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 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.
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 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.