Yesterday’s bombings in downtown London are profoundly disturbing. In part, that is because a bombing in our mother country and closest ally, England, is almost like a bombing in our own country. In part, it’s because one assault may have involved a suicide bomber, bringing this terrible jihadist weapon into the heart of a major Western capital. That would be deeply troubling because open societies depend on trust – on trusting that the person sitting next to you on the bus or subway is not wearing dynamite.
The attacks are also deeply disturbing because when jihadist bombers take their madness into the heart of our open societies, our societies are never again quite as open. Indeed, we all just lost a little freedom yesterday.
But maybe the most important aspect of the London bombings is this: When jihadist-style bombings happen in Riyadh, that is a Muslim-Muslim problem. That is a police problem for Saudi Arabia. But when Al-Qaeda-like bombings come to the London Underground, that becomes a civilizational problem. Every Muslim living in a Western society suddenly becomes a suspect, becomes a potential walking bomb. And when that happens, it means Western countries are going to be tempted to crack down even harder on their own Muslim populations.
That, too, is deeply troubling. The more Western societies – particularly the big European societies, which have much larger Muslim populations than America – look on their own Muslims with suspicion, the more internal tensions this creates, and the more alienated their already alienated Muslim youth become. This is exactly what Osama bin Laden dreamed of with 9/11: to create a great gulf between the Muslim world and the globalizing West.
So this is a critical moment. We must do all we can to limit the civilizational fallout from this bombing. But this is not going to be easy. Why? Because unlike after 9/11, there is no obvious, easy target to retaliate against for bombings like those in London. There are no obvious terrorist headquarters and training camps in Afghanistan that we can hit with cruise missiles. The Al Qaeda threat has metastasized and become franchised. It is no longer vertical, something that we can punch in the face. It is now horizontal, flat and widely distributed, operating through the Internet and tiny cells.
Because there is no obvious target to retaliate against, and because there are not enough police to police every opening in an open society, either the Muslim world begins to really restrain, inhibit and denounce its own extremists – if it turns out that they are behind the London bombings – or the West is going to do it for them. And the West will do it in a rough, crude way – by simply shutting them out, denying them visas and making every Muslim in its midst guilty until proven innocent.
And because I think that would be a disaster, it is essential that the Muslim world wake up to the fact that it has a jihadist death cult in its midst. If it does not fight that death cult, that cancer, within its own body politic, it is going to infect Muslim-Western relations everywhere. Only the Muslim world can root out that death cult. It takes a village.
What do I mean? I mean that the greatest restraint on human behavior is never a policeman or a border guard. The greatest restraint on human behavior is what a culture and a religion deem shameful. It is what the village and its religious and political elders say is wrong or not allowed. Many people said Palestinian suicide bombing was the spontaneous reaction of frustrated Palestinian youth. But when Palestinians decided that it was in their interest to have a cease-fire with Israel, those bombings stopped cold. The village said enough was enough.
The Muslim village has been derelict in condemning the madness of jihadist attacks. When Salman Rushdie wrote a controversial novel involving the prophet Muhammad, he was sentenced to death by the leader of Iran. To this day – to this day – no major Muslim cleric or religious body has ever issued a fatwa condemning Osama bin Laden.
Some Muslim leaders have taken up this challenge. This past week in Jordan, King Abdullah II hosted an impressive conference in Amman for moderate Muslim thinkers and clerics who want to take back their faith from those who have tried to hijack it. But this has to go further and wider.
The double-decker buses of London and the subways of Paris, as well as the covered markets of Riyadh, Bali and Cairo, will never be secure as long as the Muslim village and elders do not take on, delegitimize, condemn and isolate the extremists in their midst.
July 8, 2005
Thomas L. Friedman