Waking up to the Age of Terror
Friday 21st Nov 2003
The bombings in Istanbul yesterday had a twin tactical purpose, which in turn is part of a concerted, ruthlessly prosecuted anti-Western strategy. First, they hit a country regarded by us as a model for secular Islam. Second, they coincided with the state visit to Britain of George W Bush, who, in a speech the day before, had propounded a "forward strategy of freedom" against terrorism. By targeting the British diplomatic mission in the city, and killing the consul-general, Roger Short, and 13 of his staff, the bombers served notice on America's closest ally that its participation in the invasion of Iraq has not been forgotten; in choosing the London-based HSBC, they were reinforcing that message, and at the same time striking a blow against Western capitalism and what they regard as its sinful practice of usury. These atrocities, which killed at least 27 people and wounded 440, bear the mark of al-Qa'eda and its affiliates, as did the attacks last Saturday on two synagogues in Istanbul. Between them they provide a graphic snapshot of the battlefront in the Age of Terror.
For a start, take Turkey. In a commentary on the destruction of the synagogues, the British-based radical group al-Muhajiroun referred to the abolition of the caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1924 and the supposed evils that had flowed from it. The goal of Osama bin Laden and his sympathisers is the re-establishment of the caliphate in the Middle East and the eradication of Western secular influence. This vision looks back to what is seen as a golden age of Islam in the centuries following the Prophet's death. And it seeks revenge for the perceived humiliation of Muslims in the Crusades, in Napoleon's defeat of the Mameluks in 1798, in the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and in continuing Western influence in the oil-rich sheikhdoms of the Gulf.
It is a vision inspired by a deep-seated hatred of the fruit of the European Enlightenment – a belief in progress and the power of reason, and the separation of secular and religious power. In their reaction to this mode of thinking, the Islamists would take us back in time; in extreme cases, a flight to the supposed theocratic purity of the desert in the age of Mohammed. And their ultimate weapon is the suicide bomber - today armed with explosives, tomorrow, if the opportunity arises, with much more deadly nuclear, chemical or biological devices. In this battle, Turkey, a secular, democratic Muslim state which is seeking to join the European Union and has long had close relations with Israel, is an obvious target.
Last Saturday's bombings in Istanbul were the latest in a grim line of attacks on Jewish institutions: another synagogue in Istanbul in 1986, a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, a school in France and the Israeli embassy in London in 1994, a synagogue in Tunis and an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa in 2002, to mention only a few. The ostensible motive for these outrages is the continuing occupation by Israel of Arab land but they are in fact fuelled by a wider anti-Semitism, as illustrated by the remarks of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in his last days as Malaysian prime minister, to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in Kuala Lumpur last month. In the view of the radicals, Israel must be pounded until it is driven into the sea. For the radicals, that achievement would spell the end of Western influence in the Middle East, a goal of bin Laden initially as far as American forces in Saudi Arabia were concerned, now expanded to the removal of all regimes friendly to Washington and its allies. Al-Qa'eda personnel may have been scattered and their operations disrupted by the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, but they have regrouped and are still capable of carrying out or abetting devastating attacks.
It is this message which Mr Bush has been reiterating during his state visit to Britain. In a speech in the Banqueting House on Wednesday, he said that after September 11 it was a natural human desire, as the months and years went by, to resume a quiet life. He added: "The hope that danger is passed is comforting, is understandable, and it is false." The President talked of great responsibilities falling once again, as during the Second World War and the Cold War, to the great democracies. Their task was to rescue failing states and curb weapons proliferation; in the last resort to restrain aggression and evil by force; and to commit themselves to the global expansion of democracy, a form of government in which the Middle East is notably deficient.
The President expounded at greater length on the last point in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington earlier this month. Dismissing the "cultural condescension" which assumes that Islamic traditions are incompatible with representative government, he referred to Muslims living in democratic societies in Turkey, Indonesia, Senegal, Albania, Niger, Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, India, South Africa, the nations of Western Europe and the United States. "More than half of all Muslims in the world live in freedom under democratically constituted governments," he said. "They succeed in democratic societies, not in spite of their faith, but because of it. A religion that demands individual moral accountability, and encourages the encounter of an individual with God, is fully compatible with the rights and responsibilities of self-government."
In the Banqueting House, Mr Bush challenged those in the West who would appease the Islamists in the hope of avoiding further retribution, a step which would simply confirm to the likes of bin Laden that the secular democracies were ripe for the plucking. Those who protested against the President's visit in London yesterday, please note. In Washington, Mr Bush challenged Muslims who live under oppressive and corrupt rulers to throw off that yoke, not in favour of theocratic despotism but a society where governments are beholden to the electorate and the miserable failure to realise economic potential is rectified.
Many Europeans have been astonishingly slow to understand the impact of what happened on September 11. Yesterday's atrocities are yet another reminder that the West and its allies, and moderate Muslims throughout the world, are up against a foe, who, blasphemously, given that God is the creator of life, glorify their deaths and the innocent people they kill as a passport to Paradise. They represent a radically new and ever-present danger. And the sooner we wake up to it, the better.
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