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And Al-Qa'eda Laughed

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Now it is Mali. Before that, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. And before any of these, there was Afghanistan. The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center aroused the West, and in particular Americans, to what was perceived as a shadowy threat, but few even entertained the suspicion that it might have been a threat of their own making. Iraq was invaded for no very good reason and then it was Afghanistan's turn, even though Russia (no slouch when it comes to dominating other countries) had failed to defeat the Taliban. The assassination of Osama bin Laden (the assumed architect of the audacious attack against New York) by US forces on Pakistani soil, without the permission of the Pakistani authorities, undoubtedly felt good to many, but if vengeance is sweet, wisdom is not always its bedfellow.

Let me pose a hypothesis. The West (first as Europeans and then as the United States) has sought to dominate the Middle East ever since the discovery of oil. The Arab voice was neutered by that old colonial tactic of divide and rule. Now let us assume that Islamic fundamentalism is that voice re-asserting itself. This, then, makes our 'enemy' a movement, just as Christianity was once a movement when it started to eat away at the underbelly of the Roman Empire. This suggests that the Arab Spring, far from being a blossoming of Western Democracy, is little more than the death throes of those corrupt governments the West had been happy to work with so long as the oil flowed. Even Egypt, without oil, was the recipient of substantial military aid, so long as it treated with Israel (America's client state) and kept the peace.

Every regime the West now helps to topple, as a demonstration of its sudden interest in Middle East democracy, serves to destabilise what order there was, paving the way for the resurgent Arab voice. Every strike by a Western power that kills innocent civilians serves to turn even middle class Arabs, who might otherwise be sympathetic towards Western values, into closet Islamists. For the incensed young, without work or prospects, full-blooded support for the Islamic movement offers at least a feeling of self-respect and the prospect of action. While our crass actions serve as the Islamic movement's best propaganda, al-Qa'eda laughs.

There is no easy answer to this. We must reap what we have sown. But we can at least stop doing al-Qa'eda's dirty work and concentrate, instead, on getting our own houses in order. This is a battle of ideas which will not be won by expensive military incursions, but by the quality of our ideas as they are applied within our own communities.