Terrorism: not who but why?

About the author
Turi Munthe is a publisher and writer whose work has appeared in The Economist, The Nation, and the TLS. He has edited The Saddam Hussein Reader: selections from leading writers on Iraq (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002).

Hasib Hussain, Shehzad Tanweer, Mohammed Sidique Khan and Jermaine Lindsay were neither Afghan Arabs returning from the front, nor Musab al-Zarqawi-type terrorists bruising for a fight in the lands of the infidel. They were four British boys, three from Yorkshire and one of Jamaican origin: “good lads”, as one of their neighbours told the BBC.

The “who?” questions – who are the attackers, who joins the global jihad against the west, what typology do they exhibit? – produce too many answers to be useful. They are mostly male and mostly young, but they range from postgraduates to illiterates, from British-born Pakistanis to Jordanian villagers.

Janet Williams, the brilliant commander of the London police’s Muslim Contact Unit, told a gathering at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) on 22 June 2005 that the greatest threat to British homeland security was “radicalisation”. To fight radicalisation in the interests of democracy and human security, it is essential to understand its terms. This means asking “why?” The way this question is answered is vital to creating a meaningful and effective response to the worldwide bombings.

Radicalisation is most often explained within three main frameworks – religion, culture, and politics. Each has flaws, which I will examine in turn, before offering a synthesis in their place.

Blame it on Islam

The first argument in explanation of jihadi terrorism identifies Islam as the main source.

“Slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captive and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush.” Qur’an, Sura 9:5

“Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and his Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) People of the Book.” Qur’an, Sura 9:29

The first approach suggests that Jihadism is simply the truthful expression of Islam. Implicit in this analysis is the existence of an inevitable and natural conflict between Islam and the west. That it is inescapable – the problem is the religion itself, the problem is the Qur’an.

“And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee (Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perissites and the Hivites); thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them … ye shall deal with them, ye shall destroy their altars and break down their images and cut down their groves …” Deuteronomy, Chapter 7, verses 2 to 5

Such equivalences in the texts of other major world religions do not void the idea of the “clash of civilisations” – that east/west or Judeo-Christianity/Islam are bound to battle. But whatever constitutes “the west” today is now effectively post-Christian, so the key terms of the “blame Islam” argument need to be reframed: it is not Christianity but modernity that is seen to be incompatible with Islam.

This current of thinking was already prominent in the 18th century; it has been revitalised by (amongst others) Samuel Huntington and the doyen of middle-east studies in the United States, Bernard Lewis. It draws on a rich series of historical associations – among them Ibn Khaldun’s declaration that it is best to leave natural science to the Franks, while Muslims focused on the science of the Divine.

This approach posits that the battle has been joined, and will continue until one side wins; which, at best, means that the modern west will pull a reluctant Islam into the 21st century.

There are five reasons for the “blame Islam” argument to have appeal.

First, Osama bin Laden and his followers believe it. They, more than Huntingdon and Lewis, believe in the ultimate clash of civilisations. Their “policies” are actively intended to precipitate it.

Second, there is no way around those few sura (many others are conciliatory, but those cited above are – for Muslims – the word of God dictated by the Archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad). So the argument is that to be modern (not smiting Jews and Christians wherever they are found) necessarily means being a bad Muslim. Literally speaking, Islam is incompatible with modernity.

Third, Islamic countries do, often, exhibit very different value schemes from the west; women’s experience is perhaps the most important (and oft-cited). In the sphere of posited “universal values”, there is a sense of real incompatibility.

Fourth, to identify the terrorism problem as a problem with Islam is useful to western culture, allowing it to pitch “evil” external enemies as the “other” to define itself against.

Fifth, the west itself – especially the extreme religious right in the US and Europe – is not immune to apocalyptic hysteria. Judeo-Christian traditions programme end-of-worldism into the culture: many would like to see it happen in their lifetimes.

The standard counter-argument is that 9/11 was not an attack on Judeo-Christian values but on western neo-imperialism. Its focus was New York’s Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the White House rather than Canterbury cathedral, the Vatican, or Mea Shearim. But that argument falls, because jihadi preachers – Ayman al-Zawahiri (Osama bin Laden’s deputy) among them – have made explicit their revulsion towards western values and their growing impact on Muslim culture.

Al-Qaida’s campaign has assailed both “values” (the Bali bombing is but one example) and religious sites (as in the Djerba, Istanbul and Casablanca attacks on Jewish targets).

But powerful counter-arguments to the “blame Islam” argument do exist.

  • Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri doubtless believe that they are engaged in a fight between Islam and the west, but their claims can be examined as expressions of something rather than as the thing itself. Why are these sura circulated on the internet today? Why – if murdering Jews and Christians is so central to Islam – have Muslims been so bad at it for so long?
  • Across more than a thousand years of history, Muslims who clearly considered themselves “good Muslims” have been living in close social, political and economic harmony with their Jewish and Christians neighbours. The Muslim treatment of Jews, as is often and rightly repeated, reveals religious tolerance to be the norm rather than the exception. Andalucia is the obvious example, but there are others: the Abbasids in Baghdad, the Fatimids in Cairo, and the Ottoman Turks (who welcomed the Sephardi Jews expelled by Spain in 1492)
  • Moreover, high religious authorities like al-Azhar in Cairo have long contextualised these violent sura – placing their historicity above their universality. Sura 9:5 was the verse that finally allowed Muhammad to defend himself at Medina
  • Many Muslim women argue that repression is more easily understood as a factor of culture than it is of Islam. Feminist critiques of the Qur’an have emphasised that, as a legal document, it was progressive in its own time on the issue of women. Muslim women also often recall that women’s empowerment in the west started only in the 20th century (women in Switzerland won the right to vote only in 1971, nearly twenty years after Egypt). There is nothing “absolute” about values – they change with culture, and with time

Blame it on culture

The second argument invokes culture as the main factor in jihadi terrorism. This, much favoured by the European left, identifies a profound cultural malaise in the Muslim world that it sees as symbolic of a massive identity-breakdown.

The argument begins with the slow destruction of “pure” (or “traditional”) cultures by western modernity’s 19th century invasions. More than a century later, when competing ideologies and (modern, western) practices impose renewed pressures on Muslim societies, there is a return to questions of identity: who are we, what are we, what do we want to be?

In the late 19th century, two distinct strands of thinking emerged in answer to these questions: modernist Arabism (secular, ethnic, often socialist) that borrowed many of its ideas from the west and tried to reapply them in an Arab context; and Islamism, pioneered by luminaries like al-Afghani and Muhammad Abdou, that tried to recast identity via a modern form of Islam.

At a political level, the modernist trend won out, replacing the colonial governments that preceded them (and paved their way). The record of their modernist successors, who still rule much of the middle east, has been fairly disastrous. The opposition they have faced since the 1970s is that alternative strand of identity politics: Islamism. Today, failed secularists battle with untried Islamists – all competing to give the Muslim world its identity. Both kinds of political movement (which have many internal strands and fissures) are committed to the project of rescuing the Arab/Muslim world from cultural depression.

It has been predominantly French thinkers (among them Gilles Kepel, Farhad Khosrokhavar, Olivier Roy and Francois Burgat) who have tied today’s terrorism back to historical identity crises. They propose that the tension between these two identity poles creates terrorism. Some visualise it as a string snapping, others as a chemical experiment: Islamism plus modernism equals bin Ladenism.

Olivier Roy, of Paris’s CNRS, favours the chemical-experiment view: Muslim rhetoric and political grievances only become terrorism when western individualism is added to the mix. He argues that Islam, as a communitarian religion, could never breed highly individualist terrorists on its own. The notion of the individualist Romantic hero, which Osama bin Laden so gruesomely personifies, is in this perspective an idea borrowed from the west.

Farhad Khosrokhavar proposes the string-snapping view: radicalisation in Europe follows particular lines, in which predominantly educated people (Mohammed Atta, the Hamburg cell, British Pakistanis) are caught between two identity groups, and resort to violence out of desperation to re-establish their cultural roots on new ground.

But the problem with such analyses, which clearly overlap, is in the source material. These French thinkers access information predominantly from the west and from western Muslim countries (the Maghreb and “near east”), where radicalisation follows very different patterns to other parts of the Islamic world. Their work doesn’t make sense of Saudi radicalisation, or of broader radicalisation in the Gulf, where whole villages departed for Afghanistan and some extended family networks were more associated with jihadism than others.

Blame it on politics

The third argument puts politics at the centre of the explanation for jihadi terrorism. This assessment is strongly represented in Europe, and is by far the most common in the middle east and north Africa as well.

This argument proposes ignoring the formulations and the vocabulary of radicalisation and focusing on its agenda. The conclusion is that terrorism is grounded only and exclusively in political suffering and injustice. The Quranic rhetoric can be dismissed: jihadi terrorists “speak Muslim” (in Francois Burgat’s term) only because all other languages have been tarnished by their failure to redress these injustices.

The main culprit, in this assessment, is the west. Colonialism is blamed for emasculating and dividing the Arab world to suit western interests, and for destroying both the idea and the political possibility of the Umma. The west is blamed for exploiting the natural resources of the region to further its own growth, while ensuring the permanent weakness of its energy suppliers.

The presence of countless foreign troops on Arab/Islamic land (especially Iraq) is seen as evidence of the west’s neo-imperialism: after the British and French, the Americans. The west, and particularly the United States, is viewed as ultimately responsible for the continued humiliation of the Palestinians. Perhaps most importantly, the west is blamed for its support for dictators across the middle east. Its role as guarantor of brutal regimes makes it complicit in the criminalisation of genuine political forces in the region – Islamist or secular.

There are two major problems with the purely political approach.

First, it does not explain why people across the middle east have begun to “speak Muslim”.

Second, in haste to blame the west so universally it does not fully register the role of internal political oppression, nor the differences between various political issues in the middle east. The first intifada long preceded Osama bin Laden’s campaigns yet he invoked Palestine as a factor in his cause very late. Does anyone believe that solving the Palestinian issue will stop him?

The jihadi moment

In light of the failings of these approaches, a perspective that combines political, cultural and “Islamic” factors might offer a better explanation of jihadi terrorism.

This argues that the Arab world’s long flirtation with secular politics is the exception rather than the norm of political discourse in the region, and that Islam (unlike Christianity) is religion both of the individual believer and of political monarchs. In this light, brutal domestic politics (secular and modernist) has invented its own opposition, for which “speaking Muslim” works as a powerful identity-marker standing against the west.

This perspective can be extended to explain why the west is blamed for so many of the political failings of the middle east. In a period of political sclerosis and cultural depression, assigning blame outside eschews the painful issue of domestic responsibility. True, the west has supported autocracy in the middle east since 1945 with devastating consequences for true participatory politics; but it demands a huge leap to see this as deliberate Judeo-Christian subjugation of the Islamic Umma.

In any case, the irony of chronic west-blaming is that it highlights one of the greatest paradoxes of discourse in the region (and a strange twist in its “victim syndrome”): an idealism for the west as a sort of Messiah who never turns up.

The implications of this “synthesis” are that radicalisation, Islamism and jihadism in the middle east are a response to three kinds of “occupation”:

  • of the domestic political sphere: despotism (always secular) at home, and exclusion from the sphere of participatory politics, has forced perfectly reasonable opposition movements towards extremism and violence
  • of territory: the violation of the sovereignty of Muslim countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and – according to some thinkers – Chechnya and Bosnia) by the west (with Israel in the vanguard) has reinforced the idea of a civilisational clash
  • of the global sphere of dominance: from United States military bases in the Gulf to the west’s exploitation of the region’s natural resources and its cultural hegemony, globalisation is identified with inequitable western power

The depth of resentment towards the west at these three occupations also requires a cultural understanding that involves reconsideration of the “Islam” question.

Gilles Kepel, another prominent French scholar, has tended in recent years to prefer the concept of fitna (struggle, strife, division) to that of jihad. For Kepel, the clash of civilisations is within the middle east. In this battle, anti-western violence is rooted in the way that the west has long taken sides in this identity battle.

“Islamicness” (or “Islamicity”) – whose identity is itself now deeply contested – is one of the poles of this struggle. Liberal pundits love to suggest that what the Muslim world needs is a Protestant-style Reformation. But a Reformation is already happening in the Muslim world – Ayman al-Zawahiri, Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt, Jamaa Islamiyya in Asia, Tariq Ramadan in Europe, and many others are competing to become the Luther of their age (just as Luther competed with Anabaptists, Calvinists, and Zwinglerians).

The Reformation in Europe occurred in the aftermath of the Renaissance’s rediscovery of a competing social, political and moral model, and its associated body of learning: classical civilisation. The Islamic world, still reeling from its losing confrontation with western civilisation, might be seen as somewhere similar today. It took more than a century of horrifying bloodshed for Europe to extricate itself from its Reformation. We may well be looking at something similar on the other side of the Mediterranean.

What is to be done?

The three frameworks of explanation for jihadi terrorism discussed – religious, cultural, and political – each carries policy implications:

  • religious: sit back and wait for the third world war, unless the doors of ijtihad (Islamic rational exegesis) suddenly burst open
  • cultural: multiculturalise, encourage dialogues of civilisations, produce alternative “universalisms” which establish a core of shared values
  • political: encourage reform – inside, within, and outside the Muslim world

If all three are combined, another policy conclusion follows: only when the middle east has resolved both its political and its identity crises will it achieve stability.

The west, implicated as it is, can and must help – by striving to resolve the “occupation” trinity. This involves three steps:

  • supporting democracy (as “process” rather than as “regime change”), which is furiously desired by almost all Arabs and Muslims, while avoiding alignment with modernists against Islamists
  • driving hard to a negotiated solution on Palestine
  • withdrawing from the identity debate within the Islamic world (thus resolving the issue of “global occupation”)

A clear conclusion follows: the west must accept that, if democracy can triumph in the region, some form of Islamist government will take power in most nations. But this (as I have written elsewhere) should not be a cause of fear. Islamist governments in the region, when they come to power, will be perceived as native; and if democratic process is duly followed, they will be legitimate.

The preferred model here – for the benefit of international security just as much as for greater global integration – would be Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s moderately Islamist AKP government in Turkey, rather than the corrupt, stagnating and brutal regime of Hosni Mubarak) in Egypt. The latter represents the long-term typology of the west’s friends and allies in the region. Change is coming and should come, one that will test the practice and definition of “Islam” and “democracy” to the limit. It may come as some relief on all sides that nothing tarnishes political ideology as much as the practice of politics.

This is a shorter, edited version of an article published by the Royal United Services Institute journal (August 2005)