It occurred to me as I watched the story unfolding on my TV of a suspected plot by a group of at least 20 British Muslims to blow up planes between the UK and America that the course of my life and that of the alleged “terrorists” may have run in parallel in more ways than one.
Like a number of them, I am originally from High Wycombe, one of the non-descript commuter towns that ring London. As aerial shots wheeled above the tiled roof of a semi-detached house there, I briefly thought I was looking at my mother’s home.
But doubtless my and their lives have diverged in numerous ways. According to news reports, the suspects are probably Pakistani, a large “immigrant” community that has settled in many corners of Britain, including High Wycombe and Birmingham, a grey metropolis in the country’s centre where at least some of the arrested men are believed to have been born.
Britain’s complacent satisfaction with its multi-culturalism and tolerance ignores the facts that Pakistanis and other ethnic minorities mostly live in their own segregated spaces on the margins of British life. “Native” Britons like me — the white ones — generally assume that is out of choice: “They stick to their own kind”. Many of us rarely come into contact with a Pakistani unless he is serving us what we call “Indian food” or selling us a packet of cigarettes in a corner shop.
So, even though we may have been neighbours of a sort in High Wycombe, my life and theirs probably had few points of contact.
But paradoxically, that changed, I think, five years ago when I left Britain. I moved to Nazareth in Israel, an Arab — Muslim and Christian — community on the very margins of the self-declared Jewish state. In the ghetto of Nazareth, I rarely meet Israeli Jews unless I venture out for work or I find myself sitting next to them in a local restaurant as they order hummus from an Arab waiter, just as I once asked for a madras curry in High Wycombe. When Israeli Jews briefly visit the ghetto, I suddenly realise how much, by living here, I have become an Arab by default.
Living on the margins of any society is an alienating experience that few who are rooted in the heartland of the consensus can ever hope to understand. Such alienation can easily deepen into something less passive, far more destructive, when you find yourself not only marginalised but your loyalty, rationality, even your sanity, called into question.
As we approach the fifth official anniversary of the “war on terror”, the foiled UK “terror plot” has neatly provided George W Bush, the “leader of the free world”, with a chance to remind us of our fight against the “Islamic fascists”. But what if the war on terror is not really about separating the good guys from the bad guys, but about deciding what a good guy can be allowed to say and think?
What if the “Islamic fascism” President Bush warns us of is not just the terrorism associated with Osama bin Laden and his elusive al-Qaeda network but a set of views that many Arabs, Muslims and Pakistanis — even the odd humanist — consider normal, even enlightened? What if the war on “Islamic fascism” is less about fighting terrorism and more about silencing those who dissent from the West’s endless wars against the Middle East?
At some point, I suspect, I joined the Islamic fascists without my even noticing. Were my name different, my skin colour different, my religion different, I might feel a lot more threatened by that realisation.
How would Homeland Security judge me if I stepped off a plane in the US tomorrow and told officials not only that I am appalled by the humanitarian crises in Lebanon and Gaza but also that I do not believe the war on terror should be directed against either the Lebanese or the Palestinians? How would they respond if, further, I described as nonsense the idea that Hizbullah or the political leaders of Hamas are “terrorists”?
I have my reasons, good ones I think, but would anyone take them seriously? What would the officials make of my argument that, before Israel’s war on Lebanon, no one could point to a single terrorist incident Hizbullah had been responsible for in at least a decade? Would the authorities appreciate my comment that a terrorist organisation that doesn’t do terrorism is a chimera, a figment of the President’s imagination?
Equally, what would they make of my belief that Hizbullah does not want to wipe Israel off the map? Would they find me convincing if I told them that Israel, not Hizbulalh, is the aggressor in the conflict: that following Israel’s supposed withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, Lebanon experienced barely a day of peace from the terrifying sonic booms of Israeli war planes violating the country’s airspace?
Would they understand as I explained that Hizbullah had acted with restraint for those six years, stockpiling its weapons for the day it knew was coming when Israel would no longer be satisfied with overflights and its appetite for conquest and subjugation would return? Would the officials doubt their own assumptions as I told them that during this war Hizbullah’s rockets have been a response to Israeli provocations, that they are fired in return for Israel’s devastating and indiscriminate bombardment of Lebanon?
And what would they say if I claimed that this war is not really about Lebanon, or even Hizbullah, but part of a wider US and Israeli campaign to isolate and pre-emptively attack Iran?
Thank God, my skin is fair, my name is unmistakenly English, and I know how to spell the word “atheist”. Chances are when Homeland Security comes looking for suspects, no one will search for me or be interested — not yet, at least — in my views on Hassan Nasrallah or the democratic election of a Hamas government for the Palestinians.
My friends in Nazareth, and those Pakistani neighbours I never knew in High Wycombe, are less fortunate. They must keep their views hidden and swallow their anger as they see (because their media, unlike ours, show the reality) what US-made weapons fired by American and Israeli soldiers can do to the fragile human body, how quickly skin burns in an explosion, how easily a child’s skull is crushed under rubble, how fast the body drains of blood from a severed limb.
Sitting in London or New York, the news that Gaza lost 151 souls, most of them civilians, last month to Israeli bombs and bullets passes us by. It is after all just a number, even if a high one. At best, a number like that from a place we don’t know, suffered by a people whose names we can’t pronounce, makes us pause, even sigh with regret. But it cannot move us to anger.
And anyway, our news bulletins are too busy to concentrate on more than one atrocity at a time. This month it is Lebanon. Next month it will probably be Iran. Then maybe it will be back to Baghdad or the Palestinians. The horror stories sound so much less significant, the need for action so less pressing, when each is unrelated to the next. Were we to watch the Arab channels, where all the blood and suffering blends into a single terrible Middle Eastern epic, we might start to make connections, and maybe suspect that none of this happens by accident.
But my Arab friends and High Wycombe’s Pakistanis have longer memories. Their attention span lasts longer than a single atrocity. They understand that those numbers — 151 killed in Gaza, and in a single incident 33 blown up in a market in Najaf, Iraq, and at least 28 crushed by rubble from an Israeli attack on Qana in Lebanon — are people, flesh and blood just like them. They can make out, in all the pain and death currently being inflicted on Arabs and Muslims, the echoes of events stretching back years and decades. They see patterns, they make connections, and maybe discern a plan. Unlike us, they do not sigh, they burn with fury.
This is something President Bush and his obedient serf in Britain, Tony Blair, need to learn. But of course, they do not want to understand because they, and their predecessors, are responsible for creating those patterns and for writing that epic tale in blood. Bush and Blair and their advisers know that the plan is far more important than the rage, the “red” alert levels at airports, or even planes crashing into buildings and plunging out of the sky.
And to protect that plan — to preserve the Middle East as a giant oil pump, cheaply feeding our industries and our privileged lifestyles — those who care about the suffering, the deaths and the wars must be silenced. Their voices must not be heard, their loyalty must be questioned, their reason must be put in doubt. They must be dismissed as “Islamic fascists”.
One does not need to be a psychologist to understand that those with no legitimate way to vent their rage, even to have it recognised as valid, become consumed by it instead. They seek explanations and purifying ideologies. They need heroes and strategies. And in the end they crave revenge. If their voice is not heard, they will speak without words.
So I find myself standing with Bush’s “Islamic fascists” in the hope that — just possibly — my solidarity and that of others may dissipate the rage, may give it meaning and offer it another, better route to victory.