The idea that if someone is prepared to do something truly horrible, he must have a worthy cause remains attractive to liberal intellectuals, who perhaps envy those who take up arms against the sea of troubles that is human existence.
Last weeks New Statesman, the British left-wing weekly (for which I also write), provided a fine example of this way of thinking in an article about Islamophobia by travel writer William Dalrymple (no relation). He pointed out that the kidnapper of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter abducted, tortured, and then murdered in Pakistan in early 2002, was a British Muslim who had attended public school (public in this context meaning private) and the London School of Economics.
Dalrymple wrote: The man who kidnapped Pearl in Karachi was a highly educated British Pakistani, Ahmed Omar Sheikh. Sheikh attended the same public school as the film-maker Peter Greenaway and later studied at the London School of Economics. Yet such was the racism he suffered, that he was drawn towards extreme jehadi groups and eventually came to be associated with both Harkat ul-Mujahideen and al-Qaeda.
Now Sheikhs father must have spent at least $20,000 a year, and probably more, on his sons education for five years or more: surely a sign of reasonable economic success in his adopted country. Moreover, Sheikh was then admitted to an elite institution of higher education. Was this nothing to set against the insults that he no doubt sometimes suffered? Surely only a man bent on evil would not take these advantages into account in assessing his own situation. Is suffering insults a reason to torture a stranger to death (the video of the torture, by the way, is being distributed in certain circles)? Dalrymple comes perilously close to condoning what he is trying to explain.
He goes on: If intelligent, successful and well-educated British Muslims such as Omar Sheikh can be so readily drawn to the world of the jehadis, we are in trouble. Indeed, we are. The fact is, the kind of success that British society offered Sheikh, evidence of its comparative openness despite instances of insult and discrimination, did not satisfy him. He was in the grip of a utopian ideology, just as many successful people in Britain and elsewhereall of whom no doubt had some reason or other for despising and hating the way in which they had been brought up, because that is the nature of human existencewere once attracted to communism, another ideology that would have destroyed their own freedom.
The article continues: The combination of widespread hostility to the Muslims in our midst, pervasive discrimination against them and huge ignorance is a potentially lethal cocktail. The only ingredient that seems to be missing from this cocktail is Islam.