Jason Burke

The expectations of the populations of many Middle Eastern countries were raised hugely as the Western imperialist system fell apart and the old regimes that had governed so incompetently and repressively were overthrown. Yet expectations of democracy and prosperity were swiftly disappointed. The number of militants whose fathers were involved in anti-colonial struggles is significant. So too is the number whose families unexpectedly suffered under the post-colonial regimes. Their sense of injustice is often deep. And in the short term, aspirations have been raised in an unprecedented way both by the extension of education to so many and by the exposure of virtually everyone in the Islamic world to images of the West, with its apparent democracy, sexual opportunity and wealth. Again, the model of expectation, disappointment and perceived injustice fits the experience of millions of graduates, provincial immigrants to cities, doctors who drive cabs and ambitious civil engineers who teach basic arithmetic. It matches the experience of the 17-year-old Pakistani lower-middle-class youth torn between the mullah and MTV. If he accepts his desire to be part of the Westernized world he will have to address the fact that he will only ever enjoy an ersatz, inferior version of the 'Western' life of his equivalent in London or Los Angeles. His clothes will never be as up to date, his skin will never be the right colour, his chances of pre-marital sex will always be infinitesimally lower. An alternative of course is to reject the West and all it stands for in favour of the affirming, empowering certainties of radical Islam, which teaches him that he is no longer subordinate but merely denied what is rightfully his. In this the struggle going on in the mind of the 17-year-old mirrors that within wider Islamic society. The debate is over how to deal with modernity, how to match the West's advances without sacrificing personal, cultural, national or religious identity, how to reconcile Islam with the modern age. Most people, like our 17-year-old, try to reconcile the two. None of these processes are easy. All generate anger, energy and resentment and the potential for violent protest.

The second group of radical Muslim activists emerged at the end of the 1980s and has become increasingly dominant though the 1990s. They are less educated, more violent and follow a more debased, popularized form of Islam. They are more unthinkingly radical, bigoted and fanatical. Instead of being drawn from frustrated, aspirant groups within society they are more often drawn from its margins, from those who have few expectations to be disappointed. This was very clear in Algeria in the mid 1990S, where the most violent groups among the GIA drew their recruits from the poorest and most brutalized elements in society, in Pakistan, where, in the same period, the various political Islamist groups found themselves forced to cede ground to the Deobandi medressa nexus, and in Kashmir, where the teachers and doctors who formed the leadership cadres of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen were forced aside by the semi-educated militants of the new Jihadi groups. The same is true in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and in much of southeast Asia. The Bali bombers were largely uneducated. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi comes from a modest background and used to work in a video shop. The men who blew themselves up in Morocco in May 2003 were from the poorest stratum of society, marginalized men living in a marginalized slum community.

The shift can also be seen in the West. At the beginning of the 1990s most of the Islamic activists living in London, or 'Londonistan' as it was called by critics of the British government's liberal asylum policy, were highly politicized, educated and relatively moderate. By the end of the decade militants in the West included far more men like Richard Reid, a British petty criminal who tried to blow himself up on a transatlantic jet in December 2001, or Nizar Trabelsi, a former drug addict and refugee. These were poor, unemployed, angry people. The number of former convicts or asylum seekers among recently recruited Islamic militants is striking.

Significantly, British security officials charged with countering Islamic terror in the UK have made the monitoring of mosques frequented by young Afro-Caribbean first or second generation immigrants a priority.

These two groups are not rigidly defined, and individual activists can show elements of both or neither. Men like bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and Abu Qutada have managed, despite their own relatively prosperous backgrounds, to assume leadership of the most violent, ill-educated, inarticulate militant elements. But, despite the flaws inherent in any broad-brushed approach, this analysis may help us understand why terrorists act as they do.

Modern Islamic terrorists are made, not born. There are various stages in that process of creation. The route to terrorism starts with a feeling that something is wrong that needs to be set right. This can be a real problem or merely a perceived injustice (or indeed both). The second stage is the feeling that the problem, whether cosmic or purely personal, cannot be solved without recourse to a mode of action or activism beyond those provided for by a given society's political or legal framework. The next stage changes the individual from being an activist, even a militant, into a terrorist. It involves the acceptance of an ideology and the development of a worldview that allows the powerful social barriers that stop most people from committing acts of violence to be overcome. It means that individuals feel compelled to do appalling things. If volunteers are to be diverted from terrorism it is this process that we need to counter.

The root causes of modern Islamic militancy are the myriad reasons for the grievances that are the first step on the road to terrorism. It is not a question of absolute deprivation but of how deprivation is perceived. Yet social and economic problems, though the link to terrorism is indirect, are critical as a pre-condition. Such problem are growing more, not less, widespread and profound throughout the Islamic world. The economies of nations from Morocco to Indonesia are in an appalling state. Population growth may now be slowing but more than half of all Pakistanis and Iranians are under 20 years old. Egypt's population is still predicted to grow by a quarter between 2000 and 2015. Saudi Arabia's is likely to rise by more than 50 per cent in the next ten years.

Unemployment, particularly among important groups such as graduates, is acute, and real wages are stagnant. Growth in the Middle East during the 1990S has been under 1 per cent. For hundreds of millions of people in the Islamic world, housing and sanitation are grossly inadequate. Many cities are on their way to joining 'failed states' as locations of endemic anarchy, violence and alienation. Everywhere, the gulf between rich and poor is increasing.

But these problems alone do not cause terrorism. If individuals have faith in a political system, a belief that they can change their lives through activism that is sanctioned by the state or understand and accept the reasons for their hardships, they are unlikely to turn to militancy. But there is little reason to be optimistic about the possible development of alternatives that might divert the angry and alienated from radical Islam in the near future. Only in a few small Gulf states has there been any genuine move towards reform in recent years. In Saudi Arabia, though the worst of the radical preachers have been reined in, religious collections at mosques stopped and the possibility of local elections raised, genuine political reform is still unlikely. The fundamental compact between the house of al-Saud and the Wahhabi ulema remains strong. Nor does it look like there will be any genuinely significant reform in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Jordan or the central Asian republics soon. One of the reasons for the evolution of more radical, debased and violent forms of protest is the tendency of governments in the Middle East and elsewhere to repress moderate movements. Because they are scared of radical Islam taking power, the regimes block democratic reform. Because there is no reform, radical Islam grows in support. As national Islamic movements, moderate or violent, are crushed or fail, anger is channelled into the symbolic realm and into the international, cosmic language of bin Laden and his associates.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.