History teaches that a commitment to justice is a precondition for any successful campaign against terrorism. The current War on Terror lacks this commitment and so is doomed to failure.
It was Gandhi who said “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Yet Old Testament notions of justice prevail. Today, Osama Bin Laden, George Bush and Tony Blair tell us that we are engaged in a battle between good and evil. There is a very real danger that the current attitude to the growth of the al-Qaida network and the “War on Terror” is exacerbating the problem and acting as a recruiting sergeant for terrorism.
Even when it comes to the terrible tally of loss of innocent life, the story is being distorted. If we take all the attacks on Western targets resulting in death since September 2001, the total is 3,575 – this includes 2,976 in the Twin Towers, 202 in Bali and 200 in Madrid and 14 other incidents. But as many as 10,000 non-combatant civilians have died following the invasion of Iraq – 7,356 during the war and the rest thereafter. There have also been more than 3,000 civilian deaths in Afghanistan. On top of this, we have the continuing tally of civilian deaths in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The latest estimate is that the Israeli army has killed 2,750 Palestinian civilians in the last three years and 892 Israeli civilians have died in suicide attacks. If we go beyond this to think about the deaths of Muslims in Bosnia and particularly Srebrenica, the savagery of the war in Chechnya and the terrible loss of life over the last 10 years in Kashmir, we might begin to understand that very many Muslims, who are absolutely clear that their faith can never be used to justify attacks on civilians, feel angry that the West appears to value Western lives very much more highly than those of Muslim civilians.
The Washington-based Pew research centre recently completed a second survey of public opinion in Britain, France, Russia and Germany and four large predominantly Muslim countries (The Pew Global Attitudes Project. March 16 2004). If found that anger against the United States is still pervasive and that Osama bin Laden is viewed favourably by 65% of the people in Pakistan, 55% in Jordan and 45% in Morocco. Even in Turkey where bin Laden is very unpopular, as many as 31% say that suicide attacks against Americans and other Westerners in Iraq are justifiable. Majorities in all four countries doubt the sincerity of the war on terror and see it as an effort to control Middle East oil and to dominate the world.
On top of this, the image of al-Qaida that is being propagated is highly misleading. It is not a tightly organised group of conspirators that can be defeated as soon as Osama bin Laden is captured. It represents a millenarian nihilistic set of ideas which were first propagated by bin Laden, but has now taken hold across large parts of the Muslim world. Al-Qaida is seen as the answer to the constant humiliation and suffering of the Arab and Muslim people who, its followers say, must engage in blood sacrifice in order to defeat evil Western interests, reinstate the honour of Muslim civilisation, and the values of justice for which Islam stands.
Of course, such nihilism is dangerous and irrational, but if we are to counter it we need to understand it and ought to reflect on our own
experience. Millenarianism has a long history in Christian thought which parallels bin Laden’s current thinking in suggesting that Christ will establish a one- thousand year reign of the saints before the Last Judgement. Millenarianists expect a time of supernatural peace and abundance here on earth. Sometimes, driven by a sense of apocalypse, believers have engaged in revolutionary efforts to overthrow an unjust socio- political order in an attempt to bring about the kingdom of “peace” for the weak and defenceless. It is notable that Millenarianism has always been a strong current in US Christianity.
There is also a grave danger in the anti-Muslim prejudice which is being fanned by the current approach to the war on terror. It ignores the fact that the fundamentalism, or fanaticism that distorts Muslim teaching and is inspiring a loose and growing network of angry young Muslims is mirrored by new fundamentalist and fanatical movements in all the world’s major religions. The Christian Zionists who are a significant part of President Bush’s political alliance support an expansionist Israel because they believe there has to be a Jewish state in the whole of historical Palestine before the Messiah will return. Jewish settlers, illegally occupying Palestinian land in the West Bank and Gaza, cite the Old Testament when asked for their title to the land. And in Gujarat, fundamentalists Hindus engaged in mass murder, rape and pillage against local Muslim populations in 2002. People of faith should be giving much deeper consideration as to why religious fanaticism is on the upsurge in the face of the uncertainties of the post-Cold War, globalising world. A new global dividing line seems to be emerging between bitter and divisive or generous and inclusive interpretations of the major world religions.
Britain in particular ought to bring a wiser historical understanding to these problems. The errors of the early response to the 1970s IRA campaign with internment acting as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA, taught the important lesson that terrorist movements require support from the people from whom they emerge. There are no quick fixes once such movements are in place, but a commitment to justice is essential to undermine local sympathy and build the necessary alliances to defeat such forces. And in the case of al- Qaida, this means we must find a just settlement to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict which is the root division between the Arab and Western world.
Such a settlement is essential to end suffering and to make progress in the Middle East. All who are seriously concerned for the welfare of both peoples support a two state solution – but sadly this does not include the current American administration or much of American public opinion. There are many young Arabs who argue that Israel has always proceeded on the basis that might is right and that the only answer is to meet force with force. It is this analysis that leads to the justification of suicide bombing as the weapon of choice for a defenceless people who are in despair. Clearly the killing of innocents is always wrong, but we owe it to a people living with endless suffering and humiliation to provide an alternative route to justice and hope for the future.
One of the tragedies of the rush to war in Iraq was British failure to use our leverage with the United States to get the road map to the establishment of a Palestinian state under implementation before working with the people of Iraq and other countries in the Middle East to indict Saddam Hussein and remove him from power. The way forward in Iraq now is to internationalise the reconstruction. This would mean a United Nations mandate – modelled on that for Afghanistan – which gives the UN the task of helping the Iraqis form an interim government and draw up a constitution. Coalition forces should also be placed under UN authority and in time replaced by forces from elsewhere and in particular from the Arab and Muslim world. We fear, however, that despite the coalition wanting UN help, they are still unwilling to cede control to the UN because they want the impossible – a pro-American, pro-Israel democratic government in Iraq.
If our policy on countering al- Qaida was built on a real commitment to justice, we would deal with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East by settling Israel/Palestine and then supporting an agreement that all WMD should be removed form the region, including Israel’s nuclear weapons. Such an agreement could usher in a period of advance and democratisation in the Middle East and create the best possible conditions for countering al-Qaida.
We are afraid that conditions are not yet ripe for such an effort to be tough on terrorism and on the causes of terrorism. But we also fear that the current approach is unlikely to succeed. We must therefore search for a better way. The lesson of history is that a commitment to justice is a pre-condition for a successful campaign against terrorism.