Juan Cole Interview: The London Bombings

Roundup: Historians' Take

Juan Cole, in an interview with Deborah Caldwell at Beliefnet (7-8-05):

What was the aim of this particular terrorist attack?

"The Al Qaeda ideology believes that the Muslim world is weak and oppressed and dominated by the wealthy capitalist West. And that this West uses things like the establishment of Israel or the setting of Muslim against Muslim in Iraq or Afghanistan as a way of keeping the Muslim world weak. Ideally, all the Muslims should get together and establish a United States of Islam, which would revive the Caliphate. (In medieval Islam the Caliph was a kind of pope figure, a central spiritual authority.) Under the Caliphate, you’d have the wealthy Egyptian writers and engineers and you’d have the wealthy oil states come together to make the Muslim world into a united superpower.

Does that dream spring specifically from Salafi theology?

No, you could be a Salafi and not share that particular ideology.

So where does the idea come from?

It goes back to the 19th century. The Ottomans, when they were facing British and French incursion, put together this idea of pan-Islam back in the 1880s. They think that for the last 200 years or so, since Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, Europe has been invading their countries, raping their women, subjecting their men, and stealing their wealth.

So they have a two-fold plan. In order to establish a united Muslim country, you’d have to overthrow the individual secular regimes that now exist—Algeria and Egypt, and so forth. Then you’d have to unite them all under Salafi Islam. And every time they’ve tried to overthrow the Egyptian government, they’re checked, in part because the Americans back [Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak.

So then they put forward the theory in the 1990s of hitting the foreign enemy first. Basically there are two major impediments to their plan. One is the local secular military governments, which resist being dissolved into this Islamic state. The other is the Western superpowers that back the military regimes. So they became convinced that in order to go forward with their plans, they would have to find a way of pushing the United States and the other powers out of the Middle East—make them timid about intervening, make them pick up stakes and go home, leaving Mubarak and others to their fate. So the attack on London is part of this strategy—getting the British out of Iraq and Afghanistan, weakening British resolve for having a strong posture in the Middle East a la supporting the United States. Having gotten rid of Western dominance, they believe, they can then polish off the secular enemies and go forward with their plans for a revolution of the global south.

If the West pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan, would that end the terrorism or slow it down?

The people who already hold these ideas are unlikely to have their minds changed. They look around and see Western influence everywhere. Certainly the U.S. occupation of Iraq is a great recruiting tool for al Qaeda. They can go to the mosques and find unemployed angry young men and say they are oppressed by Westerners and say, “Look what they’re doing in Fallujah.” So the images are very good recruitment tools.

Why do they think terrorism will work, since it’s unlikely Britain will change its policies?

The British were already planning to draw down their troops from 9,000 to 2,000 in the next nine months. I think the British will do that, and these bombings will not change British policy. The British have been bombed before and have not been timid; they’ve soldiered on in their activities. I don’t think Spain withdrew from Iraq mainly because of the Madrid bombings, either. The Iraq war had always been enormously unpopular—-92 percent of the population didn’t want it.

But these people don’t do these bombings for immediate political purposes. Sacred terror has a lot to do with symbology. They’re like big theatrical events. As I said, they couldn’t even operate in Cairo; they would be arrested. So they feel very powerless. All the powers in the world are against them, and they feel very sure God is with them. What do you do if you’re a tiny fringe who is completely right and indeed only if your plan succeeds is the world saved? And you’re opposed by all of these massive states and powers? One of the things they’re doing is giving themselves heart. They’re saying we can make a difference, we can intervene in history, the enemy is not invulnerable, and we can strike it . . ."

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omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Every now and then something happens that deepens the schasm separating the Muslims from the EuroAmerican West!
Proponents of the values of both seem to have only one way of responding: killing and more killing, destruction and more destruction, all presented under increasingly "plausible" pretexts!
It is not expected than either will exterminate or totally subjugate the other !
And if it does would not that increase their mutual alientation and make coliving less attainable?
Is the way out of this deadly morass complete separation between them; total political, economic and cultural disengagement !

A live and let live policy , each in his sovereign domain !

Would not that be better than the seemingly endless reciprocal killing and destruction?

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

I am speaking for neither of them!
I am looking, not advocating, for a way out of this ever worsenning horrendous situation.
What do you propose?

Vernon Clayson - 7/11/2005

Omar, The philosopher Cicero, 106BC to 43BC, said "only the dead have seen the end of war", and that will, no doubt, forever hold true. This seemingly long and difficult situation will eventually be viewed as a brief interlude in history, the dead will be dead and the survivors will study it, some to seek ways to avoid recurrence - and even more will study it to see what worked and what more could have been done to be successful in war. Eventually the survivors will pass and future generations will study it to seek ways out of, or to win, their own never-ending wars. You may know that the American Civil War has had more written about it than any other conflict, however, this war may eventually surpass the discussion of that war because it has been going on for 1400 years and there is no end in sight. This 1400 year war is about aggravations and tensions between religions and none of the sides involved will ever learn to, or care to, tolerate the others. Religion is a stupid reason for confrontation but sides need confrontation to spread their word, the Islamists particularly so, as their word would soon stop if not for violence, the threat of violence and that promised martyr's reward of virgins, etc.

Vernon Clayson - 7/10/2005

Omar, are you speaking for Bin Laden or Zarkawi or the hundreds of clerics promoting the killings of infidels? If so, does this mean they will stop the killings and beheadings? Does this mean all Muslims will go back to the Middle East and leave free lives in America and Europe for the hidebound restrictions of Islam - I bet their women will have something to say about that. Or is this merely another delaying tactic while Muslims plot another terrible rampage. We tried that live and let live for years, until 9/11/2001. The Sunni, the Shite and the Kurds can't even live and let live.

christopher noel pitts - 7/10/2005

Perhaps they should have been. Many people around the world only know Americans through the actions of our corporations, pop culture, and coca-cola (the pejorative Coca-Colonization).
While I respect your point (and your respect shown in your response - ie, no name calling we tend to see), I meant to emphasize that more people suffer from the actions of big buisness than terrorists. Ask the thousands being laid off by GM. Now what's worse, an exploding bus or a pink slip? Well, opinions may differ, but clearly, I am comparing quality to quantity - am I not? The point is the damage big buisness does on all fronts. In my daily life, I worry more about layoffs, high prices, and indigence.

Vernon Clayson - 7/9/2005

Christopher, I don't imagine that the +50 victims on the trains or the bus were the least bit fearful of big business, or for that matter, I doubt they were fearful that their lives would end unexpectedly in a terrible explosion. They are beyond all fear and pain now but their relatives and friends, and complete strangers, are not, they are still here, pending the next unwarranted and savage attack. I won't debate religion as I have little regard for any of them. Every religion coming out of the Middle East appears to me to have been, and still are, violent and corrupting, the Eastern religions seem quaint and harmless in comparison. When PM Blair says we have to get to the root of this hatred he is responding in a civilized manner, the Islamic response will be more bombs and beheadings. What does it take to make you understand they hate you beyond anything you can comprehend, oil they have, it's used to further their ends, but compassion and udnerstanding they have not.

Greg Zugrave - 7/9/2005

Vernon, typo error. thanks for correction. I really do not see how getting to the core of these problems is equated to sympathizing with terrorists. Today PM Blair even said that we must discover the roots of this hated. Some believe it is rooted purely in religious radicalism. Others feel that religion partially masks itself and provided a suitable means for revenge. I think this is where the debate lies.

Christopher, well said. The 'pundits' have convinced many in the world that there can be a war against a concept as vague as "terror."

christopher noel pitts - 7/9/2005

I personally feel more threatened by big buisness than by Islamists.

Understandably, it is difficult to even begin to empathize with a group that commits such horrible acts, but what's the alternative? Kill them all in the name of God? That sounds a lot like their battle cry. Let the pundints vent. We are intelligent enough to come to a more informed and reasoned conclusion...if only we had a say in the matter.The pundints however, reach a large audience with pseudo-intellectual/emotional rants that are attractive because they do not challenge the audience's core values.

Conservatives (typically associated with that Jesus) typically support the extermination of Islamists (and sometimes Muslims) yet their religious tradition teaches forgiveness. Let's debate that.

Vernon Clayson - 7/9/2005

Greg, Dr. Cole's words are written on sand, time and tide will wipe them out. If you think they are gospel,
great, but take them as one man's opinion. In his world it might seem logical that men can disagree with out being disagreeable. In that regard, it's likely his students are his examplar, making him judge and jury, but that doesn't work out where madmen are proselityzing with explosives. Would he be so understanding if the lunatics planted one of their devil's devices in the student union? You probably meant substance rather than "subsistence", subsistence for Juan Cole is continuing his empathetic understanding of the most dangerous enemy to world order, the Islamists.

Greg Zugrave - 7/9/2005

I've seen a number of personal attacks against Dr Cole since he has posted his insights on the London bombings. I find Dr. Cole’s words compelling and completely based in historical facts. Those who have taken issue with his work have contributed little to the argument, and have resorted to nothing more than name-calling, a long time propaganda technique. Few, if any, have given any subsistence to support their ideas or dispute Dr. Coles.

Vernon Clayson - 7/9/2005

Juan Cole is portrayed as an expert in Middle East matters and under this guise appears to believe that the Islamic movement to take over the western world is inevitable. I haven't read anything on what this dog said about communists. They too were going to take over the western world but communistic governments are largely confined to two small non-descript countries, Cuba and North Korea; the Chinese government smacks of it but capitalism has a toehold and it is unlikely to fade any time soon. The Middle East may proselytize Islam but without capitalistic oil revenues, they are back to sand and wind, they cannot eat Islam. Many of the so-called intelligentsia, like Cole, get lost in practicality when they envision the effects of movements on a grander scale than what actually comes out of revolutions. I don't know his age, or care, but he cannot live long enough to see whether the tripe he advances will be realized, it won't, as other earth shaking movements will come, take humanities attention for a time and also fade into history. Islam is huge, its effects more heinous than devout and it's purpose beyond comprehension. Islam is Jim Jones' Jonestown on a much larger scale and the better parts of human society will survive it, much as they did the other forms of religion coming out of the Middle East, e.g., the worship of effigies, cats, alligators and pharoahs, to say nothing of Christianity, Judaism and Islamism. On the other hand, in this country it gives dogs like Juan Cole something to bark about.