Two days ago I read an interesting article by Robert Fisk, in "The Independent". If you didn't see it, or just can't be bothered, then the basic premise is this: when looking at a crime, we generally seek to first establish what has happened, then who has done it, and why. Fisk states, bluntly as usual, that the latter question has simple not been asked, or at least with insufficient force, and insufficient volume. He has a point. The various inquiries into the events of that day, the responses in politics, military action and even social conscience in the US and beyond, seem to have proceeded as if there were no motive, no driving force behind these events at all. "Bad men did it, we have to get them" is the sum of the analysis if you ignore the fluff around it. And for ten years, "getting them" has been the focus of every effort to prevent such a thing happening again.
There will always be some who accuse Fisk of making excuses for the bad guys. He was accused (including by me at times), of making indefensible defences of Saddam Hussein in opposing not just the war in Iraq, but the years of sanctions and military operations that preceded it. Perhaps now he is feeling vindicated in some hollow way, as I fear I might be at some point down the line in my opposition to NATO's sponsorship of civil war in Libya. In this case, Fisk will be accused of making excuses for terrorism, and eventually for attacking the protagonist to which he says all these events will ultimately point: Israel.
Unquestionably, Robert Fisk has written plenty of articles about illegal and immoral acts carried out by the State of Israel. But I can't accuse him of bias, as there are few governments or even causes in this region that he has not shown the wrath of his pen on some occasion or another. Dismissing his article as simplistic, or worse, anti-Israeli, is silly. Fisk isn't saying that because the occupation has carried on for decades innocents must die. He's saying that when people, especially large groups of people, do terrible things, it's frequently because they have lost any sense of belief in a broader justice or order. If you'll excuse the metaphor, I see it rather like this: if drug addicts are carrying out two thirds of petty thefts and burglaries, those things are still crimes. But it is not a defence of drug addiction, or an excuse of individual responsibility, to suggest that more resources are dedicated to preventing or treating addiction as a broader social ill. Two wrongs don't make a right, but wrongs often spring from other wrongs.
There is no question that the situation in Israel and Palestine has proved a competent and persistent recruiting sergeant for terrorism. Mostly in Palestine itself of course, where desperation fuels many choices and motivations that are unfathomable to anyone with a normal life. I have visited several Palestinian cities, including Ghaza as well as the West Bank, and the way most people have to live there is far from normal. I cannot ever describe the decision to strap oneself with explosives and self-destruct in a market place as either logical or moral. But, like Tony Blair's wife famously admitted a few years ago, I can at least partly understand why some do.
The international community, including the USA, is essentially unanimous in the view that the West Bank, Ghaza and East Jerusalem are outside the sovereign territory of Israel and therefore under illegal occupation. If pressed, even the US State Department will acknowledge that according to its own definitions, forcing people from their homes and building settlements on occupied land, is a war crime. Yes despite this, a Palestinian made homeless and destitute then imprisoned in a refugee enclave might reasonably ask: "So what are you going to do about it, oh mighty international community?" And then to decide that in the absence of an answer, some ugly, self-defeating action on his own part might be all that is left. If only to do something.
The eleventh day of September is an anniversary of several things. The CIA-sponsored coup that installed war criminal Augusto Pinochet's military junta in Chile, ousting the democratic government. The first Camp David accords, involving Egypt and Israel in an extraordinary peace that has lasted (more or less) thirty three years, but that excluded both Palestine and Syria (as if some comprehensive peace without them were possible). This day is also the anniversary of the abandonment of the refugee camps Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon to a massacre by the Israeli army: most figures put the death toll at between eight hundred and two thousand men, women and children. The research of an Israeli journalist puts it at over three thousand - more than those killed in New York ten years ago.
Again, this is not a justification of terrorism, rather a contextualisation of how it began. Let's not forget that Al Qaida and Usama bin Laden first became opposed to the West when they were denied the freedom to return to Saudi Arabia with their men and weapons and fight the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. They objected in principle to a foreign, non-Muslim army being stationed in the Arabian peninsula. A ridiculous over-reaction on the surface, but in the context of history, the arrival of a massive army from the West has plenty of unpleasant precedents. Many also forget that the attack on the United States in 2001 was simply the largest Al Qaida attack to date, yet one of many on Americans and their allies in several countries since the early nineties. If "9/11" was an outrage, it was neither new, nor a surprise.
Now that Usama bin Laden is in his watery grave, Al Qaida has lost many key leaders, and terrorism inspired by that ideology is more often carried out by small groups in imitation rather than coordination, it is tempting to say there has been progress over the last ten years in fighting this cause. That is why what Robert Fisk has written is so important, such a vital alarm call: the individual crimes might have been solved in higher numbers. The serial offenders might have been stopped, jailed or eliminated. But the supply of terrorism addicts is still there, as strong as ever, or maybe stronger. Just as many people are furious now about the decades of injustice in Palestine as there ever were. Although the operating environment for terrorists might be less permissive than it was at the turn of the last millennium, the number of people willing to take matters into their own hands and open to manipulation by the doctrine of terror, is not in decline.
My blog colleague, the redoubtable Trygve, touches on an important point in this regard: the bending of the rules to get a quick result, the undermining of the principles of freedom and the well-publicised excesses of both East and West in tackling terrorism, represent a victory to the terrorists. Supporters of terrorism, and the web of lies and conspiracy theories that motivate them, point to corruption and lies in their governments and in the established world order. They believe that the so-called "free" democracies of the West are as dishonest and deceitful as any dictator, and create elaborate theories of crusader-pillaging to justify this message. In breaking or avoiding their own laws, through Guantanamo, endemic torture policies, and renditions to countries now described as "dictator regimes", the supposedly free and transparent Western governments simply play the part they have been given. It's not just anger that fuels terrorism, it's derision. Contempt. A belief that the "enemy" is without morals or convictions and therefore without purpose or worth. In flouting their own ethical codes and principles, the US and others have now played this part enthusiastically for a decade.
That's one part of the story. The root causes of terror, or perhaps more accurately, the root causes of sympathy for terrorist actions, remain unchanged. Several more have been added - Afghanistan and Iraq with both the ridiculous conspiracy theories that surround them, and the genuinely horrific loss of life and incidents of torture. Perversely, as I was writing only the other day, we have NATO equipping and supporting the same Al Qaida franchises in overthrowing their government, in some confused effort to decide where the causes of freedom and fighting terror must be balanced. First the West created the monster to fight the Russians, then it became the enemy, now again it's the ally against "tyranny". That's a peculiar position to be in on this anniversary. The credibility of the West has been enhanced in the eyes of some through the Libyan civil war, but it won't last. The open sores of Palestine (sixty-three years), Iraq (eight years) and Afghanistan (ten years), remain open, and the infection spreads.
But there is another side to this. Another kind of denial. I'm sure I have many readers who feel slighted, uncomfortable with my talking about why terrorists take up their horrible business instead of simply mourning those lost lives in New York. It's an uncomfortable thought that the good guys aren't all good, and even the bad guys have their reasons. For my part, I think that allowing those uncomfortable equations, those grating recognitions, into one's head, is the only thing that gives sense to morality or reason. One cannot be sure of taking the right perspective, without considering first that which appears to be wrong. I hope I haven't offended you - before turning the coin to see its reverse.
The reverse is this: we all know Israel still occupies Palestine. We all know that the USA, UK and probably other countries, have broken their own laws and principles and done bad things. We ("we" meaning those who oppose such things, whatever their background) are quick to point the finger on a day like this, and cry "hypocrite". But conversely, "we" the Muslims, Middle Eastern or otherwise, have a broader case to answer too. "We" the people who consider ourselves understanding of the injustices that have spawned this kind of terrorism. "We" need to take a long hard look at ourselves.
Another blog post I read today noted, as a casual aside, that "we know that Usama bin Laden said he didn't do it". Not in any justification of the murders of ten years ago, nor offering any alternative explanation. Just as if it were true. Of course, Usama bin Laden not only said he did it, he explained the how and why at considerable length and with great pride. So why would someone say such a thing? Why do people forward each other emails full of nonsense - asinine, hate-filled lies, as if it is some secret, privileged source of truth? Is it to make them feel special? Is it simply because they no longer believe the news, their own governments (East or West), or just an information overload that makes them unable to distinguish between one source and another? I suspect a combination of all of the above.
But there's another, more important reason why people spread silly conspiracy theories or make outlandish justifications for the worst horrors of Al Qaida-inspired terror. I've heard people, even friends, argue completely contradictory theories (Usama did it, and they deserved it/the CIA did it/Mossad did it/it never happened) within the same sentence, and take some apparent comfort from this logical contortion. It is as if it excused them from having to deal with what it meant. But that is the problem, the core reason, the nub of the issue. A vast number of people do not want to deal with the fact that a bunch of Muslims, claiming to be religious, following relatively mainstream conservative doctrines familiar and acceptable to all of us, have integrated terrorism into that moral framework and sold it as a single package. People are afraid to oppose a man who calls himself a man of religion, even if what he is preaching is from the Devil himself.
The uncomfortable realities for the West to consider are well documented by Robert Fisk and others - in the West, and applauded gleefully by those who want to blame them in isolation. The mirror image of the terrorists' message is also presented in bold letters in the West - that Islam is evil and that terrorists are just mainstream Muslims. But the uncomfortable reality for us, for all Muslims regardless of nationality or ethnicity, is that they are partly right. Too many Muslims accept the word of anyone who is overtly religious as if it is religion itself. There is no evil more pervasive or more quick to propagate, than evil disguised as a moral duty. Whether it's a president ordering his armies to fire on civilians in the name of a war on terror, or terrorists themselves ordering the same in the name of a holy mission, evil is evil. Freedom-loving democrats who engage in extra-judicial kidnapping and torture, are wrong and they are hypcrites. But so are those who kill women and children in the name of Islam.
The West is always able, eventually, to pick over its darkest acts in public. US and British soldiers who tortured people in Iraq were named and shamed by their own, and publicly by their media, then tried and punished by their own governments. Yet in the late nineties and up until but a few weeks before the attack on New York, some Middle Eastern governments were denying in public that Al Qaida was even active in their countries - going as far as to blame a whole series of indiscriminate AQ terror attacks on "foreign criminals engaged in alcohol smuggling". This was while simultaneously providing intelligence to the CIA and others that AQ had both the intention and capability to attack Westerners in both Arabia and the West. It is not only the USA that can be a hypocrite - far from it. And perhaps it's best not to delve too deeply into why the most prominent den of vice in the Middle East has never experienced as much as a word of condemnation from Al Qaida, let alone an attack on its easy and obvious targets. Who has hunting lodges in Helmand, and who uses smuggling and money laundering routes through certain GCC ports, might be relevant questions to consider for those who have not yet asked.
The chicanery of governments is not my main concern, though. It is the denial among ordinary people, ordinary peace-loving Muslims. The willingness to nod and wink at terrorists when it offends someone for whom we harbour a dislike. The refusal to see an innocent from one place as being equivalent to an innocent from another, is a disease of both sides equally. Dropping bombs on cities and accepting "collateral damage" of even one life, is wrong in my opinion. But so is shooting the child of a "settler". So is blowing up a grandmother while she is out shopping, whatever her politics (as if you could know them anyway). The lack of understanding of our common humanity has brought war upon war, hurt upon hurt, injustice upon injustice, evil upon evil. East or West, Christian, Muslim or unbeliever, we are all guilty of the same thing.
But Muslims have one special problem, and we will never be able to look these hideous events in the eye until we address it. The culture of deference to anyone who uses the word "Allah" with apparent conviction, is undermining our religion, or lives and our future. Not everyone who speaks about religion is good, or even wise. We must be free to question, we must be free to argue and debate. The pantomime of an Islamic mediaeval church that is being created in accessible and multiple media for the masses, is the mother of all terrorism, and the father of ignorance and immorality in the Muslim nation of our age. Until we can strip "men of religion" of their un-Islamic titles and badges, and until we can free our minds to read and learn our religion as if it were new, then we will be as guilty of hypocrisy as anyone. Israel and Palestine might be fundamental factors in inspiring terrorism. But the failure to fight un-Islamic murder as an ideology, lies entirely with us. It's time to clean house, and not allow another decade of denial.