The London bombings: context vs. apologia
There are twin moral and intellectual traps most commentators are falling into vis-a-vis the London bombings. The first is the terrifyingly myopic and widespread consensus which is emerging that the attack "wasn't about Iraq." The increasingly predictable Christopher Hitchens writes in "The Anticipated Attack: Don't Blame Iraq for the Bombings" (Slate magazine):
It is ludicrous to try and reduce this to Iraq. Europe is steadily becoming a part of the civil war that is roiling the Islamic world, and it will require all our cultural ingenuity to ensure that the criminals who shattered London's peace at rush hour this morning are not the ones who dictate the pace and rhythm of events from now on.
There is a difference between "reducing" the context to Iraq, and acknowledging that Iraq is a very big part of the context. Yes, the struggle within Islam between secular pluralism and Wahhabi totalitarianism is also an essential part of the context. But that doesn't mean that the specific grievance of the bombers wasn't British involvement in Iraq. And, as we have noted before, the fact that terrorists and their apologists are demanding an end to oppressive, counter-productive policies is a pretty poor excuse for digging in our heels and clinging to them—which seems to be what Hitchens prescribes.
Then there is the equal and opposite trap of implicitly legitimizing terrorism (which only plays into the hands of war propagandists like Hitchens). The statement on the bombings from the consistently appalling International Action Center contains not one word of opprobrium for the bombers, only for Bush and Blair. The harshest word on the bombings is "tragedy," as if they had been a flood or earthquake rather than acts perpetrated by human agents. In contrast, "The U.S. and British occupation of Iraq causes the death of an average of 20 people a day, every day." (Of course a great many of those deaths are only "caused" by the occupation inasmuch as it is inspiring jihadis to blow up civilians in the name of "resistance.") The statement closes:
The only way to respond to today's bombing is to extend condolences to the families of those who perished or were injured; build solidarity with people around the world struggling against war, racism, and colonial occupation; to stand in solidarity with Arab and Muslim communities who have been targeted by the Bush Administration; and to continue building the movement to stop the oppression that inevitably brings resistance.
So even in London, the wanton slaughter of civilians (which, as IAC paradoxically admits, only serves as useful propaganda for Bush) is implicitly legitimized as "resistance." So much for the hypocritical "condolences" to the survivors.
Two recent commentaries provide a bit of corrective perspective to these idiotic (or cynical) errors. First, in response to the not-about-Iraq crowd, this from the July 14 UK Guardian:
It is an insult to the dead to deny the link with Iraq
Tony Blair put his own people at risk in the service of a foreign power
by Seumas Milne
In the grim days since last week's bombing of London, the bulk of Britain's political class and media has distinguished itself by a wilful and dangerous refusal to face up to reality. Just as it was branded unpatriotic in the US after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington to talk about the link with American policy in the Middle East, so those who have raised the evident connection between the London atrocities and Britain's role in Iraq and Afghanistan have been denounced as traitors. And anyone who has questioned Tony Blair's echo of George Bush's fateful words on September 11 that this was an assault on freedom and our way of life has been treated as an apologist for terror.
But while some allowance could be made in the American case for the shock of the attacks, the London bombings were one of the most heavily trailed events in modern British history. We have been told repeatedly since the prime minister signed up to Bush's war on terror that an attack on Britain was a certainty - and have had every opportunity to work out why that might be. Throughout the Afghan and Iraq wars, there has been a string of authoritative warnings about the certain boost it would give to al-Qaida-style terror groups. The only surprise was that the attacks were so long coming.
But when the newly elected Respect MP George Galloway - who might be thought to have some locus on the subject, having overturned a substantial New Labour majority over Iraq in a London constituency with a large Muslim population - declared that Londoners had paid the price of a "despicable act" for the government's failure to heed those warnings, he was accused by defence minister Adam Ingram of "dipping his poisonous tongue in a pool of blood". Yesterday, the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy was in the dock for a far more tentative attempt to question this suffocating consensus. Even [London mayor] Ken Livingstone, who had himself warned of the danger posed to London by an invasion of Iraq, has now claimed the bombings were nothing to do with the war - something he clearly does not believe.
A week on from the London outrage, this official otherworldliness is once again in full flood, as ministers and commentators express astonishment that cricket-playing British-born Muslims from suburbia could have become suicide bombers, while Blair blames an "evil ideology". The truth is that no amount of condemnation of evil and self-righteous resoluteness will stop terror attacks in the future. Respect for the victims of such atrocities is supposed to preclude open discussion of their causes in the aftermath - but that is precisely when honest debate is most needed.
The wall of silence in the US after the much greater carnage of 9/11 allowed the Bush administration to set a course that has been a global disaster... [I]t is an insult to the dead to mislead people about the crucial factors fuelling this deadly rage in Muslim communities across the world.
The first piece of disinformation long peddled by champions of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan is that al-Qaida and its supporters have no demands that could possibly be met or negotiated over; that they are really motivated by a hatred of western freedoms and way of life; and that their Islamist ideology aims at global domination. The reality was neatly summed up this week in a radio exchange between the BBC's political editor, Andrew Marr, and its security correspondent, Frank Gardner, who was left disabled by an al-Qaida attack in Saudi Arabia last year. Was it the "very diversity, that melting pot aspect of London" that Islamist extremists found so offensive that they wanted to kill innocent civilians in Britain's capital, Marr wondered. "No, it's not that," replied Gardner briskly, who is better acquainted with al-Qaida thinking than most. "What they find offensive are the policies of western governments and specifically the presence of western troops in Muslim lands, notably Iraq and Afghanistan."
The central goal of the al-Qaida-inspired campaign, as its statements have regularly spelled out, is the withdrawal of US and other western forces from the Arab and Muslim world, an end to support for Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and a halt to support for oil-lubricated despots throughout the region. Those are also goals that unite an overwhelming majority of Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere and give al-Qaida and its allies the chance to recruit and operate - in a way that their extreme religious conservatism or dreams of restoring the medieval caliphate never would. As even Osama bin Laden asked in his US election-timed video: if it was western freedom al-Qaida hated, "Why do we not strike Sweden?"
The second disinformation line peddled by government supporters since last week's bombings is that the London attacks had nothing to do with Iraq. The Labour MP Tony Wright insisted that such an idea was "not only nonsense, but dangerous nonsense". Blair has argued that, since the 9/11 attacks predated the Iraq war, outrage at the aggression could not have been the trigger. It's perfectly true that Muslim anger over Palestine, western-backed dictatorships and the aftermath of the 1991 war against Iraq - US troops in Arabia and a murderous sanctions regime against Iraq - was already intense before 2001 and fuelled al-Qaida's campaign in the 1990s. But that was aimed at the US, not Britain, which only became a target when Blair backed Bush's war on terror. Afghanistan made a terror attack on Britain a likelihood; Iraq made it a certainty.
We can't of course be sure of the exact balance of motivations that drove four young suicide bombers to strike last Thursday, but we can be certain that the bloodbath unleashed by Bush and Blair in Iraq - where a 7/7 takes place every day - was at the very least one of them...
The London bombers were to blame for attacks on civilians that are neither morally nor politically defensible. But the prime minister - who was warned by British intelligence of the risks in the run-up to the war - is also responsible for knowingly putting his own people at risk in the service of a foreign power. The security crackdowns and campaign to uproot an "evil ideology" the government announced yesterday will not extinguish the threat. Only a British commitment to end its role in the bloody occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan is likely to do that.
But there can be a fine line between recognizing context and engaging in apologias—as recognized by this commentary from the progressive Islamic website Muslim Wake Up!:
The moral failure of "yeah, but"
By Hesham A. Hassaballa
Yet again, the ugly face of terrorism reared itself on the streets and subways of London. As the death toll rises and the eyes of suspicion fall ever more sharply on Al Qaeda, I can't help but despair at the ever spiraling violence in our world today. And it pains me even more deeply that a significant portion of that violence occurs at the hands of Muslims in the name of Islam. Of course, we have all condemned this latest attack in London; we have all stated that Islam is a religion of peace; we have all stated "Islamic terror" is neither sacred nor Islamic.
Yet, inevitably, I get a question from one - or more than one - reader which goes something like this: "Yeah, but what about the suffering of Muslims in Iraq? Isn't that also wrong? Why don't you condemn that?" You can replace Iraq with a number of other hot spots in the Muslim World: Palestine, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir, and so on. On the morning of July 10, I was listening to BBC Radio when the program featured a British Muslim leader who, trying to explain terror at the hands of Muslims, began to rattle off all the bad things the American government did to Muslims in the past, all the while condemning what happened in London a few days ealier.
Right then and there - with those two words of "yeah, but" - you begin down the path of moral failure. The "yeah, but" indicates that the loss of innocent life in London can somehow be justified, that if innocent Muslims are dying at the hands of the British, then the death of innocent Britons (perhaps at the hands of Muslims) is somehow acceptable. In fact, the host of the BBC program told the Muslim leader just that.
Admittedly, that may not be the intention of the person who says "yeah, but." Yet - to me, at least - that is the impression that comes through; that is the connotation of the "yeah, but." Our faith has absolutely no room for any "yeah, buts." The sanctity of human life in the Qur'an is absolute, without condition or qualification:
Say: "Come, I will rehearse what God hath (really) prohibited you from: Join not anything as equal with Him; be good to your parents; kill not your children on a plea of want--We provide sustenance for you and for them; come not nigh to shameful deeds, whether open or secret; take not life, which God hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law. Thus doth He command you, that ye may learn wisdom" (6:151)
Nor take life - which God has made sacred - except for just cause....(17:33)
And the servants of the Most Gracious are those who [walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say "Peace!"]... Those who invoke not, with God [Allah], any other god, nor slay such life as God has made sacred except for just cause... (25:63-68)
By no stretch of the imagination could killing someone in London, or Baghdad, or Kirkuk, or Beslan, or Tel Aviv fall under the denotation of "just cause." Yet, there is an even more profound statement in the Qur'an, one that solidifies the moral failure of "yeah, but." In fact, I believe this statement to be one of the most - if not the most - profound statements in the entire Qur'an:
Believers, stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety, and fear God. For God is well-acquainted with all that you do. (5:8) [emphasis added]
Earlier in the same chapter, God says:
...let not the hatred of some people in (once) shutting you out of the Sacred Mosque lead you to transgression (and hostility on your part). Help ye one another in righteousness and piety, but help ye not one another in sin and rancour: fear God, for God is strict in punishment. (5:2)
These two verses leave absolutely no wiggle room; they choke the air of any argument that would begin with "yeah, but." No matter what evil has been committed against us, that does not give us license to commit injustice. And what worse injustice could there be besides taking the life of an innocent human being? The second of the two verses (5:2) especially brings home this message loud and clear.
This verse was initially revealed to the Prophet and his companions just after the conquest of Mecca, the inhabitants of which violently opposed the Prophet from the very beginnings of his ministry. They attacked, tortured, maimed, and murdered the early Muslims. They starved the Muslims for three years, directly leading to the deaths of Abu Talib and Khadijah. They killed Sumaya and Yasser in front of their son Ammar. They drove the Prophet (pbuh) and his followers from their homes and then seized their property to enrich themselves and their caravans. They led attack after attack against the Muslims in Medina, and they nearly killed the Prophet (pbuh) at Uhud. They treacherously violated the Treaty of Hudaybiyah, killing the Prophet's (pbuh) allies within the Sacred Precincts.
Yet despite all of that, God told the Muslims that they had no license to transgress against the Meccans. They could not say, "yeah, but." When the Muslims were marching into Mecca, one of the Prophet's companions yelled out, "Today is a day of slaughter! Today, God will debase Quraysh." When the Prophet (pbuh) learned of this, he became very angry and retorted, "He has spoken incorrectly! Today is a day of mercy. Today, God will elevate Quraysh in strength and status (by their acceptance of Islam)." The Prophet (pbuh) responded to all of the ugliness of Quraysh with mercy, forgiveness, and kindness. He did not take the opportunity of war to wantonly slaughter his most bitter of enemies. So should it be with Muslims today.
In no way, shape, or form does this mean that I am indifferent to the suffering of Muslims. This issue is frequently brought up to me, and I do not understand why. I am frequently criticized for my often harsh criticisms of the sins of Muslims, especially when it comes to violence and terror, and the implication is that I don't care about the countless loss of Muslim life. That is not true. The suffering of Muslims around the world pains me very deeply, and the way to end that suffering is to work to end injustice across the globe. But, I have to take us back to the word of God: "Never let the hatred of a people toward you move you to commit injustice." Our faith does not allow us to ever say, "yeah, but." It is the path to the Dark Side; once we start down that path, forever will it dominate our destiny. Once we let "yeah, but" guide our morality, then we risk becoming completely amoral. We cannot take that risk, ever.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Pulmonary and Critical Care physician currently practicing in the greater Chicago area. He has written extensively on a freelance basis, and his commentaries have been published in BeliefNet, the Chicago Tribune as well as other media around the country and around the world. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book, The Beliefnet Guide to Islam, to be pubished by Doubleday. In addition to writing, Dr. Hassaballa helped found the Chicago chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and is co-chair of the Media Relations Committee of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. Make sure to visit Hesham's blog God, Faith, and a Pen.
Many other worthwhile commentaries are to be found at MMU!'s special series "Terror, Not in Our Name"