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A Hellish Marriage: Terrorism and Repression
There is an easy association in the media, and even academia, between fanaticism, anti-Westernism and terrorism. Islamic fundamentalists seem to feature prominently in this triangle, whether as tourist killers in Egypt, suicide bombers in Israel, or Chechen fighters in Grozny.
A strong presence of ill-informed tabloid media readily draws upon a relationship between 'fundamentalist' Islam and terrorism. Religious fanatics, trained in Afghanistan or Iran, ready to challenge the West and its values, in a great Jihad for the sake of 'Allah' is, unfortunately, the image we tend to derive from the popular press, and even AMDIA (re: article...).
Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian President, seemingly compounded this image earlier last year, particularly in the USA, when he warned there that the greatest threat facing the world in the coming century would be terrorism - not famine, disease nor water shortages, or even sanctions, which have currently killed around 5% of Iraq's population, a percentage which technically may be understood as genocide.
Mubarak did not specify the ethnicity or religion of these would-be terrorists, who will threaten the world. However his announcement, as the president of the Middle East's most populous Arab-Islamic nation, was a parallel too strong to be overlooked.
His announced solution to terrorism involves 'containment': increasing intelligence, security forces and their powers, which both Clinton and Putin favour, despite their potential to erode away citizen's rights. Interestingly, Russia particularly supports this proposal, despite its lack of success in Chechnya.
Despite its popularity amongst world leaders, Mubarak's solution reflects the commonly accepted idea that terrorists are innately so: crazy fanatics, possibly Muslim 'fundamentalists', who can be crushed with the availability of more police, more security, more liberal interrogation methods, and more repression.
Yet, if this were true, then terrorism could have been easily contained, particularly in the Middle East, where militarised regimes have all the necessary resources to enjoy tight security, intelligence agencies (both civilian and military), in addition to the liberty to heighten repression at the expense of democracy. The fact is that despite all these measures, terrorism continues to exist in the Middle East, defying Mubarak's solution.
Rather, the notion of a marriage between Islam and terrorism, supported by verses from the Qur'an and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, enjoining Muslims to make a Jihad for the sake of Allah, overlooks the relationship that exists between the beliefs of any minority which has a self-perception of oppression, and the state, and the Orientalist representation of Muslims and Arabs in the popular press.
Terrorism exists in all repressive societies and people from all ethnic and religious backgrounds carry out violent and brutal acts. However, their actions are not normally linked to their religion in a broad sense, even when they claim to be acting on behalf of their beliefs. The Oklahoma bombers were not accused of being 'Protestant Christian' fundamentalists; a Jewish settler in Hebron who opened fire into the mosque, killing around 80 worshipers was an 'Orthodox Jewish extremist', rather than given the broader title of 'Jewish fundamentalist extremist'. Obviously, it is unlikely that in either case there is a justifiable relationship between the terrorist's acts and the religion involved. Nevertheless, a Muslim who carries out violent actions is broadly, rather than specifically titled, mostly as 'an Islamic fundamentalist', and his actions are attributed to 'the rise of Islamic fundamentalism'.
Although a Muslim may justify violence in the name of religion, the same title -Islamic fundamentalist- is given to women who wears a veil; and the act of wearing a veil is also attributed to the 'rise of Islamic fundamentalism'. Clearly, most veiled women do not believe bombing civilians is justified religiously, although she and the terrorist earn a similar title from the press. Thus there exists in the media the dangerous trend of imposing upon a religious group the actions of a dangerous few; a phenomenon Edward Said has articulated in his classic work, "Orientalism".
Terrorism does not occur in a void. By terrorism, it is meant the violent actions carried out by a minority group within society in order to pursue political or social goals. "State terrorism" is not implied in this definition, although more attention certianly needs to be given to the existence of state terrorism, which is far more brutal and ugly than the terrorism discussed here. Terrorism flourishes under certain types of state structures in which ethnic and religious groups suffer from political repression, and often, social repression and economic disenfranchisement. As legitimate political dissent is denied, other forums for expression are found, particularly among the highly educated, underemployed or unemployed living in societies, where wealthy and corrupt minorities ostentatiously live outrageously rich life-styles; among those who live in the modern nation-state structure but are unfairly denied its economic and political fruits.
Thus terrorism may be understood as a dynamic relationship between those who are denied, and those who have power; a relationship broader than the dictum that terrorists are irrational Islamic (or anything else) fundamentalists, or that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Terrorism is an expression of the forces which create it. Repression, whether social, economic or political, inevitably leads to extremism, which may lead to terrorism in order to express dissent or gain power, whether real or psychological.
The act of terrorising civilians indicates terrorists imitate the means by which the state gains and preserves power, by the brutalisation of civilians. It is unsurprising that in countries considered 'replete' with terrorist activity, such as Algeria, Egypt and Palestine, people fear their own governments more than terrorists.
The outraged, seeing the carnage that terrorism inflicts, in the Luxor massacre or car bombs in Turkey -amongst others- struggle to understand why terrorists carry out acts of violence against civilians, uninvolved in repressive state machinations, particularly when terrorist acts seem to strengthen the state's powers. In this regard, terrorism is a politically calculated manoeuvre to gain attention to a cause, to demonstrate the power of the minority, uncontrolled by the state. However, as terrorists particularly target those perceived to somehow represent or support the state, such as civilians of the same ethnicity or religion as the state, it should also be seen as an expression of frustration, and thus of powerlessness itself.
Most terrorist organisations understand their relationship to the state. Most are not the individual actions of a loose grouping of madmen. Many have ideological support in civil society, although people may not necessarily agree with their means. Whether the IRA in Northern Ireland, or al-Jihad in Egypt, they are in effect social and political organisations, addressing the frustrations and aspirations of the people. Terrorism is relegated to the military/political branches, employed as the most effective means of articulating discontent when others are repressed. They have development projects, social and welfare officers, councillors, and education programs.
When Governments targeted by terrorism call for dialogue, many 'terrorist' organisations respond. Acts of violence dissipate, indicating that terrorists use the forms of dissent open to them by the state, and imitate forms the government employs. In some cases, such as the PLO, they are the instigators of conciliation.
Nevertheless, terrorists are not simply latent 'freedom fighters', although this may be true in some instances. Terrorists also tend to imitate the political structures they fight against, when victorious, as a means of expressing their own rule. The trend, in fact, is that terrorists, just like revolutionaries, tend to build the same structures of the states that they were fighting against if they ever succeed in establishing their own regimes.
Yasser Arafat, who elegantly transformed himself from a 'terrorist' to a freedom fighter, then a statesman, runs one of the world's smallest and most politically repressive states in the world. On the other hand, the new Irish parliament is democratic, although many of the factions within it have operated in violence for decades. This may be an indication of the UK's success in developing a democratic model for legitimate articulation of dissent.
There is an integral relationship between terrorism and the state. Terrorism may be a symptom of a greater political crisis: the absence of democracy, or its disfunctionalism; a lack of grass-roots support for political rule, the repression of legitimate means to dissent and challenge power. This partly explains why it is that when 'terrorists' come to power, their rule is often as brutal as the system they replaced. For neither operates by the will of the majority, and thus the majority must be controlled. The majority, civilians, are a mass to both groups, to be manipulated to gain or maintain power.
As terrorism is currently understood, the public is beguiled into thinking that there exists an easy, brutal way of dealing with terrorism, because terrorists are inherently violent, evil -and mostly Muslim- incorrectly assuming that the societies in which terrorists operate, are relatively democratic and fair. This is not the case, nor is it the case that all terrorists are covert freedom fighters, innocent of the brutality they inflict. Rather, many terrorists are killers, as are those within legitimate political structures.
Accordingly, it appears that dealing with the relationship of the state to its civilians, and then to those who dissent, alters the nature of terrorism itself. As governments change and develop political structures, allowing for legitimate articulation of dissent, perhaps functional democracy, the causes that stimulate terrorism may dissipate, and eventually disappear.