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The London Blasts


The London Blasts: Media Review

DAY NINE: 16 July 2005


Part 1: Ian Buruma's Incoherence: the causes of the bombings

Part 2: Realism and Denial: the link to British foreign policy

Part 3: Islam: the Muslim community and Muslim leadership


On to Part 2



For those visiting for the first time, the background to the comments that follow lie in our priority page, and in our first Media Review. The facts contained in those pages are assumed in what follows.


Part 1






Ian Buruma, author and Luce professor of Democracy, Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College, New York, writing in the FT magazine, offers us more of the same odd mixture of propaganda and realism that has characterized much of the British reaction to the London atrocities.


The overriding impression of his piece is given in these key sentences. Unlike the Nazis or the IRA, 'Suicide bombers and jihadis, however, represent no state; indeed they do not recognise one outside the wholly imaginary community of pure faith. There is nothing to negotiate with people who wish to kill as many infidels as they can to establish a divine realm of the faithful.'


[In passing, one might wonder what communities are not 'imaginary'. Is the global 'nation' or 'ummah' of Islam (estimated at 1.3bn people) more imaginary than the incredibly diverse 'nation' of the United States, or the 'nations' of India (1.1bn) or China (1.3bn)? The Chinese State is not imaginary, but to what extent is the Chinese 'nation' a 'community'?]


Buruma begins his article on the causes of the London bombings by scorning Tariq Ali, author, and Faisal Bodi, news editor at the British television 'Islam channel', for saying that, 'The principal cause of this violence is the violence being inflicted on the people of the Muslim world' (Ali), and that when Blair 'led us into the war on terror, he knew that a country with which Islamist networks had no immediate axe to grind would be drawn into their sphere of hate as a consequence' (Bodi), and that the solution is to end the occupations of Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine.


Buruma dismisses such analysis by the usual trick of misrepresenting his opponents. While '[i]t would be foolish to deny that western powers have done many bad things, the arrogant assumption that almost all the world’s ills, from African hunger to mass murder on the London Underground, can be laid at the door of western politicians is not only stupid, but deeply harmful to those who live outside the western world. It lets their own rulers, however murderous, off the hook, and prevents people from taking responsibility for their own societies.'


Neither Tariq Ali nor Faisal Bodi suggested that 'all the world’s ills... can be laid at the door of western politicians'.


They suggested that the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, and Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories were causal factors in the bombing because of 'the anger and bitterness they arouse in the Muslim world and its diaspora' (Tariq Ali).


Buruma piles another misrepresentation on the two commentators: 'to claim that we should not have gone to war with Saddam Hussein because it puts us in the firing line of holy warriors seems a bad, and certainly cowardly argument.'


There were people who made this kind of argument in 2003, such as former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer Ken Clarke, who said on 26 February 2003, 'The next time a large bomb explodes in a western city, or an Arab or Muslim regime topples and is replaced by extremists, the Government must consider the extent to which the policy [of invading Iraq] contributed to it.' (This quote has not been reported in the British media in the last week, so far as we know.) But anti-war activists such as Tariq Ali did not base their criticism on the fear of terrorism, and it is deceitful to suggest that they did.




Buruma himself said something similar about the Iraq war in the New York Times not long ago: 'history shows that the forceful imposition of even decent ideas in the claim of universalism tends to backfire — creating not converts but enemies who will do anything to defend their blood and soil.'


He went on: 'Arab and Muslim extremism may never become as lethal or powerful as the 20th-century German strain, but it has already taken a terrible toll. Once again a nation with a universalist mission to liberate the world is creating dangerous enemies (and once again Jews are being blamed).

'This is not necessarily because the Islamic world hates democracy, but because the use of armed force — combined with the hypocrisy of going after one dictator while coddling others, the arrogant zealotry of some American ideologues and the failures of a ham-handed occupation — are giving America's democratic mission a bad name.'

'One problem with American troops' liberating the Middle East is that it confirms the opinions of both Muslims and Westerners who see the Iraq war as part of a religious war, a "clash of civilizations" in the phrase of the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington.'


Buruma suggested that 'The real question for the Western universalists, then, is whether the cause of moderate Muslims is helped by the revolutionary war that has been set off by the American and British armies.'


In answer, he quoted Nong Darol Mahmada, of the Liberal Islamic Network: 'When the Bali bombings occurred, I thought the fundamentalist groups would fade, because people would see that they were wrong. But now the Iraq war becomes a new justification for the fundamentalist attitude toward America or the West. Everything we've been working for — democracy, freedom of thought — all seems in vain.'


Buruma concludes: 'She may be wrong. All might not be lost. But so far, in Iraq and beyond, the neoconservative mission is achieving the opposite of what it intended.'


One might question the presumptions of this analysis - that neoconservatism is centrally about the spread of 'decent ideas' or 'universalism' - but the thrust of what Buruma says is that the invasion and occupation of Iraq have strengthened the appeal of those committed to violece against the West. It has 'backfired', 'creating enemies'.




That was in early 2004. Now, in mid-2005, Buruma analysis has a different thrust:


The reason Britain is in the sphere of jihadist hate is not because of Blair’s policies, or Israel, or “US imperialism”, but because ours is the world of jahilliya...

Jahilliya, referring to the time before the Prophet, is literally the state of ignorance, but it also means barbarism. Those who lived before Mohammed’s rule could be excused for their ignorance of Islam, but we who live in the corrupt, licentious, perverted, idolatrous, money-grubbing, soulless, savage world, cannot.

That is why we must be destroyed.


So now it is mainly Western decadence and ungodliness that caused the London bombings.


But then, according to Buruma, in this same article, 'The war in Iraq is a highly ambiguous enterprise. It is, on the one hand, a welcome departure from the automatic support of anti-communist dictators in the non-western world. Arab liberals, usually sotto voce, do acknowledge this. But it has also inflamed the passions of those who see the west as the source of all evil.' (Emphasis added.)


So the war on Iraq did contribute to the bombings. This is yet more of the 'I-appear-to-be-denying-any-link-whatsoever-with-the-war-in-Iraq-but-in-a-convoluted-and-hidden-way-I-accept-that-there-is-a-connection' school of analysis. It is extremely harmful. The overwhelming impression given by this article is that it is absurd to suggest that there is a link between the bombings and British foreign policy. But, as we have seen, Buruma knows better.




Similarly, Buruma writes (more in sorrow than in anger): 'If only it were as simple as Tariq Ali seems to believe. If only western governments had the solution to this type of terror in their gift. In fact, there is no reason to think that the withdrawal of US, British or Israeli troops from Arab countries would solve the problem at all, for the religious war would continue.' (Paragraph of denial)


So there is nothing at all that Western governments can do to solve this type of terror. Pretty definitive stuff.


Then, five paragraphs later, Buruma says, 'Because many rulers in the Arab world are indeed corrupt and oppressive, revolutionary fervour is unlikely to lose its heat before the politics in that region change for the better. Apart from encouraging Arab liberals and loosening our ties with Arab dictators, there is not a whole lot that western governments can do to help bring this about.' (Paragraph of realism)


So there is at least one thing that Western governments can do to reduce 'revolutionary fervour' - 'loosening our ties with Arab dictators'. Buruma isn't completely contradicting himself, but this is very different from suggesting that there 'is no reason' to think that changes in British, US and Israeli policy would solve the problem.


Since this is the only practical suggestion Buruma has to make on how we can reduce the risk of terrorism, it ought to have been the lead item in his piece. The fact that it was not leads inevitably to the conclusion that Buruma's priority is not lowering the risk of terrorism, but pouring scorn on Tariq Ali and others who make points about the roots of terror very similar to those Buruma himself was making a year ago.


In other words, Buruma is not primarily concerned with protecting the people of Britain from terrorism, but with ideological policing, even if this means putting up propaganda barriers to the kinds of action that he himself admits can help to reduce anger and bitterness. This is the role of the intellectual, obscuring the facts in the service of power, creating ignorance and obscuring barbarism.


In fact, Buruma's intellectual incoherence is even greater, since immediately after his paragraph of denial, he actually writes, 'In October 2000, when Bill Clinton was still in power, the USS Cole was bombed and 17 US sailors died, not because of any war on terror, but because Osama bin Laden opposed the presence of infidel troops on Arab soil.'


So the cause of that bombing, according to Buruma himself, was a foreign policy decision, an occupation of land in the Middle East by Western troops. The initiator of that bombing, according to Buruma himself, had a limited, negotiable and realisable political demand behind his violent action.


This contradicts Buruma's earlier claim that, 'There is nothing to negotiate with people who wish to kill as many infidels as they can to establish a divine realm of the faithful.'

(For some more comments on the significance of this kind of journalism, see our summary of Noam Chomsky's media analysis.)




Tariq Ali has called for withdrawal. Buruma opposes withdrawal: 'Just imagine the results if the advocates of immediate western withdrawal from the Middle East got their wish. There would be a Hobbesian mayhem of battling warlords in Afghanistan and an all-out civil war in Iraq. This might well enable a small number of bloodthirsty religious fanatics to achieve what has so far eluded them, namely to grab the power of a major Arab state, with all its resources, to carry on their holy war against all those who do not submit to their totalitarian fantasies.'


We should be very clear here that these are arguments about the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan (Israeli control of the Occupied Territories have got lost in the shuffle).


They are not arguments proving that there is no link between these occupations and the anger and despair and hatred that produced the London bombings.


There is a strong strand of opinion within British (and perhaps US) society, regardless of one's original position on the invasion, that, with Iraq (and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan), 'we broke it, we should fix it'. Britain should stay in to make the situation better rather than running out on a terrible situation.


This looks like Buruma's position (he was against the invasion in the first place), but it isn't quite.


Buruma's position is that withdrawal might enable al Qaeda-type fanatics to seize power of Iraq, boosting their terrorist capabilities. He falsely imputed to Tariq Ali and Faisal Bodi the argument that 'we should not have gone to war with Saddam Hussein because it puts us in the firing line of holy warriors seems a bad, and certainly cowardly argument.'


His mirror-image argument seems to be that 'we should not withdraw from the occupation of Iraq because it will strengthen those holy warriors who wish to attack us'. Not an enormously elevated or courageous argument.


(For the record, JNV advocates the rapid withdrawal of US/UK forces from Iraq. We're working on a briefing about this, but a statement of our position, using opinion poll figures which are now outdated, is here.)


On to Part 2

JNV welcomes feedback.


This page last updated 16 July 2005






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