Hussein Osman, one of the men alleged to have participated in London’s failed bombings on July 21, recently told Italian investigators that they prepared for the attacks by watching “films on the war in Iraq”, La Repubblica reported. “Especially those where women and children were being killed and exterminated by British and American soldiers … of widows, mothers and daughters that cry.” It has become an article of faith that Britain was vulnerable to terror because of its politically correct anti-racism. Yet the comments attributed to Osman suggest another possible motive for acts of terror against the UK: rage at perceived extreme racism. And what else can we call the belief – so prevalent that we barely notice it – that American and European lives are worth more than the lives of Arabs and Muslims, so much more that their deaths in Iraq are not even counted?
It’s not the first time that this kind of raw inequality has bred extremism. Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian writer generally viewed as the intellectual architect of radical political Islam, had his ideological epiphany while studying in the United States. The puritanical scholar was shocked by Colorado’s licentious women, it’s true, but more significant was Qutb’s encounter with what he later described as America’s “evil and fanatic racial discrimination”. By coincidence, Qutb arrived in the United States in 1948, the year of the creation of the state of Israel. He witnessed an America blind to the thousands of Palestinians being made permanent refugees by the Zionist project. For Qutb, it wasn’t politics, it was an assault on his core identity: clearly Americans believed that Arab lives were worth far less than those of European Jews.
According to Yvonne Haddad, a professor of history at Georgetown University, this experience “left Qutb with a bitterness he was never able to shake”. When Qutb returned to Egypt he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, leading to his next life-changing event: he was arrested, severely tortured and convicted of anti-government conspiracy in a show trial.
Qutb’s political theory was profoundly shaped by torture. Not only did he conclude that his torturers were subhuman infidels, he stretched that categorisation to include the entire state that ordered this brutality, including the Muslim civilians who passively lent their support to Nasser’s regime.
Qutb’s vast category of subhumans allowed his disciples to justify the killing of “infidels” – now practically everyone – as long as it was done in the name of Islam. A political movement for an Islamic state was transformed into a violent ideology that would lay the intellectual groundwork for al-Qaida. In other words, so-called Islamist terrorism was “home-grown” in the west long before the July 7 attacks – from its inception it was the quintessentially modern progeny of Colorado’s casual racism and Cairo’s concentration camps.
Why is it worth digging up this history now? Because the twin sparks that ignited Qutb’s world-changing rage are currently being doused with gasoline: Arab and Muslim bodies are being debased in torture chambers around the world and their deaths are being discounted in simultaneous colonial wars, at the same time that graphic digital evidence of these losses and humiliations is available to anyone with a computer. And once again, this lethal cocktail of racism and torture is burning through the veins of angry young men. Qutb’s history carries an urgent message for today: it’s not tolerance for multiculturalism that fuels terrorism; it’s tolerance for barbarism committed in our name.
Into this explosive environment has stepped Tony Blair, determined to pass off two of the main causes of terror as its cure. He intends to deport more people to countries where they will likely face torture. And he will keep fighting wars in which soldiers don’t know the names of the towns they are levelling. (To cite just one recent example, an August 5 Knight Ridder report quotes a marine sergeant pumping up his squad by telling them, “these will be the good old days, when you brought … death and destruction to – what the fuck is this place called?” Someone piped in helpfully, “Haqlaniyah.”)
Meanwhile, in Britain, there is no shortage of the “evil and fanatic racial discrimination” that Qutb denounced. “Of course, too, there have been isolated and unacceptable acts of a racial or religious hatred,” Blair said before unveiling his 12-point terror-fighting plan. “But they have been isolated.” Isolated?
The Islamic Human Rights Commission received 320 complaints of racist attacks in the wake of the bombings; The Monitoring Group, a charity that provides assistance to victims of racial harassment, has received 83 emergency calls; Scotland Yard says hate crimes are up 600% from this time last year. And last year was nothing to brag about: “One in five of Britain’s ethnic-minority voters say that they considered leaving Britain because of racial intolerance,” according to a Guardian poll in March.
This last statistic shows that the brand of multiculturalism practised in Britain (and France, Germany, Canada … ) has little to do with genuine equality. It is instead a Faustian bargain, struck between vote-seeking politicians and self-appointed community leaders, one that keeps ethnic minorities tucked away in state-funded peripheral ghettoes while the centres of public life remain largely unaffected by seismic shifts in the national ethnic makeup. Nothing exposes the shallowness of this alleged tolerance more than the speed with which Muslims deemed insufficiently “British” are being told to “get out” (to quote the Conservative MP Gerald Howarth).
The real problem is not too much multiculturalism but too little. If the diversity now ghettoised on the margins of western societies – geographically and psychologically – were truly allowed to migrate to the centres, it might infuse public life in the west with a powerful new humanism. If we had deeply multi-ethnic societies, rather than shallow multicultural ones, it would be much more difficult for politicians to sign deportation orders sending Algerian asylum seekers to torture, or to wage wars in which only the invaders’ dead are counted. A society that truly lived its values of equality and human rights, at home and abroad, would have another benefit too. It would rob terrorists of what has always been their greatest recruitment tool: our racism.
· Research assistance was provided by AndrÃ©a Schmidt; a version of this column was first published in The Nation