The Theater of Sacred Terror

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

BY: Interview by Deborah Caldwell

 
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.

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.

In terms of the mosques,

Finsbury Park Mosque

is the famous center of Islamic radicalism, which recruited Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid. Its imam, Abu Hamza al Masri,

went on trial this week

.

Do you think it's connected?

I can only speculate at this point. We don't know exactly who carried out the bombings; we have an [Arabic-language] website that claimed responsibility for a splinter group of Al Qaeda. But my best guess is, based on the modus operandi, that this is Al Qaeda, and if it is Al Qaeda, then certainly the trial of Al-Masri--who is Egyptian and from the same organization as

Ayman el-Zawahri

, an organization that joined Al Qaeda in 1998--then it seems to me impossible that it's not connected.

I sense that Muslims in Britain feel a kind of racial and ethnic discrimination I'm not sure they feel in the United States. Is that the case?

I know a lot of American Muslims who have the general feeling of being scrutinized and discriminated against here, too. It is more in Britain, though, without any regard for 9/11. Just in terms of the numbers involved, and the patterns of settlement. For instance, in Bradford, there were

race riots

. It's a town of maybe 30,000 that has a very large Muslim population that came there to work, but the local industries declined and they wound up unemployed. So they're more like the Southern African-Americans who came North to places like Detroit or in some instances like Mexican-Americans in some areas of this country. So some of the discrimination that they face is race and class discrimination, of a sort that we see often in urban situations in the United States. But which seldom involves this particular group here.

If the Muslim population there feels more discriminated against, does it follow then that it would be a breeding ground for a terrorist attack?

No. My own perception is that most major terrorist attacks by these Salafi groups have been done by outsiders, because long-term rooted residents have reasons for which they wouldn't want a backlash against their own families and communities. And they've come to have a certain attachment to the place. So there's virtually no evidence of long-term Muslim residents in the United States or Britain with anything like ties to terrorism. Now, there have been British Muslims, even second-generation ones, who have gone off to fight elsewhere. A couple showed up in Israel and got themselves killed. And several in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of the people in Guantanamo were British. My best guess is that Al Qaeda did this, you'd find they were infiltrators from elsewhere.



Why do they think terrorism will work?
Read more on page 2 >>


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  • Continued on page 2: »

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