‘Islamic’ terrorists?

One of the arguments that has surfaced repeatedly since the London bombings is over the term ‘Islamic terrorists’ – some people pointing out that we never referred to the IRA as ‘Catholic terrorists’, others riposting that the IRA never claimed to be acting in the name of the Catholic faith, unlike Al-Qaeda.

This argument is that the IRA are politically motivated where Al-Qaeda are religiously motivated. But I wonder if that’s a helpful distinction. David Trimble was on the radio the other day talking about Northern Ireland and he talked about people who were brought up thinking of themselves as Irish despite living in the United Kingdom. In other words, it’s a clash of national identities. Intuitively, it’s hard to believe that terrorism would be driven just by theology without something of that tribal motivation.

Perhaps jihadi terrorism is best looked at in this way – the terrorists are driven not by religious belief, in a simple way, but because they identify themselves with an Islamic nation – the Umma. You can see how young Islamic men in Leeds who feel alienated from their own country would be drawn by the idea; that they were a member of a great Islamic nation, that not only stretched continuously from Istanbul to Djakarta, but was with them wherever they were. And being a young man in England who can’t go to the pub must be pretty alienating in itself. Perhaps we should be referring to the terrorists as Islamic Nationalists. And indeed the same idea famously had an appeal to many young black men in the US – hence the Nation of Islam.

That concept, of a religious nationhood, is rather unfamiliar to us now. Particularly in the UK, which is very secular. But of course, we do have a word that is the equivalent of Umma – Christendom. There’s nothing in the core message of Christianity that requires places to be held sacred, or that requires the sacred places of Christianity to be run by Christians, but thousands of young men from all over Christendom went and died to try and recapture the Holy Lands.

Which brings us onto a mild irony of language. Bush got into some trouble soon after 9-11 by calling his War on Terror a ‘crusade’. I assume he didn’t mean to refer to the medieval Crusades, but many Muslims took offence anyway. But just as ‘Christendom’ is an equivalent for Umma, the most natural English translation of jihad is ‘Crusade’.*

I don’t know. Trying to turn Islamic terrorism into a type of identity politics is probably no more enlightening than calling it ‘religious’ or ‘political’. And there’s no reason why it has to be just one – they can all feed into each other.

*Yes, I do know that the word ‘crusade’ derives from the Latin for ‘cross’. But the point holds, I think.

the election campaign

I think the general trend of the polls – a gradual improvement for Labour and the Lib-Dems at the expense of the Tories – has been interesting.

I suspect it’s that people are reacting to a month of seeing both Blair and Howard on TV all the time. There’s just no contest. I know a lot of pundits are saying that Blair is a liability this time, but he still comes across as more sincere, more likeable, and above all more competent than Michael Howard. And the Tory ‘do you trust Blair?’ strategy has backfired, because people have looked at both of them and thought “actually, we may not trust him as much as we used to, but we certainly trust him more than you“.

Blair is just so much more mediatic (as Florentino P


dreadful tories

The Tories are being unbelievably crap.

In the days Before Blair, I probably would have been a natural soft Tory, if I was old enough to vote. I voted for the first time in 1997. I probably would have voted Labour whoever the leader was, because the Conservative party had completely self-destructed at that point, but Blair taking Labour to the right certainly made it easier.

But if you’d told me then that by 2005, the Tories would still be in such a state that I wouldn’t even consider voting for them, I’m not sure I would have believed you. Picking Hague was daft*, and picking IDS was so suicidal that even Michael Howard, one of the most unpopular politicians of the past 20 years, looked like an improvement. But Howard has looked incredibly awkward and artificial during the campaign. He might almost have done better to be the old nasty Howard rather than trying to present himself as soft and fluffy – at least that way he had some presence.

And the policies! What kind of party, choosing only five priorities for a campaign, includes school discipline and cleaner hospitals? Yes those things are important, but they’re not exactly a visionary manifesto for a new national government. And then there’s the paranoid yammering about immigration, which just serves to alienate people like me, and reinforce the party’s extremist image. And the final two issues – more police and lower taxes – aren’t exactly staggeringly insightful either. The whole package just shouts out nasty-minded paranoia, band-wagon jumping, and knee-jerk bar-room politics. And if I wanted that I could vote for Veritas. Or Respect.

Of course it’s normal for the Tories to be to the right of the Labour party. But a mainstream politic party has to have a foothold in the centre, for people like me. Democracy is no fun if the choice offered isn’t a genuine one.


*I actually think William Hague has a good chance of being PM some time a few years hence and doing a good job of it, but it was a stupid decision at the time.