While there is by now a full comprehension of the disaster that is Iraq, there is still not enough understanding of the parallel bankruptcy of the greater war on terrorism and the political and media discourse that has accompanied it.
We have been in denial for the last five years about the reasons for Muslim terrorism.
What we have had, instead, is a war of words against Muslims and Islam, which has created a dangerous polarization between the West and the Muslim world.
This tension is the topic of a just-released report by a cross-cultural United Nations panel of 20 eminent citizens, including Bishop Desmond Tutu.
Sponsored by Catholic Spain and Muslim Turkey, the group has arrived at the same realistic conclusion reached by increasing number of governments, think-tanks and experts: The causes of the conflict are not religious, but political.
Yet for the last five years, the West has been, in the phrase of French Orientalist Maxime Rodinson, theologocentric: seeing Muslims only through the prism of their religion.
This tendency, coupled with the tactics of deflecting attention away from American foreign policy, goes a long way in explaining why most of the rationales offered for Muslim terrorism have been found wanting.
When 15 of the 19 terrorists of 9/11 turned out to have been Saudi citizens, several experts blamed Wahhabism or Salafism, the austere interpretation of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia.
The problem with the formulation was that the Saudi ruling family, the patrons of Wahhabism, remains a staunch ally of the U.S. and the chief guarantor of the energy needs of the West.
Blame was also laid at the doorstep of madrassas, religious schools, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But the bombers of Bali, Jakarta, Karachi, Islamabad, Jeddah, Riyadh, Ankara and other spots were not products of such schools.
Those who carried out the 2004 Madrid bombing and the 2005 London bombings were Europeans, born or raised and educated there. Three of the four British attackers were second-generation British. The 18 Canadians charged with terrorist-related crimes are graduates of Canadian public schools and universities.
Another post-9/11 theory was that suicide bombers were hoping for virgins in Paradise. That promise may have motivated some but not others, certainly not women bombers such as the “black widows” of Chechnya, who had no such sexual favours to look forward to in heaven.
So we must return to earthly reasons for Muslim terrorism.
An official British report on the subway bombing concluded that the culprits were “ordinary British citizens with little known history of extremist views,” but who were radicalized by injustices committed by the West against Muslims.
A report by the Royal Institute of International Affairs also linked the bombings to British involvement in Iraq.
A spokesman for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, speaking of potential second- and third-generation Muslim terrorists, has said: “Clearly, they are motivated by some of the things we see around the world.”
French academic Olivier Roy, an expert on Islam, has said that “born-again Muslims,” including converts, are following the path of European rebels of an earlier era – the Red Brigades or the Basque separatists, who also turned terrorist for their causes.
This, in essence, is what the UN panel also says:
“The Israeli-Palestinian issue has become a key symbol of the rift between Western and Muslim societies, and remains one of the gravest threats to international stability.”
(UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan elaborated further: “We may wish to think of the Arab-Israeli conflict as just one regional conflict amongst many. It is not. No other conflict carries such a powerful symbolic and emotional charge among people far removed from the battlefield.”)
(Separately, Tony Blair made about the same point Tuesday.)
“Western military operations in Muslim countries contribute to a growing climate of fear and animosity that is spreading around the world. The spiralling death toll in Iraq and the conflict in Afghanistan help swell the ranks of terrorist groups.”
“The perception of double standards in the application of international law and the protection of human rights is increasing resentment and the sense of vulnerability felt by many Muslims … Reports of collective punishment, targeted killings, torture, arbitrary detention, renditions, and the support of autocratic regimes contribute to an increased sense of vulnerability around the globe, particularly in Muslim countries.”
The group condemned those who link Islam to violence.
Such assertions “are at best manifestly incorrect or at worst maliciously motivated.”
The panel did note that some of the extremism among Muslims emanates from their own deep divisions on social and political issues, as well as interpretations of Islamic law and traditions. Radicals are advocating “narrow, distorted interpretations of Islamic teachings.”
The way to end the lure of radicals, radicalism and terrorism is not to launch more wars, unilateral ones at that, which “inflame the very sentiments they seek to eradicate,” but rather to deal with the causes, not the symptoms, of terrorism.
The panel proposes a Canadian way forward: “The rule of law and an effective multilateral system, with the UN system at its core.”
Even as we extend our full support to security and law enforcement agencies to ferret out potential terrorists, we cannot dilute the fundamentals of our democracy, namely, that suspects are entitled to know the charges against them and to speedy, fair and open trials.
On the international scene, Canada should revert to its traditional role of consensus builder and become the leading voice in winding down the wars and conflicts that are destabilizing and dividing the world.