Once a suicide bomber has killed himself and everyone unlucky enough to be in his vicinity, ideologues rush to claim him like rival firms of undertakers fighting over a corpse. If he has posted a video raging about the Iraq War, then former US president George W. Bush, former British prime minister Tony Blair and the neo-cons are the “root cause” of the mass murder. If his university teachers had stood back while Islamists radicalized the campus, then liberals who cannot tell their friends from their enemies are to blame.
Not until I read the New York Times last week, however, did I learn that jihadism could be explained away as a jolly jest. Pakistani police, who must cope with the equivalent of a July 7 London massacre virtually every week, had arrested five US citizens who came from Washington and its Virginia suburbs. The Pakistanis said that they had exchanged e-mails written in code for months with a recruiter for the Pakistani Taliban, and were heading for an al-Qaeda stronghold. The suspects left behind a video, which Washington police said had jihadist overtones and which a local Muslim leader described as a “disturbing farewell statement.”
Surveying the evidence, the New York Times wondered “whether the men acted on a lark or were recruited as part of a larger militant outfit.”
Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, of course, but “a lark”? Maybe Billy Bunter has taken over the newspaper’s foreign desk. More probably, US journalists still believe that radical Islam is an ideology that cannot infect their fellow citizens. If so, they are not alone in their delusion.
After Major Nidal Malik Hasan shot dead 13 people at the Fort Hood base in Texas, the FBI revealed that it had intercepted his e-mails to Anwar al-Awlaki, a notorious preacher who proselytizes for war, most notably via video links to UK mosques and campuses. US conservatives cited the authorities’ failure to arrest Hasan as an example of the lethal consequences of a multi-culturalism that uses accusations of racism or Islamophobia to stop law enforcement. But it is likely that the FBI was blinded by the belief that an American could not be a jihadist and thought Hasan was simply conducting research.
The notion that the ideological forces that swirl round the rest of the globe do not sweep the US has always produced congratulation or anguish.
Writing in 1851, Friedrich Engels grumbled that the “rapid and rapidly growing prosperity of the country” seduced US workers away from their duty to agitate for revolution.
Other left wingers were as despondent. Socialist theory states that Americans ought to have developed a distinct class consciousness, but the strong trade unions and socialist or labor parties of Europe and Canada never repeated their success in the US.
There were no monarchs, bishops and nobles to react against and everyone except the slaves believed in elements of the egalitarian promise of the American dream.
Pride in US exceptionalism ran through Obama’s Nobel peace prize acceptance speech.
“In many countries, there is a deep ambivalence about military action today,” he told his doubtless deeply ambivalent Norwegian audience. “At times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America.”
He would take no notice of it.
“Make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms,” Obama said.
Obama drew a map of a pacifist Europe, unwilling to face reality, and a tough-minded but idealist US ready to defend civilization with “the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.”
Nowhere has US satisfaction with its uniqueness been more noticeable than in the applause it awards itself for its treatment of immigrants. Articles contrasting the success of the US in integrating Muslims against the failures of the UK have been a regular feature of the US press. Liberals emphasized that immigrants who wanted to leave their old identities behind were helped by a Constitution and bill of rights that accepted them as equal citizens.
Conservatives said that immigrants could not sit resentfully at home living on welfare payments and developing sectarian grievances, as they could in corrupt Europe, but had to find jobs that inevitably brought them into contact with Americans from other cultures.
“In the United Kingdom, 81 percent of Muslims consider themselves Muslims first, British second. In the United States, only 47 percent consider themselves Muslim first,” an author for Slate magazine wrote in 2007, who once again emphasized the chances for immigrants to get on in life as a main reason why the home-grown bomb plots that had so worried MI5 (the British security service) had rarely troubled the FBI.
I am not arguing that the contrasts are all wrong. Shamefully for us, an illiterate immigrant to the US knows that somewhere there is a Constitution that guarantees his right to speak and think freely, while the cleverest immigrant to the UK cannot work out the principles that govern his new country.
But I doubt if my US colleagues will remain complacent for long. The number of indictments for homegrown terrorism has grown rapidly this year. It is not just the murders in Texas and arrests in Pakistan. In Chicago, prosecutors have charged a suspect with showing his respect for freedom of expression by plotting an attack on a Danish newspaper and in other states suspects face accusations of plotting to bomb shopping malls and skyscrapers.
Depressingly, Americans seem to be as bad as the British are at recognizing the differences between Islam and Islamism. They can no longer, however, get away with pretending that Islamism is an un-American disease.
Trying to explain the rise of religious hatreds and identity politics, Obama said in Oslo that “given the dizzying pace of globalization, and the cultural leveling of modernity, it should come as no surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish about their particular identities,” which was true enough in a platitudinous way.
I wonder if he yet understands that Americans are not exempt from the manias of our time and that his formerly special country is not looking so exceptional any more.