We have been told that the August 2006 plot to attack several U.S.-bound flights departing from London’s Heathrow Airport was hatched largely by Muslim Britons. This is becoming a familiar story. Earlier this summer, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police foiled a homegrown Toronto cell in its attempt to blow up Parliament with a fertilizer bomb similar to that used by Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing. The July 7, 2005, attacks on London buses and subways were carried out largely by British citizens, and this was not the first such occurrence: two Britons traveled to Tel Aviv in 2003 to conduct a suicide bombing of a nightclub that killed three and wounded sixty.
This country too has produced its share of accused or convicted jihadists. The “Lackawanna Six,” all American citizens of Yemeni heritage, were arrested in 2002 for attending an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan—much like Hamid Hayat, a second-generation Pakistani-American, who was convicted last year, albeit on dubious evidence, for receiving jihadist training in Pakistan. Iyman Faris, an American citizen born in Kashmir, was sentenced to twenty years in prison in 2005 for participating in a plan to attack the Brooklyn Bridge. These men are joined by several other Americans who have been found guilty of providing material or logistic support to Islamist terrorists: Marwan Othman el-Hindi, Uzair Paracha, Junaid Babar, and Ali al-Timimi and his “Virginia jihadists.” I say nothing of the Miami “cell” arrested in June 2006 for conspiring with al-Qaeda, whose members seemed more interested in using terrorist funds to buy a new wardrobe than in waging holy war; or of Naveed Haq, whose attack on a Jewish community center in Seattle this August killed one and injured five (it has been suggested that he acted entirely on his own and has a history of mental illness); nor am I concerned with such converts as José Padilla, Richard Reid, and the three recently arrested in connection with the attempt to explode passenger jets over the Atlantic: Don Stewart-Whyte, Brian Young, and Oliver Savant. (One wonders if these men turned to violence after converting to Islam or if they converted to Islam so that they might engage in spectacular anti-Western violence.)
As yet we have not been offered a satisfactory explanation of this political or religious zealotry. The terms by which foreign terrorism is made scrutable are quite familiar by now: faced with a lack of opportunity in the Arab world and the humiliations—real and imagined—dealt to one’s coreligionists, desperate youth come to see themselves as engaged in cosmic warfare against iniquity and turn to violence. In this vein, Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the September 11 attacks, is held up as the paradigmatic modern terrorist. Despite his education and residence in Germany, he became hostile toward the West upon return to his native Egypt, where his world-class training as an engineer fitted him only for unemployment, and where he saw the birthplace of one of the world’s great civilizations reduced to a satrapy prostrating itself before the Western tourist dollar. Such a narrative of the development of a terrorist has provided comfort in the West across the political spectrum. The conservative finds in it an irreconcilable clash of civilizations: no matter how much we give to these people they still hate us; best to have a firm hand. The liberal finds in it evidence of universal outrage over the evils of global capitalism and American foreign policy: if Western industry, and particularly big oil, had a shred of regard for the prosperity of the Arab majority, if the United States did not prop up Arab tyrants and simultaneously inflict suffering on the Palestinians and Iraqis, there would be no terrorists.
But the phenomenon of Western jihadists is harder to explain than this suggests. If religion is the explanation for terrorism—if we argue that Iran and Saudi Arabia have used their oil wealth to assure the global spread of retrograde ideas in both of Islam’s major sects, so that each one now strives to outdo the other in paranoia—we still cannot entirely explain why lunatic Muslim clerics have found an audience among young men born into liberal societies. And if politics and economics are the explanation for terrorism, why is it that those who are stakeholders in affluent Western democracies feel directly involved in political struggles taking place on the other side of the planet?
The real question is, what makes the religion and politics of radical Islam seem to apply to the situation of a Muslim in London, Toronto, or Brooklyn? This is not the same as the question that is often identified as pressing: whether Muslim immigrants in the West are assimilating into the host culture.
Many immigrant communities show little regard for assimilation. Any walk through a self-respecting Chinatown, for example, will reveal a significant number of individuals making a life in the West that is culturally closer to the motherland than to their adopted home. Those who clamor for fuller assimilation of Muslims reveal their discomfort with the increasingly multicultural complexion of the West in a way only tangentially related to this particular minority group; they use terrorism as a cover for their dislike of foreign dress, beliefs, and manners. Nor can the isolation of the Muslim community—imposed from within and without—be regarded as the key motivation for violence. Isolation has always been, and ever will be, a condition of immigrant life, and there are many fewer obstacles faced by Muslims today than have been peacefully overcome by the Asian, Jewish, Irish, Italian, Mexican, Native, and African Americans who have suffered most in the long and continuing struggle to broaden this country’s promise of dignity and prosperity.
Present-day conditions of immigration do seem, however, to foster an especially keen sense of unity between diaspora and kin country. The first such condition is the mobility of the modern world, which produces a constant state of traffic between East and West. Rather than arrival en masse and slow adaptation, the modern immigrant community is in a state of constant exchange with the mother country. Those who immigrate will travel home regularly; many who reside in the West will do so temporarily; this allows cultural and emotional bonds with non-Western society to remain firmly intact.
The exchange of people across East and West, however, may not be as important as it seems at first glance. Even the influence of itinerant Muslim preachers may not be as decisive as it looks. A good deal has been done, in England especially, to crack down on radical clerics; perhaps that country has learned the lesson of its seventeenth-century civil wars, fired as they were from the Puritan pulpit. But a recent survey by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies suggests that the vast majority of young British Muslims get their ideas outside of the mosque. The underground meeting and the Web site are the crucial milieus of the radical subculture.
It is the means by which ideas, rather than people, are exchanged that is the real issue, and especially the way in which modern communications make it possible to identify exclusively with one’s kin country while living elsewhere.
One of the consequences of the Internet is its generation of communities of readers without geographical association. As a technology bound to the distribution of physical objects, the printed page necessarily reflects the values of a given locale. If we were still shackled to print—and I mean the cast-metal-striking-paper kind, not the ink or laser jet variety—the cost of delivering al-Qaeda propaganda to East London would be prohibitive; the lack of broad demand would make it a hopeless venture. The dissemination of ideas on the Web is not married to the local market; once one has a functioning computer and an active Internet connection, it is just as easy to access al-Jazeera as it is FoxNews. The market forces governing such access have shifted profoundly, so that where one lives is no longer an index of what one reads or thinks. This may be why a recent Pew study found that many of the most obnoxious ideas of the Arab world are alive and well in Europe: for example, 56 percent of the British Muslims surveyed claimed that Arabs did not carry out the September 11 attacks, as compared to 53 percent in Jordan, 41 percent in Pakistan, and 47 percent in Nigeria. This may also be why many young Muslims born and raised in the West are more radical in their religious views than their parents are. Greater technological savvy seems to foster, rather than to diminish, the influence of Eastern delusion.
What I am suggesting here goes beyond the now-redundant claim that the Internet has been an important means by which Islamism organizes itself. As the Washington Post observed in August 2005, attacks on al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan have led to the creation of virtual training facilities. “To join the great training camps you don’t have to travel to other lands,” one Saudi magazine claims, “alone, in your home or with a group of your brothers, you too can begin to execute the training program.” Michael Dartnell’s recent book Insurgency Online shows how the Internet has allowed non-state actors to achieve new levels of organization and thus to exert previously unimaginable political influence. Even Michael Chertoff has emerged from the Department of Homeland Security’s thick cloud of bureaucracy to shed some light on this front, claiming in a recent issue of the Atlantic Monthly, that “we have to look at the onset of virtual terrorism—virtual jihad—where groups radicalize themselves over the Internet.”
The shortcoming of such commentary is that it commits what Marshall McLuhan described as the cardinal sin of media studies: it focuses on content rather than on the medium itself. We miss the point in claiming that the jihadists are visiting the wrong Web sites. What is really significant is that the Internet has made it possible for new human relationships to emerge. “The medium is the message,” in McLuhan’s famous phrase, “because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.”
It is a commonplace of cultural history to say that vernacular print and its reading public helped to create the idea of the modern nation-state. Electronic communications are causing this idea to dissolve. Individuals are led into a mystique of participation in affairs across the globe, from one laptop in East London to another in the mountains outside of Jalalabad. And in electronic media this mystique of participation is the end itself, rather than argument and explanation. No longer is society bound by the rational interpretation of the physical and social world that print generates—the anvil on which the liberal tradition was forged. Instead it is being rent asunder as various groups are drawn to the visceral totems of image-based media. Though McLuhan thought that the sense of universal participation generated by electronic media would put an end to parochialism, quite the opposite has occurred. Rather than his global village, we have become a globe of villages; we live in a cacophony of hidebound parochialisms where individuals seek association only with those to whom they relate by way of primordial intuition.
McLuhan have been correct to say that the most “backward,” the least literate parts of the world would take up the new media most eagerly, but he did not foresee the conflicts that the new media might create within a multicultural West. The liberal state, with its dependence on rational association, is dissolving into a collection of masses united by the parochialisms of “religion” and “culture,” a phenomenon to be observed among Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Can a little Internet surfing really do all that? Yes, and to illustrate why it is so, allow me a moment of autobiography. I was once reading a Philip Roth novel and came across the phrase, “Newark was all of Jewry to me”—I can’t remember which one it was; it could have been any of Roth’s works. This single statement made me realize more about my own ethnicity than any other I have encountered before or since. As with Roth, everything I had grown up recognizing as a part of my ethnic heritage—Egyptians don’t play sports, drink, or curse; they wear their religion lightly, laugh from the soul, and are moved to outrage only when their children underachieve at school—had been learned from the hundred or so households of Egyptian emigrés in my hometown of Edmonton, Canada, nearly all of whom, men and women, I proudly stress, were university-educated professionals. Only after reading Roth’s statement did it occur to me that though I had always identified myself as Egyptian-Canadian, my sense of what was Egyptian had little connection to the seventy-two million individuals living a world away in Egypt, most of whom eke out a subsistence living using agricultural techniques that have not changed in the past millennium.
At the same moment, I saw that my sense of identity was very much like that of an author with whom it should be doubly antithetical: he being a Jewish American and I a Muslim Canadian. And recognizing this unexpected proximity made me realize that a minority experience much like my own had found its way into the mainstream of North American life. This led me along a chain of ideas to the point with which I began this essay: that isolation has always been, and always will be, a condition of immigrant life.
But had I grown up in the age of the blogosphere, I might have found a radically different narrative by which to explain my minority experience. If I had spent my time surfing the Net rather than reading novels, I might have been more prone to isolate myself with my coreligionists rather than to see myself as having a specifically Western experience of the world. This is also the great irony that homegrown jihadists fail to see: though they may feel a mystique of participation with the plight of Muslims on the other side of the planet, it is only a mystique. Looking at their blogs shows just how thoroughly their lives and hopes partake in the Western version of self-indulgent, egocentric adolescence. Toronto’s Globe and Mail has provided a look at the blog of Zakaria Amara, leader of that city’s homegrown jihadists, which reveals this sensibility: underneath the Islamist rhetoric one finds a teenager confused by his raging hormones, convinced that the older generation has accepted a corrupt world and fallen into lethargic inaction—and anxious over college applications. Had he been reading Roth rather than the ravings of zealots to which the Internet provides too-ready access, he might have found quite a different sympathetic voice to help him make sense of himself and the world around him.
This is not to say that current efforts to crack down on radical Islam are entirely misguided. No civil society should tolerate a cleric who advocates its destruction and incites his listeners to do the necessary work. The move in Britain to observe mosques and to expel radical imams is entirely appropriate. But if Western Muslims are to carve out their own identity as other minorities have done—neither “assimilated” nor clinging to the bigotries of the motherland—the brand of identity to which electronic media contribute must also be addressed. A robust censorship of radical Web sites would only address content; we also need to promote real literacy and the concomitant primacy of reason. If the new vogue for religion-based schooling is allowed to flourish, it must force students to become “people of the book,” to use the Prophet Muhammad’s phrase. Emphasizing only science and religion, with little regard for a humanities curriculum of literature and history, creates an intellectual environment where parochialism flourishes.
It is through literacy that we become rational observers of both West and East, and it is through literacy that Muslims can reclaim the long intellectual and artistic traditions that have been occluded by the rise in the twentieth century of Saudi Wahhabism, Iranian radical Shiism, and the Arab world’s histrionic opposition to the state of Israel. Only then will Muslims themselves tear the veil of false holiness off a radical Islam that is itself a cover for the political tyrannies of today’s Middle East.
Feisal G. Mohamed is assistant professor of English at Texas Tech University and a Milton scholar.