Trading honest and objective analyses for facile explanations

In the wake of yet another vehicle-ramming attack on the streets of a European city, I could no longer ignore some of the glib commentary following the horrific incident.   I cite the article by Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins on August 18, Barcelona is Europe’s seventh vehicle attack in a year. What can be done? as a case in point. The temptation it seems to annex, rather incongruously, the Western-military-intervention-in-Muslim-lands line was once again too strong to resist. In addition to recycling this tired and predictable digression in a column that was meant to be dealing with the question of what can be done, it betrays a feature now all too common in much commentary and analysis – borderline apologetics on Islamist violence.

“The politics of conflict cannot be entirely swept under the carpet of crime. We are still militarily engaged in Muslim states – which many are bound to see as a war on Islam – and seem unable to stop ourselves.” For what other reason would Mr Jenkins raise this point if it were not, at least in some subtle way, designed to legitimise the grievances held by the most puritanical and nefarious of zealots?

I think I now know what underlies this tendency. There is an obdurate refusal to acknowledge that far-right political Islam, or ‘Islamism,’ is a phenomenon in and of itself and not merely a reaction to Western imperialism and latter-day US-led wars. That’s not to say that British and French colonial rule with its concomitant drawing of arbitrary borders and denial of self-determination coupled with America’s meddling and invasions haven’t spawned legitimate grievances and given a renewed impetus to extremist ideology, only that these depredations and crimes alone are not the cause.

Consider the April 7 Stockholm truck attack and the recent jihadist stabbing rampage in the Finnish city of Turku. To my knowledge neither Sweden nor Finland has been involved in imperialist or military pursuits in the Islamic world. So, whence comes the violence towards peaceful and benign Nordic countries? Mr Jenkins and the Guardian editorial team might have had a hard time in trying to explain away these attacks if it were not for the equally tired and feeble ‘lone wolf’ card. No doubt the mental health of some of these perpetrators is to blame, but to ascribe this rationale to every attacker of Islamic background is to rely too heavily on coincidence.     

To elucidate the recent Catalonian carnage it is necessary to invoke an historical chapter – in fact the first chapter – of American relations with the Islamic world. It is perhaps surprising to learn that the first encounter between the nascent US and the house of Islam was in fact provoked by the latter. In 1784 the Barbary States’ capturing of American merchant ships in the Mediterranean and the enslaving of their crews prompted President Jefferson, rightly indignant at having to pay ongoing ransom and tribute, to travel to London in 1786 to meet with Tripoli’s ambassador Sidi Haji Abdurrahman. Jefferson demanded to know why the Ottoman provinces of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algeria had attacked the ships of a nation that had done them no harm. No involvement in the crusades nor in the retaking of Andalusia. The blunt response:

It is written in the Qur’an, that all nations that have not acknowledged the Prophet are sinners, whom it is the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every Muslim who is slain in this warfare is sure to go to paradise.

There is a haunting echo between these words and their contemporary regurgitation by the ungodly forces of Islamism. I’m in no way suggesting that this is the sole – let alone the most valid – interpretation of such Qur’anic injunctions, but history has shown that they are as readily invoked in their literal sense by Islamists then as they are now, regardless of whether the ‘infidel state’ has previously warred against Muslim lands.

This assault on civilization has also played out as a civil war within the Muslim world itself. Particularly since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and even more so following the emergence of the newly independent, Muslim-majority nation states in the mid-twentieth century, the forces of secularism and of theocracy have fought what remains an irreconcilable battle for legitimacy and governance. What has been referred to as ‘fascism with an Islamic face’ maintains its animosity towards moderate, progressive, secular, and Shia voices in countries from Morocco to Bangladesh whilst simultaneously taking its war to the West.   

Bangladeshi protesters demanding justice for a gay rights magazine editor stabbed to death last year.

Again, I make no attempt to deny that Western imperialism and political and military interventions have created real grievances and thus enhanced the appeal of extremist ideology. There is no better example of this than Iraq where, since 2003, the conflagration of insurgency and sectarian violence has torn the country apart and left over half a million civilians dead. Al-Zarqawi was almost waiting for an opportunity to push his puritanical-Salafist agenda, inflame Sunni-Shia divisions, and help open the gates of hell from which Iraq has never since escaped.

The al-Zarqawis and bin Ladens of the world would have existed (although most likely in much fewer numbers) even if American indiscretions in the Middle East had not added fuel to the fire. The North African marauders and slave traders who were deeply invested in the Muslim/non-Muslim dichotomy paired with the attacks on Sweden, Finland, and editors of gay rights and secular magazines in Bangladesh remind us of this fact.

And so to return to the main point that is the subtle insinuation that Barcelona, like Stockholm, somehow had this coming. ‘We are still militarily engaged in Muslim states’ is now finally being seen for the vapid, blanket cop-out that it is. As for the further claim that ‘almost every act of terror has a political component,’ I would remind Mr Jenkins that every fanatical and crackpot variant of the three monotheisms is overwhelming political, often inextricably so. I don’t think the attackers themselves even bother with the ‘lost Andalusia’ pseudo-grievance or try to find some scrap of historical evidence that implicates Sweden or Catalonia in war against Muslims. They are merely part of the collective, crusading, and crucifix-bearing ‘West’ and that is enough in itself.        

I have tried to make clear the glibness and intellectual dishonesty of Mr Jenkins and others’ claims to the same effect, and while they’re not entirely wrong, their assertions are certainly not the full picture that an honest and objective analysis demands.