Bush’s Belief in a Worldwide Islamist Conspiracy is Foolish and Dangerous
We can only see off the serious threat we face if we separate real Muslim grievances from al-Qaida’s homicidal mania
George Bush sometimes sounds more like the Mahdi, preaching jihad against infidels, than the leader of a western democracy. In his regular radio address to the American people on Saturday he linked the British alleged aircraft plotters with Hizbullah in Lebanon, and these in turn with the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
All, said the president of the world’s most powerful nation, share a “totalitarian ideology”, and a desire to “establish a safe haven from which to attack free nations”. Bush’s remarks put me in mind of a proverb attributed to Ali ibn Abu Talib: “He who has a thousand friends has not a friend to spare, and he who has one enemy will meet him everywhere.”
In the United States a disturbingly large minority of people – polls suggest around 40% – remain willing to accept Bush’s assertions that Americans and their allies, which chiefly means the British, are faced with a single global conspiracy by Islamic fundamentalists to destroy our societies.
In less credulous Britain one could nowadays fit into an old-fashioned telephone box those who believe anything Bush or Tony Blair says about foreign policy. Many of us are consumed with frustration. We know that we face a real threat from Muslim fundamentalists, and that we are unlikely to begin to defeat this until we see it for what it is: something infinitely more complex, diffuse and nuanced than the US president wishes to suppose.
There is indeed a common strand in the anger of Muslim radicals in many countries. They are frustrated by the cultural, economic and political dominance of the west, whose values they find abhorrent. In some, bitterness is increased by awareness of the relative failure of their own societies, which they blame on the west rather than their own shortcomings.
They turn to violence in the spirit that has inspired fringe groups of revolutionaries through the ages. It is essential for the western democracies to defend themselves vigorously against such people, whose values and purposes are nihilistic. We must never lose sight of the fact that al-Qaida’s terrorists attacked the twin towers on 9/11 before Bush began his reckless crusade, before the coalition went into Afghanistan and Iraq, before Israel entered Lebanon.
In September 2001, most of the world clearly perceived that a monstrous crime had been committed against the United States, and that the defeat of al-Qaida was essential to global security. While many ordinary Muslims were by no means sorry to see American hubris punished, grassroots support for Osama bin Laden was still small, and remained so through the invasion of Afghanistan.
Today, of course, everything has changed. In the eyes of many Muslims, the actions of Bush and Blair have promoted and legitimised al-Qaida in a fashion even its founder could hardly have anticipated a decade ago.
Bush has chosen to lump together all violent Muslim opposition to what he perceives as western interests everywhere in the world, as part of a single conspiracy. He is indifferent to the huge variance of interests that drives the Taliban in Afghanistan, insurgents in Iraq, Hamas and Hizbullah fighting the Israelis. He simply identifies them as common enemies of the United States.
Almost three years ago he contemptuously challenged the Iraqi insurgents to defy American will: “My answer is – bring ’em on.” Today he has widened this bold defiance to embrace a vastly more ambitious range of foes: “He who has one enemy will meet him everywhere.”
Far from acknowledging that any successful strategy for addressing Muslim radicalism must include a just outcome for the Palestinians, he endorses Israel’s attempt to crush them and their supporters by force of arms alone, together with Israeli expansion on the West Bank. The west faces the probable defeat of its efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, a worthy objective, because of the likely failure of its campaign in Iraq, which began on false pretexts.
There is no chance that the west will get anywhere with the Muslim world until the US government is willing to disassemble a spread of grievances in widely diverse societies, examine them as separate components, and treat each on its merits. America cannot prevail through the mere deployment of superior wealth and military power, the failure of which is manifest. Judicious and discriminatory political judgments are fundamental, and today quite lacking.
The madness of Bush’s policy is that he has made a wilful choice to amalgamate the grossly irrational, totalitarian and homicidal objectives of al-Qaida with the just claims of Palestinians and grievances of Iraqis. His remarks on Saturday invite Muslims who sympathise with Hamas or reject Iraq’s occupation or merely aspire to grow opium in Afghanistan to make common cause with Bin Laden.
If the United States insists upon regarding all Muslim opponents of its foreign policies as a homogeneous enemy then that is what they become. The Muslim radicals’ “single narrative” portrays the entire course of history as a Christian and Jewish plot against Islam.
It is widely agreed among western governments and intelligence agencies that, in order to defeat the pernicious spread of such nonsense, a convincing counter-narrative is needed. Yet it becomes a trifle difficult to compose this when the US president promulgates his own single narrative, almost as ridiculous as that of al-Qaida.
Whatever the truth about last week’s frustrated aircraft bomb plot, we cannot doubt that Britain faces a serious and ongoing threat from violent fanatics undeserving of the smallest sympathy. Yet we shall defeat them only when our Muslim community at large perceives that its interests are identified with Britain’s polity.
This objective will remain elusive as long as the British government supports the United States in pursuing policies that many Muslims perceive as directed against their entire culture. You and I know that this is not so. We are as dismayed as they are by Bush and Blair’s follies.
Yet, however eloquently we explain this, many Muslims respond by pointing to the spectacle of American, Israeli and British troops daily executing operations that the president declares to be in furtherance of his global jihad. It avails little that we know our boys in Afghanistan are pursuing infinitely more admirable purposes than the Israelis in Lebanon, when Bush is telling the world that the two conflicts are mere different fronts in a common struggle.
Tony Blair – “waist deep in the big muddy”, as Pete Seeger used to sing about Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam era – clings to a messianic conviction that he must continue to endorse American statements and policies to maintain his restraining influence on George Bush. This invites speculation about what the president might do if Tony was not at his elbow. Seize Mecca?
The west faces a threat from violent Muslim fundamentalists that would have existed even if a Lincoln had been presiding at the White House. As a citizen, I am willing to be resolute in the face of terrorism, which must be defeated. I become much less happy about the prospect of immolation, however, when Bush and Blair translate what should be an ironclad case for civilised values into an agenda of their own which I want no part of.