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The London bombs: Iraq or the "rage of Islam"?

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  • The London bombs: Iraq or the "rage of Islam"?

    The London bombs: Iraq or the "rage of Islam"?
    By Sami Zubaida

    Open Democracy, UK
    Aug 3 2005

    Many commentators regard the London terror attacks as Tony Blair's
    payback for Britain's role in Iraq. Sami Zubaida assesses the evidence.

    The London bombings on 7 July were followed by a brief period of
    political unity in Britain, but very soon the voices of commentators
    arguing that the outrages were the result of the government's
    involvement in the Iraq war swelled into a chorus. Politicians like
    George Galloway and journalists like John Pilger (whose cover story
    in the New Statesman was headlined "Blair's Bombs") accused Tony
    Blair of bringing the atrocity on London's citizens.

    Britain, according to this line of reasoning, had become a target for
    Islamic anger because of war in and occupation of a Muslim country.
    Most were quick to add that these statements were explanation, not
    justification. But in any case, how good an explanation is it?

    A conditional rage

    A contrary argument centres round a term coined by Bernard Lewis in a
    1990 article "The Roots of Muslim Rage" (Atlantic Monthly, September
    1990). Lewis's arguments there and subsequently are well considered and
    historically grounded, although popular discourse takes up the idea of
    "Muslim rage" to imply an essential quality of religious sentiment.

    It is interesting to note that the argument can appeal equally to those
    embracing the "rage" and those fearful of it. Islam, it proposes, is a
    conquering religion, whose intrinsic aspiration is to dominate others.

    But the modern world has brought about the weakness and defeat of
    Islamic states, the end of the caliphate, and the colonisation or
    subordination of Islamic lands to non-Muslim powers. Christians,
    Jews and Hindus - who should, at best, be protected minorities under
    Islamic power - are now the dominant powers subordinating Muslims.
    This situation generates the "rage" which hits out against the dominant
    infidels and dreams of the restoration of Muslim glory.

    The clear implication of this view is that "Muslim rage" is
    unconditional, and has little to do with particular events such as
    Israeli oppression of Palestinians or the American invasion of Iraq.
    It is an essential property of Islam when it does not dominate.

    The argument does not accord with the facts of modern history (as
    detailed even in Bernard Lewis's own account), which show that there is
    no general "Islam" but a diversity of Muslims, many of whom adapted,
    coexisted and prospered in various combinations of power relations -
    ranging from a weakened and modernising Ottoman empire to British
    colonial rule in India, to patterns of coexistence in Malaya and

    When movements of self-determination arose in the 20th century,
    only a few (as, initially, in Algeria), took religious forms; most
    were secular and nationalist, and some (as in Egypt and the Levant)
    featured prominent participation by Christian co-nationals.

    Almost a century later, it is possible to speak of a "rage of Islam",
    one that is not general or essential but rather specific to a modern
    global conjuncture and to particular groups and sentiments. And this
    is where Iraq comes in.

    A seductive "imaginary"

    It is notable that the London bombers killed on 7 July and those
    arrested after 21 July are not Iraqi or Palestinian. The fact that
    some of them are of Pakistani descent is relevant, if at all, only
    for logistical reasons to do with the central role of that country
    in the international jihadi networks. The bombers are not otherwise
    driven by some element of Pakistani culture or heritage. Indeed,
    typically, radical jihadis disown the Islam of their parents as errant
    and corrupted, in contrast to their own pure faith.

    Also notable is the participation of converts, the known cases being of
    Afro-Caribbean descent, and as such sharing alienation as inferiorised
    British citizens. These jihadis are avenging Palestinians and Iraqis
    on behalf of a universal Muslim community engaged in a global battle
    against non-believers who are oppressing Muslims; and not only Iraq
    and Palestine, but Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir and Bosnia are
    fields of oppression of Muslims. So is the infidel military presence
    in the Arabian peninsula and other Islamic lands (the original cause
    advanced by Osama bin Laden for jihad against America and its Saudi
    hosts). So, Iraq is only one episode in this global battle.

    The attacks of 9/11 in the United States predated the invasion of
    Iraq and Afghanistan, and coincided with ongoing events in Palestine.
    All these episodes are, of course, pertinent to universal jihad,
    but only insofar as they confirm and corroborate the ideological
    "imaginary" of the war of Islam against the infidels.

    It is rightly pointed out that only a small minority of Muslims
    are involved in these activities. There are indications, however,
    that many passive or moderate Muslims, some not even religious, do
    participate in this "imaginary": in sentiment, and maybe in token
    action such as money collections in mosques.

    The Arab media are full of admiring and supporting voices of the acts
    of "martyrdom", as well as mealy-mouthed regrets and "explanations"
    of such acts in terms of offensive western policies. 9/11 itself
    was greeted with open displays of delight in some quarters and quiet
    satisfaction in others (not only Muslim). Elements of the subsequent
    "war on terror" - most notably Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo - and the
    increasing pressure on Muslims in many western countries contribute
    to the siege mentality.

    After the left, a gap

    The idea of the division of the world into antagonistic religious
    communities is an old one, and not confined to Muslims. There have
    been pogroms of Jews in Tsarist Russia and elsewhere in Europe; the
    expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Iberia; religious riots against
    Christians in Syria/Lebanon in the 19th century; massacres of Armenians
    in Turkey;
    the "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnians during the wars of
    ex-Yugoslavia. Many other violent episodes were fed by these ideas.

    In a largely secularised 20th century these notions may have declined,
    but never disappeared. So, why did they come to the fore again in the
    last decades of that century? Many writers have focused on the theme
    of "political Islam" and tried to explain its rise, but even that
    brand of Islam is not uniform or unitary; it includes diverse forms,
    only some of which are violent.

    One particular pertinent factor in the modern conjuncture is the
    decline of the left and of Marxism as an idiom of denunciation of
    capitalism and its injustices including racism, class oppression and
    imperialism. Opposition and action against imperialism, especially
    of United States militarism, was an important element of this leftist
    idiom. America and its allies targeted communist and leftist movements
    worldwide as part of the cold war, which added to the left's popular

    Nationalist movements, including Arab nationalism, veered towards a
    leftist idiom, as in Gamal Abdel Nasser's "Arab socialism", and the
    Ba'ath Arab Socialist Party, borrowing heavily from Marxist motifs
    and vocabulary. The failure of these movements, then the collapse
    of communism and the Soviet threat made these idioms increasingly

    In the process, and partly to fill the gap left by the failure of
    radical leftism, jihadi Islam became a world antagonist of America
    (while America retains many Muslim allies). This would explain its
    attraction to disenfranchised groups in the west, and conversion to
    it by individuals seeking action and redemption. It is interesting
    that many conversions occur in prison, where militant Islam appears
    to grant an honourable identity to the disenfranchised and despised:
    part of a world crusade against the arrogant infidel. For some it is
    worth dying for.

    This dominance of militant Islam as the chief antagonist to the west
    in a "war of the worlds" would also explain its attraction to remnants
    of the old sectarian left. Maoists and Trotskyites show evidence of
    increasing sympathy for and even joint action with disaffected Muslims,
    as in the Respect party (widely regarded as a front organisation of
    the Socialist Workers Party) whose candidate George Galloway won the
    east London constituency of Bethnal Green & Bow in Britain's May 2005
    general election. There is no suggestion of the left's complicity or
    sympathy with terrorist action; but the class struggle has acquired
    a religious tinge.

    The Iraq factor

    So, what of the initial question regarding the role of the Iraq
    episode in the bomb outrages in London? The main contribution of
    Iraq is in reinforcing the ideological picture of the universal
    Islamic community doing battle with Christians and Jews. Withdrawal
    of British or American troops from Iraq would not alter that picture,
    nor diminish the momentum of martyrdom now established.

    Such withdrawal may lead to a declaration of victory and brief respite,
    but there is always another cause in this universal struggle in a
    globalised world. We don't know when this momentum will fizzle out:
    perhaps with the realisation that this jihad is doing nothing to
    alter the poverty, corruption and oppression in Muslim lands, or
    helping in the liberation of Palestinians (in fact the contrary:
    it provides international legitimacy for their oppression).

    One element in Iraq, however, is highly pertinent to global jihadism.
    The invasion of the country has provided a fertile territory, a
    "failed state", for recruitment and training of the cadres of jihad.
    The victims are overwhelmingly Iraqi, and many are the wrong kind
    of Muslim. Like most of their co-religionists around the world,
    they fall outside the umma, the imagined global community of Muslims.
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