This Saturday marks 20 years since terrorists murdered 2,977 innocent people in a series of coordinated attacks on the US. The events of 11 September 2001 need no description; the images and videos from that day are seared into our collective consciousness.
No single event more starkly highlights the contrast between all that is precious about the secular, liberal way of life we enjoy in the West — all that we have achieved and must protect — and the barbarism of the religious fanatics who sought, and still seek, to destroy it. The freedoms society affords us, its tolerance and dynamism, our democracy, our common humanity, were assaulted so brazenly by the forces of division, dogmatism and illiberalism.
“Progressive” excuses for the ideology motivating jihadist killings are now par for the course
Then, as now, the response in many “progressive” circles was revealing. While the horrific loss of life was mourned on all sides, some on the left and “liberal” wing of the political spectrum were quick to frame the atrocity as a form of comeuppance. Cambridge academic and commentator Mary Beard notoriously wrote about “the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming…”, less than one month after the attacks took place and while the rubble was still smouldering. In a piece filed for Slate in October 2001, the brilliant essayist Christopher Hitchens describes speaking at an event at which a Hollywood celebrity called the attacks “a revolt”, and compared crowds in Pakistan cheering the tragedy to supporters of the French revolution, to the nodding approval of sections of the largely liberal audience.
“Progressive” attempts to make excuses for, or deflect focus away from, the ideology motivating jihadist killings are now par for the course. Islamist terrorism claims thousands of innocent lives across the world annually, and the West has been racked by a number of deadly attacks in recent years. After each one, we are put through the same tired attempts to divert attention from the religious zealotry behind it, to equivocate, to blame ourselves. The usual tropes are repeated with mind-numbing predictability — the attacker must have been a lone wolf, the attackers were mentally ill, the attack had “nothing to do with Islam”, and so on.
Simply put, the supremacist religious ideology behind the attacks — Islamist jihadism — does not neatly fit within the reductive ideological worldview favoured by large swathes of the liberal left. They are much more comfortable ignoring it (or obfuscating where this isn’t possible), and vilifying those who do seek to raise concerns about its spread, than they are with openly acknowledging its existence, and grappling with all of the complexities this throws up. And so it was possible, for instance, for the Labour Party’s 2019 manifesto to identify the threat posed by far right extremism more than once (entirely justifiably), while omitting to explicitly mention Islamist extremism, which has claimed more lives in recent years, by name at all. Likewise, 200 hundred well-known writers decided to respond to the 2015 Paris attacks, which killed 130 people and injured many more, by protesting against…the decision to award Charlie Hebdo for bravery.
Every new attack is followed by a round of self-flagellation and avoidance
There are countless other examples of such behaviour, ranging from calls for the terms “Islamist” and “Jihadist” to be dropped by the police when they discuss terrorism, to British student groups no-platforming and heckling an Iranian feminist and laughing when she mentioned a secularist blogger who was hacked to death for “blasphemy”. Observe, too, how self-proclaimed “anti-fascists” and twitter mobs who see oppression in almost everything remain conspicuously un-outraged each time jihadists with knives, guns and bombs target homosexuals, Jews, journalists, women and children.
Every new attack is followed by a round of self-flagellation and avoidance. Christopher Hitchens and others rightly called out the nauseating acceptability of this attitude in “liberal” circles back in 2001, and we should continue to do so now. Of course anti-Muslim bigotry must be guarded against, that goes without saying — it’s vital we remain vigilant against it and tackle it head on. But we can forcefully reject such racism while also speaking clearly about the need to fight and counter Islamist radicalism wherever it rears its ugly head. Beware those who would rather not, for, as Hitchens put it, “they are of the sort who, discovering a viper in the bed of their child, would place the first call to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals”.
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