The carnage which might have resulted from three bungled car bombs in London and Glasgow is incredible. But incredible, too, was the discovery that the terrorists who planned this devastation were nearly all doctors. The ringleader of the plot may be Dr Mohammed Asha, a 26-year-old neurologist from Jordan. His wife, Dana Marwah, a hospital lab technician, has also been arrested. Kafeel Ahmed, an engineer with a PhD, crashed a car packed with gas canisters and gasoline into Glasgow airport accompanied by Dr Bilal Abdulla, a diabetes specialist. Ahmed's brother, Dr Sabeel Ahmed, was working in a public hospital. Two medical students were arrested in Glasgow. The network extends to Australia, where Dr Mohamed Haneef, a hospital doctor in Brisbane, was arrested when about to board a plane to India with a one-way ticket. Now Australian police are questioning six other Indian doctors.

In the aftermath of the arrests, the canon of St George's Memorial Anglican Church in Baghdad, Andrew White, (now there's a job for thrill seekers) remembered a warning from an al-Qa'eda representative in Jordan earlier that year at a reconciliation meeting. "The people who cure you will kill you," the man told him. Whether or not White's story is correct, that is what happened. The very doctors who had planned this mayhem could have been suturing wounds and consoling patients in emergency rooms afterwards.

Other Muslim doctors have been terrorists. Osama bin Laden's top deputy is Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian who trained as a surgeon. Mahmoud Zahar, a co-founder of Hamas, is a surgeon. Another leading Hamas figure was Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, a physician and geneticist. He was killed by an Israeli gunship. The founder of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Fathi al-Shikaki, was an Egypt-trained doctor who was assassinated in Malta in 1995. Back when the terrorists were freedom fighters against the Soviets in Afghanistan, a number of mujahadeen were doctors and engineers.

Muslim doctors in Britian and the United States, however, insist that terrorism is utterly inconsistent with the ideals of Islam.

The oath of a Muslim physician asks Allah to "make us worthy of this favoured station with honour, dignity and piety so that we may devote our lives in serving mankind, poor or rich, literate or illiterate, Muslim or non-Muslim, black or white with patience and tolerance with virtue and reverence, with knowledge and vigilance, with Thy love in our hearts and compassion for Thy servants, Thy most precious creation." And it cites an eloquent verse of the Qu'ran's fifth sura: "Whoever kills an innocent soul, it is as if he killed the whole of mankind. And whoever saves one, it is as if he saved the whole of mankind." Most Muslim doctors abide by these ideals.

Obviously the doctors currently under arrest, who, by all accounts were model citizens — quiet, friendly and hard-working — had a blind spot for this ideal. They paid more attention to a verse which follows shortly afterwards:  “Those that make war against God and his apostle and spread disorder in the land shall be slain . . .” Their rigid, unforgiving ideology interpreted the Qu'ran to exclude unbelievers and depraved night-clubbers from personhood and therefore from the mercy of the Almighty — and theirs.

But doctors who kill are not just Muslims. It was George Habash, a Christian paediatrician, who founded and led the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the PLF. And in the not-too-distant past there was Radovan Karadžic, the president of the Bosnian Serb republic, a psychiatrist. The United Nations wants him to stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity during the savage war after the breakup of Yugoslavia. And not too far from London, there was Dr Harold Shipman, a general practitioner in Yorkshire who may have murdered 250 people, mostly elderly women, in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

In fact, one positive outcome from this barely averted massacre could be a closer look at what is traditionally thought to be the first commandment for doctors everywhere: Primum non nocere, First, do no harm.

Terrorism clearly violates the traditional Hippocratic Oath. However, few realise how much the Hippocratic Oath has changed. Today nearly every American medical school administers some sort of oath, but heavily bowlderised. Reflecting the confusion of contemporary values, many young doctors swear not to discriminate on the basis of race, nationality, sex, religion or sexual orientation and to protect patients' autonomy and ensure informed consent. Inspiring stuff, but it shines a weak light on what makes a person worthy of life. The original oath invoked Greek gods. A 1993 survey showed that only 11 per cent of US oaths invoked any kind of deity. Nowadays the ancient pledges never to participate in euthanasia and abortion are often omitted. As of 1993, only 14 per cent of US oaths prohibited euthanasia, and only 8 per cent abortion. The original oath forbade sexual relationships with patients, but only 3 per cent of oaths administered by US medical schools did so.

What this demonstrates is the not so much the moral equivalence of terrorism and abortion or euthanasia, but the existence of a shared moral crisis: both the Muslim world and the post-Christian technology-obsessed West have lost sight of what constitutes a person. Muslim extremists regard unbelievers as unpersons, and many doctors and scientists regard human embryos, foetuses, and the terminally ill as unpersons. Muslims, perhaps because of a flawed understanding of God as altogether distinct from reason, and Westerners because of an arrogant reliance on the autonomy of reason.

The hallmark of an advanced civilisation is a deep respect for human beings simply because they are human beings. But this is not something which one acquires just by munching a bowl of Cheerios every morning. Spawned by the moral confusion of the West are fanatics whose viciousness mirrors the twisted messages of Muslim terrorists. Before Islamic terrorism pushed it off the front page, the most recent lethal terrorist threat in Britain came from the bombs of radical animal liberationists. An American trauma surgeon who advises the British movement, Dr Jerry Vlasak, asserted in 2004 that assassinating vivisectors could save the lives of millions of animals. "I don't think you'd have to kill too many," he said. "I think for five lives, 10 lives, 15 human lives, we could save a million, two million, 10 million non-human lives."

"If anyone thinks that this notion of the 'person', with all it implies, is something that comes automatically and universally, and does not have to be learned, and learned by heart, he has not understood his own civilisation," said the Australian poet James McAuley. They are words which have proved sadly prophetic. Until the West recovers a sane understanding of what human beings are, we may have to learn to live with terrorism.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet