Today in America, Britain and most other Western countries we are still governed by politicians and bureaucrats who refuse to identify the principal form of fanaticism that threatens us. We are governed by elites who hesitate to say -- if they ever say -- what distinguishes the current threat of our time, radical Islam, as the latest group of jihadists, ISIS, establishes beachheads in Syria and Iraq and plants its flag at the border of Jordan and Turkey. In the blancmange of political correctness, which this refusal entails, we hear of the threat of "extremism" and "radicalism" in general. This season there is even talk of "violent extremism" in particular, as though violent extremism is an event like the weather, which could affect almost any sufferer at any time.
Of course in some ways it is understandable that this pretence should have come about. Rightly, nobody should claim to be targeting all Muslims; so there is a nervousness about singling out what is different — namely, violence -- in one especially prominent ideology at the moment. Sometimes this nervousness, and the resultant spreading of blame, appear to be a justification. It did a few years ago when Anders Breivik in Norway appeared to some to have just demonstrated that anybody might be persuaded to plant car bombs in a city center or gun down innocent people in a youth camp. This horror, perhaps more than any other recent event, is wheeled out to assist those who wish to avoid the main issue. Our countries at the time were filled with claims that anybody who had ever been critical of radical Islam had in some way contributed to Breivik's non-Islamic atrocity. These claims often came from the same people who refuse to blame any wider circle of influence for the outrages of the jihadists. What was, and is, strangest here is that it fails to notice the two most important differences between mass-murderers, such as Breivik or Timothy McVeigh, and the rest of us -- and the difference between them and the sort of Islamists who have just killed three Israeli teenagers and threaten countries around the globe.
First, what distinguishes people of violence from everybody else is not their ideas or motivations but the act of violence itself. It is not the ideology of most mass murderers that distinguishes them. It is that they end up committing mass murder. Not to be too glib, there are people every day who feel like killing someone. What distinguishes the person who actually does kill someone is that they did so. High school killers have the same distinction. The opinions, tastes and despondency of such mass murderers are not always easily distinguishable from any other number of other unhappy and enraged teenagers. What distinguishes even high school shooters from their contemporaries is not their ideas, but that they end up shooting at, and killing, their classmates. So it is with political extremism. It is actually using the guns and the bombs that differentiate them from other people.
The second distinction, at least as important, and which we appear equally insistent on ignoring, is that while there are people who mass murder, one factor especially matters: whether around them are individuals, or a circle of individuals, who encourage them to mass murder.
Certainly there are people from all sorts of backgrounds and with all sorts of beliefs who can carry out acts of violence. This was demonstrated by Breivik, McVeigh and countless others. But as far as I know, Breivik's "influencers" or "inspirers" never included people who advocated placing car-bombs in public places or gunning down young political activists on an island.
Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, endorses suicide bombings if they target "occupiers". (Image source: MemriTV)
This is a distinction that should matter. From the Palestinian territories, across the disintegrating Middle East, to certain mosques and madrassas in the West, just such teachings are emanating from the fringes of the Islamic world. The young men leaving Britain to go fight in Syria are not going in spite of the teachings of certain religious leaders but because of them. In the same way, terrorists in the West Bank do not target Jews for murder and abduction in spite of the urgings of the preachers of Hamas but because of them, and the culture of which they are a part.
We are so intent upon avoiding the problem of our time, radical Islam, that in one scenario we are willing to ignore the people who call for violence and murder, and on the other hand pretend that those who have never called for violence or murder have actually been calling for it all along. If any Muslim anywhere is attacked, the Western media is eager to attribute the fault to anybody who has ever analysed or even noticed radical Islam. They blame the person who has noticed the fire rather than tackling the fire that is being pointed to. Yet when that same fire is burning, when Christians, Jews, other Muslims, secularists and others are targeted around the world by Islamists, we remain intent on hoping that this urge has nothing to do with any of the texts or books or preachings or encouragements in the milieu from which the perpetrators come. And all this in spite of the circumstance that it is we in the West who are often the ones financing and legitimizing these people, and sometimes -- as with the Palestinian Authority -- even handing them the funds to target us with.
The wilful effort to ignore what is in front of our eyes, to cast blame where there is none and ignore it where there is, are not demonstrations of entirely wholesome societies. Rather, they are examples of societies suffering through a sickness. And if we cannot see our way through this, then it is this sickness that may yet prove to be the one historians in the future will recognize to have been terminal.