Two news items have got me thinking about terrorism. The first was a report of a female suicide bomber who blew herself up in Pakistan. The second was watching a BBC reporter outside the Boston hospital where the Chechen Marathon bombing suspect was under guard. The reporter was attempting to determine whether the double-bombing was terrorism or not. His half-mangled conclusion seemed to be that if done for 'a cause’ the bombings were terrorism 'within a strict definition', if not then they were presumably just a 'crime of alienation' like the Sandy Hook shootings, a crime born of despair and the ready availability of excessive firepower.
This is a pointless rhetorical argument. The Boston bombs were anti-personnel devices, not powerful enough to seriously damage a building, but packed with enough nails and metal pellets to inflict the maximum human cost in both flesh and blood and spiritual annihilation. Anyone who saw the footage will have seen the state of panic and terror the two bombs evoked. And in a country where assault weapons are readily available the choice of nail bombs is an explosively emphatic link to decades of terrorist history, from the IRA and ETA (the Basque separatist movement) to Jihadist murderers all over the world.
This then is terrorism. But more than that it seems to be terrorism without a cause. While the full facts are yet to become public it seems that the links between the older brother and Chechen militants are so tenuous that an FBI investigation two years ago concluded that there was no real threat. Seriously misjudged in hindsight, but nonetheless indicative that the two young men involved were in fact living the American immigrant dream: peace, a good education and a positive future.
So why the bombings? Why the choice to throw away the opportunities life in Boston offered to two young immigrant men? Why were they, in the phrase chosen by their uncle 'losers'? Because, in my opinion, the Islamist fundamentalist theology is simply adolescent nihilism. When faced with the choice between the relentless competitive individualism of American life and the easy, egocentric and resentful role of 'victimized minority' they chose the latter. It's a short step from 'victimized minority' to the self-aggrandising delusion of 'heroic resistance fighter'. A role description that allows logic to be tossed aside and murderous hatred to become righteous anger.
They chose conspiracy over community. They chose to be vicious and murderous. They chose resentment and spite. They chose the most inhuman and cowardly means to self-gratification, dressed up in fundamentalist rhetoric. They committed the most selfish and ugly act a modern adolescent can employ to get their fifteen minutes of fame.
By coincidence I've been re-reading Roger Crowley's 'Empires of the Sea' a history of the 16th century struggle for control of the Mediterranean between Suleiman the Magnificent's Ottoman Empire and the forces of Christendom under Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. The parallels between that time and this are striking.
On the one hand we have Suleiman's vast empire stretching from India to the Danube basin and Gibraltar. An empire driven in its conquests by the single-minded fanaticism of Islamic Jihad, uniting disparate nationalities in hatred of the infidel, using the insult to religious 'honour' of the Crusades to justify the religious hegemonic imperialism of an Islamic theology, while glossing over the bloody imperialist Jihad that made North Africa and Spain a network of Islamic states and the Mediterranean an Islamic lake in the 5th/6th century.
The Chechen independence movement, following a pattern that has swept the Middle East, has evolved into an Islamist movement determined to create an Islamic state. All the complexities of democratic process, political rights, ethnic rivalries and forms of government are swept aside by the self-righteous certainties of fundamentalist brotherhood. The same certainties that Islamic fundamentalism provides to the Taliban, and the same brutalities that flow from it, are also currently at play in Syria and post-revolutionary Egypt.
The fundamental organising and economic element of Suleiman's expansion and warfare in the Mediterranean was slavery. His admiral, Hayrettin Barbarossa, made fortunes and funded fleets by the wholesale kidnapping and sale of thousands of coastal populations from Portugal to the Adriatic. Defeated armies would be offered the choice of forced conversion to Islam or enslavement. When his raids glutted the market he would simply slaughter prisoners by the thousand. Unlike the heartless economic rationale behind Western slave ships, Ottoman slaving was a religious and cultural pillar. Christian slaves were both beasts of burden and a proof of Islamic virtue. Christian infidels were sub-human, animals, chattels.
Christendom itself was riven by division. Protestant Reformation, inquisitions, humanism, the beginnings of individualism and long-standing national ambitions kept the European world divided to the point where Charles spent more time and treasure fighting the French (and Dutch, and Flemish and Lutherans everywhere) than the Turk. Yet this didn't allow the Ottomans to conquer and convert infidels to Islam except at the point of a sword in sea battles and slave-raiding piracy. In the end Christian navies, suspicious of each other and hard to unite for long, won the decisive Battle of Lepanto in 1580.
Am I comparing the actions of Islamist terror bombers with the religious empire of the Ottomans? No. But I am certainly equating the 16th century Islamic Jihadist mindset that saw people as chattels to be kidnapped and sold (or slaughtered) by the thousand with the current Islamic jihadist mindset that sees people as unworthy of compassion, consideration or even the basic human right not to be blown up to justify an irrational, bigoted and macho cult of death.
Both see infidels as less than human, as worthy of contempt, vicious abuse and indiscriminate murder. And not just infidels. Women, Muslim women, face the same attitudes, the same lack of humanity, the same essentially abusive, spiteful and vindictive behaviours directed toward them. The promotion of Sharia law is itself an attempt to put 6th century bigotry in place, to justify vile and abusive behaviours (which is why news of a female suicide bomber struck me as the Taliban's ideal tool - a hated, worthless female destroying herself and the infidel).
The false argument, for example, that the hijab is no more sexist or discriminatory than the bikini is part of the push to culturally align entrenched Islamic misogyny with Western hyper-sexualised marketing as two examples of the same thing. The difference, however, is plain. The hijab is mandatory. Observance may be relaxed in some places, but it's still a mandatory repression of women under Islamist theology. The bikini is a choice. Aggressively marketed in a sexist culture it may be, but it's still a choice. And free choice, however influenced it may be, is the most basic of human rights. As my spouse says,
'No-one will shoot you if you don't wear a bikini'.
The future may seem bleak when we are confronted with terrorist bombings that speak volumes of hatred for the West. And the answer certainly isn't a return to the equally blind and bigoted religious violence of the Crusades. You can't fight this fire with fire. All you are left with are ashes.
But, as in the mid 1500s, those things which appear to divide us: individualism, politics of the stale Left versus Right variety, the splintered sectarianism of Christianity, the endless struggle for human, civil and women's rights in a global, corporatist age, all serve to protect us, to maintain our culturally robust Western culture. Progress and individualism are the most fundamental values of Christianity. The monolith of Christendom may be gone, but that's because of those two values.
Christ's message of personal, individual redemption may have been distorted by churchmen and institutions for centuries but the two values of individual worth and progress are the basis of all the West has achieved in culture, art, science and human dignity. From the Reformation to the Enlightenment, from Erasmus to Einstein, from Copernicus to Hubble, progress through individual choice has been the great strength of the West. You don't have to be a Christian to see the value of that.