All The More Reason

Being Rational about Irrationalism
July 2, 2007, 5:35 pm
Filed under: Religion, Terrorism

On the radio this morning, Eric Hobsbawn made the very sensible point that much of the harm of terrorism comes from the irrational angst that it instils in so many people. For a phenomenon that kills far fewer than other random horrors like, say, cancer, it has an unequalled power to make us fearful and thereby fuddle our reason. Last week’s events will doubtless fuddle further, but it is vital that we approach these matters in as clear-headed a manner as possible, particularly if calls for more draconian counter-terrorism measures begin. It is becoming increasingly clear that this is something that cannot just be wiped out from above- it has to be attacked from the flanks.

Gordon Brown is right, in a sense, when he trots out the familiar line that this is a “battle for hearts and minds”; not necessarily the hearts of minds of the erstwhile car-bomber, but the hearts and minds of those who will glorify or tacitly excuse this type of behaviour. This involves facing some unpleasant truths: 25% of Muslims in a recent YouGov survey said that they ‘had sympathy for the feelings and motives of the 7/7 bombers’; 15% said that they thought suicide bombing was justified. A level of tacit support amongst Muslims for murder somewhere around that of the Liberal Democrats’ current ratings in the polls is more than a little worrying. So this is something that does have to be confronted in Muslim circles. Thankfully, albeit belatedly, I think that this is beginning to happen; there are some very brave people, like Ed Husain and Hassan Butt, who are sticking their necks out to this end.

But the onus shouldn’t be squarely on Muslims. This hinterland for terrorism is further fortified with each mealy-mouthed – and factually incorrect – pronouncement that our foreign policy is to blame for an ideology that predates Bush, Blair and 9/11. Fascists cannot be given a veto over foreign policy, much less a policy that is actively fighting them abroad. It is cock-eyed and naive to believe, as so many claim to do, that ‘pulling British troops out of Muslim countries’ would eradicate this kind of terrorism. It might make it harder for perpetrators to make their actions seem rational, or even just- but that shouldn’t really be our concern, should it?

Britain is a prime target for Islamism because we are robust in our response to the threat that it poses- and not afraid to engage it abroad, and at home, when it threatens us. A lot of Muslims living here feel that they and their coreligionists are being oppressed by the West, when, in fact, the greatest repression of Muslims is being carried out by other Muslims. And for as long as people who ought to know better pander to this self-pitying attitude, organisations like Hizb ut Tahrir will continue to flourish.

Just as we should pay no heed to those who criticise the good things we are doing, nor should we pay lip-service to the ‘recruiting sergeant’ argument that the Bad Things we do lead some Muslims to the conclusion that they have a licence to do worse.

We may well agree with criticisms of Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition and the like (although the British government has been sharply critical of the former for some time now, to the apparent ignorance of those who still trot this line out)- they are Bad Things, but they are bad on their own terms. The worst argument for stopping extraordinary rendition is that by doing so, we will reduce the risk of terrorism. We may never know how much safer we would have been if a second resolution had been passed by the UN in 2003, but this is an absurd question to have to even consider in the first place. Once one starts from the premise that the peculiarly acute sensitivities of nutbags must be weighed into the balance, it becomes impossible for a government to have the freedom to act, even in a way that might be just. These issues are only ‘recruiting sergeants’ for al Qaeda because, by openly rationalising the actions of a few irrational people, we do the work of the nutbags for them, and lend credibility to these non-arguments. We ought to be against allowing the threats of psychopaths to influence the discourse in this way, and we have to be unequivocal on this point.

Here is the bad news: completely stamping out Islamist terrorism is probably impossible. The best we can hope for is to reduce the number of these people to a tolerable level at which detection and surveillance becomes practicable. For as long as there are self-righteous young men (it is usually men) with too much testosterone there will always be extremists – from all sections of society – who wish to do harm to others. What we are seeing at the moment is a particularly virulent strain of this sickness. Unfortunately, this is a long-term problem of being a slightly disappointing mammal, rather than something that can be eradicated by stopping people posting nasty things on websites.

Michael P


2 Comments so far
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I watched an interview with someone who was saying how we ought not to be surprised that some of these suspected terrorists are medical students. I can remember a debate I had in France with a medical student who claimed that they had found parts of the Koran in the DNA code. The only thing that surprised me about that exchange is that it didn’t spark a posthumous fatwa on Watson and Crick.

Comment by J.S.

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