The Meaning of Sharm el-Sheik

Bombers struck again with utmost viciousness at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik last Saturday. The pattern remains relatively consistent: hitting soft targets, killing innocent civilians, attacking countries whose policies are supposed to be close to Washington’s. There are also some differences compared with past attacks. Last October, bomb attacks on the Egyptian resort of Taba, on the border with Israel, seem to have specifically targeted Israeli tourists. The fact that most of the victims of the Sharm el-Sheik attacks were Egyptian and Muslim will be used to argue that the bombers’ violent campaign is indiscriminate and not directed by anger at Western policies. But these attacks seem to have been targeted at Egypt’s tourism industry as a whole, and therefore indirectly at the Egyptian government, which, according to statements from extremist Web sites, is seen as being a servant of the United States. In those circumstances, the cruel logic of the masterminds of this atrocity would calculate that killing Muslims is justified. But whatever intentions we might read into these attacks, the end result is that no innocent person is safe, Muslim or otherwise.

It is clear then that the wave of attacks the world has witnessed must be universally condemned and rejected, and all efforts should be made to eradicate this threat at its very roots. The problem is: how?

Since Sept. 11, 2001, those who argued against any political analysis of the attacks have mostly had the upper hand. There are several reasons for this. Many people, even those traditionally suspicious of U.S. power and policy, who were inclined to ascribe political motives to the mass murderers of 9/11 even when they utterly condemned and rejected their acts, stayed silent in order to avoid the dangerous accusation of being terrorist sympathizers. Another reason that such analysis was discouraged was to deflect any attention from the role that decades of U.S. policy – including interventions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, and blind support for Israel – played in building up the extremist groups the U.S. is fighting now. In the awful months and weeks after Sept. 11, even many who had doubts about the U.S. approach were ready to give it a chance, and there was surprisingly broad support, or at least acquiescence, for the U.S. war in Afghanistan. But it seems that a lot of the opposition was simply silent rather than absent and is now bursting out in extreme forms. Now that the “war on terror” seems to have produced only more terror, torture, racial discrimination, and human rights abuses, the terms of the debate are starting to shift.

Criticism is being heard more loudly from within the ruling establishments, as more and more people now argue that even if the terrorist masterminds are undeniably ruthless and evil, they are drawing support from people experiencing real injustices and grievances. The best way to root out terror, this line of thinking goes, is to address these grievances, not as a concession to terrorists, but because it is the right thing to do and will result in those evil people finding it much harder to recruit willing volunteers.

Then there are those, most prominently the Bush and Blair governments, who maintain steadfastly that as long as the attacks are so cruel, inhumane, and indiscriminate, any attempt to deduce political motives or solutions is in effect an endorsement of the terrorists and will only encourage them. This is a seductive line of thinking, and it is often clothed in the language of steely “resolve” and “determination” to face down the terrorist evil.

The consequence of this path, which has been the basis of U.S. and British policy, is that only the symptoms of the problem are being treated, and as we are finding out, the symptomatic approach doesn’t work. The opportunities that terrorists can find to attack and kill innocent people are simply infinite, and unless we all want to live in Saddam-style police states the chances of preventing such acts are slim. Even worse, we are not dealing with a static situation. The very tactics used to fight terrorism seem to be producing it. In the aftermath of the July 7 London attacks, a Guardian poll revealed that two-thirds of the British people linked the attacks to the prominent British role in the Iraq war. A Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs) report [.pdf] at the same time said there was “no doubt” the Iraq war “has imposed particular difficulties for the UK and for the wider coalition against terrorism” by boosting al-Qaeda’s propaganda, recruitment, and fundraising.

A serious problem for policy change is politics: No matter how compelling the accumulating evidence may be, we can never expect Tony Blair or George Bush to accept it, because that would directly implicate these leaders in helping to bring about the terrorist disasters. That is why Blair is desperately fighting such claims and forcefully rejecting the Chatham House findings, in the same manner as Spain’s defeated leader José Maria Aznar denied any link between the terrorist attacks in Madrid and his Iraq policies. In better times, true democracy required leaders to step aside and resign when any serious doubt was raised about their performance or judgment. If their judgment was correct, history would vindicate them, but if it was wrong, new leaders would have the chance to set it right and correct the course without having to humiliate themselves by making a 180-degree turn. In Spain, only a new government could reverse the previous government’s Iraq policy. It is therefore essential for change that this debate continue within the United States and Britain and that opposition politicians curb their usual reticence to criticize policy or leaders "in time of war."

If changing leaders or policies means that terrorists are dictating policy, as Spain’s critics charged, then wise governments should not allow their foreign policy to sink to such lows and become so detached from reality that they delay doing what is right and sensible until the terrorists leave them no other option.

The war on terror has failed, and the world in which we live is getting less safe by the day. The danger is so great that any one of us living anywhere can be the next target. The answer is not to abandon the war on terror and terrorists, but to correct the course of action. Confronting the terrorists by force as the only measure has failed so far. Parallel action is required, and that is to deal with the political root causes of the mounting popular anger on which terrorists feed.