- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Question: What happens in politics when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Answer: An innocent Brazilian is shot by nice London “Bobbies.”

To explain the above exchange, the irresistible force is Muslim terrorism in Britain and the immovable force is democratic British public opinion. Two commonplaces of antiterrorist scholarship are (a) a terrorist movement is hard to defeat in proportion to its support among the population, and (b) terrorism cannot gain its objectives against the firm convictions of a majority in a democracy.

What therefore happens if terrorism is supported by a substantial minority of the population for causes strongly opposed by the majority? We may be about to find out from Britain after the second spate of attempted bombings.

Take, first, the terrorism of radical Islamists. It is conventional to say — I have often advanced this point myself — terrorism is supported by only a tiny percentage of British Muslims. This comforting statement, however, is undermined by the recent YouGov survey of British Muslims for the London Daily Telegraph. Among its findings:

(1) Six percent of British Muslims believe the bombings in London were justified — and another 6 percent “don’t know” if they were justified. Six percent seems a small number, but it represents 100,000 people.

(2) Ten percent of British Muslims feel “not at all loyal” to the country, and another 6 percent feel “not very loyal.”

(3) Fifty-six percent of British Muslims “can understand” why the bombers behaved as they did.

(4) Thirty-one percent of British Muslims feel Western society is decadent and immoral and Muslims should seek to end it “by nonviolent means.” One percent (or 16,000 people) believe it should be ended “if necessary by violence.”

(5) Forty-one percent think most Muslims would be reluctant to tell the police about anything suspicious.

In reply to almost all the questions, moreover, quite large percentages give the answer “don’t know.” Eleven percent, for instance, don’t know if they would seek to end Western society, and if so whether they do it “by violence.” We should probably add some of their numbers to the percentages of those giving the most hostile and threatening replies.

So the overall picture is very disturbing indeed: Most British Muslims are hostile to radical Islamist terrorism. But quite large percentages sympathize with the bombers’ opinions, are hostile to Britain and would be reluctant to cooperate with the authorities in fighting terrorism. And minorities — small but far from “tiny” — would actively assist the terrorists.

That is the classic picture of a population providing a warm sea for the terrorists to swim in. Irish Republican Army terrorism was waged more than two decades by an estimated 2 percent of the Catholic population with the active support of about 10 percent and the occasional tolerance of another 20 percent.

Yet it is worth reminding ourselves IRA terrorism failed in its objectives because the democratic majority of the entire Northern Irish population (i.e., all the Protestants and about a third of the Catholics) bitterly opposed them.

Indeed, terrorism has almost never prevailed where opposed by most of the local population — Greece, Malayasia, the Philippines, Argentina, Uruguay and Israel. Democracy is the immovable object against which it founders. London is, so to speak, an object lesson in this truth.

I arrived in London the day after the first spate of bombings; I was in the city last Thursday when the second spate of bombs fizzled; and I lived there through the IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. At almost no time did I or my friends “live in fear,” still less allow our views on Ireland to be determined by the bombers.

Though most Londoners had little or no interest in Northern Ireland — thinking all Ulstermen, Catholic and Protestant, vaguely foreign — there was never any serious pressure to surrender to the IRA to halt the bombings.

One reason for our steadfastness was that London is a big place — like New York, a succession of villages. To someone living in Stepney the “world’s end” in Chelsea is exactly that. A bomb in Hampstead does not terrorize a resident of Mordern — or at least not for long. It is very hard to spread terror across such a wide patchwork of localities.

A bomb in the subway will frighten people away from it for a while. More Londoners now ride bikes or take taxis to work. But economic research (at the University of Chicago) suggests that those who need to use the subway will soon return to it. They calculate the tiny risk is worth the large convenience. And last weekend the subways and the department stores were packed with both Londoners and tourists following the motto: “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”

Common sense suggests there are limits to this stoicism. If a nuclear bomb killed hundreds of thousands, there would be a fierce reaction. But fear would probably be trumped by revenge. They are almost the only circumstances in which I can imagine a large anti-Muslim pogrom.

Short of such a catastrophe, the bombers may murder, maim, inconvenience and even temporarily frighten Londoners. But if bombing could not alter British policy on Ulster, it will not change policy on Iraq, or foreign policy in general, let alone transform British social life in line with radical Islamist ideas of sexual apartheid, anti-alcohol prohibition, anti-Semitism and religious intolerance.

Thus, the worst-case scenario is that the irresistible force of Islamist terrorism will meet the immovable object of democratic majority opinion and produce a series of terrorist bombings, perhaps separated by long intervals, into the uncertain future.

That future can be shortened if the majority of peaceful Muslims exert strong pressure on their radical co-religionists to avoid extremism, inform the police of suspicious behavior, reject the preaching of intolerance, and keep a watchful eye on their children. The YouGov-Telegraph findings offer us hope here — 77 percent of British Muslims think the London bombings were unjustified, 73 percent would tell the police if they knew about terrorist planning, and 81 percent feel either very loyal or fairly loyal to Britain.

But it will be a delicate and complicated task to reassure British Muslims they are equal citizens in British society while pressing them to police their own communities and taking the anti-terrorism measures that will inevitably affect more Muslims than other Brits. And, sometimes, as last Friday, one of those measures will go wrong — the police, anxious to prevent the murder of hundreds, will mistakenly kill an innocent man.

It is one small reason for hope that, so far, most British Muslim commentators have placed the blame for this tragedy firmly on al Qaeda.

John O’Sullivan is editor at large of the National Review.

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