It's wrong to make Muslims choose

The bombers of Istanbul may be alarming, as is the threat that they could next hit a British city. The mindset of British and US leaders, however, is more alarming. Terrorists are nothing new; they posed a threat in Victorian England and, for that matter, in Jacobean England when Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators had, according to some recent calculations, enough gunpowder to blow up half of Whitehall and Westminster. The difference now, we are told, is not only their indifference to their own lives, but also their capacity to cause casualties on a far larger scale with chemical, biological or nuclear attacks. Yet when our politicians and intelligence services insist that terrorists have weapons of mass destruction, is there any more reason to believe them than when they said Saddam Hussein had such weapons? Is the terrorist threat different from that posed in the past by such groups as the IRA? Do we need the kind of draconian emergency powers proposed in the Queen's Speech?

The argument against putting the country on what amounts (psychologically at least) to a war footing is not just that it could threaten our civil liberties, but also that it has an equally important effect on the supposed enemy and may turn a small, containable threat into a big, uncontainable one. The invasion and occupation of Iraq has already strengthened terrorism, not so much because it has created disaffection where none previously existed, but because it has given the already disaffected a clear focus. To put Saddam Hussein - who, whatever his other crimes, was a secularist enemy of fundamentalism - in the same box as al-Qaeda was an act of quite monumental stupidity. In the past, the west has carefully studied and exploited divisions in the Arab and Muslim worlds. George W Bush and Tony Blair prefer to ignore such complexities. They refer to a single, undifferentiated "enemy" who threatens our "way of life", our freedom and our democracy, and does so imminently. The approach works well for domestic political consumption because, as George Marshall and Mark Lynas write in our cover story (page 18), humans are wired by evolution to mobilise rapidly against immediate dangers that have a clear cause. This is why we find it so hard to act on global warming and why we would find it equally hard to act on terrorism if no clear and present danger could be identified.

But in heeding the biblical advice that trumpets should not give an uncertain sound, President Bush and Mr Blair send a message that can also be heard by their supposed enemies. Prepare for battle, it says, and take sides. As the Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane tells British Muslims, it is "time to make a choice". But it is by no means certain that, if choice were forced upon them, most Muslims even in Britain would opt for the west's side. Much as they may value freedom and democracy, and deplore indiscriminate slaughter, the ties of blood, culture and faith may run deeper. If the British could call on "kith and kin" in two world wars - and still feel the pull over Rhodesia in the 1960s and 1970s - why should not Muslims? This is what Osama Bin Laden must hope for - that he can appeal to Muslim solidarity so that, even if they do not become active themselves, Muslims will provide shelter and moral support to terrorists. In the recent past, Islam has been notorious for its divisions; the Blairs, Bushes and MacShanes risk creating a dangerous unity.

To accuse those who make this point of appeasing aggression, excusing terrorism or blaming the victim is to substitute political boo-words for proper debate. The hard core of fanatics may well be beyond reason. But attempts to destroy terrorist leaders are rarely successful, as both the US and Israel have found to their chagrin. The point is always to prevent terrorism gathering wider support, tacit as well as active, to stop it acquiring glamour and influence, to keep it on the political margins, and not to allow it to piggyback on economic, social and nationalist grievances across the developing world in general and the Middle East in particular.

Mr Bush and Mr Blair think they are fighting a defensive war. But so do many Muslims who have no wish to overthrow British and American democracy, but who see western commerce, media and lifestyles as a threat to their way of life in their own homelands. Given Israeli expansionism and the history of imperialism in the Middle East, they have as much justification for their view as Mr Bush and Mr Blair have for theirs. The moral distinction between letting off explosives at a British consulate in Istanbul and bombing Iraq is not obvious to many in the west. It will be even less obvious to excitable young men in Istanbul, Baghdad or Karachi.

Surge of the purple pen

It was once observed that there is a certain kind of writing that sports editors call fine writing and that everybody else calls very bad writing indeed. It was on plentiful display in the supplements and souvenir editions that greeted England's victory in the Rugby World Cup final. "What you are left with," wrote one sage (having eliminated all the boringly obvious explanations for the result, such as England scoring three more points than Australia), "is an extraordinary surge of the blood. English blood. Yeoman blood. Blood whose power and steadfastness was . . . superbly restated." Forgive the faintly fascistic overtones; the poor man hadn't had a chance to write anything like it for 37 years. The lesson is that our sports stars must win more often. Victory would then become so familiar that there would be no need for fat supplements to mark them, and sports writers would be better practised in composing celebratory prose.

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