Johann Hari: The best way to undermine the jihadists is to trigger a rebellion of Muslim women

One of the central tenets of this ideology is the essential inferiority and weakness of women
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The Independent Online

So Thursday's Terrorist Threat turned out to consist of four lads from Leeds, Yorkshire and Aylesbury. Suicide-murder is something we used to associate with the refugee camps of Gaza, the rubble of Grozny, or the market-squares of Baghdad. Now we are confronted by something that looks like jihadism as scripted by Richard Curtis.

This story is filled with clichéd picture-postcard images of Britain: cricket-lovers, a fish-and-chip shop where one of the bombers worked, a friend who describes them as "sound as a pound" - and an ending set on a red double-decker bus. Nobody expected the story of the London bombs to turn into a wholly British production - Four Weddings and a Jihad - and it is bewildering.

There are no simple materialist solutions: these men were not poor, they were not persecuted, they were not personally humiliated. No; if we want to find explanations for why people living in safe suburban streets would act this way, we have to realise the extraordinary, intoxicating power of political ideas.

This is hard for most of us to grasp in a largely depoliticised culture where we are more likely to discuss Coke vs Pepsi than justice vs injustice. But we know that otherwise comfortable people abandoned their ordinary lives to kill and die for the ideologies of Empire, Nazism or Bolshevism; did anybody really buy that guff about the End of History? Like its predecessors, Islamism is a utopian ideology that says violence now is a necessary and heroic step towards creating utopia tomorrow. It turns your life from being a random, dull sequence of events into a central part of a huge and heroic story. With one leap of faith, the London bombers were no longer stuck working part-time in a chippie in Leeds; they were soldiers in the International Jihad, doing the work of Allah himself to liberate Muslim peoples across the world.

So if we want real solutions, we have to admit this is not a battle against a shadowy Islamist army that can be stopped merely through police or military means. It is a battle to discredit an ideology that is never farther than a click of a mouse away.

Undermining an ideology is far harder than tracking down a network of criminals. It took seventy years and fifty million deaths until nobody would kill or die for Bolshevism. And many of the paths we take from here could make the problem even worse. We have all seen the Rumsfeld approach. Fill screens across the Muslim world with the orange jumpsuits of Guantanamo and the Muslims-on-a-leash of Abu Ghraib. Piss on the Koran. Show them who's boss. The Galloway approach is just as dangerous: give them what they want. Meet Osama's immediate demands and hope they'll leave us alone. Both encourage the totalitarian ideology to spread faster, one by beating it with a bloody stick and the other by offering it a carrot.

But it is possible now to see realistic ways to defuse the ticking-bomb of jihadism. One of the central tenets of this ideology is the inherent inferiority and weakness of women. Every jihadist I have ever met - from Gaza to Finsbury Park - has been a fierce ball of misogyny and sexual repression. If you haven't spoken to these people, it is hard to explain just how obsessed with sexual apartheid they are. At least two of the London bombers refused to make eye contact with women outside their families. Image the sheer effort and repression that required.

The best way to undermine the confidence and beliefs of jihadists is to trigger a rebellion of Muslim women, their mothers and sisters and daughters. Where Muslim women are free to fight back against jihadists, they are already showing incredible tenacity and intellectual force. In Iraq, mass protests by women stopped the governing council from introducing sharia law in 2003. In Europe and America, from Irshad Manji to my colleague Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Muslim women are offering the most effective critiques of Islamism.

The jihadists themselves know that Islamic feminism is the greatest threat to their future - that's why, in Iraq, the "resistance" has been systematically hunting down and killing the leaders of Muslim women's rights organisations. No ideology can survive on terrorising half the population indefinitely. When it comes, the Islamic Reformation will be drenched in oestrogen.

There are dozens of practical measures that could be taken tomorrow to advance this cause. Positive discrimination for Muslim women in the West would be a start. Irshad Manji has proposed massive programmes of micro-loans at very low interest rates for women across the Middle East to launch their own businesses or farms. Similar funds are already transforming the gender politics of Bangladesh by giving women financial independence and the freedom to reinterpret their religious texts on their own terms. In time - over decades - they pass this moderation on to their sons, and some of the murderous tension fades. This is a plan for a long-term war on jihadism based on hope, not only on more bombs.

But we also have to deprive the jihadists of the propaganda-gifts that have been handed to them on a bloody plate over the past sixty years. The brutal face we have shown to most Muslims rests on a deal that was made on a very unromantic Valentine's Day in 1945, on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal.

President Franklin Roosevelt cut a deal with the tyrants running Saudi Arabia: give us secure access to your oil - a quarter of all the world's supplies - and we will ask no questions about what you do with the cash. Kill democrats? Provoke Islamism? If that's what you have to do to keep the oil flowing, then we're right there with you, buddy.

Similar deals were made with almost every other country in the region - and Roosevelt's bargain continues to this day. I have (reluctantly) begun to think that, until we are no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil, no amount of pressure will make our governments support real democracy and women's rights in the region. The risk of another 1973-style oil-price shock will mean they will always support the "stability" of control over the gamble of proper democracy, no matter how enthusiastically the methods of control are rebranded or relaxed. Until we stop being addicted to the petrol and the status quo in the Middle East, we are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

If all this sounds a long way from the No 30 bus, remember: it is an idea - a whole way of understanding the world - that caused the attack, and it is the idea that must be undermined.

But - even if we get on to the right path - this is going to be a glacially slow, slow fight. There will not even be a Berlin Wall moment to show us we have won. But if we start now, by the time I am an old man we might - just might - be asking whatever happened to all that jihadism.