In this piece in the Spectator, Matthew Parris - as part of a wider argument, that I leave aside here, about the decline of American imperial power - talks down the appeal of Islamism and, more specifically, the threat posed by al-Qaida. Parris writes:
Has it not occurred to us that if al-Qa'eda really were as wily and resourceful as we tell ourselves they are, and if their tentacles really did extend as wide and deep as some say, they would be on the advance - not battled into a stalemate by Western security and intelligence? If I were an al-Qa'eda activist I could have blown up Parliament or shot at least one of a range of prime ministers by now. Al-Qa'eda's failure to infiltrate or penetrate Western structures has been complete.While these considerations should give us confidence that political Islamism is not a probable future for us, Parris does rather seem to underestimate the extent of the threat some of its adherents now pose to the lives of others, if two recent reports about their activities are anything to go by. The first is by Jason Burke. It details the training of 'dozens of British citizens' in camps on the Afghan-Pakistan border - young men then sent into Afghanistan to fight:
There is a reason for this. Islam, in its more fundamentalist form, doesn't work. Serious, committed Islamists are most unlikely to succeed within any structures but their own. Their own, meanwhile, are notoriously inefficient and corrupt... How can any culture which despises modernity, hates mobility, distrusts individual liberty and autonomy, persecutes those who deviate from cultural or ideological norms, imposes a kind of brutal conformity on the way people live, love and work, and at a stroke disempowers 50 per cent of its people (women) from proper education and from all career opportunity so that every boy-child it produces is being brought up by a person who knows little of the world and only a fraction of what the boy must learn - how can such a culture bestride the 21st century...?
'We just hope they are dead,' one source admitted. 'It's best that they blow themselves up over there than over here.'Some further material from the same report:
Britain is universally considered to be the nation 'most threatened by a major terrorist strike' outside the Middle East or southwest Asia because of its strong support for American foreign policies, relative accessibility compared to the US and strong historic connections to Pakistan which allows in hundreds of thousands of British subjects to travel virtually unmonitored every year.Burke also emphasizes the strength and flexibility of organizational networks, and the same thing is covered in a report in the Economist. It refers to...
Major co-ordinated attacks on the critical infrastructure of Western nations, such as the Channel Tunnel or passenger jets, are 'within the capability and ambition' of militants close to the al-Qaeda leadership and acting independently and are being actively planned.
This [ideology - NG] has mobilised thousands of young Muslims from a wide variety of backgrounds around the world in the last five years.
... a diffuse nebula of overlapping jihadi groups, ready to destroy themselves in order to kill as many people as possible. "We are seeing networks within networks, connections within connections and links between individuals that cross local, national and international boundaries," said Peter Clarke, the head of the counter-terrorism branch of London's Metropolitan Police... More than 100 people are currently awaiting trial in Britain on terrorism charges. But in Mr Clarke's view, "The only sensible assumption is that we shall be attacked again."Information in both pieces about ideological mobilization and organizational resources highlights the source of Matthew Parris's mistake (as I take it to be). The broad cultural influences he refers to are certainly relevant, but we should know enough from modern history not to underestimate the autonomous causal effects of ideological fanaticism and political organization. If we're looking at contextual influences, these words of Christopher Hitchens's are to the point:
The roots of violence... are in the preaching of it, and the sanctification of it.Contrary to an impression Parris might give, the stakes are not only to do with the long-term future of political Islamism; they concern also the lives and security of many thousands of people.