AN OPINION PIECE
Islamic terrorism is one of the 3rd millennium’s central concerns. Since the attacks of 2001, it has basically replaced Communism as the ideological specter threatening the world. Terrorist outrages are guaranteed front-page coverage in newspapers anywhere; terrorists are increasingly common choices for bad guys in modern-day dramas, thrillers, and action spectacles. Governments the world over use terrorism as an excuse for all kinds of things: war, repression, surveillance, security checks, torture.
Terrorism is such a frequent subject in foreign policy analysis that I don’t feel like I have much to say that hasn’t been said already on websites with higher web traffic. Everyone has an opinion about it and quite a few know a lot about it. Nevertheless, I do have a few opinions, and in the wake of the recent attacks in Paris, now is as good a time as any to express them.
> Why Islamic terrorism is so fashionable is one of the great questions of our times. Numerous writers have tried to analyze it and try to figure it out. Some are content with a simple dichotomy of “Islamofascism” vs. Western liberalism, chaos vs. order, tyranny vs. freedom, the forces of darkness vs. the forces of light. More serious pundits point to widespread poverty and a sense of despair in Muslim countries; the Arab malaise I have written about in several posts — the political stagnation, oppression, and sluggish economies that afflict most Arab countries; a bulge of young, unemployed, restless men; the lack of other outlets for political/economic/social/cultural grievances; a sense of unease at the ever-advancing tide of Westernization; disgust at American imperialism, brutality, and unconditional support of Israel in its repression of Muslims.
The answer is probably some sort of combination of these, but I’ve never found them wholly convincing. Plenty of terrorists are middle-class or even rich (Osama bin Laden was from a rich Saudi family; Umar Abdulmutallab, the guy who tried to blow up his underwear on an airplane, is from one of Africa’s richest families). While poor countries do tend to be violent and restless, plenty of them aren’t. A lot of dictatorships are as bad or worse as Arab ones (think of Communism) and don’t generate terrorist cells. Although terrorism is primarily an Arab problem, plenty of non-Arab countries have terrorists too (Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Somalia). Some terrorists live in and grow up in the West and enjoy the fruits of Westernization or modernization. Other countries are disgusted at Western imperialism and brutality; other countries have few outlets for grievances; other countries have lots of angry, unemployed young men.
The one thing that links these terrorists and not the other, similar troubled men is Islam. But as we’ll see later, Islam hasn’t always sponsored terrorism and mindless violence. Some Muslim countries generate fewer terrorists than others. The fact is that I don’t know why so many people feel attracted to radical Islam and terrorism, and I don’t think most other non-Muslim commentators do, either. It is one of the mysteries of the modern world.
> The threat of terrorism is exaggerated. I disagree with Barack Obama’s assessment of Islamic terrorism as the U.S.’s greatest single national security threat. States can still call on much greater resources and firepower than terrorist gangs. Just because Russia, China, or India haven’t set off a nuke yet doesn’t mean that they aren’t potential security hazards. And terrorist deaths in the West are still blips compared to the day-to-day peace and tranquility. Americans, in particular, kill each other at a much greater rate than foreign terrorists.
Terrorism is the tool of the weak. Terrorists kill Westerners and blow stuff up because they feel threatened by the West and its power. An actual war would be much bloodier. The fact is that in Western countries the chance of getting killed by a terrorist is very, very, very small. But terrorists aren’t necessarily looking for mass casualties; they’re terrorists. They thrive on terror. Which brings me to my next point…
> When you’re terrorized, the terrorists win. Terrorists hope to freak their target countries out and spread fear and unease. They hope to create an atmosphere of paranoia, suspicion, and mistrust. They even want to stoke Islamophobia, xenophobia, and a military backlash against them, because that would play into their narrative of an imperialist, brutal West. It is more a form of psychological warfare than a violent one.
That is why I’m uneased at the French reaction to the recent attacks in Paris. I’m not sure the Islamic State is somehow more threatening now than in October; the public just wants revenge. This is the mood America was in after 9/11. It led to the attack on Afghanistan, which was justified, and then the war in Iraq, which really wasn’t — and which France loudly condemned. Mindless Islamophobia or a thirst for vengeance are dangerous emotions, and France should be careful where they lead it.
Media coverage of terrorism has been relentless and breathless, and it has done a lot to stoke public fear. While I can’t fault the news for informing the public of big disasters, it has to be careful not to blow up the story for added drama. And speaking of the media…
> Media attention on terrorism hasn’t been fair. Most terrorist attacks affect the very Muslim countries where the terrorists spring from: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria. These countries are so violent that the terrorist attacks blend into the wars raging there*, but I don’t think the media coverage of terrorism has successfully conveyed the fact that Muslims are the main victims, and that the horrors inflicted on Paris are regular occurrences elsewhere.
The most obvious comparison to these attacks is the 2008 assault on Mumbai, which killed 166 and wounded over 600. They were attacks on multiple urban locations in a (mostly) non-Muslim city and included bombings, shooting sprees and hostage situations. They were also intended to provoke war with Pakistan. But the Paris attacks have received far more media coverage and international sympathy (witness the landmarks all over the world lit up with the French colors).
I suppose it’s justifiable to focus more on attacks like this and the ones in January against Charlie Hebdo because France is usually considered a safe, pleasant country, while the above countries are considered dodgy or outright violent. This is true — except that India has few terrorist incidents and is generally safe to visit. It also perpetuates a media bias towards white victims over brown ones, which has obvious racist implications.
> Most Muslims aren’t terrorists. This should go without saying, but in the overheated atmosphere after a terrorist attack, I’m not quite sure. Many of the world’s biggest Muslim countries — Turkey, Iran, Bangladesh, India**, Indonesia — are relatively moderate and abhor radical, violent ideology. Many others (Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, the various ‘stans of Central Asia) may have big conservative or radical contingents but aren’t generally terrorist generators. Even in the most terrorist-heavy lands, the vast majority of the population hates them, because they’re violent. That’s why so many refugees are fleeing Iraq, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan. Equating Islam with terrorism is a gross exaggeration and misrepresentation.
It might be helpful to keep in mind that Islam dates back to the 600s. Terrorism is a relatively recent phenomenon. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and various small religions have lived side-by-side with Muslims for centuries. If Muslims were all terrorists somehow, the world would be a much more violent place than it is now. Europe has big Muslim minority communities, and they aren’t all burning down their cities and killing their neighbors. But…
> Most terrorists are Muslims. Prefacing “terrorism” with “Islamic” hardly seems necessary these days. There is a very, very strong connection between Islamic ideology and terrorist activity. There is widespread intolerance and tolerance of intolerance in the Muslim world. Infidels are considered abhorrent; converting to their religions is sometimes considered criminal. The radical thought that gives birth to terrorism is usually condoned. There is a link between conservative Islam and jihadism. Some countries, like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, have even sponsored radical ideologues and schools that turn into terrorist cells.
Islam has historically had a tendency to be violent and intolerant; even the grand medieval empires pressured minorities to convert. A religion that broadcasts calls to prayer for the whole city to hear isn’t being subtle in what it thinks of other religions. Resentment against infidels, even in peaceful contexts, has been brewing for a long time; the violence had to come from somewhere. A refusal to accommodate foreign viewpoints and customs can easily breed hatred of them and overt pressure to convert. For all the intolerance there, the West has mostly embraced the idea that foreign religions can come and practice in peace. Islam is much more uncomfortable with this. That leads to my last and most important point…
> The responsibility for stamping out terrorism ultimately lies with Muslims themselves. Since 2001, the West has tried multiple strategies for wiping out terrorism. The first answers are always to whack it with a hammer: war, occupation, bombing, special ops raids, surveillance, drone strikes. It is true that killing people is an effective way to eliminate them. But with the noxious ideology that breeds terrorism still around, more just keep popping up. The assault on terrorism turns into a game of Whac-a-Mole.
Sensing this, Western governments have turned to more nuanced strategies: countering terrorist propaganda on social media, or working with local mosques and Muslim groups to spread a more peaceful face of the supposedly oppressive West and to encourage reporting of possible future terrorists. This is a good idea and a step in the right direction. But there’s a fatal flaw: if you think Westerners are evil imperialist infidels, you’re not going to listen to them anyway. Would you believe enemy propaganda, or even mosques with overt links to the enemy government?
In order for terrorism to really go away, radical Islam needs to fade away. And for that to happen, Muslims will have to take the leading role. Parents will have to aggressively intervene to keep their kids from flocking to Syria or wherever. Muslim governments will have to crack down more aggressively on radical preachers. Muslims will have to accept what seems obvious to the rest of the world: that the strategy of resisting the tide of Westernization through violence is not only futile, but actually holds the Muslim world back. The culture itself will have to adjust to be more tolerant, liberal, and peaceful. This is what the Somali-Dutch-American writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali calls for in her recent book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. Muslims will need to accept that Western values, at least in part, are really universal values that don’t threaten their culture and livelihoods as much as jihadist barbarism does.
The notion, popular this millennium, that Christendom and Islam are in a “clash of civilizations” has some truth to it. Christians and Muslims are deeply suspicious of each other, and their relationship has historically been acrimonious. Most Muslim countries grapple with problems of violence, intolerance, and conservative social values. Countries with split Christian and Muslim identities, like Nigeria and Lebanon, are usually unstable. But most Christians, at least, have no stomach for a religious war with the world’s second-largest faith, and I don’t think most Muslims do either. In any case, the Muslim world is heavily outgunned by the Christian one, and being a
nuisance makes Western intervention more likely. So for pragmatic reasons, it would make sense for Islam to make its peace with the West.
* Except Pakistan.
** India isn’t a majority-Muslim country, but it has more Muslims than most majority-Muslim countries.