Terrorism, democracy and Muslims after the Madrid bombs

openDemocracy Opendemocracy
24 March 2004

  • Diego Hidalgo
  • Timothy Garton Ash
  • Matthias Matussek
  • Stephane Gompertz
  • Maϊ Ghoussoub
  • Kirsty Hughes
  • John Lloyd
  • Isabel Hilton
  • The discussion enters its second round

  • Timothy Garton Ash
  • Matthias Matussek
  • Stephane Gompertz
  • Maϊ Ghoussoub
  • Kirsty Hughes
  • John Lloyd
  • Diego Hidalgo
  • Diego Hidalgo, co-founder of the Spanish newspaper El País

    The reaction of Spain’s population to the horrible terrorist attacks in Madrid of 11 March 2004 could hardly have been more courageous. First, over 11 million people marched in the streets on 12 March, united against terrorism, risking personal safety to show their outrage. Then, on 14 March, we went massively to vote, showing terrorists that they will not change the type of open democratic society that we have chosen for ourselves and that we want to bequeath to our children and future generations.

    openDemocracy’s response to Madrid is provoking lively debate in our readers’ forums. Please tell your friends and colleagues about our coverage: we need your support to make openDemocracy grow.

    Those who planned the brutal attacks thrive on confrontation and war. They want to destroy our system. The voters’ behaviour was a victory for democracy and a defeat for terrorism.

    Few people switched their votes because of the attacks. The Partido Popular (PP) still got the support of their faithful. Their unexpected defeat was mostly due to massive participation by new, young voters, and by people who usually abstain but felt compelled to fulfil their democratic duty on this occasion.

    They elected to vote for the opposition Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) and to punish a government they felt had manipulated information. It had been too ready to blame the Basque armed group ETA for the Madrid attacks, in fear that their authorship by an Islamic terrorist group would remind voters of prime minister José María Aznar’s support of the invasion of Iraq against the wishes of 91% of Spaniards – the highest proportion in the western world.

    Terrorist planners know this background well, and it is excessive to assume that they will be encouraged to try to manipulate other elections. Accusations of appeasement are not only an insult to Spain and its people; they are totally absurd.

    Some analysts even suggest that voters acted as cowards in electing the PSOE, as if democracy enabled you to vote only for the possessor of truth (if anything, a fascist tenet). The announcement by the new prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of his intention to withdraw Spanish troops in July unless the United Nations is granted authority in Iraq goes together with his vow to make fighting terrorism his first priority. His approach is not only right in itself, but also a desirable reminder to the world that the way forward is to strengthen the UN and multilateral cooperation, exchange intelligence, and address the causes of terrorism.

    The illegal invasion and military occupation of Iraq were atrocious blunders. Iraq requires specialised police and peacekeeping forces to maintain law and order, not soldiers who have to devote 90% of their efforts to protect themselves. If Zapatero succeeds not only in uniting Europe but also in getting some American voters to consider this, the Spanish election will be not only a victory for Europe, it will also perhaps weigh in the scales of the 2 November 2004 presidential election in the United States.

    Europeans do not have a vote in that election – but our future, and the future of the world, which now looks markedly worse than in 2000, may depend on its outcome.

    Timothy Garton Ash, British scholar and journalist

    Diego Hidalgo is right to say that the Spanish people were magnificent in their response to adversity: dignified, defiant, stalwart in the defence of democracy. Tragically, al-Qaida can also claim this as a victory: they said they planted the bomb to punish Spain for supporting Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the new Spanish government says it will (probably) get out of Iraq.

    So the terrorists can say to their constituencies in the Arab and Muslim worlds: mission accomplished! That’s how much of the world’s media, and especially the American-global media, reported the story. The media story becomes its own reality. Horribly unfair to the Spanish people; but history is horribly unfair.

    Was the Spanish election a victory for al-Qaida or for democracy? Douglas Murray and Ivan Briscoe debate on openDemocracy

    Apart from three minutes of moving silence across the continent, we Europeans were less magnificent than the Spanish in our response. Rather than a great surge of European solidarity, we have allowed the barely healed wounds of argument about the Iraq war to be torn open again. And many of us have gone back to our favourite game: blame it on the Americans. Neo-conservative-bashing is easier than self-criticism.

    I think, with benefit of hindsight, that the Iraq war was a grave blunder. Iraq is now more of a focus for terrorism than it was under Saddam, and – as a symbolic cause, beside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a recruiting-sergeant for al-Qaida. But we Europeans have to recognise that, like it or not, we now have as much of a stake as the Americans do in ensuring that Iraq does not become another Vietnam.

    Anyway, Jamal Zougam and the other suspected bombers of Madrid did not become radicalised Islamists in Iraq. They became radicalised in our own, European cities, in a reaction against our own, European modernity. Like Abu Hamza al-Masri in London, and like Muhammed Atta in Hamburg – who attended a final meeting in Spain before bombing New York – there’s a whole agenda which we Europeans need to confront on our own.

    How can we improve police and intelligence cooperation so the next horror doesn’t happen in London, Paris or Rome? How can we preserve our civil liberties while spying and pre-empting? (Yes, we all know the wrong way – it’s called Guantanamo – but what’s the right way?) How can we enable the more than 12 million Muslims already living in the European Union to feel at home in our post-Christian societies, as German Muslims, British Muslims, Spanish Muslims? What do we think we should be doing to help the modernisation of the Middle East, which is much closer to us in Europe than it is to America? How can we now even think of not opening Europe’s door to Turkey?

    So, when we’ve done with our daily dose of pummelling America, here are subjects enough for a post-3/11 conversation...

    Matthias Matussek, London correspondent of German magazine Der Spiegel

    The openDemocracy colloquium in London on 19 March was a fascinating, high-calibre discussion about the world, and Europe, after Madrid. An extremely polarising issue was treated in a very impressive way where differences were articulated clearly but without rancour.

    It is in this spirit that I would like to express my profound disagreement with what Timothy Garton Ash said in the meeting and the implication he draws from it in this electronic conversation – that the Madrid attacks were Europe’s 9/11, and that Europe’s reaction to them is deficient by comparison and deformed by “our favourite game: blame it on the Americans”.

    This is not Europe’s “9/11” – precisely because poor old Europe has been fighting terrorism for the past thirty years. On 11 September 2001 the United States lost her virginity in regard to terrorism (the home-grown Oklahoma bombing and the Unabomber are in a different category, and the lesson of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center was ignored). Apart from the respective size of the New York and Madrid attacks, that difference of experience explains why reactions to these events have also varied so much.

    Read also Caspar Henderson’s summary of the openDemocracy event After Madrid

    But Timothy’s way of defining the issue seems also to fuel what might be called “a negative beauty contest”. The dangerous implication, despite the retrospective opposition to the Iraq war that Timothy expresses, is that a deeply wounded United States holds a lesson for Europe in claiming the right to do almost anything it wishes, most notably create a doctrine of pre-emptive strikes. Europe’s refusal to follow this is a mark of strength, not weakness.

    Meanwhile, accusations of “cowardice” or “appeasement” – made by Americans against Europe, or certain Europeans against Spain and its people – are disgraceful. The new Spanish prime minister’s decision to withdraw his country’s troops from Iraq is exactly what he promised he’d do if elected. It’s called democracy.

    The Madrid bombings definitely produced deep, continent-wide grief and empathy – and as Diego Hidalgo says in opening this internet conversation, the millions who demonstrated in Spain in the following days are a strong, defiant symbol of the courage of citizens and their will to defy and fight terrorism.

    openDemocracy shared the world’s horror at 9/11. Here is a small part of our extensive coverage

    Europe, in short, doesn’t need any lectures from the side of the United States about fighting terrorism – nor the filtering of Europe’s experience through an American lens. As a matter of fact, all we can learn from that direction is how not to do it: ignoring intelligence about an imminent threat; using the shock of the 9/11 tragedy to prepare for a war previously decided on; cooking up “intelligence” to legitimise it; bullying the world community; and meanwhile, neglecting the real combat against terrorism.

    There is one word for this: shameful.

    This is not part of any “daily dose of pummelling America”. I myself was a newspaper correspondent in New York in the 1990s. I still love the city, and I have a lot of friends in the United States. I know that I also speak for them.

    Stephane Gompertz, Minister Counsellor at the French embassy, London

    I have three personal reflections as a result of the absorbing discussion in London on 19 March, and in the light of the first contributions to this electronic conversation.

    On Spain: I admire the Spanish people’s reaction to a moment of great pain and adversity. Their courage, and the unanimous reaction of horror and outrage to the Madrid massacre, alike point to the correct conclusion from this terrible event: al-Qaida can kill and maim; it cannot win.

    I do not think that al-Qaida can truly claim the result of Spain’s elections as a victory. Al-Qaida are killers and liars. They distort both Islam and justice. Why should they make an accurate assessment of democratic elections, a concept which is completely alien to them? I think it is wrong intellectually to accept that they scored a victory simply because they might profess so. They can of course pretend whatever they want – but they will not dictate the lessons of history.

    On the headscarf, a matter on which there was substantial disagreement among contributors to the London discussion, not least between Timothy Garton Ash and myself: for me, Patrick Weil’s article in openDemocracy says it all.

    On Iraq: Timothy Garton Ash rightly states that we all have a stake now in avoiding failure in that country. The Iraqi people deserve peace and stability at last. That is also our, Europe’s, interest. This is why France has, among other things, accepted the idea of a major debt restructuring.

    But this does not mean that we should discard our opinions about the 2003 war, which Timothy himself calls a “grave blunder” (and actually, Europeans are no more critical than Americans themselves). As Matthias Matussek points out, we were obliged to start dealing with terrorism a long time before the Americans, and have more experience in the matter. Saddam Hussein was a despicable murderer but he was the wrong target (during the second world war, it might be remembered, we fought against Hitler – not Stalin). The $87 billion the United States committed to the war in Iraq could perhaps have been spent more wisely.

    I agree that we are on the same boat. We are facing the same enemy. It does not mean that we should refrain from criticising the self-proclaimed captain for his obvious mistakes.

    Maϊ Ghoussoub, Lebanese writer and sculptor, founder of Saqi books

    I was ready to be seduced by Timothy Garton Ash’s argument that opens this conversation about the objective and subjective elements in the perception of the Madrid terrorist bloodshed and its consequences. That is, until one word caught my attention: “constituency”. The terrorists, he writes, “can say to their constituencies in the Arab and Muslim worlds: mission accomplished!”

    But these terrorists do not have constituencies. In the Arab world where I come from, they exist as secretly as they do anywhere else. They inform the people through TV channels about their actions and visions. The word constituency is related in my mind to voters (unless it is used here in its very loose meaning of supporters – and those are not defined clearly), and the element of choice through elections is not given its deserved weight by Timothy Garton Ash.

    The people of Spain have, by marching in millions in the streets and then by expressing their anger through the ballot boxes, given all of us – in the west and elsewhere – a great, double lesson. They have shown both that the ruled will not passively accept being lied to by their rulers, and that they are ready to defy the terrorists’ threats by marching and occupying the streets of their cities. Diego Hidalgo is right to call them brave. Their reaction is a breath of fresh air and hope in the current, anaesthetised political atmosphere in Britain, where many people take it for granted that “politician” is synonymous with “liar” – and, even more corrosively, often accept this as an unavoidable fate.

    The Spanish example has a particularly significant meaning from the viewpoint of an Arab or Muslim person – especially in the light of the events in Iraq that preceded it. One of the many different reasons the Bush-led coalition gave to justify their war against Saddam’s Iraq was the benevolent wish to bring “democracy” to “this part of the world”. It is not surprising that the majority of people from this same part of the world did not take such a claim seriously. There have been too many examples of double-dealing (notably as far as Israel is concerned), too much support for dictatorial regimes, too much contempt displayed towards the putative recipients of this sudden benevolence. Exporting democracy as a roughly-packaged recipe is already ill-conceived, but bringing it to the “other” after having long demonised that “other” is not the best way to give democracy a good name!

    Thus, it is not surprising that democracy was perceived in the Arab and Muslim world as the least convincing reason for war against Saddam. Even those who would hope in principle for a more democratic society became suspicious if not allergic to the impromptu miracle cure.

    In this perspective, by acting very differently to the coalition, the people of Spain acted truly for democracy beyond their own shores as well. They did not want war; their government did not respect their wishes. On 11 March 2004 they suffered terribly, and people in the Middle East and North Africa identified with their suffering like any human being would when confronted with horrible pictures of the carnage created by the terrorists’ bombs. In their millions, the Spanish people then defied terrorism by claiming their right to their streets and showing that choice through parliamentary democracy really is possible. Most importantly for Arab and Muslim observers, this victorious democratic change is coming from a source that is not perceived as belligerent towards them.

    I believe that this double Spanish lesson is far more substantial than the possible conclusion by some criminals or frustrated people that terrorism pays.

    In openDemocracy’s London meeting that sparked this electronic conversation, Timothy expressed another important point concerning Europe and the integration of its Arab and Muslim immigrant population, where I broadly agree with him.

    The controversy over the headscarf in France, and parliament’s decision to ban girls in public schools from wearing it, has been – despite what Stephane Gompertz implies in his contribution above – a negative factor. Instead of showing how secularism means more freedom, it has been perceived by Arabs and Muslims in Europe – not entirely wrongly – as an attack on “our customs”.

    Also in openDemocracy: Patrick Weil’s “A nation in diversity: France, Muslims and the headscarf” and Johannes Willms’s “France unveiled: making Muslims into citizens?”

    The French republic has banned the headscarf in schools and to compensate has announced an extra day off on a Muslim holy day, one that adds to the many existing Catholic holidays. A more tolerant secular republic would have replaced the holiday given on the occasion of a saint’s birth, death or canonisation with holidays based on a shared secular celebration, while defending those who are punished by their (male) family members for abandoning their scarves.

    Principle and practicality unite here. The Arab world and Europe are intimately interconnected, both historically and because of the growing number of Muslims and Arabs from ex-colonies living in the continent. Today’s immigrants and their descendants are less distanced than earlier generations from their countries of origin, and less ready to discard their skin (religious, cultural, linguistic) in order to be accepted in “the west”.

    This new reality can play a positive as well as a negative role. It is our responsibility (here I speak as a new European and an Arab) to ensure that the integration of these populations sends a healthy message back to their countries of origin, one that is not tarnished either by European governments’ regressive “defence mechanisms”, nor by the immigrants’ own self-isolation within their new environment.

    Kirsty Hughes, European affairs specialist, writer and commentator

    The outcome of the Spanish elections was a victory for democracy, for the Spanish people and, most evidently, for the Spanish socialists. Timothy Garton Ash seems to think that the fact that al-Qaida claims the victory as its own and that that is reported by the media somehow makes it so – “history is horribly unfair”. But history is about facts and analysis, not about claims made by terrorist groups or the media.

    To say al-Qaida “won” the Spanish elections is to suggest that the Spanish people could have given only one “right” answer. The presumption that the terrorists’ aim was to eject the José María Aznár government, and that the only acceptable response was for the people to do the opposite and vote for Aznár, entails that voters would be making their choices completely under the influence of the terrorists – rather than voting for their preferred, independently chosen party. This chain of reasoning itself involves a direct denial of democracy, as Diego Hidalgo understands.

    It is also obvious, but worth restating, that security is a political not just a simple moral issue – “good against evil”, as Tony Blair would have us believe. Defining and then finding ways to tackle Europe’s, and the world’s, main security challenges and threats require political choices. That is why the debate about the motives for, and fact of, war in Iraq neither will nor should go away: because it is a debate about appropriate policies for the difficult, unstable and unequal world we all share.

    This is where the biggest challenge lies after Madrid – and where the “we” starts to become problematic. For, contrary to what Stephane Gompertz writes, we – whether understood as “Europe and America” or as “Europe” as an entity – are simply not in the same boat, in that we do not have the same ranking or understanding of threats and challenges and appropriate policy responses.

    This is clear in relation to the United States, whose international policies under the Bush administration – from Iraq and the “war on terror”, to the Kyoto treaty and the international criminal court – have made the world less safe, stable, and united. It has thrown its partners overboard.

    Also by Kirsty Hughes in openDemocracy:

    But the divisions within Europe over the last year make it hard to speak about a “we” here also. The European Union’s new security strategy, agreed in December 2003, is symptomatic of this. It was a compromise at all levels, from variable threat assessments by member states to differing views on solutions. The strategy identified as threats not only weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, but regional conflicts (including the Middle East), organised crime, and failing states; its solutions vary from development assistance and support for good governance to possible military action.

    The Spanish election results should help the EU to achieve a more united and coherent approach on such issues. But what should be its substance? This is the territory of the next phase of European debate. What are the right policies for Europe?

    The post-Madrid European Union summit of 25-26 March heavily emphasised counter-terrorism, but its key conclusion was relatively unremarked: that all the EU’s external assistance, aid and agreements must now include new counter-terrorism conditionality. In other words, poverty and development assistance are to be subsumed under the EU’s security agenda. This raises – or should raise – a much wider debate about the nature and priorities of “security”: how to compare the threat of terrorism with the threat to millions of people every year from poverty, famine, conflict or environmental degradation?

    Some argue that the main challenge post-Madrid is clearly to tackle the terrorist threat. But the size and nature of that threat is still unclear. Was 11 March 2004 Europe’s 11 September 2001? Only if the event is seen as al-Qaida’s first attack in Europe – thus consigning the Istanbul attacks of November 2003 down the memory-hole. The 9/11 attacks were direct assaults on key economic and military symbols, and thus in both scale and symbolism different to many other terrorist attacks. We don’t yet know whether to expect another Madrid (in a month, a year, two years?), something much larger on the scale of the original 11 September, or the even greater threat of a devastating “dirty bomb”.

    Every week in openDemocracy, Paul Rogers writes a column tracking the latest developments in the “war on terror”

    The real issues for the future are questions of scale, method, frequency of attacks, and the ability of police and intelligence forces to pre-empt attacks – and what political responses in this new context are appropriate. To put it rather bluntly, an attack like Madrid every two years poses different political and security challenges to a similar attack once a month, or to an even larger-scale attack. The political instinct to prepare – and defend – for the worst may be right but not if it leads to an obsession with narrow security above all other global challenges and without serious attention to civil liberties.

    All this suggests that Europe carries a huge responsibility after Madrid. We – understood as “Europe and the world” – must put as much effort into the wider security agenda, addressing the problems of the global political and economic environment, as into “anti-terror” efforts on a narrow front. If we simply adopt a defensive, fortress-like stance, and fail to develop strong, united, fair and effective global policies in partnership with other countries, then neither Europe nor any other part of the world will achieve safety or security.

    John Lloyd, British journalist and editor of FT Magazine

    The concern of several contributors to this debate (Diego Hidalgo, Timothy Garton Ash, Stephane Gompertz) to refight the Iraq war is a distraction from the urgent question of whether the terrorist attacks in Iraq will succeed in halting efforts to create a democratic form of government and peaceful civil society there.

    Meanwhile, the central issue discussed so far has been the reaction of the Spanish electorate to the Madrid bombings. Too much is made by most of the participants in the debate of the accusations of ‘cowardice’ by some American commentators. These are foolish: but they are beside the point.

    The point is: did the demonstration of terror have an effect on voting behaviour? It would be curious if it didn’t, in any country. An electorate which had been, according to opinion polls, 91% opposed to the Iraq war is faced with a huge act of terror which can be reasonably thought to be stimulated by the Spanish government’s support for the war. That some thousands of voters who might have voted for the Popular Party would switch to the socialists under these circumstances is natural enough: to borrow the phrase used by Matthias Matussek, it’s called democracy.

    Terrorists often try to have an effect on democratic politics in general, and on voting behaviour in particular. They often succeed. The Irish Republican Army (IRA)/Sinn Fein is an object lesson in such success, north and south of the Irish border. Any al-Qaida strategist is now bound to think – he would be a poor strategist if he didn’t – that the effect of the Madrid bombs on the Spanish vote can be replicated in Italy and Britain, the two other major European Union states which supported the Iraq invasion. We have to credit terrorists as successful as the al-Qaida ‘family’ of activists with intelligence, strategic foresight and ability to learn from success and failure.

    We have to credit them with something else, too – with aims, an ideology and a purpose. They are not – as much of the discussion at openDemocracy’s London meeting on 19 March seemed to suggest – the products of poverty, marginalisation or American imperialism. Like other political or religious movements, they seek power: they do so by terror, because they believe it to be the only way to achieve it – and insofar as they cannot do it by democratic means, they are right.

    Terrorists tend not to respond to concessions: the IRA did not, through the 1970s and 1980s, when the discrimination built into Northern Ireland’s post-partition politics was steadily reduced. The IRA did decide on a ceasefire when its political wing was offered political power, and it calculated it might achieve its ends – of Irish unification – in that way. The Basque country has, since the rebirth of a democratic Spain, become largely autonomous: ETA has responded by becoming more violent. This is one reason why José María Aznár’s government reacted as it did after the Madrid bombs, even if it seemed wilfully to ignore conflicting signals.

    The al-Qaida factor is now an inescapable element in democratic political calculation. The heart of the debate now is about how, in this new situation, the threat of terrorism in the Middle East and beyond should be contained and defeated.

    Isabel Hilton, British journalist and New Yorker writer

    In the London forum organised by openDemocracy on 19 March, Timothy Garton Ash described an article written by Simon Jenkins, published in the Spectator on the very morning of the Madrid attacks and headlined as “Nothing to fear but fear itself”, as a most unfortunately-timed piece of journalism. It may have seemed so the day after Madrid, but in the long run, I think that the sentiment is right. Indeed, in the days after Madrid, the Spanish people gave a magnificent demonstration of their refusal to give way to fear.

    Terrorism is dreadful for what it does to its victims. But al-Qaida will not bring down western democracies without their cooperation. The damage that terrorism can do to our politics is only as great as we permit it to be.

    Thus far, we are not doing very well on that front. We have obliged the terrorists and damaged our own democracies by dismantling our civil liberties, permitting flagrant abuses of the rights of others, abandoning fundamental legal principles and demonising hundreds of thousands of peaceful citizens because of their religious beliefs. We continue to use the evangelical rhetoric of democratic values while simultaneously squandering democracy’s moral capital in an illegal war that has turned into an increasingly bloody military occupation.

    We have acquiesced in this abuse of our democracy in part because we have allowed the threat from terrorism to be inflated to panic levels. To that extent, terror has worked.

    John Lloyd describes another way in which terror has worked: by success in its efforts to influence democratic politics. It’s true, of course, that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) tried to influence democratic politics: after all, it was going to have to negotiate, in the end, with democratically-elected governments. Its terror sought both to bring that about and to condition it. There are many violent movements whose existence represents a failure in a political system – Colombia, El Salvador, Argentina, Palestine. In such situations, it is clear that the solution lies in negotiation, however long it takes to get there. But al-Qaida does not seem to me to be that kind of movement.

    In this sense John Lloyd’s assimilation of al-Qaida into a wider pattern of terrorist activity motivated by “aims, an ideology and a purpose” seems misplaced. “Like other political or religious movements, they seek power”, he writes. But what power is it that John Lloyd believes the strategists of al-Qaida want? The resurrection of the Caliphate? Western disengagement from the Middle East? A fairer system of world trade? Independence for the Kashmir valley? The right to resist the encroachment of western culture? A rejection of modernity? The answer may be any or all of these, and we could probably throw in victory in the sectarian war against Shi’a Muslims as well. With whom, then, is this power to be negotiated: with western or with Arab governments, or in some yet to be defined way with the 1.2 billion Muslims whose religion has been misappropriated for the purpose?

    What John Lloyd calls the “al-Qaida ‘family’ of activists” may be imaginative, determined and well-funded. But they are few in number and their capacity to harm us without our assistance is limited. Most people, whatever their faith, embrace life, not death. Extreme voices claim to act for Christians, Jews and Muslims, promoting violent solutions and pushing moderates and secular democrats to the margins. It is time to make common cause across religious barriers and reclaim our ground.

    Timothy Garton Ash, British scholar and journalist

    I have three further thoughts on this excellent debate.

    First, a call for European self-criticism is not exculpation of the United States, let alone tacit support for the approach of the Bush administration, as Matthias Matussek seems to think. In thinking this way, we disable ourselves.

    Second, the “facts and analysis” called for by Kirsty Hughes must take account of “claims made by terrorist groups or the media”. Those claims, however untrue, are also political facts.

    For our existing debates on “Europe & Islam” – including contributions by Tariq Modood, Navid Kermani, Amira Hafner al-Jabaji, Ahdaf Soueif and Abdal-Hakim Murad – click here. Coming soon, an exclusive interview with the leader of the Arab European League, Dyad Abou Jah Jah

    Third, my overwhelming sense from this discussion is that we simply need to know more, above all about perceptions and feelings among Muslims living in Europe and the Middle East. Maï Ghoussoub makes a very fair point about the word “constituencies”, but what then would be the correct term to describe those who might or might not be persuaded to support terrorist activity whether in the Middle East or in Madrid, Berlin, Paris or London?

    What are the most susceptible groups (young? male? unemployed?) and what the greatest provocations? Israeli policy towards the Palestinians and the Bush administration’s policies towards both Israel and Iraq are contributing factors. We know this from opinion surveys, such as those by the Pew Research Center, and to this extent, it’s right to say that we can’t avoid talking about United States policy. But what are the other causes or provocations which are more clearly in our (in this case, our European) hands to change? How can we fight the real threat of terrorism in our own societies without increasing the danger of terrorism by further alienating Muslim immigrant communities? So: more voices from inside the European Muslim communities on openDemocracy please...

    Matthias Matussek, London correspondent of German magazine Der Spiegel


    One of the lessons of the Madrid bombing is that tragedies like this are exploited the very moment they happen. I am sure that Timothy Garton Ash shares my outrage at the cynical manipulations of the conservative Aznar government as well as at the suggestion by certain neo-conservative commentators, that the Spanish people did not live up to their challenge when they voted for a government that promised to pull its troops out of Iraq. Keep in mind that eight million people courageously took to the streets immediately after the bombings, staring down terrorism – that took more balls than to fire a couple of cruise missiles and much more than to write a hawkish editorial...

    Now, I am not really sure, what and who Timothy is referring to when he is asking for “European self-criticism” in the context of the fight against terrorism. Which Europe, to start with? “Old Europe”, as defined by Donald Rumsfeld, with its hesitation to break international law? Or “New Europe”, the “coalition of the willing”, that let itself be bullied or lured into a crusade by false promises and doctored evidence by the Bush administration, a coalition that we are steadily seeing falling apart?

    In that regard, the process of “European self-criticism” has already started with the vote in Spain: a government, chosen by the people, that is finally doing what the people wish. Others might follow, in Italy, in Britain? It is certainly necessary to develop a cohesive European response to the nightmare of WMD in the hands of terrorists. Yet, there are more responses possible than unilateral military adventures. If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. What about a screwdriver from time to time? You need less force, and once the screws are in, they are much longer lasting than nails.

    In other words: take the whole spectrum of instruments. From crisis prevention by political, economic, diplomatic means; to military actions if these have failed; and finally post-conflict management and nation-building to make the stabilisation effort sustainable.


    The dramatic events in Iraq of the past few days – the hostage taking, the fall of Falluja – have made one thing clear. It was a gross miscalculation to believe (if it was ever believed!) that terrorism could be hit by sending troops to the Euphrates and the Tigris. On the contrary, it delivered a fertile new breeding ground. Nobody in their right mind would doubt that the world without Saddam is a better place. But, a destabilised Iraq, as one can see now, is a mortal danger to every occupation force (one that the first Bush administration shied away from after the first Gulf war).

    Having said that we definitely have to look forward. And, as Anthony Barnett suggested, try to win the war after the war. That means nation building in a legitimate way. For us intellectuals it means: strengthening the democratic elements within Iraq by encouraging the remnants of their civil society, for example helping with establishing independent secular media, newspapers, websites.

    I don’t buy the argument that we Europeans created a breeding ground for terrorism by ignoring or marginalizing Muslim communities in our midst. The World Trade Centre “mastermind” Mohammed Atta studied in Hamburg, he was middle-class and cultivated, and by no means “oppressed” in German society. Fanatics and psychopaths don’t need reasons for their murderous actions. That’s why I am generally pessimistic about our contributions as intellectuals, in our fight against terrorism You cannot reason with irrationalism.


    The Marxist terrorists of 1970s Germany, the Baader-Meinhoff Group, killed the so-called “symbolic faces of the system” like judges and CEOs, and were finally brought down not by dialogue, but by intelligence and police work.

    Still, even though many intellectuals accept the Jesuit maxim, that the end justifies the means, in the end there was a consensus that killings were not acceptable. And that led to a situation, in which those terrorists, (who at first could count on a certain support system among the Left) were increasingly isolated, and it was that which made it easier for the authorities to catch them. I wish the same would happen in the Muslim world among their moderate intellectuals.

    To me, they seem to be either frightened by fundamentalist terrorism – which I would totally understand – or think it expedient to tolerate it – which I would despise. We should engage in a dialogue with them. We should encourage them to distance themselves from terrorism. To raise their voices, and mobilise their civil societies in respecting the laws of humanity – and so finally isolate the fanatics and bring them down. That’s all we can do. Of course, Timothy, it would greatly help our credibility, if we make clear, that we on our side despise crusaders and cynics and fanatics in our own ranks as well.

    Stephane Gompertz, Minister Counsellor at the French embassy, London

    Here are a few thoughts on what has been said in this roundtable.

    Firstly, I agree with Kirsty Hughes that we should avoid approaching security in a narrow-minded way. Tackling this issue encompasses a lot of dimensions and requires a range of policies. Nonetheless, the challenge of terrorism is an issue that none of us can avoid. In that sense, we are all in the same boat, whether we like it or not and whether we like our companions or not. That does not mean that we agree on the direction of the wind or the intelligence of some of the captains.

    Secondly, we have indeed to try and understand a) the roots of terrorism (social but also irrational or psycho-analytical) and b) all the factors that either fuel it, or can be used to “justify” it (e.g. Palestine: to say that the situation of the Palestinians explains terrorism is ludicrous; to pretend that it does not play any role in the terrorists’ psyche is equally wrong).

    Lastly, we should also recognise the attraction of fundamentalism for some youth in our countries and address it. That does not mean that we should abandon our core values. Outreach is fine – up to a point. Chairman of Britian's Commission for Racial Equality Trevor Phillips’ recent statement on multiculturalism is a lucid one.

    Maϊ Ghoussoub, Lebanese writer and sculptor, founder of Saqi books

    I thank openDemocracy for giving me the opportunity to clarify my views, rendered undoubtedly more nuanced by the rich contributions published so far.

    Two issues which seem to be separate at first are somewhat related and revealing: the description of al-Qaida as “nihilistic” and the question of the terrorists’ “constituency”. As to the latter, Timothy Garton Ash is right in asking what other word one can use in this case. But the lack of terminology is not linguistic.

    We are speaking of many countries, across many continents with totally different levels of development. Some (many?) people among these hundreds of millions may sympathise with some declaration or another as in: “the west (particularly America) hates us” or “our leaders have betrayed us or betrayed the true message of the prophet” etc… But this is not enough to brand these people sympathisers, much less supporters of terrorism.

    Al-Qaida does not have, nor does it try to have, the active involvement of a mass movement. This would be against its own survival.

    There is a big difference between al-Qaida and Hamas. In Hamas’ case terrorist actions (condemnable and horrible) are the result of political dead-end, desperate acts committed by a movement acting within an impoverished and nationally oppressed population.

    But Osama bin Laden is acting out of an abstract idea of recovering a past that never existed, not even in the purest dreams of Wahhabism. Bin Laden neither speaks for the poor, nor for the rich, he has no specific demand apart from purifying what he thinks is Islam. He has to function outside society, for his vision would not fit in any society, not even in Saudi Arabia, where his popularity slumped after a residential compound hosting mainly Arab families was blown up in Riyadh.

    Now the Bush administration and its allies have tried to simplify a very complex reality with disastrous results – putting a dictator and enemy of the Islamists, Saddam, in the same basket as bin Laden, without taking a wider religious movement, the Shi’as (hated by bin Laden), into account.

    I am not sure that the term “nihilist” is adequate in describing bin Laden’s al-Qaida, though I still find the term “Islamic nihilist” better than “Islamic militant” or “religious fundamentalist”. Bin Laden is a modern aberration and we should be watchful about amalgams and generalisations in today’s complex and global context.

    Kirsty Hughes, European affairs specialist, writer and commentator

    There are a number of wider debates emerging from this post-Madrid discussion that call for more analysis. Some of the larger questions and issues raised include:

    • what are and what should be our global priorities and what should our priorities in different regions of the world be;

    • how to define and understand different forms and types of terrorism and their direct and indirect causes;

    • how to meet the challenges and needs of religion and secularism and human rights in our different societies;

    • and how to address our great weakness in promoting or supporting nation-building.
    But for now a few final thoughts on the current debate.

    On the Spanish election results – I think Diego Hildalgo’s original point that the results reflect a high turnout in response to the attacks rather than substantial switching of votes remains a key one. And it rather undermines John Lloyd’s argument that any al-Qaida strategist would be a poor one if he didn’t expect to replicate the effect in the UK or Italy.

    This seems an extraordinary argument. What might happen in the UK after an attack? Quite possibly a higher turnout too – possibly benefiting Labour, perhaps (though to little overall effect) the Liberal Democrats. What if it did prompt a turn to the Tories – would that lead to an Iraq pullout? Political and electoral processes are complex in a democracy – no one, al-Qaida or anyone else, can predict the impact of one single event with great confidence.

    Timothy Garton Ash is right to say we must take account of claims made by the terrorists, even if false – but we must at the same time be very clear whether we think their claims are indeed true or false.

    This leads on to the issue of who or what al-Qaida is and whether they have clear aims and programmes. I think we need much more debate and analysis here: if we cannot agree on who and what the terrorists are and the underlying direct and indirect causes of their existence and growth, then we will certainly not agree on policy responses.

    Faced with a “network of networks” organisation like al-Qaida we should be cautious about assuming simple and clear aims, let alone assuming that we know what they are. For example, does al-Qaida really want troop pullouts from Iraq or would it be much happier with ongoing conflict and chaos and attacks on American and other forces there?

    We also need to be very careful in our use of language. I agree with Maϊ Ghoussoub here the militias attacking US and coalition forces in Iraq at present, may be extremists (with sympathy or not from the wider population, though sympathy seems to be growing) but they are clearly mainly Iraqis fighting occupation. It does not help to call them terrorists as John Lloyd does or to conflate the desperate situation in Iraq with the wider war on terror.

    Then there is the central question of the extent to which there are supporters or sympathisers of al-Qaida or at least a permissive environment in a number of countries. The causes of terror are clearly complex. But I don’t think we should dismiss links to wider global inequalities, unfairness and poverty in helping either to underpin the terrorists’ rhetoric or some of the permissive environments in which they operate.

    As Stephane Gompertz says the causes of terror may be both social and irrational. If the west is not seen to be prioritising and tackling some of the most glaring global inequalities and insecurities that challenge most people in the world (even if not the citizens of the west) but rather appears to prioritise above all else its war on terror and the aftermath of its self-created conflict in Iraq, then we should not be surprised if anti-western sentiment grows.

    So even if this sentiment does not translate into support for al-Qaida, it is certainly there as a political challenge and is strongly affected by the way the west plays out its global priorities and actions in the face of the al-Qaida challenge. And it is certainly also the case that the war on terror and the Iraq war have diverted both funds and political attention from humanitarian crises and development issues. So there are complex interconnections here. Furthermore, as Isabel Hilton says, we should not inflate the terror threat – and certainly not so it displaces other equally or more important priorities.

    And, post-Madrid, what about the European response? I see little evidence either in political circles or more widely that Europeans think the al-Qaida terrorist threat is simply an American one as John Lloyd suggests. Certainly, Timothy Garton Ash is right to call for a coordinated European response.

    But there is a fundamental problem here. Terrorism is a question of both internal and external security and policy. The EU’s leaders – as they showed at their summit in March – are ready and able to increase pan-European cooperation on internal security (whether with adequate attention to corresponding civil liberties is a problem I leave to later debate). But they do not agree on external foreign policy across the board and nor are they prepared to pool national sovereignty to create a genuine EU foreign policy.

    This is where the arguments about the war in Iraq remain relevant. If EU leaders do not agree on when and how and whether intervention is justified, and if they do not agree on how to deal politically with the US, and in particular with the current Bush administration, then a strong, comprehensive and coordinated EU response is simply not going to be possible.

    As far as the current situation in Iraq goes, there are no simple or perfect routes ahead: establishing a common position across Britain, France and Germany for dealing with the 30 June hand-over will not be easy. And a UN role, though desirable, is not straightforward.

    Timothy Garton Ash and Matthias Matussek call for more dialogue with the Muslim community. This is surely right and an urgent priority. But let us also aim to ensure our dialogue is genuinely global – where are the voices, concerns and interests of the non-Muslim non-western world? How do they view the war on terror?

    John Lloyd, British journalist and editor of FT Magazine

    I wanted to make five points in response to the discussion on the Madrid bombings, focussing on the pieces by Isabel Hilton and John Jackson.

    First, I still believe Isabel underplays the independent agency of terrorist groups. They exercise very great power in democratic societies with strong human and civil rights’ traditions, because – as well as the death and destruction they cause – they both take advantage of these traditions and damage them. In that sense I disagree with her point that the damage such groups do to our politics “is only as great as we allow it to be”.

    Their actions pose a series of problems and dilemmas, the most familiar being the contradiction between strong and effective response, and the diminution of human and civil rights such a response often brings, even if only temporary. None of these problems are easy to solve and all of them bring damage – not because “we permit it” but because we cannot avoid it.

    Second, I’m not sure I understand Isabel’s point on the aims of al-Qaida.

    I do think it has aims, even if they are diffuse. One of them is to re-take the lands – any lands – which have been at any time under Moslem rule: a large, perhaps the largest, reason why Spain has been chosen as an area of attack, and continues to be, no matter what government is in power.

    I do not think they offer any negotiating room, nor do they wish to. The IRA generally did.

    Third, John Jackson says I dismissed concern that poverty and marginalisation provides a breeding ground for terrorism, as expressed by him and others during the openDemocracy discussion after Madrid. I should have been more clear.

    I don’t dismiss concern about poverty. I think that poverty and its alleviation should be the largest concern of politics.

    But I don’t believe that poverty and alienation have any direct link with terrorism. Indeed, the most developed (and cruellest) western versions of terrorism – IRA and ETA – thrived while the areas for whose national independence they were fighting were getting richer, from already relatively high levels of income.

    The leaders of al-Qaida are often either well to do or relatively comfortably off.

    To be sure, all of these movements attract recruits who are themselves poor: but not because they are poor, but because they want to, or are induced to, kill those whom they regard or have been taught to regard as their enemies. They are enemies not because they are rich, but because they are seen as alien forces preventing the achievement of national unity, national freedom or the triumph of a particular form of Islam.

    Fourth, I think Timothy Garton Ash was right to argue for a European response to terrorism. I agree the EU provides a sort of authority which could assist in coordinating a response. Timothy also stressed, during the After Madrid discussion, that Europeans too easily fall into the comfortable rhythms of seeing contemporary, radically Islamist, terrorism as an American problem, which they are mishandling, preferring these lulling motions to a serious consideration of the issue that now confronts us. The discussion, in fact, provided ample proof of his view.

    Fifth, as I write this the fighting in Iraq is at a new high. To date, all the countries which have troops engaged in Iraq – the US, Britain, Poland, Japan, Italy and others – have reiterated their determination to keep the troops there. To continue their attempts to assist Iraq to move towards a self-governed state in which all groups are represented in government and where individual votes can begin to count for something.

    Only Spain has asserted that it will pull out. That is – of course – its right: but to pretend it is other than a setback for the effort to stabilise Iraq and assist its people to become self governed and peaceful, or that such a decision, if carried through, would represent other than a gain for the anti-democratic forces and for terrorists, is not, I believe, a sustainable position.

    Diego Hidalgo, co-founder of the Spanish newspaper El País

    This online debate, initiated following the colloquium in London hosted by openDemocracy on 19 March 2004, began by asking the question: who really won the Spanish parliamentary elections on 14 March held three days after the devastating terrorist attacks of 11 March – was it democracy, terrorism, Europe…?

    Most participants in the debate have agreed on three things: that Spain’s experience of terrorism long predated “11-M”; that the street demonstrations of 11 million Spaniards in the aftermath of the attacks were a display of civic courage and defence of democracy; and that the electoral success of the opposition PSOE (socialist) party happened because 2.5 million people who were expected to abstain voted for the PSOE, in response to perceived manipulation by the Partido Popular (PP) government in the way it released information about the putative authorship of the Madrid attacks.

    In the latter respect, the extraordinary turnout was indeed a victory for democracy, one that embodied a demand for transparency and honesty from government. An uneasy feeling remains that terrorists might feel tempted to influence the outcome of future elections elsewhere, but the special circumstances of Spain make this an implausible hypothesis.

    The PSOE leader and new prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, had after all been promising for a full year to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq unless there is a “return to legality” and United Nations control. If his policy restarts a healthy debate not just about the Iraq war but about the most intelligent way to fight terrorism, terrorism will indeed be proven to be the loser in the Spanish elections.

    This debate, like the colloquium that sparked it, has naturally moved beyond Spain to consider wider issues: the condition of Muslim communities in Europe, the threat of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, the justification and results of the Iraq war, and strategic rifts between Europe and the United States.

    Whatever the differences between the various contributors, a shared element is apparent: we all feel discomfort, worry and pain in the face of the present situation. One of its most serious aspects is the way that fear of extremist fanaticism among minorities in the Islamic world is compounded by a judgment in the west (felt much more in Europe than in America, unfortunately) that the current way of fighting the so-called war on terror is incompetent, is exacerbating Islamist militancy and is facilitating recruitment to al-Qaida.

    The world is becoming more complex, and it is the beginning of wisdom to understand and recognise this; yet meanwhile this world, our world, is on a “plane driven by a dangerously myopic and inept pilot surrounded by an even more dangerously inept crew”.

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