Since the 7th July, there’s been no shortage of opinion about what we ought to do about terrorism. The official line is that we stand resolutely together against it. The trouble with this is that we don’t know which direction it’s coming from, so we’re not sure where to stand.
Some young Muslim men in Leeds were interviewed in the street by a BBC journalist, and one said something about the silence in remembrance of the dead. He didn’t condone the bombing, he said, but wondered why the deaths of those people in London had warranted a silence, while the deaths of thousands of civilians in Iraq didn’t? It was a fair comment. Within days of the London blasts, a suicide bomber killed 90 people and injured over 150 in Musayyib, south of Baghdad, and the British medical journal the Lancet has just put the Iraqi death count at over 100,000. It’s hardly surprising that many young Muslim men are so angry. That doesn’t make them all potential terrorists, but anger is a potent recruiting tool for terrorism.
Fundamentalism of all sorts is about simplification. Fundamentalists think that if they convert, displace or kill anyone who doesn’t agree with them them, everything will be all right. In the introduction to her book about religious terrorism, the American academic Jessica Stern wrote, “Its converts often long for a simpler time, when right and wrong were clear, when there were heroes and martyrs, when the story was simple, when the neighbourhood was small, when we knew one another.” If that doesn’t sound how you imagine a terrorist should think, because they seem like the sort of longings that many other people might have, then maybe it’s time to think again. When you think like this, it’s easy to demonise anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the same childish, simplistic view of the world. The world’s a mess, and it’s always someone else’s fault, if you’re a fundamentalist. The difference between a terrorist’s mindset and that of others who’d like an uncomplicated life is that they’re prepared to kill to achieve purification – which is how they see it.
We must avoid falling into the same simplistic traps. We might not want to kill anyone, but unless we resist the temptation to think and talk in black or white terms, including about terrorism, we’ll be little better than them. It’s not going to be easy, but we need to understand terrorists, before we can defeat them.