Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London, has stirred up controversy with his claim, on Iran’s Press TV, that behind the Boston bombings lay anger about Western foreign policy and its attitudes to Islam:
There was such ignorance in the Bush White House about Islam and about the history of so many disputes that exist in the Middle East. People get angry. They lash out. It’s the whole squalid intervention that has disfigured the record of the Western democracies. I think this fuels the anger of the young men, who as we saw in Boston went out, and, out of anger and demand for revenge, claimed lives in the West.
Livingstone may have expressed his argument in a particularly crass fashion, but it is the kind of explanation that many have proffered over the past few weeks. Ever since Tamerlan Tsarnaev was shot dead and his brother Dzhokar captured, there has been a frantic search through their back history to discover the motivations of the alleged bombers and the reasons for their homicidal act. Their Chechen family origins, their attraction to Islam, their radicalization through jihadist sites – all have become part of the narrative of why the brothers could commit such horror.
Out of all this have emerged two broad kinds of explanations. One, mainly from the right, suggests that the Tsarnaevs were driven by their commitment to Islam; there is, runs the argument, something about Islam that makes its adherents irredeemably violent. The other, mainly from the left, insists that the root cause lie in Western policy towards Muslim countries; the Tsarnaevs were, however misguidedly, expressing a sense of anger about US foreign policy. This was Ken Livngstone’s argument. These two explanations have, in fact, framed the understanding of jihadi violence from even before 9/11. However, as I observed in my book From Fatwa to Jihad, in a discussion of the attempts to make sense of homegrown terrorism in Britain, neither explanation holds up:
Muslims have been in Britain in large numbers for more than half a century. It is only in the past 20 years that radical Islam has gained a foothold. Blaming it all on Islam or on the Qur’an does nothing to explain the changing character of Muslim communities, and their evolving beliefs. Islam, like every religion, comprises not just a holy text but also a history, a culture and a set of institutions, not to mention a clergy and a body of believers. All these and more help define how the holy text is interpreted. ‘The key question’, the French sociologist Olivier Roy points out, ‘is not what the Qur’an actually says, but what Muslims say the Qur’an says.’ Muslims continually disagree on what the Qur’an says, he adds dryly, ‘while all stressing that the Qur’an is unambiguous and clear-cut.’
Equally unconvincing is the idea that terrorist rage has been driven by Western foreign policy. Just as Muslims were in Britain long before they turned to radical Islam, so Western governments were attacking Muslim lands long before Osama bin Laden took to a cave in Afghanistan. From Winston Churchill ordering the use of mustard gas against Iraqi rebels in the 1920s, to the CIA engineering a coup against the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran in 1953, to the brutal attempt by the French o suppress the Algerian independence movement in late 1950s, to Western backing for Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran in the 1980s, to America’s economic and military support for Israel there is a long history of Western intervention. There has always been resistance to Western intervention, and often violent resistance, but Islamic opposition is relatively new, and nihilistic terrorism newer still. In any case, the actions of the terrorists belie their supposed political beliefs. In July 2007, Islamic terrorists parked two car bombs outside Tiger Tiger, a central London nightclub. The bombs failed to detonate. Had they done so, they could have created far greater devastation than the 7/7 attacks. Just two minutes’ drive from Tiger Tiger were the Houses of Parliament and Britain’s Foreign Office. Yet the bombers chose to park their deadly load outside a building full of party goers – hardly the actions of political soldiers driven to fury by Britain’s foreign policy. [pp84-85]
The trouble with much of the discussion of terrorism today is that it misses a fundamental point about contemporary terror: its disconnect from social movements and political goals. In the past, an organisation such as the IRA was defined by its political aims. Its members were carefully selected and their activities tightly controlled. However misguided we might think its actions, there was a close relationship between the aims of the organization and the actions of its members. None of this is true when it comes to contemporary terrorism. An act of terror is rarely controlled by an organisation or related to a political demand. That is why it is so difficult to discern the political or religious motivations of the Tsarnaev brothers. They neither claimed responsibility nor provided a reason for their actions. It was not necessary to do so. The sole point was to kill indiscriminately and to spread fear and uncertainty. Far from being part of a political or religious movement, what defines terrorists like the Boston bombers is their very isolation from such movements.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev could be a photofit of the contemporary terrorist. He grew up in America, having arrived as a child. He saw himself as isolated and felt rejected. ‘I don’t have a single American friend’, he told one interviewer, ‘I don’t understand them’. He dropped out of college, abandoned his dream of becoming an Olympic boxer, was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend, and so became ineligible for US citizenship. He had no social support network. His brother Dzhohar certainly seemed different, with a good social network and little indication of inner rage. But he also seemed to hero worship his older brother, and to follow him ‘like a puppy dog’ in the words of Tamerlan’s boxing coach.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s sense of isolation and alienation drew him to Islam and to the Chechen struggle. Yet he felt as estranged from the Muslim community as he did from America. Indeed, he seemed to be attracted to jihadist websites partly because he despised the worshippers at his local mosque, raging against the imam for suggesting that a non-Muslim – Martin Luther King – might be a good role model.
Tsarnaev imagined himself also as a warrior for Chechen freedom. But Chechen rebels themselves disowned him. ‘The command of the Vilayat Dagestan mujahedeen… declares that the Caucasus fighters are not waging any military activities against the United States of America’, declared one rebel website. ‘We are only fighting Russia, which is not only responsible for the occupation of the Caucasus, but also for monstrous crimes against Muslims.’ In any case, how murdering runners and spectators at a sporting event could be an expression of anger against the involvement of a nation in a war in which it is not involved, and towards whom even the insurgents in the war feel no animosity, perhaps only Ken Livingstone knows.
The French sociologist Olivier Roy, one of the most important contemporary researchers into Islam and jihadism, has said of today’s wannabe jihadists, that ‘They have no real life. Their social life is through the Internet’. So it was with Tamerlan Tsarnaev. His was a virtual religion, a virtual politics, a virtual struggle. He appeared to blame America for his estrangement, sought out a fantasy of a global struggle against the USA, and in the twistedness of his mind may have thought that a bomb at the Boston Marathon was a blow against US power. Fundamentally, however, the Tsarnaevs were little different to other nihilistic mass murderers, such as Adam Lanza, the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook School massacre last December, or James Holmes, responsible for the Aurora theatre shootings in July 2012.
The search for rational explanations for an event such as the Boston bombing is both understandable and necessary. But in looking for rational explanations we should not make such horrors seem more rational than they are. The Boston bombing was brutal, mindless and immoral. Let us not endow it with greater credibility by reading into it deeper political or religious meaning.