October 19, 2002

If we didn't have al-Qaeda, we would have to invent it

I have not the least idea whether the bomb in Bali was the work of al-Qaeda but of this I am sure: if Washington, Downing Street or the British and American news media are minded to imply a link, then they will have not the least difficulty in doing so.

Whether or not the theory has any useful meaning they will in the end create what they claim to see, and justify their own prophecies. This they will be able to do without fabricating any evidence or telling any palpable lie.

My grandfather was a Freemason. Were an investigative journalist to break into my London flat and conduct a thorough search he would find, hidden away in a bag in a bottom drawer, a Freemason’s Bible, Grandpa’s, inscribed to Brother Francis William Parris.

One of my best friends is a Mason, too. When he was going through the Masonic initiation ceremonies I helped him over many hours learning his questions and responses. We stalked up and down his flat parroting the lines while he tried to remember the accompanying actions. I now know some of the ceremony by heart.

I have been invited to join and never remotely wished to, but in conversation I have always stuck up for people’s rights to be members of such societies if they wish, and tended to pooh-pooh the conspiracy theorists who see a sinister web of Freemasonry behind every planning application unexpectedly approved or criminal charge suddenly dropped. This is not because I suppose these things never happen but because I think we tend to get their prevalence and significance rather out of proportion. I have written as much and my views have been published.

What am I, then? Just imagine that a great international scare about Freemasonry were to arise, politicians and the press were to become super-sensitive to the influence of this secret organisation, and an urgent hunt for information about it were to begin; and imagine further that I were to be fingered. The media would be able to say the following about me:

Matthew Parris is linked to the Freemasons. He is an apologist for Freemasonry. He comes from a known Masonic family. Secreted away in his home a Freemason’s bible has been found. He associates with prominent figures who are known by the authorities to be Masons. He has been overheard reciting Masonic texts. Privately he has a well-attested history of sympathy for the Masons’ cause. He has used his position as a journalist to defend what he calls their “rights”.

Known sympathiser, apologist, fellow-traveller, associate, collaborator, useful idiot, mole ... the words and phrases tumble on to the page, forming so easily into scary headlines. The exercise looks ridiculous rather than disturbing only because Freemasonry has not flown aeroplanes into the World Trade Centre, killing thousands.

For those with eyes to see and minds to discern, these early months after that atrocity are a fascinating and continuing case study in mass and worldwide gestalt — the imposition of pattern on to perception. We are puffing al-Qaeda into a vast, mysterious and formidable spectre: fiendishly capable, fabulously rich, incredibly cunning, a hidden hand behind innumerable horrors. Al-Qaeda is becoming the Dark Side, the Darth Vader of the modern world.

And the picture we are creating has a terrible allure. Do you not see the danger: the self-springing, self-vindicating trap? We ourselves, we in the West, are creating an icon. Osama bin Laden and his legacy are becoming a legend, and soon it will not matter if he exists, or ever existed, because he will be a symbol to millions — no, hundreds of millions — uniting their own myriad and diverse frustrations behind the image of one charismatic figure: a fist in the face of imperialism, wealth, perceived injustice, Christian capitalism, government; a fist in the face of ... us.

Of course it is possible to link al-Qaeda to that bomb in Bali. Of course it is possible to link al-Qaeda to anti-Zionism in Iraq, Syria, Palestine or anywhere else. Of course it is possible to link al-Qaeda with Islamicist mutinies in the Philippines or Indonesia.

Soon it will be possible to link al-Qaeda with disaffection and violence of a broadly anti-Western kind anywhere in the world, including in our own countries. The very act of linkage — by us — serves to build links where none existed. Osama bin Laden is becoming the new Che Guevara. Al-Qaeda is cool. “Shadowy” is a tremendously exciting word. Against George Bush and, to a lesser extent, Tony Blair should be levelled a grave charge: they are glamorising “Terror”.

All over the Third World there are now Osama T-shirts on sale in street markets, displaying that strangely beautiful face. The face alone, like Che’s, like Castro’s, has become a statement. I found the T-shirt this summer in Sco Tomi e Principe, peaceful African islands in the Gulf of Guinea. I saw Osama dolls in the market in Kiev last month. His face, and his “network”, are beginning to represent, in the imagination of the poor, the aggrieved and the oppressed, defiance made flesh. And we are helping to do this. We are constructing an enemy. We are inventing a focus.

Put yourself in the position of a teenage Bangladeshi youth in a wretched estate in Tower Hamlets in East London. His schooling is poor, he struggles with language, he chafes at repressive discipline at home, he cannot feel properly part of white British culture, yet life here is cutting him from his own cultural roots. He feels at the bottom of the heap. Then this faraway man with an unforgettable face in the desert mountains of a strange country rips apart the centre of New York, and suddenly everyone is talking about a shadowy network, a web over the whole world, and white people seem scared, and mysteries and explosions across the globe are attributed to him — and this man is on this boy’s side: everybody says so. Wouldn’t you feel a thrill of pride if you were that boy? Wouldn’t you feel empowered? Wouldn’t it be joyous to think that you and your religion might not be doomed to be perpetual losers after all? Heck, even Tony Blair’s afraid of this guy, and he’s playing for my team! The frustrated, the bitter, the mad and the dispossessed in the Islamic world will see in Osama a sponsor.

Al-Qaeda will capitalise. They will be delighted that we associate them with the Bali bomb, whether or not they played much part. If we carry on like this then the first reflex of any organisation hopeful of making trouble for a Western sympathising government will be to align themselves with al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda’s first reflex on learning of trouble will be to extend a hand to the troublemakers.

They will do all they can to feed the myth of their potency and ubiquity — and we seem determined to help them. Thus could a thousand small streams, each from a very different source and variously bound, be diverted towards a single river. The myth could become a reality.

In a Times column on Tuesday Bronwyn Maddox explained better than I can the folly of jumping early to conclusions about al-Qaeda’s involvement in Bali. I disagree only with her assertion that the US President risks losing credibility should these claims prove false. They won’t. Deftly smudged, the theory of a shadowy plot by a secret network is marvellously armoured against against falsification. Have we forgotten Titus Oates and the Popish Plot? The Witches of Salem? The Jewish Conspiracy? Panic in McCarthyite America about un-American Americans? Snowball — renegade pig and author of all mischief — in Animal Farm? Old plots, like old soldiers, never hit the obituaries: they linger as long as they are needed.

How? Watch, in the opening paragraphs of news stories or politicians’ press releases, for those familiar journalistic war-horses: the illusions of novelty, causality, and conspiracy. To imply novelty (and fan alarm) the news is made new by means of key words. Watch out for “yesterday”, “last night”, “just”, “emerged” and “today”. To imply between events a causal link we employ “in the wake of”, “after”, “following”, “on the eve of”, “in the run-up to”. Pinned down, we can protest that we asserted no more than a temporal sequence.

And to imply conspiracy, we insinuate pattern and significance on to events and people. Watch for “a spate of”, “linked to” (by whom? The speaker?), “known associate” and “hallmark” — and for weasel-words like “apologist”, “sympathiser”, “ally”, “friend” or “supporter”. The word “network” itself is a prime example. So is “Terror” with a capital T: note how speedily the Israeli Government latched on to President Bush’s use of this word, in order to conflate its own security problems with America’s. Count the carefully fudged terms such as “ringleader”, “leading member”, “right-hand man”, “feared”, “trusted”, “key player”, “vital evidence”, “missing piece in the jigsaw”, “breakthrough”.

America hankers for an enemy. She and her friends are talking this up. If only our Prime Minister could employ the passion and eloquence he showed in Belfast on Thursday, and help to talk it down.

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