Over the past twenty years, I have lived through countless bombs in London. IRA bombs, neo-Nazi bombs, Islamist bombs. And yet, there was still something viscerally shocking about Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly’s attempt to bring carnage to the streets of Stockholm. The fact that Sweden has been largely free of terrorism can, I imagine, only magnify that sense of shock. So, are there any lessons that Stockholm can learn from the experience of a city like London?
The first lesson is the need flatly to reject the fiction that the bombing was a response, however perverted, to some sense of political grievance. Every such bombing is followed by an attempt by an army of commentators to rationalize it by suggesting that it was the inevitable result of a sense of injustice created by Western foreign policy or by anti-Muslim attitudes in the West. The audio message sent to a news agency shortly before the bomb went off, claiming that Sweden would be punished for failing to act against cartoonist Lars Vilks’s depiction of the Prophet Muhammad as a dog, and for the country's 500-strong presence in Afghanistan, has provided perfect fodder for such rationalization. In fact the bombing was no more a response to Muslim grievances (real or perceived) than the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in America was a response to the perceived evils of the US government.
Three years ago, Islamists parked a car bomb outside a central London nightclub. Thankfully it was discovered and defused before it detonated. Had the attack been successful, the bomb could have created far greater devastation than the 2005 attacks on the London underground. Just two minutes’ drive from that nightclub were the Houses of Parliament and the Foreign Office. Yet the bombers chose not to make a political statement (albeit a perverted one) but instead parked their deadly load outside a building full of party goers.
Like those London bombers, al-Abdaly seems to have been driven not so much by political fury as by a hatred for the world around him and a deep indifference to the consequences of his actions. However far one stretches the concept of ‘political’, it is nevertheless still impossible to imagine that setting out to murder dozens of Christmas shoppers could be any kind of political response to the Swedish authorities’ attitudes either to Vilks or to Afghanistan.
Much has been made of al-Abdaly’s British connection. He studied for a degree in physical therapy at the University of Bedfordshire and lived in Luton, a small town north of London with a reputation for being a magnet for Islamic extremists. It was here that the men responsible for the 7/7 bombings met before going onto London. And many suggest that it was here that al-Abdaly became radicalized. The local mosque claims that it expelled al-Abdaly for his extremist views.
The idea of Luton as a vipers’ nest of radical Islamism is vastly exaggerated. A handful of Islamic radicals in the area have made a lot of noise, attracting the attention of the press, the police and politicians. But there is little evidence that it is a major recruiting school for jihadists. In any case, ‘radicalization’, especially for a loner like al-Abdaly, might mean little more than trawling the internet for suitable jihadi websites or listening to some firebrand preacher.
At the same time, the obsession with ‘radicalization’ misses the point about someone like al-Abdaly. The real question is not so much how he came to be radicalized, but why someone, who by all accounts was intelligent, articulate and integrated, came to find such a medieval, murderous ideology so attractive. To understand that we need to look not so much at extremist preachers and websites as at public policy, and in particular the policy of multiculturalism.
In Britain, and elsewhere, multiculturalism has led to the de facto treatment of individuals from minority communities not as citizens but simply as member of particular ethnic groups. In the name of multiculturalism, governments have abandoned their responsibilities for engaging directly with Muslim communities, effectively subcontracting out those responsibilities to so-called community leaders, who are often the most conservative voices. As a result, religious and Islamist voices have been given new legitimacy and come to be seen as the authentic voice of Muslim communities, while more progressive, secular movements have frequently been sidelined.
At the same time, many second-generation Muslims have found themselves detached from both the Muslim traditions and institutions of their parents, which they have often rejected, and from the wider secular society that insists in viewing them simply as Muslims. The consequence is that a few get drawn to the extremist Islamist groups through which they discover a sense of identity and of belonging to a world-wide gang. In a country like Britain, multiculturalism did not create militant Islam, but it helped create a space for it within Muslim communities that had not previously existed.
In the wake of the Stockholm bombing, it is imperative for the Swedish authorities not to follow the British template, or to imagine that ‘community leaders’ somehow speak for all Muslims. It is particularly important not to give an inch to Islamist demands over free speech and supposed Muslim sensitivities. The more that liberals concede on such issues, the more that Islamists gain a spurious moral legitimacy, and the more that the likes of al-Abdaly imagine that theirs is a noble cause.
But if it is important not to concede to Islamists on questions of free speech and liberties, it is equally important not to concede to the right on the questions of immigration and of Islam. Al-Abdaly’s actions will inevitably unleash a cacophony of calls for a clampdown on immigration and for stricter controls on Muslims. They must be resisted. A Muslim immigrant might have been responsible for the bombing. But it makes no sense to blame either immigration as a process or Islam as a religion. The same perverse logic that leads many on the left to view religious bigots as the authentic voice of Muslim communities, and to insist that we should accede to their reactionary demands, leads many on the right (and not just on the right) to blame Islam as a faith, or immigrants as a group, for the crimes of lone extremists like al-Abdaly, and to imagine that narrow-minded intolerance is the answer to fanaticism and terror. Cracking down on immigration or discriminating against Muslims to appease the far right would be as illiberal and as irrational as banning material deemed offensive to Muslims to appease the Islamists.
The Stockholm bombing revealed how easy it can be to cause mayhem and disruption in an open, urban, society. It is the arbitrary nihilism of Islamic terrorism that makes it so terrifying. Yet al-Abdaly’s actions should also remind us how infrequently such terror occurs. Society is based on trust. The aim of the bombers is to undermine such trust by sowing fear. We should not let them.
After al-Abdaly blew himself up, a passer-by named Pascal, a trained medic, came running over to help. ‘My first thought was that the man was a terrorist’, he said. Nevertheless, he tried to save his life. ‘I removed a Palestinian scarf from his face to free his airways and attempted CPR, but it was too late’, Pascal told reporters. In such moral courage and basic human instincts lie the best responses to the nihilism of the suicide bomber.