Democracy, imperialism and terrorism in the West

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At least as sickening as the sight of the devastation wrought by the bombs in London last month was the sight of British prime minister Tony Blair taking a sanctimoniously moral tone while trying to spin the bombings to serve his own political agenda. It is not only that his outrage is hard to take from a man who has been shown to have lied to his own people to justify supporting the US’s murderous invasion of Iraq; it is also that he should use the suffering inflicted by bombings provoked by his own policies to justify those policies. He insists that the war in Iraq does not “justify” the bombings; but that is not the point. The point is that Iraq largely explains them, however unjustified they may have been. Fortunately many in Britain are sceptical about his claim that the bombings have nothing to do with Iraq, but, remarkably, they continue to support a man they openly distrust.

Many in Britain are particularly shocked by the fact that the bombings have been carried out by British Muslims who have been born and brought up sharing the freedoms of their democratic society and state. While most Muslims in Britain have undoubtedly shared the general shock and condemnation of the bombings, they have also tried to explain why many Muslims find it difficult to share their fellow citizens’ rosy view of British democracy and society. For their part, many Muslims cannot understand how other British people can fail to see how Britain is viewed in the rest of the world, and how people who are so cynical about the state of politics in their own country can expect others to view it positively. Blair speaks of an “evil ideology” driving the bombers to attack Britain, as though they could not possibly have any other reason for doing so. It is remarkable that many non-Muslim Britons cannot see the much more simple reasons why many Muslims in the world might want to attack their country.

The problem is that the attitudes of most people in Britain are coloured by a number of basic assumptions that are fundamentally untrue. One is the assumption that Britain’s status as a democracy gives moral legitimacy to whatever its governments may do. There is absolutely no logic to that; an illegal and murderous war is just as illegal and murderous when conducted by a democratically elected government. Nor does the fact that the British public re-elected Blair in this year’s elections, despite his many and recognised sins, (or that the US public re-elected Bush, for that matter) absolve him or Britain of responsibility for his actions. Such assumptions might be convenient for Britons who sometimes worry about their own responsibility for Blair’s crimes, but can hardly be expected to convince the victims of those crimes.

The second assumption is that imperialism is a thing of the past, and in particular that democracies cannot be imperialists because they are supposedly concerned for the rights of ordinary people wherever they may be. This too is a fallacy easily disproved but very hard for Westerners to get past, again probably because its acceptance would challenge their comfortable and uncomplicated view of themselves and their place in the world. Yet many debates about the West’s role in the world are shot through with imperialistic assumptions and language, the modern equivalents of the “white man’s burden” and the West’s right to dominate and exploit the rest of the world. Intellectuals talk of neo-imperialism and liberal empire; one of the leading British analyses of American foreign policy over recent decades, by the historian Niall Ferguson, of Oxford University, is called Colossus: the Price of America’s Empire. But somehow these discourses and understandings have absolutely no impact on how ordinary people understand the world they live in. Nor do they help people to understand how others may see the world, and in particular the role of powers like the US and Britain in it. In particular, the simple truth that victims of imperialism always fight back is somehow beyond popular comprehension.

That is the simple reality of much of the disorder in the world today: that Muslims in particular are determined to liberate their countries from Western domination and exploitation, and to achieve the freedom to run their own societies according to their own values and principles, primarily those of Islam. It is the fact that Western powers are determined to maintain their hegemony over the Muslim world, and have repeatedly shown their willingness to be as brutal and ruthless as necessary to protect their interests, that draws the wrath of their victims down on Western countries. The fact that the individual perpetrators of the bombings may have been British-born and -bred does not change the fact that they were part of a global Ummah with legitimate grievances.

Nothing justifies the bombings in London on July 7. British Muslims are as appalled by them as other British people. But the explanations are not hard to find, and must be confronted if such atrocities are to be averted in future. But Blair’s determination to ignore the explanations for the bombings, and instead use them to justify his foreign policy, makes virtually inevitable more such tragedies in the future.

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