Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Terrorists and their Grievances: The Case of British Muslims: Part One

Some terrorist organizations--the various RAF groups of the 1960s and 70s come to mind--have been animated by, what might be termed, "group-specific grievances." Other terrorist organizations--the Irgun, the ANC, for instance--have been animated by "community-wide grievances." Generally speaking, it is much easier to defeat terrorist organizations with group-specific grievances, because once the group-leaders have been killed, imprisoned, or "turned," the group tends to fall apart.

The distinction between "group-specific" and "community-wide" grievances is not meant to be binary, but to define two poles of a continuum. Few actual terrorist groups can legitimately claim to act on grievances shared by the entire community to which they nominally belong. Thus neither the IRA or ETA spoke for the entire Northern Irish and Basque community. Nonetheless, the grievances that animated these terrorist organizations were grievances shared by a significant segment of the wider Northern Irish and Basque communities.

Terrorists with "community-wide grievances" tend to be more difficult to defeat, because the community supports the terrorists--most importantly by supplying them with new recruits. The only sure way of defeating a terrorist organization of this type is to divide the terrorists from the community, either by removing the cause of the underlying grievances or by persuading the community that their grievances can be addressed through legal and/or democratic institutions.

I draw these elementary distinctions, because they underscore the difficulties the British government faces in dealing with homegrown Muslim terrorists. It would be consoling to believe that these homegrown terrorists act out of group-specific grievances. But enough has been said since 7/7 to show that many people in Britain's Muslim community, while condemning the terrorists' means, share their sense of a grievance. (For more on the topic of Muslim grievances, see David Aaronovitch's excellent column in the Times.)

But what exactly is the grievance that the community shares? The one we keep hearing on the news goes something like this: "We British Muslims feel a strong bond of solidarity with Muslims around the world. We can no longer sit by and see our brothers and sisters killed as a result of British foreign policy in Iraq, Israel, and Afghanistan."

That's the moderate version of Muslim grievances. The more extremist version goes something like this: " We Muslims, in Britain and elsewhere, wish to live in a transnational community governed in accordance with Sharia. In the interim, we will settle for a Britain that is far more sympathetic to our religious traditions."

Faced with these "grievances"--and personally I don't think either even warrants the word--the British government has two possible strategies:

(i) An Accommodationist Strategy: Here the Government mounts a PR campaign designed to show that British foreign policy, despite initial appearances, is designed to improve the well-being of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Leaving Muslims in the hands of Saddam Hussein or the Taliban is hardly conducive to their well-being. British foreign policy is, in short, good for your Muslim "brothers and sisters."

(ii) A Confrontational Strategy: Here the Government challenges the idea of British Muslims belonging to a global Muslim community whose duties to each other allegedly trump duties to Britain. This stratagy calls for a much more radical form of integrationism than Britain has hitherto adopted.

I tend to think that the Government ought to pursue both strategies fast. Unfortunately, I doubt that even this will solve the problem of homegrown Muslim terrorism. That's why I think that Britain (and Europe in general) faces a very difficult time ahead. 7/7 is more worrying than 9/11 ever was.

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