Last month there was a spate of bombings in various parts of the world, apparently by Muslims associated with local Islamic movements. The attack that got the most attention, because it occurred in a western capital and most victims were westerners, was the co-ordinated bombing of three underground trains and a bus in London on July 7, in which 52 people were killed. Four British Muslim youths are believed to have been responsible for the attacks, and to have died in them. On July 21 there were attempts to bomb three more underground trains and another bus; the bombs failed to explode and the bombers, again British Muslim youths, are being hunted. The London bombings have been widely linked to a campaign that included earlier bombings inBali, Madrid, Istanbul and Casablanca, which have been attributed to the amorphous movement known as al-Qa’ida.
At the same time, there was a massive increase in so-called “suicide bombings” in Iraq. This has been an important tactic used by the resistance in Iraqsince the US invaded in March 2003, with targets including not only US troops and occupation authorities but also Iraqi institutions, and increasingly alsoShi’a mosques and communities. Most of the continuing resistance in Iraq is apparently from Iraq’s Sunni community, parts of which are influenced by extreme readings of Islam. The resistance also includes non-Iraqi mujahideen who have entered Iraq to fight the occupation, most of them also from similar backgrounds. Although these non-Iraqi mujahideen have been welcomed for their commitment to fight, it is also reported that there have been disagreements between them and local Sunnis, who regard their beliefs as extreme and consider some of their conduct and methods unacceptable. This pattern has also been seen elsewhere in the Muslim world when foreign Muslims have come to support local jihad movements, although we should be careful not to tar all such mujahideen with the same brush.
In Egypt at least 80 people were killed on July 23 when three bombs exploded in Sharm al-Shaikh resort. One car-bomb exploded in the town’s old market, killing at least 17. The other two, one a car-bomb and the other reportedly in a suitcase, hit the Ghazala Gardens, a tourist hotel. These attacks were the first major bombings in Egypt since the explosions in Taba last October, and indicate a resumption of attacks on tourists that were a feature of Egyptian Islamic activism in the 1990s. The Egyptian Islamic movement retreated from this approach in the late 1990s, realising that it had proved counterproductive (see the article by Basheer Nafi in Crescent International, May 16-31, 1999, also at www.muslimedia.com), but there are fears that the increased militancy of Islamic movements that has been generated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other events since September 2001, are persuading sectors of the Egyptian movement to regress.
For the West, these are all parts of a single phenomenon, “terrorism”. We should be more discerning; these (and “terrorism” in places such as Palestineand Kashmir) are clearly very different operations, carried out in widely divergent local circumstances. The bombings in Iraq are part of a resistance movement against foreign invasion and occupation, as are those in places such as Palestine and Kashmir, although sectarian attacks and attacks on other Muslims (which have never occurred in Palestine or Lebanon) cannot be justified even so. In Egypt the struggle is against a repressive and dictatorial government that never hesitates to use force if it feels the need. The crimes committed by the US and Britain against Muslims around the world, which evidently prompted the attacks in London, are well known.
In the case of the US and Britain, it is understandable that Islamic activists should consider it legitimate to fight back, just as Iraqis are fighting back in their own country. Islam is not a pacifist religion; Muslims are expected to fight aggressors and oppressors, and to establish justice in the world. However, Iraq and Palestine demonstrate that even within jihad there are distinctions to be drawn between legitimate and illegitimate uses of force and, in particular, between legitimate and illegitimate targets. This is true also of the sorts of struggle underway against oppressive governments in Muslim countries and against non-Muslim states that are at war with Muslim countries.
Repeated experiences in Muslim countries indicate that militant jihad seldom succeeds in achieving political change. When Islamic movements are pushed into militancy, often by the suppression of nonviolent Islamic activism, it provokes government repression and erodes popular support, thus playing into the hands of the political powers that already dominate us. Egypt and Algeria both give examples of popular Islamic movements that lost credibility and support in this way. The struggle in Iraq includes an element of such struggle against an illegitimate government, as well as resistance to an occupying foreign power.
While it is clear that armed struggle by small militant groups cannot overthrow established political orders, the example of Iran indicates that a political movement that mobilises large-scale popular support is far more likely to succeed. It is to prevent precisely this development that governments put pressure on peaceful movements, aiming to discredit them either by drawing them into established political institutions (thus blunting their opposition) or by forcing them into violence that then justifies repression. It is for this reason that, apart from the misguided few responsible for such bombings, the only ones to welcome them are the powers that they are supposed to challenge.
The same is probably also true of “terrorism” in Western countries, or against Western targets in Muslim countries. George Bush and Tony Blair must be drawing much satisfaction from the fact that Muslims have provided them with justification for their “war on terror”. The best excuses for one’s crimes are those that are convincing and believable; the London bombers have made it easy for Western governments to claim that their own aggression against Muslim countries is necessary to fight terrorism. A large proportion of the British population is opposed to the war in Iraq and wholly distrusts Bush and, to a lesser extent, Blair. A large part of the British Muslim community has much sympathy with the mujahideen fighting against Western troops in Iraqand Afghanistan and opposing pro-Western regimes elsewhere. But bombings like those in London last month serve only to alienate people in Britain, both Muslims and non-Muslims, who are appalled by the violent deaths of ordinary people.
That brings us to what must be the main objection to these operations: the fact that they are targeted at civilians who have no direct involvement with the war against Muslims. The argument made in these pages after September 11, 2001, applies also to the London bombings and others: the fact that Western governments have no concern for Muslim lives does not justify Muslims’ cold-blooded brutality against either Muslim or Western civilians. However brutal and two-faced Western politicians and their allies in the Muslim world may be, Muslims must work according to higher standards. There may well be an argument for Muslims taking their resistance to Western aggression into Western countries, by attacking political or military targets, such as the Pentagon. Such operations would be far easier for Muslims to explain and for non-Muslims to understand. But there can be no question that attacks on civilian targets, in office buildings or other public spaces, even in response to the deaths of thousands of Muslim civilians at the West’s hands, is utterly unjustifiable and unacceptable by Islamic standards.
What is perhaps most remarkable is that some Muslims, clearly committed to Islam, informed about world affairs and sensitive to the plight of their Muslim brothers and sisters, can feel that such atrocities are justifiable. Or maybe we should not be surprised: history gives ample evidence of human beings’ capacity to commit acts of unbelievable brutality, and Muslims are human after all, subject to all the weaknesses and failures that characterise the human condition. Part of the tragedy is that in Britain, young Muslims who are perhaps among the most aware and committed in our community should be so misled and misguided as to want to blow up civilians. One reason for the retreat from violence of Islamic movements in Algeria and Egypt was the realisation that the conflict was creating a generation of brutalised and embittered young Muslims, endangering their souls and akhirah. The same consideration should now guide Muslims’ responses to misguided and unacceptable violence from Muslim around the world, and help us to find other ways to fight our enemies and pursue our legitimate objectives.