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
The Al Qaeda ideology believes that the Muslim world is weak and oppressed and dominated by the wealthy capitalist West. And that this West uses things like the establishment of Israel or the setting of Muslim against Muslim in Iraq or Afghanistan as a way of keeping the Muslim world weak. Ideally, all the Muslims should get together and establish a United States of Islam, which would revive theCaliphate
. (In medieval Islam the Caliph was a kind of pope figure, a central spiritual authority.) Under the Caliphate, you'd have the wealthy Egyptian writers and engineers and you'd have the wealthy oil states come together to make the Muslim world into a united superpower.
Does that dream spring specifically from Salafi theology?
No, you could be a Salafi and not share that particular ideology.
So where does the idea come from?
It goes back to the 19th century. The Ottomans, when they were facing British and French incursion, put together this idea of pan-Islam back in the 1880s. They think that for the last 200 years or so, since Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, Europe has been invading their countries, raping their women, subjecting their men, and stealing their wealth.
So they have a two-fold plan. In order to establish a united Muslim country, you'd have to overthrow the individual secular regimes that now exist-Algeria and Egypt, and so forth. Then you'd have to unite them all under Salafi Islam. And every time they've tried to overthrow the Egyptian government, they're checked, in part because the Americans back [Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak.
So then they put forward the theory in the 1990s of hitting the foreign enemy first. Basically there are two major impediments to their plan. One is the local secular military governments, which resist being dissolved into this Islamic state. The other is the Western superpowers that back the military regimes. So they became convinced that in order to go forward with their plans, they would have to find a way of pushing the United States and the other powers out of the Middle East-make them timid about intervening, make them pick up stakes and go home, leaving Mubarak and others to their fate. So the attack on London is part of this strategy-getting the British out of Iraq and Afghanistan, weakening British resolve for having a strong posture in the Middle East a la supporting the United States. Having gotten rid of Western dominance, they believe, they can then polish off the secular enemies and go forward with their plans for a revolution of the global south.
If the West pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan, would that end the terrorism or slow it down?
The people who already hold these ideas are unlikely to have their minds changed. They look around and see Western influence everywhere. Certainly the U.S. occupation of Iraq is a great recruiting tool for al Qaeda. They can go to the mosques and find unemployed angry young men and say they are oppressed by Westerners and say, "Look what they're doing in Fallujah." So the images are very good recruitment tools.
Why do they think terrorism will work, since it's unlikely Britain will change its policies?
The British were already planning to draw down their troops from 9,000 to 2,000 in the next nine months. I think the British will do that, and these bombings will not change British policy. The British have been bombed before and have not been timid; they've soldiered on in their activities. I don't think Spain withdrew from Iraq mainly because of the Madrid bombings, either. The Iraq war had always been enormously unpopular-92 percent of the population didn't want it.
But these people don't do these bombings for immediate political purposes.Sacred terror
has a lot to do with symbology. They're like big theatrical events. As I said, they couldn't even operate in Cairo; they would be arrested. So they feel very powerless. All the powers in the world are against them, and they feel very sure God is with them. What do you do if you're a tiny fringe who is completely right and indeed only if your plan succeeds is the world saved? And you're opposed by all of these massive states and powers? One of the things they're doing is giving themselves heart. They're saying we can make a difference, we can intervene in history, the enemy is not invulnerable, and we can strike it.
What is the psychology of sacred terror?
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