A while back, I linked to a video of Lawrence Wright talking on Al Qaeda. I finally got the time to watch it - home internet I worship at thy fibre-optic'd feet - and it's even better than I thought.
Wright is a commanding public speaker, fluently speaking from a rich reserve of first-hand, historical and statistical knowledge to paint a lucid portrait of the islamic radicalism of the previous 50 years. If you want to have a sensible picture of Islamic terrorism, you should take the hour-and-change out of your day it takes to watch this. If nothing else, watch the first 15 minutes or so, in which the most important points pop up. If you have a little more time, watch the 40 minutes of his prepared speech, and quit after the questions (there are too many not-questions-but-comments (to one of which Wright gives only a delightfully dry "I agree"), but Wright gives interesting, well-composed, eloquently improvised answers).
And really, we should have a sensible picture of terrorism. Not because terrorism is a threat to us* but because it has become the universal symbol of evil which is used to justify political oppression. When we juxtapose the minor but very real threat of Al-Qaeda with the massive, completely insurmountable political and social problems of which the terrorist organisation is merely a symptom, one realises just how completely and utterly the Bush administration has destroyed any hope of ending radical Islam in our lifetime. In unilaterally and single-mindedly pursuing the military "war on terror", they have exacerbated the demographic, sociological and political problems which are causing the problem they are trying to defeat. Like slamming your fist repeatedly into an anthill to stop the ants from biting you. The increasing alienation of immigrant populations in Europe; the continuuing conflict in Israel/Palestine; world poverty (Islam encompasses roughly 1/5th the world's population, but roughly 1/2 the world's poor); the reinvigoration of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the general sense of cultural humiliation which Wright describes so vivily. These are the real problems.
But I don't want to make this a rant against Bush. That's an easy strategy. The problem is far more decentralised and far more subtle than that. The basic premise of Wrights speech is that what Al-Qaeda really is, is a manifestation of cultural humiliation
. The overriding sociological factor of islamic extremists is that they are generally young men who feel alienated from the culture they are in. They find other young men who feel the same way, one thing leads to another, and they go blow something up. This happens easily in societies with little or no social life - 15 of the 19 terrorists on 9/11 were Saudis, you will recall - but it can just as well happen in cultures that have social lives that exclude
young men of their religion. In short: the backlash, when it happens, will be easy to blame on the terrorists, but a more correct way of putting what is happening is that we are helping to create the problem ourselves. Sowing the wind, as it were.
And in the end, it is us here in Europe who will be at the receiving end of the backlash. The gap between the native populations and immigrant populations in Western Europe are widening, and recent events like the Muhammed caricatures of Denmark are just flashpoints in the development of a smug cultural identity founded on intolerance and exclusion. The idea that we can stop globalisation is childish and selfish. The idea that we should combat Islam and muslims - Huntingtons clash of civilisations
- is a part of the very structures which produce terrorism and extremism.
Last words of the film: "I don't think the future in Europe looks very attractive." Boy, no.
* "More people die in car chrashes every day than died on 9/11", to use a common comparison. Other things that kill more people every year than terrorism: WAR. FAMINE. PLAGUE.
Labels: al-qaeda, bush, lawrence wright, politics, speech, terrorism, youtube