Gordon Brown the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom caused much angst in the right wing world recently with his orders to British ministers not to sound the alarms about Muslim terrorism or indeed about the war on terror- British ministers instead have referred during the recent attacks to the terrorists as criminals. Well the predictable chorus has started up- from such luminaries as Victor Davis Hanson
who accuses Brown of typical liberal limpwristed guilt, to right wing blogs
who accuse Brown of consenting to the fall of Western civilisation, the Daily Mail
which rants about the EU forcing Brown's hand (perchance because despite being idiots the editor is best mates with Brown), to those
who compare him unfavourably with Neville Chamberlaine and to the author of little Green Footballs
who beleives a government organised media message is tantamount to quashing freedom of speech- an interesting interpretation if ever there was one.
Despite such eloquent and informed criticism from so many highly respectable sources- there is something more interesting behind this verbal move than any of these authors have got and it shows that Brown has a more subtle understanding of the war on terror than the keyboard warriors of the American right.
Brown's move derives from a couple of insights about the world that its worth making clear. One of the major dangers that we stand in is of a war between Islam and the West or even a fratricidal conflict within Islam- partly this is because over the last couple of years the radical Islamists- people like Osama Bin Laden and others have been able to capture the word Muslim. When President Bush said that the war on terror was a crusade he undid in one phrase years of patient diplomacy by lending credence to this myth. Of course it is a myth- Patrick Mercer the Conservative MP, former military officer and expert on these matters told the Express
that Brown's idea was smart as it decoupled Islam from terrorism. (Perhaps its this smartness that moved two former Home Secretaries- the Tory Michael Howard and the Labour David Blunkett to praise Brown and his new Home Secretary on Sunday for his response.) Mr Mercer is entirely right- what Brown is doing is telling the Muslim community that he knows that they are a peaceful group of people, which in general British Muslims are and are about as likely to commit these acts as any of their neighbours- which again is true. He therefore avoids any implication that simply by being Muslim someone is failing a cricket test of British nationality- they are not.
But of course it is not a truth that many people want to listen to- numerous commenters on the right in the United States- particularly from websites like the Little Green Footballs site would quite welcome a race war. For them Islam is key terrorist religion- notwithstanding the fact that the Koran contains no references to suicide bombings and condemns suicide and furthermore announces that Islam is a religion of peace. (Of course the gentlemen of Little Green Footballs ironiclaly hold the same view of Islam as the Jihadists!) Some of the gentlemen of the United States right are keen to portray every Muslim from every tradition to be a terrorist- and that is false- Brown of course recognises the falacious nature of such an argument- but its wise to note that this move does more.
For not merely does it suggest that in the UK government's eyes the posturing terrorists are merely that posturing without a constituency- and that there is no global war on religion nor need there be- it also suggests rightly what kind of problem this is. Rhetoric about a war on terror has tended to inflame a situation suggesting to young Muslims that these terrorists are bombers to be admired- not criminals to be despised. Furthermore it becomes the justification for a public hysteria about future attacks which can lead to bad decisions about the remit of future leglislation- that is not to suggest that this is not a serious problem- but what Mr Brown has grasped is that this is not a war, this is a problem of policing, a problem that ultimately will be dealt with by the bobby on the beat not the tank in the driveway.
Of course this doesn't mean that either Brown or his cabinet colleagues have lost touch with the fact that radical Islamist clerics are motivating these terrorists, that pedlars of hate are creating problems. But no more than Hitler should be recognised as a true socialist despite his claims should these more modern Hitlers be recognised as true Muslims. We must make clear that we despise these people completely- a terrorist or inciter to terrorism is a piece of dirt, a criminal to be placed in the same context as the Fred Wests or Myra Hindleys of the world. They have nothing to do with mainstream Islam- though its true that perversions of the Islamic texts have inspired them.
Furthermore understanding the criminal angle leads us to refocus our inquiries- as Olivier Roy has argued its easy to get lost in theology, important as it is in understanding the phenomena of terrorism. Far more interesting is to understand these men as criminals- one might connect them with other similar criminals- the structure of Al Quaeda has a very Vanguardist element for example. What parallels are there between a terrorist and a more conventional mass murderer- what can we learn from far right terrorists and their psyche when discussing terrorists from Muslim backgrounds- all of these questions are useful. Of course Qutb and Mawdudi remain fundamental to any analysis of the current predicament- but perhaps refocusing slightly on the more universal aspects of terrorism may have a constructive analytical role to play as well as in my opinion a useful political and rhetorical purpose.
Reading the hysterical rhetoric about Chamberlaine and others one might think that the writers were perhaps indulging in a little wish fulfilment- wishing that all Muslims were terrorists- there are good reasons politically for what Brown has done. Language is important, this change denotes that we do not beleive rightly in my view that all Muslims are potential terrorists- and furthermore that we don't beleive terrorism flows out of Islamic principles. Rather this change of language reflects our knowledge that terrorism is criminal behaviour- the behaviour of unstable or even psychopathic minds who encouraged by warped preaching upon misread texts go off and commit atrocities. We have seen this kind of manipulation of belief before with things apart from Islam- and we will see it again.
Our purpose must be at this moment twofold- to construct a coalition to deliver us intelligence- something that a recognition that these guys are criminals not heroes will help with- and secondly and just as importantly to try and understand how criminality and belief intersect in such violent ways to see if at some future date there might be some way of preventing it. That is the problem of the future- and a program for it and no ammount of throwing around words like Chamberlaine or Dhimmitude is ever going to help our success in it.