2016-06-30
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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  • What was the aim of this particular terrorist attack?

    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 the Caliphate. (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?
    Read more on page 3 >>


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  • What is the psychology of sacred terror?

    What's different about sacred terror and ordinary political terror is sacred terror tends to be more based in absolutes. The IRA wanted England out of Northern Ireland, but the IRA didn't think England was evil. It just wanted it out of Northern Ireland. Al Qaeda thinks the U.K. is evil, that it is a corrupting, oppressive influence for Muslims. So there's no sense of compromise in this cosmic struggle. For this reason the struggle can be imagined as a very long-term one; it can go on for hundreds of years from these people's point of view, and the signs of victory can be read in symbolic ways. So these bombings are a kind of victory of a sort that the early Muslims had against their much more powerful foes in Mecca.

    So they view themselves as the early Muslims against the Meccans?

    This is very clear in their literature. And remember, Mecca was a big center of trading in Western Arabia. It made its way through the caravan trade. So similar cities like London and New York are configured in the minds of these people as "Meccan."

    And therefore considered secular, pagan, and anti-Muslim?

    Yes.

    Why is Islam-as opposed to other world religions--today the breeding ground for spectacular sacred terror?

    Much of the Muslim world is relatively close to Europe and therefore was early on deeply colonized. Whereas many countries when they decolonized in the course of the 20th century could feel that they gained a great deal of autonomy-China or even Vietnam after 1975-most countries in the Muslim world are close enough to Europe that even when they de-colonized they suffered from neo-colonialism. If you look at Egypt, how many autonomous decisions does it make? Egypt gets $2 billion a year from the United States, and it has all kinds of relationships with the European Union. It cannot strike on its own very easily.

    I would argue neo-colonialism is at the root of terrorism. But I should also point out that these groups are not just reactive. They have their own vision and ambitions and aggressions that are not always in reaction to something else.

    Is there anything the West, or the Muslim world, can do to stop terrorism?

    Yes. You resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict with a Palestinian state that the Palestinians are happy with. You end the U.S. presence in Iraq, and put efforts into properly rebuilding Afghanistan, which has not been done. If you did those three things, 90 percent of it would go away.

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