The Theater of Sacred Terror

Historian of Islam and jihadi expert Juan Cole explains the reasons for the London bombings.

Juan Cole is a history professor at the University of Michigan and an expert on the "jihadi," or "sacred-war," strain of Muslim radicalism--including Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In the wake of the London attacks, we asked Cole to help explain the political and religious motivations behind this latest terrorist attack. He says the jihadists are acting out their version of a sacred drama, in which they are modern-day equivalents of the first Muslims, fighting against the evil and oppressive Meccans. In their imagination, the people of London--and by extension, all Westerners--are "Meccans" who must be destroyed in order for "true" Muslims to save the world. "There's no sense of compromise in this cosmic struggle," Cole says. "For this reason the struggle can be imagined as a very long-term one."

Once again, we're trying to make sense of the relationship between Islam and terrorism. Can you tell us about Muslims in Britain?

The Muslim community in the U.K. is predominantly South Asian--from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. It by now has decades-long roots in Great Britain. There are about a million and a half Muslims, in a population of about 60 million overall. It's quite a significant percentage of the population in the U.K.

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The British Muslim community is a bigger community proportionally [than the U.S. Muslim community] and it's been there longer. We didn't have more than 100,000 Muslims until 1965, when our immigration laws changed.

We always hear that, unlike American mosques, London's mosques are centers of Islamist ideology.

First of all, I don't like the term "Islamist." What you're really talking about are radicals. They're mostly Salafis. The term "Islamist" was invented by a few French social scientists in the early 1980s. In French, Christianity is actually called

Cristianisme

; they were convinced that what was going on in Islam was unlike what was happening in the other religions, that it was somehow unique. But I disagree with them.

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