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.