For their own reasons, they take it for granted that the behaviour of Sayfullo Saipov, the immigrant from Uzbekistan who, while screaming the battle-cry “Allahu Akhbar”– “God is great,” or Allah is greater than your God in this case – rammed a truck into a group of mainly Argentine tourists who were cycling in Manhattan, must have been due to some personal problem. Was it the anti-Muslim prejudice he encountered in the United States? Was he suffering from some mental illness? Trouble at home? Or was he enraged by the foreign policy of his adopted country and Donald Trump’s reluctance to let in more Muslim immigrants? Given what is going on in so many countries, such questions may seem barely relevant, but for many who would rather not face the challenge posed by the resurgence of militant Islam it is far better to make out that, deep down, terrorism has more to do with an individual’s psychological hang-ups than with his adherence to a totalitarian ideology.
Ever since the early 1990s, when Osama Bin Laden turned his attention from Afghanistan to the prospects that were opening up in the wider world for sectarian fanatics like him, most Western leaders and commentators have clung to the notion that a tiny minority of extremists are trying to take over an essentially peaceful religion.
From time to time, opinion polls have shown that in most predominantly Muslim countries a large proportion of the inhabitants agree that apostates, homosexuals, women who commit adultery and others regarded as deviants deserve to be put to death, that democracy is ungodly and therefore incompatible with Islam and that unbelievers should be treated as secondclass citizens and taxed accordingly, but few respectable politicians have let themselves be disturbed by such findings. Were they to do so, they would have to recognise that France, Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom and other countries in which Muslim communities are rapidly growing could soon come to resemble much of the Middle East. Then, it may beassumed, they would feel obliged to take measures designed to make such a fate less likely. That is something they are unwilling to do but, unfortunately for “the elites” that for decades have dominated public debate, their optimistic belief that before too long most immigrants will adopt European customs is not shared by many “ordinary” people, hence the recent rise of a number of “extreme right-wing” nativist parties.
Though the Uzbek who murdered five Argentines and three others in Manhattan boasts of belonging to the Islamic State, US officialdom says he was not a card-carrying member of any conspiratorial organisation but a “lone wolf.” That may well be the case, but these days such distinctions mean very little. Thanks to social media, terrorists no longer have to find secret hideouts in which to meet. They can even avoid visiting the nearest mosque. All they need is a computer or a smart phone. And, as ISIS propagandists will have told them, a car or truck can be as deadly as a Kalashnikov or a suicide belt.
After years of mulling it over, some Western leaders have come to the conclusion that it would be in their own interest, and that of many others, to take Islamic militancy seriously. Even so, their approach remains ambiguous. The North Americans, British and French have reportedly made fighting for ISIS in the Middle East a capital offence and have ordered their special forces to kill any fellow-citizen found doing so as long as he or she is still in Syria or Iraq. But if such individuals make it back to the country whose passport they hold and are then caught, they will at worst be sent to jail where they can convert other prisoners to their pitiless creed.
Western strategy has long been based on the optimistic assumption that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are “moderates” and can easily be separated from the militants who, like the communists, fascists and Nazis in their day, dream of conquering the entire world. However, even if it is true most Muslims living in Europe and the North America want to lead a quiet trouble-free life, there can be no doubt that large numbers feel more loyalty toward their religious community than toward their country of residence.
For that to change, waverers would have to be made to know that unless they cooperate fully with the local authorities in the “war on terror” they and their dependants could pay a heavy price. That would certainly have been the case little over half a century ago, when during an emergency clearly innocent “enemy aliens” were liable to be rounded up along with those suspected of working for foreign powers because, in the general view, allowing them to go about their daily business unimpeded would have exposed their hosts to far too many unnecessary risks.