Threat to a great faith

MANY commentators discuss Islamic terrorism as though it were all one and the same thing, with the different groups having the same beliefs, the same objectives and similar organisations. Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taleban, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are all bundled up as part of what President George W. Bush has termed ‘Islamic fascism’.

By William Rees-mogg

Published: Tue 15 Aug 2006, 9:54 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:37 PM

In fact, the different organisations have varying beliefs and objectives. Sometimes they work together; at other times they can be at war with each other, as well as with the West. There are also internal divisions: Sunni against Sunni, Shia against Shia.

If there is a civil war in Iraq, and something like it already exists, it will be a civil war of Sunni against Shia, with the Shia in the majority in that country. Most British Muslims come from Pakistan or Bangladesh and belong to the Sunni community; they are certainly supportive of Islam as a whole, particularly including the Lebanese Shia, but they regard the Shia as inherently unorthodox. Al Qaeda is a Sunni terrorist organisation, recruited from young men of fundamentalist beliefs. Al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, is an intellectual from a Saudi billionaire family and the other main figures tend to be intellectuals and clerics. They are influenced by the teachings of the Wahabi sect, which was founded in Arabia in the 18th Century, about the same time that John Wesley was founding Methodism, another reform movement.

Historically, small groups of intellectuals and students have sometimes been effective as terrorists or revolutionaries. Sometimes such leaders have been sympathetic figures, such as Padraic Pearse, the Irish poet who led the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. Others, such as Lenin or Robespierre, introduced regimes that continued terror after attaining power. Such leaders have proved ruthless in eliminating their rivals.

We do not know, and may never know, the precise organisational links between the Al Qaeda leadership and the UK plot to destroy the trans-Atlantic airliners.

Yet the pattern of the conspiracy is the Al Qaeda pattern. The conspiracy was based on suicide bombers who were devout Muslims. Its aim was mass murder. It required complex planning over a period of time. It was international in character, with connections to Pakistan, Britain and America. It involved simultaneous acts of terror against different targets. These have been the hallmarks of Al Qaeda terror; they were the characteristics of 9/11 itself. This would have been Britain’s 9/11.

Intellectuals often make effective men of action, but they have a tendency towards over-elaboration. When one examines the plot that has been frustrated, it is more like a university thesis than a battle plan. Too many people were involved over too much time in too many countries. Too many different actions had to be coordinated.

The suicide bombers do not seem to have been lowlife thugs for whom violence is second nature, but fanatical young men in white garments and beards; puritans rather than butchers at heart. Such elaborate plots do sometimes succeed, as did 9/11, but they are vulnerable because of their complexity. When a dozen people know a secret it is not a secret any more, as Guy Fawkes discovered.

Nevertheless, I believe this will prove to have been a real plot, intending to commit real murders, if only because it is so characteristic. I do not think this was merely a student fantasy that would never have been put into effect. Yet its discovery has strengthened the hands of the Western leaders who are the most determined opponents of Islamic terrorism.

Last Tuesday, the Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman, who was the vice-presidential candidate for the Democrats in the 2000 election, was defeated in the Democratic primary for the Senate. Senator Lieberman voted for the original invasion of Iraq and has continued to support the President’s Iraq policy.

The victor in the primary, by the narrow margin of four per cent, was Ned Lamont, a millionaire businessman who spent his own money campaigning for an immediate American withdrawal from Iraq. If the airline plot had been known on Tuesday morning instead of Thursday morning, Senator Lieberman would not have been defeated.

There must have been some comparable effect in Britain. The Iraq war is, by now, an unpopular war in this country. The Israeli attack on Lebanon, though a response to the Hezbollah provocation and to Hezbollah rockets, is even more unpopular. One hundred and seventy MPs, about half of them Labour, have already demanded a recall of Parliament.

Perhaps Tony Blair has never been in a weaker position. If there had been an August recall of Parliament, I am not sure he could have survived it. Interestingly, the Conservatives have not been backing the demand for an early recall. They do not support what they regard as premature British withdrawal from Iraq; on that issue they are on Blair’s side.

Heathrow has changed the position. The British people, as well as the Americans, have been reminded that Al Qaeda is still in business, capable and willing to kill by the thousands. President Bush’s warnings —and Blair’s —have been given a new force. The ‘war on terror’ is a more persuasive concept when the full threat of terror has recently been disclosed. Inside the Islamic community, it may not look the same. What has Al Qaeda actually achieved? Despite occasional failures, it has proved able to mount a succession of ‘spectaculars’, themselves owing more to Hollywood disaster films than to the Holy Quran.

These spectaculars have brought America to the heart of Asia and caused untold harm to the Islamic community as a whole.

If British Muslims suffer from discrimination —as they do —they are victims of Osama bin Laden’s strategy. No doubt he will be able to mount further mass outrages, but they will do little to change the real balance of world power, except to the disadvantage of Islam. Lenin, who knew about revolutions, might have called Osama ‘an infantile leftist’.

In the meantime, events since 9/11 have seen a shift of power from the Sunnis to the Shia. The Sunnis are losing Iraq’s oil —either to the Shias or to the Kurds. The Sunnis have already lost Iraq to the Shias. If they choose now to fight a civil war, they will have the Iraqi government, Iran and American and British troops against them. They will lose.

The Shias of Hezbollah have emerged, with whatever future consequences, as the defenders of Lebanon. Hezbollah is widely seen as the one effective antagonist to the power of Israel.

All this has been to the disadvantage of Islam and particularly of the Sunni community. If there is a competition for leadership between Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, Hezbollah must be declared the victor.

Lord William Rees-Mogg is a former editor of the Times. This column first appeared in the Mail on Sunday

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