The great hole of history

Roger Scruton
10 September 2006

The international order that emerged in the wake of the second world war was based on the assumption that grievances are non-transferable. If one group or nation has a grievance against another, then it is the business of diplomacy to resolve the issue. If resolution is impossible, then we must rely on the balance of power to deter any conflict.

The attacks of 11 September 2001 awoke us to the fact that some grievances are transferable. They arise in one place and are transferred to another; they originate between A and B and are fought out between C and D. The problem confronting the world today is that of the transferable grievance: how to resolve it and - more importantly, since resolution is unlikely - how to deter it.

My resentment of my neighbour because he refuses to cut down the tree that shades out my garden is a non-transferable grievance, which will end when my neighbour changes his mind or when I, in my anger, march round and shoot him. Bill's resentment because his talents have never been recognised is a transferable grievance, which scans the world like a searchlight, targeting the unjust success of other people, and sneering at the things that it longs to destroy.

The important feature of transferable grievances, it seems to me, is that they do not understand themselves. There are plenty of people whose talents are unrecognised, but who don't suffer from the burning resentment that animates Bill. They devote their lives to ordinary things, ordinary loves and ordinary satisfactions. Bill, however, is cut off from ordinary life by an existential chasm. He is a case for treatment, and - as we know from the annals of psychotherapy - the treatment rarely works. The love that might have cured him was never provided, and it is too late to look for it now.

We do not explain the 9/11 attacks by referring to a concrete and resolvable grievance against America. It is true that, in the wake of the attacks, various rationales were given: the presence of American troops in the holy lands of Islam; the support given by America to Israel; the gross and pornographic culture of America; the spoliation of the middle east by western values, western commerce, and modernist architecture; the overbearing insolence of McWorld.

But these rationales showed not that there was a single target of the resentment, but a single source. And that source was radical Islam. Hence we should understand the attacks by linking them to Islamist terrorism elsewhere (whether in France or Holland, in Algeria or Bali, in India or Chechnya) terrorism which invariably involves the mass murder of innocents, justified by vague and metaphysical goals that have no real relation to the means chosen to advance them.

Radical Islam has a transferable grievance. True, it is not shared by all Muslims or even the majority of them. But the grievance lies coiled in the heart of the religion all the same, and like every such grievance it does not understand itself. It targets democratic governments, peaceful communities, passengers on trains and buses, villagers who have lived by the sharia as well as the good monks who have looked after them (the story of Tibhirine in Algeria).

It targets both the critics of Islam (Theo Van Gogh, Ayaan Hirsi Ali) and its friends (Naguib Mahfouz); it shouts with a loud self-righteous voice that Islam is a religion of peace (Tariq Ramadan), while daring you to suggest the opposite. It threatens the infidel with damnation while tearing itself asunder, as Sunni and Shi'a dispute a right of succession that has no meaning whatsoever in the world in which we live.

A more open debate

Like every transferable grievance, that of Islamism is often right in its judgment of the things that it hates. Who among us is entirely pleased with McWorld? Who among us does not wish that some kind of lid could be put on the licentiousness of modern societies? But that is not the point. Most of us recognise that there is an organic connection between freedom and its abuse, and that licentiousness is the price we pay for political liberty.

Muslims want that liberty as much as non-Muslims do: and to obtain it they migrate in their millions from the places where Islam is sovereign to the places where it is not - America being the longed-for final haven. And that is the source of the grievance. Radical Islam is cut off from the modern world: its revelation and its law are by their nature fixed and unadaptable, and the sight of people successfully living according to other codes and with other aspirations is both a cause of offence and an irresistible temptation.

How should we respond to this kind of grievance? It seems to me that it is almost impossible to respond at the level of diplomacy. Although there are Islamic states, like Pakistan, they have only to enter into cordial and negotiated relations with western powers for the Islamists to turn against them and to plot their overthrow. The signals have to be sent to the Islamists themselves: it is they who must be persuaded that their grievances are illusory, and their goals unobtainable.

Muslims were so persuaded, in the days of Ottoman decline, because they perceived the west not as a defiance of Islam but as an assertion of Christianity. A modus vivendi existed, in which the two revelations acknowledged the boundaries between them. We no longer confront Islam with a counter-revelation; insofar as western societies are built on a shared assumption, it is that no assumptions need be shared. And that is the very thing that radical Islam cannot cope with.

To Islamic radicals, western societies seem to be evading Islam rather than saying no to it. And this feeds the great illusion that Islam is the destiny of all people everywhere. and that Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, atheism and agnosticism are all defeatible heresies, rather than the firm and considered convictions of those who adopt them. It feeds that fundamental disrespect for the Other which is the great blemish on the face of radical Islam and which Muslims everywhere must learn to overcome.

The next few years will be dangerous; we can expect more terrorist attacks, and more insolent abuse of our freedoms, from those who come to the west to enjoy them. But we can also hope for a more public debate about Islam and what it means, and a steadily dawning sense among ordinary Muslims that their faith needs to adapt. The great truth which Christians have acknowledged since the Reformation - that a revelation can come from God and still be misunderstood by the one who receives it - is a truth that might yet lodge itself in the heart of Islam.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData