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The Long War is Between Islam and Itself

Jeffrey Simpson has his finger on the pulse of Canada―and the world. The Globe and Mail’s national affairs columnist since 1984, Simpson is one of the few outstanding political writers who can express his opinions as well spoken, as he can in writing. The author of seven books, including Chronic Condition: Why Canada’s Health Care System Needs to be Dragged into the 21st Century, Jeffrey is a sought-after speaker at major conferences and abroad. In today’s Globe and Mail, Jeffrey writes about the attack this week in France:

Sad but important rituals, for they are now rituals, followed the murder of French journalists by Islamic terrorists.

The President of the Republic spoke to and on behalf of the French people. World leaders, or at least Western democratic ones, expressed shock and sympathy, because they knew from attacks in their own countries, or the fear of one, that we are all in this together.

Everywhere, spontaneous gatherings filled civic squares, participants expressing solidarity with the victims, their society and with each other. In such moments, it is reassuring to share grief and determination, and to do so publicly, as if to say that commitment to our values and institutions will not waver.

Canada, Britain, Spain, Australia, the United States, among Western democracies, and countries such as India, Indonesia, Thailand, Russia, Turkey and, of course, most of the Arab countries of the Middle East, have been hit by terror.

We do not know – indeed, for intelligence reasons we cannot know – how many attacks have been foiled before they unfolded. Presumably, there have been many, but inevitably they cannot all be stopped, even with the best intelligence in the world. If someone wishes to blow himself up for a cause, or massacre others for a cause, it will occasionally be done.

Part of the ritual consists of insisting correctly that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful in the countries where they predominate, and in those to which they have migrated. Muslim religious leaders condemn terrorist attacks; secular Muslims deplore them. And non-Muslims join in the ritual defence of Islam as a religion of peace practised by peaceful people.

All of which is true, and needs saying, but it is also true that some intellectual/political currents within Islam are violent and twisted. The notion that non-Muslims can sort out this violence by reason and dialogue is naive in the extreme, for the intellectual battle is mostly within a religion that in some incarnations exhibits resentment toward other religions, as well as doctrinal and political fights within itself.

To much of southern, central and northern Europe, Muslims have come in large numbers, where their burgeoning presence is increasingly resented. Why, when Arab Muslims have so many countries where they predominate, do they leave home?

They leave home largely for economic reasons, because their countries, despite oil in many of them, are corrupt, poorly administered, technologically backward, and unable to provide economic opportunities for mass populations. This observation is not some kind of anti-Arab bias; it is said repeatedly by Arab intellectuals.

But the consumption of their analysis is limited, because in Arab countries with a fettered press, which is most of them, citizens cannot get access to this kind of thinking. But they know by simply looking around them the impoverished state of their countries and the corruption of their leaders, and some of those who can will flee north or to more distant places such as Canada or Australia.

It is easier emotionally to blame others for this state of affairs than to examine deeply what has gone wrong internally. In an Arab world where conspiracies flourish, too many people believe concocted myths about Jews and the United States and the West and other foreign influences to explain the unhappy present.

It is historically correct, to a point, that Western colonial rule or influence artificially broke up societies, propped up corrupt rulers, and distorted economies to suit the colonial power. Today, we are witnessing the unravelling of the maps imposed on parts of the Middle East by the French and British after the First World War.

Still, any careful analysis, while taking full account of colonial influence, would acknowledge much deeper problems, for in large parts of Asia, which also experienced colonial rule, progress on almost every front is evident and impressive.

For some Muslims, therefore, the intellectual refuge for an unhappy present becomes a mythical past when the Islamic world was great, leaders uncorrupted, religion unsullied, the economy flourishing. This refuge breeds internal anger at the hand history dealt, and a determination to undo the recent past and to do what it takes – including mass killings – to restore the older past in a modern form.

The West can make things worse for itself by stomping around in the Arab world where its own hubris makes things worse by breeding further resentments. But this long war is one largely within Islam, with the West as a surrogate target.

By Jeffrey Simpson/Globe and Mail/January, 2015