September 08, 2005

Why Do They Do It?

The Washington Post today, on the growing danger of Islamic terrorism in Europe, hands over the microphone to Robert Pape, who says: "Every suicide terrorist campaign has had a clear goal that is secular and political: to compel a modern democracy to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland." Er, maybe. You can find Pape's theory at greater length here, and perhaps withdrawing all of our military forces from the Middle East really would put a stop to suicide terrorism. But Farhad Khosrokhavar's study on the "cult of martyrdom" in Europe, as quoted in the New York Review of Books this week, adds an important dimension in his description of candidates for suicide terrorism in Britain:
[Y]oung second-generation Pakistanis, many of whom are highly educated and who are fascinated by the important role the association [with jihad] gives them: they are the vanguard of the new Islamic world that is about to come into being. They therefore feel that they have a prophetic role to play in their parents' country of origin. That allows them to recover much of the dignity they have lost in Western societies, where they feel themselves to be the object of scorn and an almost palpable racism. Although they are not excluded from society, these young men are deeply discontented because of the discrimination they suffer. They have no access to the jobs and opportunities for which their level of education and their abilities qualify them. They have been insidiously marginalised by stigmatisation and racism, and their imaginary amplifies the effects of both.

Because they feel themselves to be victims, they explain their failures in terms of their stigma, but they lose sight of their own inability to adapt to the new constraints of modern society. They also feel a vague but crushing sense of guilt about their parents' societies, especially when, like Pakistan, most Arab countries or even Afghanistan (which is Pashtu-speaking; the language is similar to Urdu) are hit by crises. Thanks to these associations, they become Islam's world actors, and they can therefore feel that they are reestablishing their links with the Islamic societies from which they have been cut off. They also have the impression that, as actors, they are more important than the Western societies that stigmatise them believe them to be. In symbolic terms, this allows them to feel superior to the West that despises them.
Judging from everything we now know about the July 7th bombings in London, and those who carried them out, that description looks quite prescient (the book was written way back in 2002). Pape's theory, I think, has more to do with past trends—and the fact that his data was heavily, heavily weighted by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka—than the future of Islamic terrorism, which seems to be shifting somewhat in character. Indeed, Pape's analysis ignores virtually everything Khosrokhavar, an Iranian sociologist, tries to describe, especially the cultural dislocation felt by many Muslims in Europe and their apparently deep ambivalence towards the West. Describing this new generation of jihadists as a conglomeration of national liberation campaigns, while useful and probably containing a good deal of truth to it, seems to miss this angle.

Something similar, perhaps, may now be going on in Iraq, where, as Christian Caryl points out, over 400 suicide bombings have rocked the country since 2003, the vast majority directed against Shiites and Iraqi security forces rather than Americans. How many of these bombers are motivated purely by the occupation? Hard to say. It's probably true that there's a decently-sized anti-occupation wing of the Iraqi insurgency that could be splintered off from the rest and placated if the U.S. would just set a timetable for withdrawal, but many or most of the suicide bombers in Iraq, one would think, are not wholly part of this group—and nor are they in short supply.
-- Brad Plumer 3:32 PM || ||