Garvan Walshe was National and Internatlonal Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
Hate is a natural word to describe the motivation for shooting an 80 year old cartoonist dead. And it is hard to imagine how a person could do that without hating his victim. A culture and ideology of hate seem to provide an explanation for the horror of the murders at Charlie Hebdo. But 14 years on, this isn’t good enough.
As the second plane smashed into the World Trade Centre in 2001 we wouldn’t have been human if we hadn’t been terrified. Were there other planes? Was this the start of a campaign? Who was behind this, and what could possibly motivate them to commit public murder on such a scale?
“Why do they hate us?” became the overwhelming question. Is it because of what we have done, or because of what we are? After Wednesday’s killings the fear has come back. “Why do they hate Charlie?” – and we’re scared again.
Attributing the violence to hate serves, first, and perversely, to reassure. The horror is too raw to assign rational motivation. It serves to relieve us of the burden of explaining it as a crime committed by people like you and me, and for reasons that make sense to them. “Jihadists kill because that is what they do,” a very good friend wrote in the heat of the moment. At the same time, it serves to relieve them of moral agency so that all we can do is fight them, or change the stimuli (usually Western foreign policy). This puts the ball in our court and, by making us feel we have some measure of control, relieves our fear.
But this is not how terrorism works. Terrorists think, feel and make plans. The wrong plans, distorted feelings and criminal thoughts to be sure – but plans, feelings and thoughts nonetheless. They have political ideas, and believe that their violence will make the world a better place.
Islamist terrorism only appears unfamiliar. The language and symbols with which it is expressed make reference to traditions about which Western societies know little. Worse, less immoderate Islamists have tended deliberately to obscure the fact that the differences between them and the extremists are mainly about tactics. For a while, around 2006, they even tried to deny that there was such a thing as “Islamism” and that to use the term was Islamophobic.
Odd as it may seem, the most important feature of the Islamist family of ideologies is that it is not best understood as a religious movement. Islamists use religious symbols, play upon Muslims’ sense of identity, take money from religious foundations, and exploit anti-Muslim bigotry in the West. But they’re not focused on spiritual rewards. They provide their supporters hope because they believe that their interpretation of Islamic rule will make this world a better place. As Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, wrote in his manifesto, Milestones:
The leadership of mankind by Western man is now on the decline, not because Western culture has become poor materially or because its economic and military power has become weak. The period of the Western system has come to an end primarily because it is deprived of those life- giving values which enabled it to be the leader of mankind.
It is necessary for the new leadership to preserve and develop the material fruits of the creative genius of Europe, and also to provide mankind with such high ideals and values as have so far remained undiscovered by mankind, and which will also acquaint humanity with a way of life which is harmonious with human nature, which is positive and constructive, and which is practicable. Islam is the only System which possesses these values and this way of life.
The terrorists in Paris stand to Qutb as the Red Army Faction did to the Communist Manifesto, and killed in pursuit of a crude copy of the original, more optimistic ideology. The details of the attack are eminently explicable. The terrorists appear to have been more organised and experienced than the “lone wolf” DIY ones that have recently become common; they probably benefited from a handler somewhere, perhaps affiliated to Al-Qaeda (who trained them) who gave them this particular mission.
Its aim may well have been to show, at a time when ISIS is getting all the attention, that Al-Qaeda-style terrorism, which targets the West to bring about change in the Middle East, is still relevant. The secondary siege of the Kosher supermarket was by a perpetrator the intelligence services say was well known to the two men who attacked the magazine. He probably feared he would be rounded up, so thought he might was well do “something” before he got caught.
If this is true, Charlie Hebdo was targeted because an attack upon it, unlike Boko Haram’s simultaneous murder of 2,000 Nigerians, was capable of capturing world attention. That they insulted the prophet was partly important because it made the cartoonists into so-called “legitimate targets”, but mainly because it guarantees publicity.
To join the struggle to perfect society by killing anyone who stands in its way, or whose death can bring the day of revolution forward, is the fanatic’s dream. It is dreamed in every culture when men and women conclude that justice can be established on the earth and that moderation in its pursuit is no virtue.
There’s nothing specifically Muslim, indeed nothing specifically religious, about this dream – but since this particular strain is expressed using the symbols of Islamic culture and Muslims’ identity, resisting it needs politics of exceptional subtlety and composure.
Liberal democracy supported by the rule of law has survived previous waves of terrorism. This one looks far more menacing than it is because because it appropriates a religious tradition with which most Westerners are not sufficiently familiar. But we mustn’t let that familiarity imagine it is exotic when it is thoroughly ordinary. There has been too much written in the last few days which suggests that the troubles in Islam are somehow intrinsic to a Muslim religion we are doomed never to fully understand.
They are not, and to think that they may be is to get too close to the abyss. There is major anti-Muslim prejudice across Europe: the leaders of the anti-Muslim demonstrations in Germany, and the National Front in France, will exploit these attacks in their pursuit of power.
As we, the citizens of democracies, confront Islamist terrorism with the full force of the law, and make the case against Islamist political ideology, we need to remember there are forces in our societies that Muslims are justified in being afraid of, and from which mainstream politics needs to ensure they are protected.