King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia
The world — or at least the Anglosphere — is recoiling with horror at the bombing of the Manchester Arena, in an attack that appears to have been aimed at children. Already shocked by the barbarity of the gross excesses of Islamist violence, this latest outrage has many struggling to comprehend not just why an attack, but why such an attack against children.
There are no “rational” answers. However, “rationality” is not a universally shared world view. This, then, goes to what seems like the impossibility of understanding how such events could occur and, ultimately, how to stop them.
The attack was by undertaken by Manchester-born Salman Abedi in support of the self-proclaimed Islamic State organisation. It is likely that he acted with the support of a local, independent IS cell.
Twitter lit up with condemnation but also support, with one tweet noting the attack was “successful and surprising”, indicating that the attack was not carried out with the knowledge of the wider organisation. Another linked to it revenge for allied aerial bombing of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. On March 17, an allied air attack on IS positions in Mosul killed dozens — perhaps 200 — civilians, including children.
But that is “war”, and the attack on Manchester was not part of a war zone. For jihadi Islamists (of which Abedi had become one), however, there are no battle lines and there are no innocents.
The process that led to the Manchester attack, that in Paris in 2015 and others, reflects a profound rejection of Western neoliberal hegemony under the guise of “democracy”. This is seen by radical Islamists to lack justice, set against their own version of an absolutist “justice”.
This struggle to cleanse Islamic countries of Western influence and to punish the West in turn reflects a struggle for the soul of Islam. Ironically, this struggle started in, and continues to be propagated by, the West’s principal Islamic ally, Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi regime does not endorse IS or al-Qaeda and sees such organisations as a threat to its existence. But the Saudi regime explicitly endorses a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam and requires its people to live under an austere version of Islamic law.
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It is this fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam that provides the foundation for a more extremist, violent iteration that rejects the Western indulgences of the Saudi royal family, the Saudis’ alliance with the United States and an American presence on Islamic soil.
In this extremist understanding, only those who have already adopted this “pure” form of Islam or are willing to convert to it are deemed worthy of being spared death. For the rest, such death should be exemplary, hence the theatrical barbarism of al-Qaeda and especially IS executions.
Ironically, already “saved” self-believing jihadi “purists” negate their own lives. In this way, as with other fanatics, they only discover their “true” selves by following the ideological rabbit hole to its absolute conclusion.
Suicide bombing of unbelievers thus becomes a sacred duty. This sacred duty is more completely fulfilled if it has the added value of demonstrator effect.
As a front line member of the Western coalition, the UK is the enemy and attacks against its most vulnerable parts in some ways, writ small, echoes the strategically unnecessary “demonstrator effect” carpet bombings, including fire bombings, of mass civilian targets in World War II.
We forget, sometimes, that “we” also have a history that could be viewed from some perspectives as “irrational”. And certainly, from a fundamentalist position that does not accept the premise of the West in any way on “their” land, “we” are seen as the evil ones, wherever “we” are.
In a globalised world, the “soldiers” of ideological armies can be in any place, from Mosul to Manchester, and not relying on specific orders.
In the face of globalised violence, where the lives of children have become tools of propaganda, this all begs the question of how does it end? One response, which is effective against individuals if not the idea, is to identify and kill “them” — hence the US’ drone strike program, among other measures.
Another, combined, approach is to increase security, expand intelligence and other measures of countering violent extremism, in ways that might also infringe on the rights of ordinary Western civilians, and then to wait it out, if perhaps with the hope that Muslim communities will moderate the effects of their own dissidents.
The common refrain is that, if the West goes down this path, the radical jihadis “will already have won”. Well, yes, the West certainly does not have a monopoly on the use of violence and the parameters of warfare have permanently changed.
In the face of this there is a choice. The West can maintain civil liberties as they are, suffer the occasional attack on innocents and move on in stoic, moral outrage.
Or the West can understand that the type of unchallenged hegemony it enjoyed for a few brief years following the end of the Cold War was but a brief moment in history and has now ended.
The triumphalist promise that the world would become free market and “democratic”, just like “us”, was always ahistorical nonsense. We are in the process of learning that brutal lesson.
* Damien Kingsbury is professor of international politics at Deakin University