Over the last couple of days, since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, Britain has been under terrorist attack- a series of failed attacks in London and Scotland and security alerts at Heathrow airport and London tube stations have taken place. Thankfully the incompetence of the terrorists and the skill of the police and British intelligence services have mean that so far none of these attacks has succeeded. Hopefully that will continue but the terrorists, as police chiefs continue to remind the population, need to get through only once to create a tragedy.
That though is not what I want to write about today- apparantly, according to the BBC, it appears that all of the eight suspects so far arrested have been highly educated staff working for the NHS. It appears that there are as many as four doctors and many of the others are medical students. Many are recent arrivals in the United Kingdom- arriving within the last couple of years having studied abroad. Why are highly educated migrants taking to terrorism?
The recent bombings in the UK- illustrate something that I think is a very interesting phenomenon. Shiv Malik has done
a lot of interesting work on the background of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the bombers on July 7th. Malik argued that the key thing that motivated Sidique Khan to move into extremist circles was the conflict between the first and second generation of Muslims. Sidique Khan wished to move outside the traditional Islam of his parents and family, his success in doing so meant that he went in search of an Islam divested of its acretions of local custom and he found that pure Islam in the radical Islam of the extremists- and hence the road to the mangled corpses of 7th July opened before Sidique Khan.
Olivier Roy has provided the most acute analysis of what is going on and why radical Islam appears so attractive to some young Muslims both in the West and the East. One of his crucial points is that radical Islam offers a pure Islam that a beleiver can adhere to, when more traditional or culturally embedded forms of Islam fail to satisfy. Now Sidique Khan fits that in one sense- obviously Sidique Khan's falling out with his traditional family fitted into that explanation quite easily- Sidique Khan had abandoned the traditional format of an arranged marriage and was looking to divide that which was cultural from that which was Islamic in his life, offered an Islamic Quranic belief he took it.
But it also might help us understand the Jordanian doctor. Again we are seeing someone who is dislocated from their own society- someone who maybe on their own, experiencing a very Western environment and may therefore want to cling to an Islam- but has the certainty given my modern medical training that elements of their traditional Islam are wrong. That dilocation means that like Sidique Khan, the doctor will be drawn forwards on a search for a pure Quranic Islam- a defensible redoubt on which to stand and hence into circles of extremism that in the end motivate action.
The theological problem- that the Islamists claim to be the purists in understanding Islamic law and custom and the Quran- is central to our enterprise to defeat them. There are obviously other directions in which Muslims faced by these existentialist doubts can and do go- Sufism even western liberalism are options. Moderate Islam as well is another direction- though the word moderate repeated in the media suggests a picture which for someone searching for a pure Islam isn't exactly attractive. Sometimes I wonder whether we should talk about moderate Islam by calling it religious Islam- and use the word vainglorious or powerhungry for the fundamentalist variety- the words would then attract the stigma to the extremists instead of to the liberals. But that's a sidepoint- the real issue here is that that feeling of dislocation is what leads to this quixotic conclusion- a highly educated person committing a terrorist act.
The problem of extremism is not something that will be easily solved- it isn't neccessarily solely about Iraq or Afghanistan though pictures of Muslims dying don't help- its about the nature of a modern Muslim's identity often. The abandonment of tradition means to many Muslims a recovery of the Umma- the community of beleivers which takes over from a traditional nation- the abandonment of family leads to a search for what is pure Islam divested of cultural additions, the abandonment of country leads one to search for a pure Islam not one expressed in Urdu or which finds solace in Amman.
Trying to solve this problem won't be easy- but it suggests to me that this is an ideological battle about Islam as much as a discussion about regimes in the Middle East- one of the things we could start doing is training Immams better to explain Quranic Islam- one problem in the UK is that there is not much incentive for Imams to evangelise Muslims and some even do not speak English or Arabic- that has to cease and programs to educate Imams and to reason with radical ideologues like Hizb ul Tahrir are essential- beyond that there may be other policies but it is worth getting a handle on why this problem exists and why the terrorists seem to be who they are.
Everything at the moment about these most recent attacks is of course provisional- the names and biographies of the individuals will be analysed by intelligence agents, journalists and academics in the future- but the crisis of pure Islam we can guess already from the biographical data that we have already may lie somewhere close to the surface of why these eight men, and maybe more that they were associated with, decided to bomb parts of the United Kingdom over the last few days.