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Islamism and terrorism

September 7th, 2004

As Ken Parish observes, in my recent post about Chechnya, I discussed the issue of terrorism and its causes in generic terms and didn’t have anything specific to say about Islamism. So, I’ll start by observing that most of what has been written on this topic is, in my opinion, useless or worse.

First, there are a lot of people who start with the observation (more or less accurate) that, as of today, Muslims are the main religious group involved to a substantial degree in terrorism, then go on to explain this in terms of observations about Islam going back to the 7th century, to show that Islam is uniquely prone to violence. This is silly. The dominance of Islamism as a source of terrorism is a recent and probably temporary phenomenon, so any explanation that relies on characteristics of Islam has to invoke some recent change in the character of Islam.

On the other side of the coin, there have been fairly recent terrorist outrages involving most of the major religions (for this purpose, I’ll count nationalism and revolutionary Marxism as religions, since they share most of the relevant characteristics). To give a partial list suitable for Googling, there’s Omagh, Oklahoma City, Baruch Goldstein, Colombo (many times), Gandhi assassination (twice), Bogota, Vukovar and so on. You only have to go back sixty years to the Holocaust, which was largely (though not wholly) the product of Christian anti-semitism. Of course, most of these involved national disputes as well, but the same is true of most of the violent conflicts currently involving Muslims.

My short view is that most Muslim terrorism is explicable in the same general terms as I’ve used previously, and involves national disputes with religion as an added source of hatred and motivation to sacrifice. If the national disputes were resolved, terrorism would, in most cases, die away (though it’s much easier to release this genie than to put it back in the bottle – there will always be diehard rejectionists who see any compromise as betrayal). Examples include Israel-Palestine, Iraq since the war, and Kashmir.

However, both Islamists and their Western counterparts[1] seek to wrap these various struggles into a global clash of civilisations. Al Qaeda is the Islamist manifestation of this. Although AQ draws most of its support from the specific disputes I’ve listed above, it doesn’t have any concrete set of demands, and effectively pursues terror for its own sake[1].

In some respects, the appeal of Islamism is similar to that held by revolutionary Marxism, in that it purports to wrap lots of separate struggles into a single encompassing global struggle in which victory is pre-ordained.

A notable relatively new feature is the prominence of suicide bombings, and the relative ease with which volunteers can be found for this. Although it’s been most notably exploited by Islamists, the first group to use it on a substantial scale was, I think, the Tamil Tigers. On the other hand, despite offering substantial incentives, Saddam Hussein was only able to elicit a handful of volunteeers. I don’t have a good explanation for all this.

A couple of reactions to Islamist terror are worth pointing to. First, there is always a supply of young men (and, to a lesser extent) young women willing to attach themselves to a cause calling for fanaticism. They frequently come from fairly well-off backgrounds, haven’t experienced much direct oppression themselves, and tend to favor the most extreme possible positions.

Second, the average Muslim (and particularly the average Arab Muslim) is bound to take an ambivalent view. On the one hand, few support terrorism or want to get involved in it. On the other hand, they are hostile, with good reasons to the policies the Western Powers (including, in this context, Israel) have pursued in the Middle East for the last 100 years or so, and frustrated that the imbalance of military power is such that they can’t fight back by conventional means. So they support guerilla warfare and are naturally inclined to shade the boundaries between guerilla fighting with purely military opponents, guerilla attacks involving “collateral” civilian deaths and outright terrorism. Hence, the frequently evasive nature of responses, with indefensible terrorist attacks being implausibly claimed to be setups by Mossad or the CIA.

To see the other side of this coin, look at those who have sought to excuse brutality and murder in the “war against terrorism”, for example that committed by Yeltsin and Putin (of course, there are examples closer to home).

In terms of a response, the worst possible is the “clash of civilisations”. What’s needed is to isolate, as far as possible, the extreme Islamists committed to an endless crusade[3] against the West. There is no response to them except to kill them before they kill us and try to avoid doing anything that will help their recruiting.

Meanwhile, we should deal with the various national grievances as best we can, trying to avoid making them part of a battlefront between Islam and the West. In my view, this means, among other things, a Palestinian state with something close to the 1967 borders, elections followed by an early withdrawal from Iraq and a Kashmir settlement that hands over some majority-Muslim areas from India to Pakistan.

Of all of these, the Palestinian issue is the most important.

fn1. That is, those who see Islam as a monolithic anti-Western block.

fn2. I suppose AQ would claim that they are pursuing some objective such as new Caliphate, but the use of terror in pursuit of goals that are either unachievable or meaningless is, for practical purposes, the pursuit of terror

fn3. Of course, they would reject this term in favor of “jihad”. But except for the difference of religion, the two words are almost perfect synonyms.

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  1. Fyodor
    September 7th, 2004 at 16:29 | #1

    JQ,

    Well said. Very sensible comment.

  2. RoD
    September 7th, 2004 at 16:54 | #2

    Great examples of the multi-cultural and multi-denominational nature of terror and murder. Everyone’s had a crack at slaughtering innocents through the centuries.

    The reason Islamist terrorism has arisen is surely a direct result of the lack of any other avenue for political discourse in the nations most affected.

    Most Muslim nations have been under direct imperial control or one-party dictatorship for the last 10+ centuries. In Iran, the Shah got rid of every other political group and union, leaving small business people and some exiled clerics as the sole focus for political resistance. How else was a revolution going to occur, than via market places and in the words of clerics?

    The same happens across the Middle East where the one-party state hijack Islam as the state religion, the state constitution and basis for education. When mosques and schools are politicised in one-party system, religion naturally becomes the means of revolt.

    You then get the brilliance of training international mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight the Russians, and within two decades every sub-national gang of wanna-be dictators has instant access to a multinational army of guerillas.

    Multi-party, open societies with mature political systems will see the end of Islamist terrorism. Those societies arent going to magically spring forth any time soon, and they will never emerge from the depleted uranium clouds of dust resulting from aerial bombardment.

  3. September 7th, 2004 at 17:24 | #3

    Good post, John, there is also some really good stuff in the Indian media on terrorism, particularly in OutlookIndia.com. In the current issue there is comment by Mr.J Raman and Mr K.P.S Gill that adds to this.

    The Indians are always worth reading because of their unique history regarding partition and what came with it, and their experience with domestic and foreign terrorism.

    I dunno about Kashmir, that’s almost as hard a nut to crack as Palestine. I don’t think the Indians will ever give up another inch of territory to Pakistan, detente yes, territory, no.

    This is compounded by the longing Hindu Nationalists(Hindutva) have for a re-united India – a massive force and very dangerous.

  4. James Farrell
    September 7th, 2004 at 17:43 | #4

    Isn’t the concept of the cult, as opposed to religion, helpful here? When people are immersed in a closed, paranoid community, any ideology, however crazy, destructive or immoral can become un unshakeable truth when it becomes self feeding and immunized from criticism. The Rwandan Interahamwe, Jonestown and Al Quaida all have this in common. Whether they’re mutations of tribal belief systems, modern political theories or world religions is a matter of circumstance.

  5. Harry Clarke
    September 7th, 2004 at 18:58 | #5

    “In some respects, the appeal of Islamism is similar to that held by revolutionary Marxism, in that it purports to wrap lots of separate struggles into a single encompassing global struggle in which victory is pre-ordained”.

    Is part of the reason for the rise in Islamic terrorism the decline in Marxism? Wasn’t Marxism a useful ideology for containing resentments and class hatred and a focus for opposition to such views? When it failed the disgruntled on all sides needed something else to replace it — the child-killing Chechnyian crazies need it just as do the gun-loving US religious right.

    We all agree that capitalism is great these days so lets fight our battles in religious terms.

  6. snuh
    September 7th, 2004 at 19:19 | #6

    for this purpose, I’ll count nationalism and revolutionary Marxism as religions, since they share most of the relevant characteristics

    this is the most awesome aside anyone has ever made. kudos to you.

    also, re kashmir, it’s by no means clear to me that the people of kashmir want to be part of pakistan. they should be given the right to self-determination, including, in this context, the right to be indepedent of both india and pakistan, if they so choose.

  7. September 7th, 2004 at 20:57 | #7

    “What’s needed is to isolate, as far as possible, the extreme Islamists committed to an endless crusade3 against the West.”
    I suspect that Islam would be waging a Jihad, but definitely not a crusade. Crusade still retains enough of its original derivation. Although Jihad is defined, by one dictionary as “a crusade for a principle or belief”. Crusades and Jihads are both holy wars?

  8. Mark Bahnisch
    September 7th, 2004 at 20:58 | #8

    James, understanding Islamism as a cult helps us to remember that in actual fact it is largely a distortion of Islam as a religion. Harry, it’s not so much the decline of Marxism as the failure of secular Nationalism or Nasserism – and particularly its symbolic defeat in the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel. Marxism as such was never a particularly strong ideological current in the Middle East, and those Marxist parties that existed, such as the Iraqi Communist party, had a distinguished record of struggle and resistance against secularist and tyrannical regimes such as Saddam Hussein’s. Nasserism and the original version of Ba’athism, pre-Hussein, were socialist in a similar sense to the prevalent ideology in India under Nehru was.

  9. Mark Bahnisch
    September 7th, 2004 at 21:04 | #9

    wmmbb, on the continuing resonances of the use of the term ‘crusade’, this piece by James Carroll is excellent.

  10. Harry Clarke
    September 7th, 2004 at 21:23 | #10

    You are probably right Mark overall but I think the decline in belief in Marxism/socialism and of the ‘evil empire’ of the Soviets has left something of a void. Maybe religion will fill this gap and provide a much needed basis for warfare. In the past wouldn’t many of these struggles use small nation pawns strategically organised by the major powers along left/right political grounds?

    I am sure too that terrorism itself is a sensible equilibrium response to the emergence of a single power with overwhelming military might to win conventional wars. In short: Fight small, fight ‘dirty’.

  11. James Farrell
    September 7th, 2004 at 22:07 | #11

    Harry:

    Marxism has been embraced with religious fervour in various times and places, but generally not by young men in the frontier republics of the Soviet empire. For the megalomaniacs, the system provided a pleasant milieu for career development; for the majority of them it just inspired cynicism and Hobbesian acquiscence.

  12. Mark Bahnisch
    September 7th, 2004 at 23:13 | #12

    Harry, I’m still not sure how your analysis is directly relevant to the Middle East though it’s true that many developing countries were treated as proxies for East-West confrontation. To the degree that the Soviets involved themselves in Middle Eastern politics, people like Nasser and Assad had reasonable success playing them off against the Americans. Obviously, Soviet interests were much more directly at stake in Afghanistan.

    You’re right about your second point though – terrorism and assymetrical warfare are hard to distinguish conceptually. It’s a moral or political judgement rather than an analytic one.

    I’m equivocal, though, about how JQ characterises the interplay of religion and nationalism. It seems to me that both can indeed be intermixed but I think it would be wrong to argue that religious considerations are always secondary as if to suggest that the political or national causes are determinant and the religious epiphenomenal. But maybe I’m misreading the post?

    I think it’s also wrong to treat Al-Qaeda as an exception to the rule that terrorism is actuated by substantive political or other grievances. Very clearly, Al-Qaeda is an outgrowth of an internal struggle for hegemony within Saudi Arabia, as well as a particular conjuncture of events having geo-political significance in recent decades, primarily the US’ interests in Saudi Arabia. I think the Palestinian/Israeli situation is cynically exploited by Al-Qaeda, though clearly this is a factor in increasing its support. The internationalisation of Al-Qaeda is a separate phenomenon requiring a separate analysis, but again I believe that political demands can be identified in most instances.

  13. September 8th, 2004 at 00:38 | #13

    You could argue that the Kamikaze attacks by the Japanese during WW2 were the first example of modern “suicide bombers” on a significant kind of scale (as a deliberate tactic to kill others or do damage). Why? I suppose it was a mixture of the cultural affinities towards suicide as an “honourable way out,” with Shinto and attitudes towards the Emperor as a divine figure, brainwashing, there may have been promises of a better afterlife (although I’m not quite sure on the last one). But then again, it is noteworthy that they were used near the end of the war, not all the way through.

    Different circumstances of course than the Tamils.

    You had the Viet Minh too.

    In Islam it is strictly prohibited, but Iranian-sponsored groups carried them out in Lebanon, starting with Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime. Then again, the Syrian regime sponsored attacks against Israel through secular parties.

    Meaning? Not all just Muslims or to do with necessarily Islam or a religion. Very effective in terms of going in and getting as many victims as possible. Probably an authoritarian mindset hanging over the suicide/homicide/human bombers, but then not every authoritarian regime uses them. State and other funding. Or buggered if I know.

  14. September 8th, 2004 at 01:37 | #14

    Thank you for the reference Mark. It seems James Carroll has for some time being declaring the “war on terror” is unwinnable. Here is an quote relevant to previous comments:

    “Even though the war on terrorism is indeed, as the president said, a “crusade,” it has nothing real to do with Islam either, although Islam is surely its target. Not Islam as it actually exists in dozens of different settings and cultures across the globe, but an imagined Islam that exists only in the troubled minds of a people who project “evil” outward and then attack it. Alas, it is an old Christian habit”.

  15. Mark Bahnisch
    September 8th, 2004 at 01:49 | #15

    No worries, and thanks in turn for the reference to his other article.

  16. September 8th, 2004 at 23:01 | #16

    Forget the russian propaganda,remember when the the russians were the enemy and we funded the mujihadeen terrorists to kill them and cut off their cocks and stick it in their mouths whilst they bled to death?
    The chechen war,like the vietnam war is one of nationalism and anyone who craps on about moslem terrorists is an ignorant dickhead and should learn to read history books.

  17. Matt
    September 9th, 2004 at 01:32 | #17

    JQ:
    “There is no response to them except to kill them before they kill us and try to avoid doing anything that will help their recruiting.”
    Aren’t these two objectives somewhat contradictory, especially with the idea of martyrdom (as a terrorist rather than religious ideal?)
    Wouldn’t the introduction and/or use of a transparent justice system be better in many cases?
    (I’m not trying to advocate sending unarmed police officers to arrest a suicide car bomber, but surely many can be arrested and subjected to a system of transparent justice without death if caught before the implementation of a terrorist plan.)

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