Posted by: sean | July 25, 2005

International terrorism

In the Times‘ op-ed pages last Friday, Olivier Roy attempted to explain “why they hate us.” He advances the hypothesis that members of al Qaeda do not hate the West, and namely the US, because of the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, unconditional support for Israel and the stationing of troops on the Arabian peninsula. He claims that the conflicts in the Middle East are not the roots of Islamic terrorism, that they are more rallying excuses or justifications than genuine grievances.

As evidence for this, he splits hairs to show that it is not a question of the Middle East but of global jihad in places like Bosnia, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Chechnya. He arrives at the conclusion that Islamic terrorism is a product of globalization rather than actual Western foreign policy, and that the ranks of al Qaeda and likeminded groups are filled with westernized “converts” — Islamic “born agains,” if you will — who have lived in Europe or the US and have become disenchanted with Western life:

The Western-based Islamic terrorists are not the militant vanguard of the Muslim community; they are a lost generation, unmoored from traditional societies and cultures, frustrated by a Western society that does not meet their expectations. And their vision of a global ummah is both a mirror of and a form of revenge against the globalization that has made them what they are.

First of all, I’m not sure that Roy’s description of Islamic terrorists is necessarily correct. While there are certainly many westernized young militants within the ranks of international terrorist groups, who have either studied, lived or were born in the West, it’s not obvious that all or even most international terrorists fit this description. Finally, while there is a clear difference between local groups like Hamas and Hizbollah and international groups like al Qaeda, it’s not evident that their complaints are so terribly different.

According to Roy, the reasons given by international terrorist groups are not genuine. According to him, their claims of solidarity with Palestinians, Iraqis and Afghans are hollow and mask a larger combat, namely a sort of reconquista of the ummah, or the global community of the faithful, which they feel has been under attack from Western powers, or maybe even just infidel powers, from Russian and American invasions of Afghanistan to the occupation of Iraq, Serbian war crimes in Bosnia and the Jewish settling of Palestine:

From the beginning, Al Qaeda’s fighters were global jihadists, and their favored battlegrounds have been outside the Middle East: Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir. For them, every conflict is simply a part of the Western encroachment on the Muslim ummah, the worldwide community of believers.

Up to this point, his analysis seems very reasonable, but Roy then goes on to say that al Qaeda’s list of complaints is disingenuous, that international terrorists don’t really care about Palestine, Afghanistan or Bosnia and that these war cries are only justifications for a larger more generalized battle against Western cultural and military dominance brought on by globalization:

[I]f the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine are at the core of the radicalization, why are there virtually no Afghans, Iraqis or Palestinians among the terrorists? Rather, the bombers are mostly from the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, Egypt and Pakistan – or they are Western-born converts to Islam. Why would a Pakistani or a Spaniard be more angry than an Afghan about American troops in Afghanistan? It is precisely because they do not care about Afghanistan as such, but see the United States involvement there as part of a global phenomenon of cultural domination.

To my mind this is similar to asking why a protestant preacher from Kansas or Mississippi would be more upset about gay marriage in Massachusetts than the residents of that state are. Like the fire and brimstone zealots of flyover America claim to speak in the name of the rest of the country, al Qaeda has decided to speak for all of Islam. There is a fundamental similarity between the two groups: a strong will to force a politico-religious worldview on other people, presumably for their own good. While this approach is obviously obtuse and shortsighted, it does not mean that the two groups of extremists don’t actually care passionately about Afghanistan and the sanctity of marriage in Massachusetts. If anything, Islamic terrorists are more willing to put their money where their mouth is by traveling to places like Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan in order to fight and die for their worldview. In both cases one finds a similar feeling of victimhood, a defensive stance against a powerful enemy: Western neo-imperialism in one case and secular nihilism in the other.

In an article in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books (sent to me by a friend), Max Rodenbeck reviews Roy’s book, among others, and compares global Islamic terrorism to the leftist radicals of the 60s and 70s, in so far as groups like the Italian Red Brigades were trying to spark a worldwide revolution against the capitalist masters oppressing the proletariat. But the analogy only seems to work to a certain extent, because up to now, Islamic terrorist groups have not stated a goal of creating a worldwide caliphate, but rather have only spoken of regaining lost ground. So while the tactics are similar, the goals seem different: without speaking of tactics, which are similar in both cases, the goals of the two groups seem very different: today’s terrorism is reactionary and defensive in nature, while radical Marxists were radical and offensive.

Finally, Roy remarks that “none of the Islamic terrorists captured so far had been active in any legitimate antiwar movements or even in organized political support for the people they claim to be fighting for. They don’t distribute leaflets or collect money for hospitals and schools.” Presumably, by “legitimate,” Roy means non-violent, although it’s highly arguable whether or not the two words are synonymous. This seems puzzling, because often, or at least sometimes, those who engage in terrorism, or other extralegal tactics, have decided to do so because they no longer believe it is possible or effective to work within the system. (It would be interesting to see how many members of militant groups in the US and Europe, like the Animal Liberation Front, also participate in letter writing campaigns.) Furthermore, a terrorist’s reluctance to participate in legal movements can also reflect a fear of leaving traces behind that might point to their violent activities: when the ALF sets fire to a fur factory, the first people to be investigated are the members of legal groups like PETA.

So while there is a definite difference between global terrorist groups like al Qaeda and local groups like Hizbollah, their rationales for violence seem to differ mostly in scale: Hizbollah seems content with the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, whereas al Qaeda moves from one battle front to another. So for the latter, it’s not just a question of Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan; it’s a question of Kashmir, Bosnia, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and all of the other places where these groups feel like the West is attacking Muslims, either directly, in the case of Iraq, or indirectly through proxy dictators, such as in Pakistan, Egypt and Uzbekistan. But Roy is correct in saying that westernized Muslims who already have their own complaints about their home countries are especially susceptible to a rhetoric of Islamic fraternal solidarity. That does not, however, make their outrage in response to the situation in Palestine, a place they have most likely never been to, any less genuine.

So to my mind, the main difference between local and global terrorism (Iraqi resistance and foreign fighters) is not necessarily their motivation, but rather the length of their list of complaints. So while history has shown that local terrorism tends to die down once the occupying power leaves (Lebanon) or the oppressive government shares power (South Africa), it remains to be seen if globalized terrorism will stop once its long list of complaints has been addressed. But one thing is certain: international terrorism is not going to be abated by adding more and more causes to terrorists’ list of offenses.



  1. Unknown Liberty

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