Many years after September 11, despite more than 10,000 terrorist attacks by radical Islamist groups alone, there is still an amazing amount of confusion and falsehood over what should be a very simple point: What is terrorism all about?
The answer is politics and, to be specific, revolutionary politics. Most obviously, terrorism is a tactic used by political groups but, most importantly, it is a strategy. Defining who and what is “terrorist” should be neither a moral judgment nor a propaganda exercise. It is a simple use of political analysis.
There are many incomplete or misleading concepts of terrorism. Often, terrorism is conceived as evil and its perpetrators as irrational criminals. While, of course, terrorism is evil in moral terms the problem with this approach is that it feels no need to go further in understanding what is going on.
Partly as a reaction to that concept, terrorism is presented as a matter of opinion. In today’s world, of course, repressing women, denying freedom, and murdering dissenters are often presented in democratic countries as a mere cultural choice, an aspect of local color. It should be remembered that when the Communist USSR made an alliance with Nazi Germany the Soviet foreign minister explained that fascism was merely a matter of taste.
Leaving all that aside, though, once the issue is defined in moral terms then it is being depoliticized. The media thinks of itself as neutral. Consequently, the English-language Western media often calls people who commit terrorist actions “militants” or “extremists.” That may be a good thing since it indicates a radical and implies a violent orientation. But it only educates up to a point.
Here’s what you need to know: There are arguably good reasons for having a terrorist strategy, not as a reaction to poverty or oppression but as a way to seize state power and transform societies.
Why does an ideology or movement decide that its best course is deliberately murdering the maximum number of civilians? The choice of terrorist strategy is a judgment particularly about one’s goals, enemy, and constituency.
- Only a despotic goal pursued by a totalitarian movement can sustain a terrorist strategy which, in turn, further reinforces an anti-democratic, intolerant orientation. A radical Islamist dictatorship in which the ruling elite’s whim is rationalized as divine will is the shining hell that is the movement’s utopian dream. This replaces the Marxist dictatorship of those claiming to embody the proletariat’s needs with that of those pretending to interpret divine desires.
- To be deserving of mass murder or even genocide, the enemy must be defined as simultaneously demonic and weak. Pure evil, so to justify its being massacred but also cowardly to explain why the revolutionaries will triumph. We have reached the point where many non-radical Muslims agree that criticizing radical Islamism is punishable by death.
Unfortunately, a large part of the West seems to be acting in a way that seems to embody the predicted weakness but that, too, is another story. More relevant here, though, is the fact that the terrorist strategist may make a tactical adjustment in the face of a tough opponent. The reason that Muslim Brotherhoods in Egypt and Jordan do not presently engage in terrorism has nothing to do with their worldview and everything to do with fear of repression. In contrast, Hamas and Hizballah–very parallel movements in every way–can go all-out because there is no government of their peers that is going to flatten them for doing so.
- Especially important is the terrorist strategist’s assessment of his constituents. He must believe that terrorism will be relatively popular among those he wants to win over. Terrorism appeals as a revolutionary strategy largely because the violence used against Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, and Western targets is largely cheered among Arabs. Only a minority are radical Islamists but a majority is pleased, at least at their work in nearby places. The fault lies with the fans in the stands rather than the victims in the arena.
This is the problem presented by terrorism and radical Islamism. Crazy people can be given therapy, misunderstandings can be cleared up with dialogue; honest grievances can be resolved by mutual concessions. With determined, ideologically clear, mass-based revolutionary movements you can only defeated them or surrender. Holding them off, that is preventing them from winning for a very long time until they are truly worn down, is another option. Refer here to the history of Communism.
Finally, a new twist is added, not for the folks at home but for the suckers out there. “The communists disdain to conceal their aims,” wrote Karl Marx in 1848. Since then, the public relations’ industry has flourished. Terrorist movements and supporters learned to feign innocence (and moderation), accusing their victims of being terrorists. With a lot of help from prestigious Western news organs they have turned the tables.
Arab leaders spoke in 1948 and 1967 of repeating the Mongol massacres and driving the Jews into the sea. This has not completely changed. Hizballah chief Hasan Nasrallah said recently, “The Zionist entity can be wiped out of existence.” But there is no end of commentators around to explain that he doesn’t really mean it seriously.
Instead, the sophisticated talk is of “collective punishment” and “excessive force.” Even a young gentleman of the old school like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has many saying he was misquoted about seeking to wipe Israel off the map.
Consider this 1993 exchange between two founders of the U.S.-based, Hizballah-supporting Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR):
Omar Ahmad: “There is a difference between you saying, ‘I want to restore the ’48 land’ and when you say ‘I want to destroy Israel…”
Nihad Awad: “Yes, there are different but parallel types of address. There shouldn’t be [a] contradiction. Address people according to their minds. When I speak with the American, I speak with someone who doesn’t know anything. As for the Palestinian who has a martyr brother or something, I know how to address him, you see?”
Yes, I see. But I wish everyone else did, too.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).