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The responsibility we share for Islamist shock and awe 

Citizens in democracies will be held to account for what is done in their name

By Peter Wilby

08/05/06 "The Guardian"
-- -- Shortly after September 11 2001, I was widely denounced for implying, in a New Statesman editorial, that by electing George Bush - who was known to be indifferent to anything but the interests of US capital - Americans had helped to bring the New York and Washington attacks on themselves. Now Omar Bakri Mohammed and other Muslim clerics blame Britons for the London bombings because they re-elected Tony Blair. Do I, as one who voted for Blair and travel regularly on the tube, agree with them? 

Let me first explain what I was trying to say (perhaps clumsily) four years ago. When America goes to war - in Vietnam or the Middle East, for example - it kills many people who have had no chance to influence their rulers. Americans, however, claim their government is "of the people, by the people, for the people". America, on its own estimation, is a superpower which wishes to spread liberal capitalism. 

The large majority of Americans (including migrants) have bought into this project and benefit from it - through cheap oil, for example, or through profits of US-based multinationals, which are often derived from expropriation of other countries' resources. Any president who fails to protect these benefits risks himself or his party losing office. So if they are serious about democracy, Americans should accept a share of responsibility for what is done in their name. And so should we, whose country is America's closest ally and accomplice. 

None of this is to deny that indiscriminate murder is wrong or to support either the gang that attacked America in 2001 or the ones that attacked London last month. It is merely to observe that we should all take responsibility for our actions or inactions. This is what we now demand of Muslims. Is there something wrong with their religion? Have they given their young people the right values? Many Muslims are asking exactly these questions. For example, Bushra Nasir, head of a comprehensive and one of the Muslim delegation that met Tony Blair after the bombings, says that "now is the time for us Muslims to put our house in order" and "to look at what is going wrong with Muslim families and education". The least we can do is ask a few questions of ourselves. 

To many of us, the attacks seem especially evil. No warnings are given. The bombs are deliberately targeted at large numbers of civilians. They kill young and old, Muslims and non-Muslims, Blair voters and Blair opponents. (Not that bombing Dresden, Hiroshima, Hanoi or Baghdad was all that discriminating either). 

Suicide bombings seem worst of all. We feel unable to do anything to make ourselves safer. It's no good being vigilant for "suspicious" packages because the bomber carries his cargo on his back and, even if you think you've spotted it, he can still blow everybody up. Even a police officer can only shoot for the head, and risk killing an innocent person, as happened at Stockwell tube station. That innocent, particularly if you have a darkish skin, could be you. 

And a home-grown suicide bomber, dreaming of 72 virgins for himself and "a painful doom" (in the Qur'an's words) for his victims, seems an unpleasantly self-absorbed figure. What does he hope to achieve? He issues no statement, no programme, no final words to secure his place in the history books. It seems to be pure nihilism. 

Yet a bomber needs support: he needs to find like-minded fellow bombers, people to supply explosives and detonators, people to organise his operation. The bombers may be "bastards", to use the term favoured by red-top newspaper writers, but from what does their bastardy spring? Perhaps it is just another version of the mindset that makes white thugs in Liverpool sink an axe into the head of a black 18-year-old. Or perhaps it is another internet phenomenon, whereby a man who gets his kicks out of exploding deadly bombs can find soulmates, just as a German cannibal can find someone who wants to be eaten. But I think there is more to it; the attacks are "explicable" (which is not the same as "justifiable") in the sense that Dominic Grieve, the shadow attorney general, used the word on Wednesday. 

A section of the Islamic world believes the west is waging war on it, that this war has intensified with the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and that it could intensify further with an invasion of Iran. It's no use saying the 2001 attack preceded those invasions. As far as many Muslims are concerned, it went on for most of the 20th century. Arabs were expelled from Israel in the 1940s; Israel occupied the West Bank from 1967; the first Gulf war took place in 1991 and, to Bin Laden's rage, led to US troops polluting sacred Saudi soil. The US has propped up corrupt, secular, pro-western tyrannies throughout the Islamic world - and then blamed and even bombed Muslims for their failure to embrace democracy. 

Nor is it any use saying that neither Bin Laden nor the bombers are poor and oppressed and that they don't care about Palestinians. The leaders of the Russian revolution weren't poor and they despised the peasants. But their ideas would have had no traction without the miseries inflicted on Russians under the tsars, and nor would Bin Laden's without the humiliations visited on Islamic countries, and the poverty that remains endemic. A climate has been created in which a minority of Muslims, some living in the west but feeling detached from western society, believe there's a war going on. 

How do you prosecute a war against the US and Britain? Muslims fight us on their own soil, but why should they not carry the fight to our homelands as we carry it to theirs? They do not possess the aircraft to fly over Washington and London and carry out "precision bombing". The security around US and British leaders is almost impenetrable, at least compared with that around buses and tubes. Most importantly, Muslim warriors may think, bombing western civilians gets results: the things that make it horrible to us make it more effective in their eyes (shock and awe, perhaps) and if there are enough such outrages, we will demand a retreat from Iraq. They may be wrong on this. But it is the price we pay for living in a democracy: theoretically, we are in charge so we are frontline targets. 

"Responsibility" is a better word than "blame". We demand it, rightly, of those who carry out the atrocities; we should demand it also of ourselves and our rulers. The bombers, or rather those who control and influence them, are clear they are at war. President Bush seemed to agree when he declared a "war on terror". Is our role in this war a just one? Do we want to continue the war? If not, what will we do to stop it? Those are the questions we need to ask ourselves. 

Peter Wilby is a former editor of the New Statesman - peter.wilby3@ntlworld.com 

Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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