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Terrorism: asking the awkward question

By Keith Suter - posted Wednesday, 21 June 2017


Why do Manchester, Paris and London get targeted by Islamist terrorists and not, say, Zurich, Oslo or Warsaw? We spend a lot of time discussing online radicalization and the need for domestic anti-radicalization programmes. But I wonder if the real issues are getting neglected.

Perhaps we should ask a higher order question? “Why do they hate us?” That was the rhetorical question asked by President George Bush in his Congressional speech on September 20 2001 (just after 9/11).

It was a good question but he gave a bad answer. It has distorted the western debate over the “war on terror” ever since.

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Bush answered his own question with the claim that they hate our freedoms: of democracy, religion, and assembly. In effect they hate us for what the west is and not what it does.

His reply neatly side-stepped some uncomfortable matters that continue to get neglected to this day: why do some western countries get attacked by Islamists and not others?

I think the Islamist terrorists hate some western countries for what they do, not least their intervention in Islamic societies (notably those in the Middle East). This explains the pattern of attacks over the past two decades (Osama bin Laden declared war on the US in 1998).

The Islamic world is engulfed in a “long war”. Just how long it will go on, is impossible to predict. I date it from 1979: from the Iranian Revolution which saw the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and triggered a resurgence of Shia extremism which helped ironically inspire a similar rise of violent extremism in its Sunni rivals.

As a guide to how bad things can get, Europe’s own “long war” – between Catholics and Protestants - ran between 1517 and 1648 and still has some smouldering embers, as in Northern Ireland. Probably more Germans per capita died in that war than in the two World Wars last century.

The roots of the Islamic “long war” include: the Sunni-Shia dispute (which has gone on for 1,300 years), regional political power confrontations (as between Saudi Arabia and Iran), the tensions involved in reconciling a conservative traditional desert-based religion with the modern world (such as the role of women in society), and the usual individual political ambitions of unscrupulous people who see ways of using disputes for their own personal ends.

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Bush’s glib 2001 answer worked immediately in two ways. First, it reinforced the usual American belief that it is the “exceptional” nation and so it must expect jealousy from some countries (in this case, Islamic ones). (When you look at statistics on health, justice, education, longevity and political participation, the US is not so wonderful – but that it is another matter). It was a glib answer to pre-empt consideration of deeper matters.

Second, the answer diverted attention away from the deeper issues of how some western countries have behaved in Islamic countries and whether they should be intervening in the Islamic “long war”. This diverted discussion away from US foreign policy.

A third factor has now evolved since 2001: an excessive attention to the domestic source of terrorism within western countries. By ignoring the role of western foreign policy, the debate has focussed on what should be done about Moslems within western countries.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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