Sep 2005 Journal

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Social responses to terrorism

'Terrorism: Coercive and violent behaviour undertaken to achieve or promote a particular political objective or cause ... Terrorist activity is designed to induce fear through its indiscriminate, arbitrary, and unpredictable acts of violence, often against members of the population at large.' Thus the 2004 edition of The Penguin Encyclopaedia.

So what's new? When expressing horror at the events of 7 July, or the abortive bombings two weeks later, the media speak as if it were a first. But we have been there before. What was Germany's and Austria's Jewish population, or occupied Europe, exposed to if not indiscriminate and arbitrary violence from puffed-up Nazi and Quisling sections of the population after 1933 and, more particularly, after 1939? That in addition to discriminatory legislation. And even before that, colonisation, and thereafter keeping 'the natives' in order, caused white settlers to use terrorist means.

However intensely we experienced 7 July, our second thought must be for Israel, which has suffered suicide bombing for years and has virtually learned how to live with the phenomenon. The British mass media is probably right in regarding the terrorists, alive or dead, as 'foot soldiers'. But it is almost certainly wrong to be shocked that the dead terrorists, at least, are UK citizens. Nationality is a legal concept: the really shocking factor is that they are not just human beings, but apparently otherwise well-balanced and reasonably educated ones. That one of the 7 July bombers was a well-regarded, caring worker with young children makes it worse. An illiterate, unkempt, introspective paranoid would present a more re-assuring stereotype!

Far more controversial is the possible link between the Muslim faith, the Middle East (both Iraq and Palestine/Israel) and the bombings in London. Islam is not the only faith whose guiding text sometimes lacks internal consistency. There are surah commending peace and tolerance, but there are others demanding the slaying of non-believers. Islam's social role is perhaps more important. We are, by culture and faith, more affected when we read of the suffering of Brits or fellow Jews in Russia or elsewhere. Should we be surprised when Muslims unselfconsciously refer to co-religionists as 'brothers' and have stronger views about events in Muslim countries than the rest of us?

There is something stirring within British Muslim society to which we might usefully pay attention. Their sociologists are posing questions. Why are young Muslims being attracted to extremist madrassas and mosques? Even the role of the faith school is being questioned: does it promote cohesion or dissent? A primary conclusion is that the mainstream mosque is run by the elderly for the elderly, that it is not welcoming to the young, and that the leaders are out of touch with modern thought, skills and opportunities. The drift away from traditional values - or, worse, away from the community - has for decades been the concern of British Asian parents. Attention is now being paid to the drift in the opposite direction.

Perverse though it is, the irrationality of forcible extra-political expression of political aims, even when not murderous, may be an expression of current societal values - instant satisfaction of perceived aims or desires, with suicide bombing seen as the maximised assertion of the 'I' versus society.

The scale of suicide bombing - currently hundreds of victims a month in Iraq alone - has expanded exponentially, and that must mean that there are many more volunteers in reserve. Could Muslim youth see 'the war' as legitimate resistance to an Anglo-American juggernaut which demands the sacrifice of the common Muslim good to Western values and profits? Killing mainly their own people - is this illogical? Yes, but ... Could we in Britain be facing the consequences of another social change: the increasing disempowerment of the population at large?

That the bomber 'will always get through' was conventional wisdom, especially after Guernica. Perhaps he still can, but only if the free society fails to protect - indeed expands - its freedoms.
Francis Deutsch

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