The question of what turns people to terrorism, not surprisingly, has received a lot of attention recently. Perhaps there is no single, straightforward answer: but certainly, poverty and injustice play little part in it.

On the morning of September 11, 2004, exactly three years after the attack on New York and Washington, I opened my copy of the Guardian to see a large color photograph of a man described as a masked insurgent in the Iraqi city of Falluja. The photo accompanied an article with the headline, ISLAMIC FIGHTERS TIGHTEN CONTROL OF REBEL CITY.

What struck me immediately about the insurgent was not his black woolen hood with holes cut out for his eyes, sinister as it undoubtedly was, or his firm grasp of a Kalashnikov. Rather, it was the clothes he wore. They were virtually indistinguishable from the kind of garb that any member of the British, European, or American underclass might wear. One could see nothing remotely Islamic about them, and his blue and yellow T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms bore the logo: SUPER.

Of course, the clothes a man wears are not the whole of his identity or cultural allegiance, but they are an important part of it. When Peter the Great or Kemal Ataturk made the inhabitants of their countries change their mode of dress, they hoped to change the identities of the inhabitants as well. Similarly, when Gandhi exchanged the frock coat of the advocate for the dhoti of the peasant, he was making a political statement.

Of course, the Russians and Turks under Peter and Ataturk had the change forced upon them, under pain of punishment. No one can say the same of the Guardian’s Muslim insurgent. He chose his attire: it is a case of elective affinity. Likewise, Usama bin Ladin often appears in photographs wearing a flak jacket over his galabeyah—surely the sartorial equivalent of a mixed metaphor.

In other words, the Muslim insurgent (and those like him) are not people certain of their cultural identity, struggling to maintain it pure and unsullied from the attacks of the heathen enemy. They are people deeply uncertain about their identity, who seek to assuage their guilt over the fact that the modern world (in so many ways worthless and unattractive) has entered their very souls by the vehemence of their opposition to it. Freud would have called this reaction formation.

Looking at the photo of the Muslim insurgent of Falluja, I recalled the ending of “Waiting for the Barbarians,” by Cavafy, the great Alexandrian Greek poet:

“Why all of a sudden this unrest
and confusion? (How solemn the faces have become.)
Why are all the streets and squares clearing quickly
and all return to their homes, so deep in thought?

Because night is here but the barbarians have not come
and some people have arrived from the borders,
and said that there are no longer any barbarians.

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
These people were some kind of solution.”


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