by Tom Harris
Before the dust had settled on the terrorist attacks in Norway, even before the body count had been completed, some news organisations and individuals drew their own conclusions about the identity of the perpetrators. And got it wrong.
I was one of them.
Having seen an online report identifying islamists as the likely perpetrators, I tweeted that in the aftermath of the attack, there would still be some on the British left who would resume their role of apologists-in-chief for people whose intolerance of others put them firmly in the far right camp.
I got it wrong and I apologise. I should not have jumped to conclusions, especially not so early on in such a terrible sequence of events.
But (and of course there’s a “but” or I wouldn’t be writing this), the palpable relief that swept through the left when the identity of the terrorist was made known – a 32-year-old Norwegian christian fundamentalist – was revealing. Here, thank God, was a terrorist we can all hate without equivocation: white, christian and far right-wing.
Since 9/11 the left has been wrestling with its liberal conscience. This “new” terrorist threat (which wasn’t new at all, even then) came from people with a different colour of skin and different religion to us. Weren’t we being racist in condemning them?
And so began the great apology: America and Israel were the greatest terrorist threats to our world, not Al-Qaeda. A billboard among protesters outside the Commons in 2003 read: “Bush and Sharon are the real terrorists, not Bin-Laden”. Members of Respect, which often tries to portray itself as on the left of the political spectrum, marched unashamedly on anti-war demos in solidarity with Islamists who didn’t hide their intolerance for women, homosexuals or democracy, or their support for suicide bombers in Israel and elsewhere.
Such was the desperate desire to salve our liberal consciences that we turned intellectual cartwheels in our attempts to convince ourselves that militant islamism is no more a threat than radical christianity. Some have even tried to invent a new word: “christianicism”.
This was done, not to rationalise or to try to understand or define a particular form of terrorism, but to reassure us that we’re definitely not racist because we’re equally critical of all religions.
Some, on the more mainstream left, are even uncomfortable with the term “islamist”. It has come to define all jihadists but which, more accurately, simply refers to a particular form of politicised, but not necessarily violent, islam.
But the man arrested for the Norwegian atrocity, Anders Behring Breivik, does not, as far as I’m aware, claim that he was doing God’s will. He has not said that his willingness to carry out such a murderous mission was inspired by holy scripture, or that he was convinced that if he was “martyred” during his rampage he would be rewarded in the hereafter with the erotic attentions of a specified number of virgins.
The desperate liberal’s need to be seen to be “fair” and “progressive” on matters of religion even leads some to claim that there is no difference between the past terrorism of the IRA and that of militant islamism. This is dangerously ignorant.
Firstly, the IRA never claimed to be motivated by their religion. True, they felt a deep affinity with, and were usually a part of, Northern Ireland’s catholic community whom they saw as an unfairly repressed minority. But no IRA member ever claimed biblical or doctrinal justification, let alone motivation, for their crimes.
Secondly, because republican terrorists knew that they were engaged in a wholly secular and political struggle, they expected no reward for their atrocities in the afterlife, which is why we never had to deal with IRA suicide bombers. The carnage they could have otherwise wrought would have made the actual death toll resulting from the troubles look very modest indeed.
Thirdly, however reprehensible the republicans’ chosen methods, their political ambition of creating a united Ireland, was always a perfectly respectable and rational aim.
Jihadists, on the other hand, believe they are doing the work of God in using force to re-establish the worldwide caliphate, where sharia law can be implemented fully for the first time on earth. Sharia law in this context, incidentally, would make life extremely uncomfortable for those who are gay, women, non-muslim, prone to speaking their mind, voting in free elections and such like. They believe that dying in the struggle will result in a heavenly reward and that non-muslims deserve to die simply because they are not muslims. They want to see the destruction of Israel (naturally) and of America (inevitably).
That islamist terrorism exists isn’t remotely deniable. The 7/7 attacks and a number of foiled terrorist outrages before and since have convinced anyone who’s paying attention that it poses an unprecedented terrorist threat to our country and to our way of life, if by “way of life” you mean liberal democracy.
So why do so many on the left get anxious and defensive when the term “islamist” is used in a pejorative way? Many on twitter on Friday night, actually accused me of being a racist for using the term and for suggesting that followers of that peculiar ideology might ever be capable of such a murderous rampage.
Is it simply because the word “islamist” contains the word “islam” within it, and therefore being critical of one is the same as being critical of the other? I fear so. In which case they are out of step with ordinary muslims, who know well the difference between the two and who are unequivocal in their condemnation of the former.
In fact, the Norwegian terrorist, Breivik, seems to share the same ignorance about the difference between “islam” and “islamism” as many on the left. He has, apparently, in his online rantings before his rampage, blamed muslims, not exclusively islamists, for the terrorist attacks of the past decade.
There will, tragically, continue to be isolated terrorist outrages perpetrated by right wing loners and psychopaths, whether they occur in schools in the American mid west, in northern English rural communities or in idyllic Scandinavian beauty spots.
But even after Norway, the threat from militant islamism is present, it is real, and it is appallingly dangerous.
If the left continues an ever-present liberal fretting about tarnishing ordinary, law-abiding muslim citizens with the stain of jihadism, which prevents it from articulating the awful threat we face, then the public – who do understand the threat and who need our support and protection – will turn instead to the right. And who could blame them?
Tom Harris is Labour MP for Glasgow South.