excuse to extremist elements within the Islamic community. Whatever the case and however reprehensible, such attacks are not ahistorical actions neither are they acts of god. To say that analysis can be seen as justification and therefore it is best to avoid such analysis is to fall into a political and moral abyss. It is the kind of abyss that creates a ¿You¿re either with us or you¿re with the terrorists¿ syndrome spawned in the aftermath of 9/11. One kind of absolutism feeds another and leads to mind numbing horrors. An obvious paradox of the G-8 summit was that it aimed to reduce African debt and to ¿make poverty history¿, while world leaders thus far have not addressed issues of poverty, illiteracy, and dispossession in the Arab world. The latter might help to reduce the new recruits for extremism. Of course, a crime must be called a crime, but the ¿clear-cut position¿ advocated by al-Huroub is suicidal for both the West and the Arab world. For a Palestinian writer to posit such dangerous clarity is a poignant pointer to the difficulty of expressing complex issues in a nuanced fashion in the public sphere.

Thomas L. Friedman in ¿If it¿s a Muslim problem, it needs a Muslim solution¿ (New York Times, July 9, 2005) offers a clear analysis and even a solution to the problem of Islamic terror. He begins by expressing solidarity with the victims: ¿Thursdays bombings in central London are profoundly disturbing. In part, that is because a bombing in our mother country and closest ally, England, is almost like a bombing in our own country.¿ He then goes on state that jihadi attacks are an assault on ¿open societies¿ which ¿depend on trust¿, and that trust is diminished by such assaults. Friedman is entirely right about the demolition of trust as is evident from the hate mail and attacks on minorities within Britain, and he articulates this without ambiguity: ¿When jihadist-style bombings happen in Riyadh, that is a Muslim-Muslim problem. That is a police problem for Saudi Arabia. But when al-Qaeda-like bombings come to the London Underground, that becomes a civilizational problem. Every Muslim living in a Western society suddenly becomes a suspect, becomes a potential walking bomb. When that happens, it means that the West is going to be tempted to crack down even harder on their own Muslim populations.¿ Friedman gets to the nub of what Abdel-Bari Atwan calls the perpetuation of circles of suspicion, hatred, and violence. Friedman also admits that since the West has no obvious target to retaliate against it will do so in a crude and blanket manner ¿by simply shutting them out, denying them visas and making every Muslim in its midst guilty until proven innocent¿.

His solution to this downward spiral in Muslim-Western relations is to advocate that Muslims do their own policing. ¿The greatest restraint on human behavior is what a culture and a religion deem shameful.¿ He gives two examples of such change: the Palestinian ceasefire with Israel and King Abdullah¿s recent conference in Amman calling on moderate Muslims to retrieve their faith from the hands of extremists. Without a doubt there are Arab societies where moderate voices have been sidelined. There is a sense, however, in which Friedman places prime responsibility on Muslim societies to reform themselves or face the wrath of an intolerant and paranoid West. The truism of cultural and religious shaming hides an essentialist bias: that Islamic culture does not deem acts of terror as shameful. One wonders if the same argument would apply to Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay in terms of what the dominant culture or religion values. In conclusion Friedman avers that ¿The double-decker buses of London and the subways of Paris, or the markets of Riyadh, Bali and Cairo, will never be secure as long as the Muslim village and elders do not take on, delegitimize, condemn and isolate the extremists in their midst.¿

While one could hardly disagree with this argument, one is also astonished that Friedman absolves the West of any responsibility and agency in this terrible cycle of violence and counter violence. His arguments are reasonable up to a point but they are underpinned by a white Anglo-Saxon bias, evident in the phrase ¿our mother country¿. Considering that the US is not exclusively the land of white immigrants anymore many citizens of the US would disagree with that appellation, even if they were entirely sympathetic to the victims in London. There seems to be a subliminal desire to return to the mythical whiteness of the US or Britain but that will hardly help the present situation.

Less than a fortnight has passed since the carnage in London but already the media debate is taking a predictable trajectory, especially in the West. Indian newspapers and television have largely been using syndicated material or been dependent on a lone correspondent. Some of them such as Chidanand Rajghatta, the US correspondent for the Times of India, have bravely and repeatedly highlighted recent and past terror attacks in India, from the Mumbai blasts to Ayodhya. This is to indicate that India too belongs to the comity of nations blighted by terrorism. As in the West, Indian media too highlights acts of Islamic terrorism to the exclusion of all other kinds (but that is the subject another discussion). The contours of the discussion in the West are disappointing largely because they are so tied to defending the moral and political primacy of the West. The Arab media has almost universally condemned the attacks but they are more reluctant to absolve the West of all responsibility. This interface is perhaps the only space where we perceive alternatives, where analysis is not seen as justification or questionable patriotism, and where the terror unleashed on London does not become another excuse for greater surveillance of domestic constituencies (the I-Card project in the UK) or racial profiling of visitors and immigrants. The space is minimal but it exists and therein lies some hope beyond the horror of last Thursday. 

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