Terrorism is born of despair, not faith

October 10, 2001|By Shibley Telhami

THERE IS no escaping that much of today's political militancy is carried out by Islamist groups in the name of Islam and that these groups are on the ascendance. Why?

The answer is hardly mysterious: In the absence of democracy and legitimate means for organizing political opposition, people turn to social organization. The mosque is one of the few vehicles for mass political mobilization. And there are profound reasons, both on foreign and domestic policy, for people to want to oppose the existing order.

There is pervasive despair and humiliation in the Middle East. People turn to available vehicles of political organization, sometimes instrumentally, sometimes instinctively. This despair is the "demand side" of terrorism. Terrorists who have their own aims, including personal ambition or greed, can exploit this despair to recruit members, get financial support and show a public that may be resigned to its humiliation that change is possible.

Indeed, the horrific attacks on New York and Washington have frightened both governments and elites in the Middle East into asking, "Can we afford to live in Osama bin Laden's world?" They also inspired those who will do almost anything to see change. If a few dozen men with knives can inflict so much pain on the sole superpower and threaten the world order, they too can act by joining or emulating them.

This is a haunting prospect, which is clearly not driven by religion or theology but by evil people exploiting despair.

In the Middle East, one of the most radical Palestinian groups that used jetliner hijackings in the late 1960s was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is a secular organization founded by a Christian physician. It attracted many members among the better-educated. The secularism of that group should also be a reminder of the mistaken assumptions many make about the relationship between the Islamic religion and violence.

Nor can theology explain suicide as a method of terrorism. The perpetrators and their supporters may twist religion to suit their ends and brush aside the basic Islamic doctrine prohibiting suicide.

If the assumption is that Muslims don't fear death because they believe they are rewarded in heaven, we have to look no further than our television screens these days to find that it is false. Hundreds of thousands of faithful Muslims fled Afghanistan fearing for their lives as the United States mounted its response to the terrorist crimes.

And look no further than bin Laden's own recruitment tapes that he distributes in the Arab world. His primary means of motivating his public is showing pictures of dead Muslims in Palestine, Iraq and Chechnya.

Certainly, the suicide bombers have come from Islamist groups in recent years, and they do use "martyrdom" to justify their actions. But it is forgotten that militant secular Palestinian groups in the 1950s and 1960s, which included Christians, were called fedayeen, or those who sacrifice their lives.

And it is also forgotten that when the suicide bombings began in Lebanon in the 1980s, Western analysts attributed them specifically to the Shiite branch of Islam. Shiite is the religion of Hezbollah, the militant group carrying out these bombings. It since has stopped using suicide as a tool.

From the perspective of individuals, suicide as a method is strictly irrational; from the point of view of a ruthless group, it is terrifyingly efficient. Bin Laden's group must be seen as a cult. Its method of persuasion is akin to brainwashing, although there are always reasons for any person to be willing to die.

Once a group is willing to use ruthless methods and kill so many innocent civilians, the sacrifice of individuals is horrifyingly effective because it is very difficult to defend against. From the group's point of view, it will lose fewer fighters and inflict more casualties on its enemies with suicide death squads than if it used guerrilla warfare. The horror that befell America is a haunting reminder of the danger ahead.

But to address this danger, one must begin not with theories about mysterious religious doctrines and irrational people, but with three arenas of confrontation.

First, confront the "supply side," the merchants of death who exploit despair for their own ends.

Second, work with the international community to de-legitimize attacks on civilians as a political instrument and suicide attacks as something to be celebrated; the war must also be a war of ideas.

Third, don't forget the "demand side." There is legitimate anger and genuine despair in the Middle East today, which provides fertile ground for terrorists to exploit. Unless we address the roots of this anger and despair, new terrorists exploiting public hopelessness could replace the ones we destroy.

Shibley Telhami is Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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