March 08, 2005

Who Created Terrorism?

Juan Cole's long rant on the causes of terrorism today has a lot to recommend it. Here's the key excerpt:
I don't believe that authoritarian governance produced most episodes of terrorism in the last 60 years in the region. Terrorism was a weapon of the weak wielded against what these radical Muslims saw as a menacing foreign occupation. To erase that fact is to commit a basic error in historical understanding. It is why the US military occupation of Iraq is actually a negative for any "war on terror." Nor do I believe that democratization, even if it is possible, is going to end terrorism in and of itself.
A few observations. I won't pretend to know the history of the Muslim world well enough to dispute Cole—so let's assume that in the past, imperialism has been the cause of terrorism, rather than authoritarianism. (Come to think of it, I don't think Cole's theory explains the rise of radical Muslim terrorism in Indonesia, which appears to have been fueled in large part by rising poverty in the late 1990s, or in Thailand or Malaysia or Burma.)

But even if Cole's theory has held true for the past, that doesn't mean it's still true today. [UPDATE: Bleh, I wrote this post way too quickly and it didn't come out very well. So I'm going to offer the short version of my theory here and tuck the longer, somewhat sloppy explanation below the fold.]

A better way of looking at the situation might be this: radical Muslim terrorism is the product of a large number of intersecting factors, including nationalist/historical/economic grievances, the presence of radical Islam via political marginalization, frustration with Arab regimes, frustration with the United States, and, I think of increasing importance today, the presence of a radical vanguard promoting a relatively unique and modern jihadist ideology. Of those various factors, authoritarianism in the Middle East plays a large part in promoting the spread of radical Islam as well as certain economic/political grievances. But those factors haven't always been, by themselves, sufficient conditions for terrorism.

To start off, I think we have to make a number of distinctions here.

First, let's distinguish, as I like to do, between radical Islamists (al-Qaeda, etc.) and mainstream Islamists (the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, say). The former group, I think, has largely usurped its own Islamic character and become primarily a political group: primarily anti-imperialistic and with a distinct political agenda in the developing world. In the case of al-Qaeda, this trend will continue to become clear as the group "franchises" out to a wide variety of movements around the globe—and in so doing, it will dilute the salafist message it adheres to—and also as it forges alliances with predominantly local groups (Sunni and Chechen nationalists, for instance). More and more, this will become a global fight against an increasingly vague concept of imperialism around the world, losing much of its ideological purity.

In a sense, the radical Islamists are exporting an ideology. And the ideology very much resembles the Marxism of old. It's no surprise, as Olivier Roy observes, that many of the fiercest of contemporary Islamic ideologues are former leftists. More to the point, among the hard core radical Islamists who have made it their goal to attack the "far enemy" in the West, most of the terrorists are well-educated, relatively wealthy, and haven't been trained in madrassahs (the backwater extremist religious schools). According to Marc Sageman, most of these fighters were not very religious when they became jihadists—Islam was primarily a way (and a crucial way) to forge a group identity among the vanguard.

At any rate, the jihadists—the vanguard—have developed an ideology that very much adapts itself to local concerns. Their appeal stems, in large part, from the prestige won in Afghanistan during the 1980s. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, the anti-government jihad ideology seems to be propagated in large part by a core of Afghan veterans. (Wahhabism has been around for ages, and has a more complex genesis, and jihad to a large part intertwines with Wahhabism, but I think you can separate the two.) That ideology has caught on marvelously well down in the disaffected tribal areas in the southern province of Asir, which is considered a hick backwater by the rest of the country. Asiris, by the way, heavily populate the Saudi security services since that's one of their few means of advancement. The anti-regime ideology also caught on in Najd province, where many Najdis have long had a historical grudge against the royal Saudi family. (Westerners don't realize it, but the regional divides in Saudi Arabia are just as important, if not more so, as the religious divides.)

So in essence, it's as if you have local groups with historical or national grievances latching on to a radical jihadist ideology. The end result, as we've seen, is terrorism. (Half of the 9/11 hijackers, for instance, were from Asir, and Asiri involvement in some of the local Saudi attacks is often heavily rumored.)

Now here's the other thing. Conservative Islam, in itself, doesn't not produce terrorism. Indeed, there are many mainstream Islamist groups that don't resort to violence. But it is certainly a fertile ground for terrorism—Marc Gould's essay here really explains this quite well—and when you have the right mix of conservative Islam, nationalist or anti-imperialist grievances, and a vanguard of radical Islamists leading the charge, you get terrorism.

So that said, I think authoritarianism—by which I mean the presence of despotic and largely secular Arab regimes—does produce radical Islam. As Michael Hirsh writes here, drawing on the work of a number of Arabist academics, Islam has been misshapen by the presence of secular dictatorships around the Middle East, becoming a refuge for political frustration. Democracy—by which one means a democracy that integrates Islam back into the political mainstream—can somewhat change this dynamic. So it's important. But it's also only part of the story.

Anyway, this is far from the complete story—it's complicated!—and if I sound sure of myself, I'm not, it's just that it's hard to litter a blog post with constant qualifiers like "maybe" and "somewhat" and a bunch of "on the other hand" parentheticals. I've conflated and/or simplified a lot of events and concepts. Really, a closer country-by-country analysis would be fruitful. But it's a stab, I guess, at thinking about this topic seriously.

Continue reading "Who Created Terrorism?"
-- Brad Plumer 3:11 AM || ||