Thursday, August 17, 2006

From time to time I browse through a copy of the Daily Telegraph (aka the Daily Terror) at a newsagent. Usually I just want to have a look at the Letters to the Editor section. The news section is usually...well, not news as near as I can tell, but the reader's opinions are something I feel the need to track from time to time.

A few days ago I read a letter from one person reacting to the news that Family First Senator Steve Fielding had pledged to vote against Howard's new immigration bill. The writer made the claim that Australia's need to be tough on immigration had been demonstrated by the recent arrests in the UK.

This is a strange claim to make considering how many of the people arrested on terrorism charges in the UK weren't Muslim immigrants.

Go through the list of suspects and two things stand out. First is that many of the suspects converted to Islam while in Britain. Of those that didn't, many are described as having recently become "very religious". Second is the frequency with which people familiar with the suspects are shocked at the thought of the suspect ever doing anything violent, sometimes stating flat out "he would never do anything like that".

Oh yes, third thing: they're all male.

On the second point: what were people expecting? It's like how victims of con artists always say "but he seemed so trustworthy!". That's exactly the point: a con artist who seems like a con artist isn't going to be a very successful con artist. Likewise, a terrorist planner who immediately raises suspicions isn't going to get very far in his terrorist planning career. Far better to have someone who raises no suspicions, and in fact actively tries to be as non-violent as possible until the time comes to strike.

On the first point: it clicks together several things that have been disparate in my head. The first is Fukuyama's assertion that anti-Western jihadists are born not from a lack of democracy in the Middle East, but in the West when the children and grandchildren of adult immigrants turn to radicalism after failing to integrate within Western society. The second is the strong statements made by Muslims around the world that Islam doesn't condone terrorism. The third is my perception of the workings of religions in the West, such as the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church, that have had the label of "cult" applied to them.

Put simply, what I see in the history of the alleged perpetrators is cult recruitment. They have embraced a new identity in place of an uncomfortable and insufficient old identity. The rules of the group which defines this new identity requires that they isolate themselves from anything that might threaten the definition and strengthening of that new identity, hence the turn towards insularity prevalent among the suspect list.

Other characteristics of cults include a radical opposition to the world around them (hello anti-Western rhetoric) and a reaction to any attack from the outside world as an attack not on the actions carried out by the group, but an attack on the group's belief (hence the description of Bush's war on terror as a "war on Islam" by radical Islamic groups). The effect is to (a) stop any internal criticism of the cult, and (b) encourage non-cult members to support the group against "unjustified attack" - mainstream Muslims who might sincerely believe their claims of an attack on Islam, for instance.

Mainstream Islam has little if anything to do with cultic version of Islam. I would be curious to know if this cult has more success recruiting from devout mainstream Muslims, or from non-Muslims and lapsed Muslims. I strongly suspect the latter.

What if the entire approach to the war on terrorism has been wrong? What if, instead of being surprised and disbelieving at the thought of non-violent recent "Muslim" converts being agents of terrorism, we should instead regard it as the usual state of affairs?

What if "Islamic terrorists" were not primarily a product of existing Islam, but were recruited from a pool of people experiencing spiritual anxiety caused by the clash of their traditional way of life and modernity, just as "cults" appeared and started recruiting Westerners in the 1960s in response to the social upheavals taking place in our culture? What if this Islamic cult willing let mainstream Islam embrace it, tried to persuade mainstram Muslims that attacks on the cult were an attack on the entirety of Islam, but actually viewed the mores of mainstream Islam, such as not killing civilians, as un-Islamic- and in fact declared takfir on mainstream Muslims (approximate meaning: pronouncing that someone who claims to be Muslim is in reality an unbeliever)?

Here's a test: go through all the terrorist attacks that have occurred worldwide from 9/11 onwards, and profile the perpetrators. Will they predominantly be from the Middle East, and longstanding adherents of a longstanding radical Islamic sect? Or will they be recent converts, and either born in the country that was attacked or else immigrated there while they were only a child? I suspect the results will not be what most people expect.

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