‘I don’t think we’re likely to get to know the Moslems very well, and I suspect that if we should, we’d find them less sympathetic than we do at present. And I suspect the same applies to their getting to know us’, observed the novelist Paul Bowles. Three years after he made this remark in 1952, Bowles published his seminal novel about the last days of French colonialism in Morocco, The Spider’s House. The title derived from the 29th surah of the Koran: ‘the likeness of those who take protectors other than Allah is like that of the spider, who takes unto itself a house; but truly the frailest of all houses is the spider’s house’.
Bowles thought Western civilisation had spent itself in a secular materialism that it exported to the rest of the world. Six decades later the virulent Islamist reaction to this secularism became apparent in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan, Brussels and now Manchester and London (yet again). The response to escalating random assaults on its profane values and its open societies, demonstrates not only the frailty of the Western spider house, but also the reluctance of Western European democracies, their security agencies, the media and academe to address the actual nature of the threat.
The prevailing orthodoxy considers the recent terrorist phenomenon a product of ‘radicalisation’ and ‘violent extremism’. Since 7/7, we have witnessed a familiar pattern. ‘Fast moving investigations’ require threat levels dialed up to ‘critical’ before being dialed back to ‘severe’ – the post 2015 European default level. Slogans claiming we are ‘united by love’ or ‘ staying strong together’ appear at public gatherings. Interfaith leaders gather to declare that the violent act has nothing to do with religion. Crowds gather to show ‘we are not afraid’, but the love looks a little contrived, presided over as it is by troops and armed police patrolling urban streets and landmarks.
Unlike Khalid Masood, who drove over pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the Bastille Day truck hijacker, who mowed down 86 people in Nice, or Anis Amri who killed 12 people in Berlin, the Manchester bomber or the three London Bridge attackers cannot be easily dismissed as acts of deranged ‘lone wolves’. Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber, functioned within a well-organised South Manchester network linked to Islamic State in Libya. The London attack bore all the hallmarks of a coordinated assault on the Saturday night tourist playgrounds of the infidel. Nevertheless, the commentariat still manages to find these actions symptomatic of the ‘lonely’ loserdom, of those suffering alienation and ‘narcissistic’ personality disorders. To do otherwise would be to question the standard response to the escalating pattern of attacks; to throw more money into security agency budgets and counter-radicalisation strategies. In the Manchester aftermath, Labour pledged to recruit an additional 10,000 police, whilst the Conservatives promised a new commission to counter extremism after the election.
Since 2011, the UK government has spent close to £40 million a year on Prevent, a program that engages with the Muslim community and counsels vulnerable young people against extremism. Australia invests millions in programs like ‘Living Safe Together’ that also assume that ‘social cohesion, early intervention and community based solutions’ will work.Yet more than a decade of investment in countering extremism has failed to curb the homegrown enthusiasm for jihad. Absolving itself from blame for missing recent plots, MI5 claimed they are currently monitoring over 3,000 potentially violent extremists evidently at loose on the streets and keeping tabs on 500 active cases; a 50 per cent increase since 2007. In other words, Western governments invest heavily in deradicalisation programs, yet the numbers ‘radicalised’ have only increased. Meanwhile, the Islamist- dominated Muslim Council of Great Britain dismisses such programs as ‘intrusive’.
By contrast, at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, the security services knew exactly who they were fighting and why, and saw no need to counter violent extremism except with good intelligence, and the occasional recourse to internment. However, although Theresa May has promised to review the UK’s counter-terror strategy, to suggest European terrorism since 2015 is connected to IS ideology or the refugee crisis it has exploited, has until very recently risked condemnation as Islamophobia. In Australia, security officials like the Director -General of ASIO deny any connection between refugees and recent terror incidents. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn links post-9/11 terror, not to Islamic zealotry and its attack on secular democracy, but to the conduct of UK foreign policy, a view that finds favour amongst the critical theorists that dominate terrorism studies at most Australian and UK universities.
Terrorism, from this perspective, is all our fault. This view coincides with the theory and practice of Islamic State. Under pressure in Mosul, IS seeks to prosecute its goals by attacks in the homeland of ‘the idolatrous and the godless’, engineering, as its theoretical manuals like A Global Call to Jihad and The Management of Savagery explain, a state of ‘vexation and exhaustion’. Savagery represents the intermediate stage of state breakdown, which the IS cadre must manage en route to a purified Islamic realm. Those who oppose it must pay ‘the price’, that is: ‘you in the so-called West bomb us in Syria and Iraq and therefore we’ll bomb you, especially in your heartlands where we know you are weak’. IS recognises it is engaged in a ‘political game’ where ‘rough violence in times of need’ is all part of the struggle to divide and destroy the kuffar. It is no accident that the latest attacks coincide with a bitter election campaign haunted by anxiety about British identity that IS has successfully disrupted.
Without a coherent diagnosis of the ideological agenda, policy responses inevitably fail. Deradicalisation programs ignore a jihadist philosophy that combines a Salafist stream of Islam with a Western nihilistic counter-culture to create a powerful cultic appeal amongst young, diasporic, second-generation Muslims. Rather than confront the Islamist death cult that considers the killing of the kuffar who ‘take protectors other than Allah’ permissible, a deluded European political class expends itself in vacuous pronouncements of hope over hate, and enhanced counter-extremism measures. This is the way civilisations die, not with a bang, but a morally relativist whimper.
David Martin Jones is an Honorary Reader in Politics at the University of Queensland and visiting professor in War Studies, King’s College, London