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Prem Shankar Jha
21 July 2005

The horrors of war, and the meanness of the calculations that go into waging it, can no longer be hidden from ordinary people. What is perceived as an unjust or unnecessary war creates a crisis of conscience that becomes very hard to bear. The conflict is most acute in those who have developed a new identity and a new loyalty but have not yet broken their links with the old.


Prem Shankar JhaThe concerted bombing of the London transport system has evoked a wide variety of reactions across the world but, so far at least, relatively little introspection. It speaks volumes for the resilience of the British that most of the introspection has taken place in the UK. While American newscasters like those of CNN, have done their utmost to extract reactions of grief, panic and anger from the British; what they have been met with is fortitude, and a determination not to let it disrupt their society or economy.

Indeed the most extreme reactions have come from American commentators. The more imperially minded have seen in the attacks a change in the nature of war itself and exhorted the British to join them in fighting it. In other American commentaries there is more than a hint of reproof. "Why are you not more angry, more belligerent? When so many innocent people have died why are you willing even to entertain the notion that your own past policies might have had something to do with it? Why, in short are you not more like us?"

The difference is one of objectives. While Condoleeza Rice called a meeting of the National Security Council immediately after 9/11 to ask "how to capitalise on these opportunities", Tony Blair's government is determined to minimise the fallout of the attacks upon British society. But there is another reason why the UK government is reacting so differently from the US. This is its awareness, from the very first day, that it was facing an entirely new breed of terrorists against whom all previously developed methods of surveillance and interdiction had proved ineffective. Introspection was therefore an imperative.

This awareness had begun to grow well before the July 7 bombings. The alarm was first sounded not by MI5 or Scotland Yard, but by the CIA. In a report completed at the end of May, it warned the US government that Iraq was breeding a new generation of terrorists who were likely to fan out into Europe and America after the war there ended. British intelligence officials took the warning seriously, but initially believed that the return flow would not seriously affect Britain, as not more than 200 Britons had taken part in the Afghan war and very few had gone to Iraq. The unstated implication was that they were being watched.

Their anxiety went up a notch when the collation of intelligence information with other European countries showed that a large number of dormant Islamic recruitment rings had come to life again. As many as 21 had been identified. Again, what they left unsaid was that most, if not all, of these had been penetrated and were being closely monitored.

British intelligence also routinely keeps a close watch on mosques, and monitors visitors to the UK. Despite all this the suicide bombers turned up nowhere on their radar screen. The only possible explanation even then was that none of the bombers were religious fanatics. This has been vindicated by the statements of the families of the four who have been identified. From what they have told the police, a clear pattern has emerged:

  • They came from perfectly ordinary immigrant families where religion was about as important as it is in typical Christian, Hindu, or Jewish families.
  • Religion played no significant part in their decision. Had it done so, they would have been visiting mosques regularly, and their families would have been aware of the gradual rise of extremism in their makeup.
  • All of them were, admittedly, sent to Madrassas in Pakistan. But it was only after they had been recruited, in order to help them develop the spiritual fortitude they needed for the extreme act of suicide.

If religion did not motivate them, then what did? The answer was given by five Muslim youth interviewed on July 13 by BBC in Leeds. "You have come to ask us how we feel when 50 people have died in London," said one young man just out of his teens.

"This should never have happened, but why did you not come to us when thousands of Afghans were being killed and a hundred thousand Iraqis died?"

The world needs to listen to these young people with ears that have been opened by empathy. The roots of what the world is calling Islamic terrorism lie not in Islam, but in an acute conflict of loyalties generated by the perception of extreme injustice. This conflict is quintessentially a product of the information revolution. The horrors of war, and the meanness of the calculations that go into waging it, can no longer be hidden from ordinary people.

What is perceived as an unjust or unnecessary war creates a crisis of conscience that becomes very hard to bear. The conflict is most acute in those who have developed a new identity and a new loyalty but have not yet broken their links with the old. The first generation born of immigrant parents are by far the most in conflict. Some try to reconcile the conflict by trying to educate their adopted communities. Others snap, and set out to destroy it.

There is an important lesson to be learned from 7 / 7, that can save thousands of lives in the future. The amoral, 19th century hyper-nationalism that inspired the invasion of Iraq, the encirclement of Palestine, and even now threatens to unleash violence on Syria and Iran, cannot be reconciled with the emerging compulsions of a globalised economy, culture and society.

Since ethnic communities are becoming increasingly intermixed, if the US and its allies continue down the road they are on, terrorism will sprout in so many places and in so many communities that it will defeat the law and order mechanism, destroy democracy, and disrupt the inter-linkages upon which enable an increasingly interdependent civilisation to exist.

* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.

also see : Other articles by Prem Shankar Jha

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