The Islamist Threat: useful fictions, inconvenient truths
by Cornelius Conwell

The new propaganda framework
After the explosions in London on 7th July Tony Blair expressed his usual perfunctory regrets about the loss of innocent life and moved on quickly to the more important business of constructing a serviceable framework of interpretation for the event: the bombings were the work of Islamist fanatics motivated by hatred of “our” values and a “desire to impose extremism on the world”. Later in Parliament he announced yet another batch of restrictive anti-terrorist measures.
The London Mayor Ken Livingstone rhapsodised about the English capital as the greatest city in the world where “everybody lives side by side in harmony” (presumably when they are not rioting outside low-stocked furniture stores) while Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, exhorted the nation to summon up attributes of "solidarity and common purpose…at this time of pain and sorrow and anger".
Less than a week later it fell to the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy to suggest, logically enough, that those “like President Bush and Tony Blair, who have sought to link Iraq with the so-called 'war on terror', can hardly be surprised when members of the public draw the same link when acts of terrorism occur here in the UK”. Kennedy’s rupture of the implicit all-party truce was furiously denounced by government and Tory spokespersons alike as “naïve” and “deeply irresponsible”.
Television journalists repeatedly rebuked the RESPECT M.P. George Galloway for insensitivity when he tried to contextualise the atrocity as opposed to merely denouncing the viciousness of the perpetrators. The Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram – no lover of colourless understatement, evidently - accused Galloway of “dipping his poisonous tongue in a pool of blood” while Christopher Hitchens, writing in the Daily Mirror, wondered how Galloway could bear to act “as a megaphone for psychotic killers.”
The governing elite in Britain and its media supporters have no choice but to deny any connection between the Iraq débâcle and the first suicide bombing in Britain – which, we are warned by the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police, is liable to be the first of many.
In Iraq the anticipated victory of yet another U.S./British “humanitarian intervention” failed to materialise and now, unable to concede that the war is an unmitigated disaster, government apologists are committed to drawing an increasingly surreal picture in which the world is a safer place yet full of burgeoning terrorist cells; where the War on Terror is extending western-style “freedom” everywhere yet centuries-old liberties are steadily being removed from domestic statute books.
One of the main components of the new “post 9/11” propaganda framework is the assertion that Islamist terrorism is the single, monolithic threat to “what we hold dear in this country and in other civilised nations throughout the world”, to adopt Blair’s woolly rhetoric. As with all propaganda, the intention behind this effort to spread fear of a vague, irrational evil, is to forestall any factual analysis of our real situation. The aim is to obscure the real causes of current global unrest and violence.
John Paul II: the root causes of terrorism
This is not to deny the cruel, nihilistic character of present-day terrorism. But as Pope John Paul II stated, almost a year after the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, there is no prospect of defeating terrorism without addressing its root causes. The only sane response to terrorist violence, he said, is for governments “to undertake new and creative political, diplomatic and economic initiatives aimed at relieving the scandalous situations of gross injustice, oppression and marginalisation which continue to oppress countless members of the human family”.
While declaring that terrorism is ultimately built on contempt for human life Pope John Paul nevertheless went on to observe that “the international community can no longer overlook the underlying causes that lead young people especially to despair of humanity, of life itself, and of the future, and to fall prey to the temptations of violence, hatred and desire for revenge at any cost”.
Professor Obiora Ike, a human rights campaigner and priest of the diocese of Enugu in Nigeria offered a similar analysis of Muslim fundamentalism in his own country. The basic problem, he said, is “increasing poverty”. “People are disillusioned because the oil wealth of the country is bringing no benefits to them. Many people have had to leave their homes because the oil extraction, run by foreign companies, has contaminated their soil and their water. Poverty always leads to intolerance and thus to violence”.
Daniel Johnson: Islam vs. Christendom
By contrast with the remarks of Pope John Paul and Professor Ike, Catholic reaction and commentary in Britain following the July 7th attacks fell far short of any intelligent, critical analysis.
No doubt many of the Catholic bishops were enjoying themselves at the G8 jamboree, willing collaborators in Blair’s campaign to re-establish his credentials as Saviour of the Universe. Later in the week Cardinal Murphy O’Connor took the uncontroversial line of decrying attempts to brand worldwide Islam as violent and fundamentalist. But in a feature article in the Catholic Herald on 15th July, Daniel Johnson, a writer for The Times and The Daily Telegraph argued just that, claiming that “Christians are in Denial over the Islamist threat”.
There appear to be two main strands to the anti-Islam argument. There is the position held by Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen and others, that Islamic fundamentalism threatens the secular, pluralist, liberal heritage of the western Enlightenment. Then there is what we might call the Christian Right posture: that Islam, a fiercely proselytising religion, menaces the heartlands of Christianity.
Johnson belongs to the second camp. He charges Christian leaders in Britain with a “grossly inadequate” response to the “Islamist onslaught”. The July 7th attack, he claims, was part of a “global Islamist war on the Judaeo-Christian West”. The terrorists’ basic war-aim is nothing less than the establishment of a “universal Islamic theocracy; the restoration of the caliphate”.
Johnson reproaches the Archbishop of Canterbury for declining to highlight the specifically religious character of the conflict during a Thought for the Day broadcast after the attack. Dr. Williams should have “sounded a note of defiance,” he declares, “as Tony Blair had done”. After all, “Christianity is at the heart of the civilisation that the Prime Minister pledged to defend”.
During his broadcast Archbishop Williams expressed the hope that “justice, mercy, and joy” would not be silenced by the kind of violence unleashed on July 7th. But for Johnson, this kind of talk was too “nebulous”. His own febrile imagination then takes wing:
“The only adequate response is to make it clear that we shall indeed overcome, that our faith is strong enough to withstand the siege, however long it may last. It is important for young British Muslims to hear this from Christian leaders, lest they be tempted to make the Islamist jihad their own”.
“For a thousand years,” he concludes, “Christians in Europe had to defend their faith against Islamic aggression…Now terrorists strike at the very heart of Christendom. If priests do not speak up for Christianity, who else will?”
Let us pass over Johnson’s more fantastical assertions: that modern Europe is in any sense a unified Christian civilisation, defended by, among others, Tony Blair; that during the past millennium Christianity was one-sidedly the victim of Islamic attack; that today’s young British Muslims, possibly contemplating a resort to violence, will think twice in the face of defiant posturing by the bishops. More significant is Johnson’s misrepresentation of historical events as he endeavours to panic readers with the threat of the Muslim Mysterons.
Along with the majority of mainstream journalists Johnson finds no space to consider the point made by Pope John Paul: that violent Islamic movements have often arisen out of the legitimate grievances of impoverished societies, usually ruled by dictatorships supported by the West, especially the United States.
Historical perspective: who cares about “some stirred up Moslems”?
Johnson cites the Islamic revolution in Iran as one aspect of a renewed challenge to the West. He fails to mention the fact that the CIA overthrew the constitutional government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 following his nationalisation of the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Britain and America then reinstalled the Shah who banned the country’s liberal, democratic and socialist parties.
Similarly, America supported the repressive regime of Jafaar Nimeiry in Sudan, despite his attempts to incorporate shari’a law into the country’s penal code. Growing opposition to Nimiery’s government, propped up by U.S. military and economic aid, led to a 1985 coup by the army, which also overthrew the subsequent short-lived civilian government.
Most notoriously, America actively armed and trained radical Islamic groups in Afghanistan during the 1980’s in its attempt to weaken the Soviet Union. When the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to crush the Islamic nationalist resistance movement known as the Mujahidin President Reagan invited its leaders to Washington and described them as "the moral equivalent of America's founding fathers." As part of this pro-Islamist/anti-Soviet policy during the 1980’s many future al-Qaeda terrorists received their training from the CIA.
Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, openly defended the past U.S. policy of fomenting Islamic fundamentalism in order to give the Soviet Union “its Vietnam War”, in a newspaper interview in 1998. When he was asked if he regretted his own role in encouraging Islamist terrorist groups Brzezinski replied: “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
We might also note the curious absence of any mention of Iraq in Johnson’s blood-curdling scenario of the clash of civilisations. Like Blair and his camp-followers he characterises Islamist terrorism principally as a form of religious fanaticism to divert attention from its underlying social, political and historical roots: Muslim outrage at predatory designs in the Middle East, especially on the part of America and Britain.
Support for the desperate tactics of the suicide bombers arose long before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Knowledge of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians during the decade of U.S.-British sanctions, described by Madeleine Albright as "worth it", naturally fuelled Muslim cynicism and anger. The bombardment of the early ‘90’s, which destroyed the country’s electricity, water, and sewage systems, wrecked Iraqi industry and agriculture and left lasting nuclear contamination, could hardly fail to boost support for extremism.
But while left-wing commentators are excoriated for stating the obvious, various Establishment think-tanks and journals draw identical conclusions. Foreign policy specialists do not even try to pretend that the Iraq war was prosecuted for reasons other than the control of oil-supplies and Great Power manoeuvring for geo-strategic advantage.
Fundamentalism a substitute for class solidarity
The fact is that among the poor and exploited sections of the Muslim world and among the deprived Muslim communities in Britain the brutal, reactionary philosophy of the Islamists plays a role similar to that of modern fascist groupings on white working-class housing estates: it fills a void.
During the 1980’s government policy in the capitalist countries, at home and abroad, sought to weaken trade unions and national labour parties and to destroy all forms of working-class solidarity. Radical social movements associated with third world Catholicism were denounced with the same kind of rhetoric applied today to Islamist militancy.
The success of the neoliberal agenda was initially hailed as the “end of history”. In fact it ushered in the present era of unrestrained corporate greed, huge social inequality and military adventurism. In the new atmosphere “New Labour” was born, to serve the interests of big business and the super rich elite. But as tensions inevitably mount throughout the world where is the movement to which ordinary people can turn to provide a vision and a programme for a just and peaceful future, free from the encroachments of state power?
Just as it is not possible to “make poverty history” within the parameters of contemporary capitalism neither is it possible to counter the desperation and ferocity of the Islamist extremists without being able to offer a nobler, saner alternative.
While the poor of the world continue to die for the sake of western profits, while Blair proclaims his determination not to “give one inch” and his namesake at the Met blandly predicts further innocent fatalities at police hands, the task of exposing the ravages of the profit system and refounding the international socialist movement has never appeared more urgent.
Some Sources of Useful Information:
“To Fight Terrorism, Go to Its Root Causes, Says John Paul II”:
"A time bomb is ticking in Nigeria",
“Christians are in Denial over the Islamist threat” by Daniel Johnson, The Catholic Herald, July 15th 2005.
“The London Bombings”
“U.S. Policy towards Political Islam” by Stephen Zunes,
“Oil and ‘conspiracy theories’: a reply to a liberal apologist for the US war in Afghanistan” By Patrick Martin,
“What is bin Ladenism?” By Bill Vann,
“The London bombings: Why did it happen here?” By Chris Marsden,