Imagine the following scenario: During the morning rush hour commute, a young man enters a busy New York subway station armed with an improvised explosive device. The device is detonated, and owing to a technical malfunction, a lack of competence, shear blind luck, or a combination of all three, only a handful of people are injured. This is viewed essentially as a “failed” attack by some, and by others; a relatively minor contribution to a series of far more prolific terrorist atrocities which have killed tens of thousands around the globe in the last sixteen years.
Imagine that these collective atrocities were committed by a global terrorist insurgency, operating under the umbrella of an explicitly fascistic ideology which seeks to impose its dictates upon free people the world over. Imagine that ardent followers of this ideology had seized an area of land larger than the United Kingdom and had set about creating an illegitimate state governed on the basis of genocide, oppression, extrajudicial execution, and the enslavement and slaughter of minorities. Imagine that it had been responsible for the deaths of over 400 people in Western countries in the last three years, and imagine that hundreds of millions of people including world leaders, although condemning the actions of these terrorists, nevertheless share many of their ideological views….
Now imagine that the ideology I’m referring to is Neo-Nazism, and that the people I’m referring to are Neo-Nazis and their white supremacist supporters.
Could you for a second, push your power of imagination to breaking point, by further envisaging that your vocal criticisms of Neo-Nazism were met with ceaseless complaints that Neo-Nazi ideology is entirely incidental to the actions of Neo-Nazi terrorists, and that their behaviour is instead semi-legitimate recompense for the invasion of Normandy or the firebombing of Dresden? Could you imagine being told that your criticisms of this ideology were invalidated by the fact that the country in which you happen to currently reside had supplied arms, created power vacuums, and otherwise assisted its growth, both directly and indirectly via its geopolitical policies? Could you imagine being told that we only have ourselves to blame, and that holding Neo-Nazi terrorists responsible for their own actions is a form of bigotry or intolerance?
Given the myriad ways in which this nauseating and masochistic excuse-making for fascism and terrorism has been thoroughly debunked in the past, it is a line of enquiry that should have been abandoned long ago. And yet it persists with frustrating obstinacy, derailing the conversation at every turn, polluting discussions of preventative strategy, and leading — as ISIS expert and Atlantic writer Graeme Wood notes — to “the United States underestimating it and backing foolish schemes to counter it.”
And so, to co-opt the words of the Islamic State themselves; it becomes important to clarify in unequivocal terms — yet again — why I hate this line of apologia and why I fight against it.
1. It contradicts the terrorists own stated motivations.
Jihadists have been incredibly forthright in explaining and reiterating, at tedious length, that both their inspirations and their aspirations are first and foremost religious. They have also adopted the same approach to spelling out how resentful they are towards liberal non-believers making unsolicited attributions of secular political motives on their behalf. Issue 15 of The Islamic State’s now defunct recruitment and propaganda magazine Dabiq, contained a four page article entitled “Why We Hate You and Why We Fight You” which spelt this out conclusively:
“What’s important to understand here is that although some might argue that your foreign policies are the extent of what drives our hatred, this particular reason for hating you is secondary…The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam.” – Yahya al-Bahrumi (ISIS spokesman writing in Dabiq Issue 15.)
This article was widely reported in the media, both mainstream and otherwise, as a relatively unique and candid instance of sincerity by jihadists in explaining their own agenda and resulting behaviour. Yet these sentiments are nothing new among jihadists:
“Our driving motivation doesn’t come from tangible commodities that this world has to offer. Our religion is Islam — obedience to the one true God, Allah, and following the footsteps of the final prophet and messenger Muhammad… This is how our ethical stances are dictated.” — Mohammad Sidique Khan (Ringleader of the 7/7 Bombings)
“Jihad means holy war for the sake of God. It is one of the holiest deeds in Islam…With Jihad the word of Allah is
“These actions are our offerings to God. In God’s book, he ordered us to fight you everywhere we find you… Our religion is a religion of fear and terror to the enemies of God: the Jews, Christians, and pagans. With God’s willing, we are terrorists to the bone.” — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (Orchestrator of the 9/11 attacks.)
“The first thing that we are calling you to is Islam. We call you to be a people of manners, principles, honour, and purity; to reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and trading with interest.” – Osama Bin Laden (From his Letter to America.)
“We primarily fight wars due to people being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue, their kufr (disbelief/denial) against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.” — Abu Rahin Aziz (British ISIS fighter in conversation with Shiraz Maher.)
2. When political grievances are cited by the terrorists, they are invariably inseparable from religious grievances.
It is true that Jihadists often cite what could be mistaken for rational political grievances alongside their explicitly religious motives. However, not only have they reiterated that these are a secondary concern, but closer investigations reveals a deeply religious aroma emanating from these supposedly secular resentments. In the first place, the tendency is to view any military intervention in the “Muslim world” as evidence that the West is engaged in a war against the religion of Islam. Pierre Rehov interviewed failed Palestinian suicide bombers for his documentary Suicide Killers. Two of his subjects had the following to say on this point:
“After the (7th July 2005) bombing in London we distributed candies because they are the enemies of Islam, because they are at war with Islam.” “Our aim is that anybody who fights Islam is an enemy of Islam, and therefore it is only right to kill them.” “Our final goal is to kill the enemies of Islam. All of the enemies of Islam. Killing them all is a holy act.”
Needless to say, religious supremacy and tribalism of this kind is, by definition, not a secular phenomenon.
Osama Bin Laden, in his Letter to America explaining his motives for the 9/11 attacks, mentions several foreign policy grievances before launching into an articulate yet strangely archaic rant chastising the U.S for its acceptance of homosexuality, the permissibility within its culture of gambling, intoxicants, sex workers, and the toleration of President Clinton’s oval office indiscretions with a certain Miss Lewinski. His outburst is followed by a list of demands which begins with Western mass conversion to Islam and the prohibition of all activities that Islam deems impermissible. The penalty for rejecting this ultimatum, according to Bin Laden, is violence:
“If you fail to respond to all these conditions, then prepare for fight with the Islamic Nation.”
Another of Bin Laden’s supposedly political complaints was the consensual presence of American troops in Saudi
Even the less overtly religious imperatives are often, at best, quasi-political. Osama Bin Laden, for example, considered Western civilians legitimate targets on the basis that they contribute, via the democratic system, to the election of governments who in turn commit transgressions against Muslims, including the prevention of sharia establishment. It is blowback of a kind, but of a kind that relies on Islamic edicts regarding innocence, that is predicated on the concepts of the Ummah (the worldwide brotherhood of Muslims) and of Islamic law, and that reviles democracy and secularism as a blasphemous superseding of God’s rightful rule.
The Jewish state and the West’s alliance with it is often offered as a secular political justification for terrorism. However, the Islamic objection to the state of Israel has just as much to do with faith-based bigotry concerning the religious identity of Israelis, as it has to do with pedestrian grievances about land ownership. That the world’s one Jewish state should be situated on contested “Muslim holy land” is an offence against Islam and its claims upon the sanctity of the region.
“O you who believe! do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.” – Quran 5:51
Just as Islamic terrorism predates the existence of the United States as a country, Islamic anti-Semitism predates the existence of the Israeli state. David Aaronovitch’s documentary Blaming the Jews sets out a damning case against Islamic attitudes towards Jewish people which go far beyond grievances about contested land, and which often find themselves embedded in Islamic religious texts.
As such, the Palestinian terror outfit Hamas has no compunction whatsoever in stating that their fight is not merely with “Israeli aggressors in occupied Palestine,” but with all Jews wherever they reside globally, and that this is in accordance with end times prophecies detailed repeatedly in the two hadith collections considered most authentic; Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim:
Likewise, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the Palestinian Authority, and much of the Arab/Muslim world produce and circulate rabidly anti-Semitic propaganda promoting holocaust denial and espousing conspiracy theories which include a world domination plot by Jews, a Jewish predilection for ritual infanticide, and Jewish culpability for the events of 9/11. Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes this phenomena in a Middle Eastern context:
“All over the Middle East, hatred for Jews and Zionists can be found in textbooks for children as young as three, complete with illustrations of Jews with monster-like qualities. Mainstream educational television programs are consistently anti-Semitic. In songs, books, newspaper articles and blogs, Jews are variously compared to pigs, donkeys, rats and cockroaches, and also to vampires and a host of other imaginary creatures.”
However, this religiously inspired bigotry is not constrained to the Middle East. As the otherwise intolerable Mehdi Hasan points out in a rare moment of clarity, this bigotry has also infected much of the British Muslim diaspora:
“It pains me to have to admit this but anti-Semitism isn’t just tolerated in some sections of the British Muslim community; it’s routine and commonplace. Any Muslims reading this article — if they are honest with themselves — will know instantly what I am referring to. I can’t keep count of the number of Muslims I have come across — from close friends and relatives to perfect strangers — for whom weird and wacky anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are the default explanation for a range of national and international events. No, the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict hasn’t helped matters. But this goes beyond the Middle East. How else to explain why British Pakistanis are so often the most ardent advocates of anti-Semitic conspiracies, even though there are so few Jews living in Pakistan?”
To describe these attitudes and grievances as “political,” is to spectacularly miss the point.
3. It blames the victims whilst painting the perpetrators as the real victims.
It should go without saying that teenaged Arianna Grande fans, French cartoonists, Dutch filmmakers, Pakistani school girls, and Indian novelists living in Britain, have no connection to foreign policy in any capacity. And whereas all terrorism, by definition, targets innocent civilians, it is invariably indiscriminate. These particular civilians, however, were targeted not at random, but were instead chosen specifically, and for clearly religious reasons.
Theo Van Gogh, for example, was self-evidently not murdered by Islamic fundamentalist Mohammed Bouyeri because of any conceivable injustice, other than a 10 minute film he had produced and directed on the subject of Islamic misogyny and Muslim violence against women.
Similarly, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists gunned down by French Algerians to cries of “Allahu Akbar” and “we have
“We defend the prophet. If someone offends the prophet then there is no problem, we can kill him.” — Chérif Kouachi (Charlie Hebdo Jihadist.)
Homosexuals are not slung to their deaths from Syrian and Iraqi rooftops for any political violations other than those of sharia — the law of Islam. Author Salman Rushdie in no way jeopardized the safety and security of Muslims. Instead his safety and security was jeopardized by Muslims, whose murders, bombings, and death threats were disgracefully excused in some quarters as a predictable and understandable reaction of a helpless and downtrodden minority to a mildly derogatory novel.
Which of the Islamic State’s foreign policy demands, I wonder, did English cab driver Alan Henning contravene by distributing humanitarian aid to Muslim civil war victims in Al-Dana, Syria that was sufficient to provoke his own beheading?
These were self-evidently ideologically motivated acts of murder and intimidation at the hands of theocratic fascists wishing to impose their religious codes of conduct on others. Anyone who acts this way is not a victim in any meaningful sense of the word, and yet we are asked repeatedly to consider them as such.
4. It presumes that Muslims are uniquely susceptible to suicidal mass murder over political grievances.
When anti-Semitic cartoons are published in the Muslim world, as they so often are, we do not see Jews clad in black fatigues marching into the headquarters of the publication and gunning down the cartoonists with AK-47s whilst screaming about restoring religious honour.
Vietnamese Americans venting their frustrations over the My Lai Massacre by hijacking jetliners crammed with civilians and slamming them into heavily populated skyscrapers whilst bellowing religious exclamations, are likewise conspicuously absent.
Similarly, there is a noticeable lack of Japanese Americans marching into concert halls and detonating suicide vests in crowds of schoolgirls and their guardians, in retaliation for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it would be an exceptional occurrence to encounter second generation German immigrants blowing up commuters on the London transport system as retribution for the 2nd World War. However, if these were indeed common occurrences, I would expect reasonable people to be swatting away this kind of tasteless excuse-making reflexively.
Islamic terrorists, conversely, are given special consideration. If the apologists’ arguments had any semblance of consistency, it would be acceptable to claim that Darren Osborn, the Finsbury park terrorist, had legitimate political grievances since his murder of an innocent Muslim must be viewed in the climate of ceaseless Islamic terror attacks. Likewise, if hundreds like him began committing terrorism against Muslims in scores of countries around the world.
Islamic apologist Reza Aslan asks:
“What would you do if a foreign country dropped a bomb on your apartment building killing your wife and children? Seriously, what would you do?”
In attributing such terrestrial motives to Islamic terrorists, Aslan must first explain why he considers killing cartoonists, raping Yazidis, blowing up Shiites, taking sex slaves, kidnapping schoolgirls, throwing gays from roof tops, and sawing the heads off of journalists and aid workers with combat knives, to be a natural human response to bereavement. And then why Muslims have something of a monopoly on such responses.
5. It implies that any and all supposed foreign policy grievances that could be attributed to Islamic terrorists should be granted automatic legitimacy.
The citing of foreign policy grievances by apologists are invariably accompanied by forcible suggestions that “we” should refrain from intervening in “Muslim countries” lest we inadvertently incite terrorism against ourselves. That any “meddling in Muslim affairs” is an inexcusable provocation that generates an understandable, if not entirely defensible, backlash.
It goes without saying that one of the foreign policy grievances the Islamic State have, is the bombing of their terrorist brothers at the hands of infidels. Al-Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi was a full blown religious psychopath whose enthusiasm for hacking off the heads of prisoners, and massacring Shia Muslims, was fully catered for both by the ideology he immersed himself in and the jihadist organisation he founded in its name. The 2006 missile strike which killed Zarqawi has been cited by both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State as grounds for bloody retribution against the West.
When 202 people were murdered and 209 were injured by the detonation of car bombs and suicide vests in the Bali tourist resort of Kuta in 2002, Bin Laden cited Australia’s role in the liberation of East Timor and the U.S’s war on terror as the motivation.
In each of these cases, the demands of the terrorists, are simply and solely that they be allowed to operate with impunity, and these demands are presented in the form of an ultimatum that offers threats of violence in response to any failures of compliance.
The demand then, is that psychotic gangsters like Zarqawi must be allowed to decapitate civillians in Salafist snuff-porn. Al-Qaeda in Iraq must be allowed to butcher as many Shia Muslims as they please. Indonesia must be free to commit genocide in East Timor. And Al-Shabaab must be left alone to turn Somalia into an arena of terrorism and child abduction. It’s impossible not to recall Christopher Hichens’ perfect definition of terrorism when such capitulations are suggested:
“Terrorism is the tactic of demanding the impossible, and demanding it at gunpoint.”
6. It demands that Western foreign policy decisions be dictated by the most psychotic, violent, fascistic and repressive elements of the global Muslim community.
When the bombing of terrorists is claimed to motivate bombings by terrorists, we find ourselves trapped on a Möbius strip of cause and effect. Of course Islamic terrorists have an aversion to being droned by infidels and “Christian crusaders.” This should not, I would hope, be seriously considered as a legitimate reason to refrain from military action against them, unless we have no moral or political compunction in surrendering to the will of terrorists. In the wake of an Islamic atrocity, we are often told that any retaliation should be avoided lest we “give the terrorists what they want.” Except that the alternative being suggested is unmitigated submission to the demands of jihadists. And to make matters worse, this submission is suggested on the basis of fear. If this isn’t the very epitome of giving the terrorists what they want, then I don’t know what is. It is the crystallization of everything liberals claim to object to, offered as their single viable solution.
Well, it so happens that many of us who object to submission in the face of threats, also have some foreign policy demands of our own. The first is that we refuse to allow these psychopaths to feel that blowing up commuters and massacring schoolgirls at pop concerts are effective ways to accomplish policy change. The second is that we recognize the ineffectiveness that any political capitulation to their demands would have on dissuading Islamic terrorism in any case. Lee Harris at the Hoover institution, reiterates what the jihadists themselves so often concede on this point:
“There is no political policy we could take that would change the attitude of our enemies — short, perhaps, of a massive nationwide conversion to fundamentalist Islam.”
7. It suggests submitting to the demands of these terrorists over those of Muslims who may support or even request Western intervention.
If we do want to get into the disastrous habit of allowing Muslim citizens of foreign states to dictate our policy decisions, I see no reason why we should grant that right to the most psychotic, retrograde, and criminal elements within these societies to the exclusion of, say, Kurdish Muslims, or the Muslims of the Northern Alliance, or the Kuwaitis, or the Muslims of the Iraqi army, or the Muslims of Northern Mali subjugated at the hands of the Islamists of Ansar Dine, who welcome and even request Western assistance. Such suggestions seem very much to be a concerted effort to prioritize the desires and aspirations of Muslim terrorists over those of their Muslim victims.
There is also something of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation at play when Islamic apologists talk of Western military aggression. Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland recalls a student meeting he was speaking at in the 1990’s being disrupted by Islamist al-Muhajiroun protestors furious at the Wests lack of military intervention to prevent the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia. Similarly, Western inaction in Bosnia is claimed by British Muslim and former Islamist Maajid Nawaz as a contributing factor in his radicalization.
And so it turns out that capitulation in this sense is redundant. Even Muslim fundamentalists are not at all interested
8. It does nothing to explain the non-Western and/or non-interventionist targets of Islamic terror.
The Yazidi’s have committed no foreign policy transgressions against Muslims anywhere in the world at any point in history, yet they were subjected to genocide, rape, sexual enslavement, and forced conversion to Islam at the hands of The Islamic State. The motivation offered by ISIS for these atrocities was explicitly religious in that it claimed “enslaving the families of the (non-believers) and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Sharia” and that this behavior reflected that of the companions of Muhammad.
In 2007 when al-Qaeda militants carried out the second deadliest terror attack in history, by killing five hundred Yazidis in Iraq and injuring three times that many with a series of truck bombings, no political justification was offered, and indeed none could be offered. Whilst Islamic extremists could not point to a single foreign policy of the Yazidis to justify their hatred of, and violence against them, significant clues to their behavior can be found in the fact that Islamists throughout history have persecuted the Yazidis as idolaters and devil worshipers on account of their belief in Tawûsê Melek (the Peacock Angel.) For two-hundred years the Ottoman Caliphate engaged in 72 separate genocidal attacks against the Yazidi people. Ascribing foreign policy as the root cause of this pathological hatred, oppression, and violence creates an unsolvable mystery where none exists.
Dermot O’Sullivan details the extent of jihadist attacks and the diversity of their victims as a response to the blowback narrative:
“In the month leading up to 26th May (2017), jihadist attacks occurred in Somalia, Indonesia, Iraq, England, Syria, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Libya, USA, India, Italy, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Mali, Chad, Yemen, Bangladesh, Thailand, Chechnya, Israel, Germany, and La Réunion.
These are some of the people who were killed: a Nigerian farmer, an Iranian border-guard, a Pakistani cleric from a rival mosque, a French police officer, an Iraqi child searching for food, a German convert from Islam to Christianity, a Syrian ‘sorcerer’, a member of an Afghan wedding party, an Egyptian tribesman, young Malian lovers, an Israeli young woman ‘ honour-killed’, a Chechen gay, a Canadian border-guard, a Bangladeshi Ahmadi imam, a Somalian coffee-drinker, a Thai child out shopping, a Kenyan labourer, a Saudi 2 year-old, an Italian train commuter, an Indian 45 year old, an American disrespecter of Islam, the wrong kind of Muslim in Libya, an Indonesian bus worker, and an English pop tweenie. If you want to ascribe all that to Western foreign policy, you have a lot of work to do.”
9. It presumes that Muslims feel a murderous/suicidal solidarity with countries they may never have so much as visited.
Michael Adebolajo was London born and bred, to a Christian family of Nigerian heritage. Yet in a speech given minutes after he and his accomplice had run over, and then hacked through the throat of drummer Lee Rigby on a Woolwich street, he described Iraq and Afghanistan as “our lands,” and the female citizens of these countries as “our women.” Adebolajo had never set foot in either region. He had no racial, national, or familial connections to that part of the world, but was ostensibly driven to murder, and potentially his own death, in defense of it.
Salman Abedi was born in Manchester to Libyan refugee parents who were granted safe haven from the government of Colonel Gaddafi, and in contrast to the majority of British citizens, he was afforded a university education. His gratitude towards the country that provided him this privileged schooling, sheltered his family from harm, and assisted in deposing the tyrant that they had fled, was expressed by blowing shrapnel through the bodies of other people’s families in a suicide bombing at a teen pop concert. 22 people killed, as Douglas Murray puts it, “for every year of life that this country gave him.”
It is more than possible that Adebolajo, Abedi, and the Tsarnaev brothers felt an overwhelming, life or death connection to the people of Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but only one aspect of the biographies of these suicidal killers provides a basis for such solidarity: their shared religion. It is significant that this particular religion promotes the idea of killing and dying in defense of it as a noble act which will reap otherworldly rewards. And it is no accident that Adebolajo’s apparent “secular political grievances” extended to him protesting in 2007 for the release of Mizanur Rahman, an Omar Bakri Muhammad student who called for “another 9/11” in response to the publication of Muhammad cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
These are not terrestrial expressions of sympathy with foreign lands. They are exhibitions of theocracy and religious tribalism with Muslims irrespective of any other factors. And the concepts of jihad and martyrdom are not incidental to the resulting behavior, they are causal.
10. It claims that the biggest victims of Islamic terrorism are Muslims, whilst claiming in the same breath that the focus of these attacks are Western non-Muslims.
Once again, this knee-jerk, unconditional solidarity that radicalized Western Muslims are said to apparently feel with their Muslim brothers and sisters around the world, does not seem to extend to the Muslim victims of Islamic terror groups. The mantra of many an apologist, is that Muslims are the biggest victims of Islamic terror. This is undoubtedly true, and so it would seem a self-refuting statement to, in the same breath, argue that Muslims join groups that primarily kill other Muslims, in order to defend Muslims from non-Muslims.
Joining or pledging allegiance to groups like al Qaeda and The Islamic State, and operating on their behalf, seems a pretty contradictory way of expressing solidarity with downtrodden and victimized Muslims, seeing as these groups enthusiastically contribute to the victimization and murder of Muslims as a matter of course. Considering the Islamist genocides against Shia Muslims and Yazidis, widespread attacks against Kurdish Muslims, the bombing of Sufi mosques, the systematic persecution and murder of Ahmadis and other Muslims deemed impious or heretical, raises the question as to whether the killing of “Muslims” is essentially a non-issue for these people unless it occurs as a result of some Western policy or another. Either way I’d be sincerely interested to know how blowing up Shia mosques in Bagdad and Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, for example, constitutes either a blow struck against the West, or a defense of innocent Muslims lives in any way shape or form.
Christopher Hitchers was similarly exasperated by this point:
“Don’t you tell me that the movement that wants to stone Amina Lawal, the Nigerian women who was an adulteress, is doing that because they want to help the Palestinians. Don’t make me laugh. Don’t take me for a fool. Do you think they enslave Afghanistan in order to emancipate the Gaza strip? Do you think they blow up Shia mosques in Iraq because they care about oppressed people? They’re murdering their co-religionists every day. These people are murdering Muslims in Indonesia, in Iraq, in Nigeria. They’re not the product of poverty and unemployment, they are the cause of poverty and misery and unemployment.”
These people are not interested in defending Muslim lives; their primary victims are other Muslims. They are not
But people who claim that jihadism is essentially a secular political phenomenon which uses Islam as a mere justification, have it precisely the wrong way round. Political grievances are the justification for accomplishing explicitly theological and ideological end goals. The actions of groups like ISIS do not represent an objection to imperialism, they represent a manifestation of it. And Western Foreign Policy is not the cause of this violence and sadism, it is the excuse.