How terrorists see the world
If we ever hope to understand what drives a terrorist to resort to such extreme measures, we must try to see the world through his eyes, writes Mohamed Sid-Ahmed
How can a person develop a mind-set in which destruction, even of self, becomes the ultimate goal? The degree of alienation that breeds such violence is hard to fathom, but I would like to put myself in the shoes of a terrorist, even of a suicide bomber, and see the world from his perspective. it would appear as an enemy out to crush me, an enemy with which I have nothing in common. I would see myself as estranged from my surroundings, as marginalised and at the mercy of forces over which I have no control. Why should I observe the rules set by these forces for a game in which I am but a pawn?
This logic is winning new converts every day, posing a serious threat to the unipolar world order. In fact, terrorism has today become a counter pole to this order, imposing what is increasingly appearing to be a new bipolarity. This is not the first time we have experienced a bipolar world order. Such was the situation during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. But that was a very different bipolarity in which neither of the two poles saw itself as alienated from the human race. The former bipolar world order ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving one pole only, the United States, as the sole remaining superpower exercising its hegemony over the new unipolar world order.
But a new pole has emerged to challenge this hegemony, the pole of international terrorism, whose terms of reference, especially as far as suicide bombers are concerned, lie outside the realm of our understanding, even of our world. They lie, in fact, in the hereafter, in life beyond the grave. For a terrorist, what counts is not the common humanity he shares with his fellow humans, not his past, not his future, but how he will be judged on the Day of Judgement. The present must be subjected to the requirements of what is outside our present life, to experiences that have not been tested and which are therefore open to any number of interpretations. The problem is that the interpretation of holy texts is no longer the exclusive domain of theologians and religious scholars.
The relationship between terrorists and their political environment is a hostile one. Contrary to how things stood under Cold War conditions, no co-existence between the two parties is possible. While the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union was also hostile, this did not stand in the way of their both adhering to one "legitimacy", that of the United Nations, nor of their both adopting the principle of "peaceful co-existence", according to which each observed constraints on the exercise of its power in the name of world peace. But no such mutual accommodation is possible with terrorism.
While brinkmanship was practised by the two superpowers throughout the Cold War, actual military confrontation between them was averted thanks to the system of mutual deterrence that prevailed in the former bipolar world order. In the current supposedly unipolar world order, terrorism is increasingly being seen as constituting a new pole, a rallying post for the growing number of disaffected elements in the world. Indeed, it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that we are in the throes of a fourth world war, one that is qualitatively different from the two that preceded it, or, for that matter, from any wars in history.
The rise of terrorism has transformed what was a confrontation between the rich and powerful North and a poor and weak South to a confrontation between the new world order and terrorism. Although both terrorism and communism are radical in nature, the similarity stops there. Indeed, when communism constituted one of the two poles in the previous bipolar world order, terrorist acts were few and far between. For while communism is an ideology based on hope, terrorism is driven by despair, and there is thus no way the two phenomena can be reconciled.
For most people, life is a precious thing and self-preservation as basic instinct. Suicide is considered a sin in all religions, and yet suicide bombers justify their actions in the name of religion. The indiscriminate killing of innocent men, women and children in an undeclared war with no rules indicates a depth of anger and despair that is beyond comprehension. In acting out his anger against society, a terrorist is avenging himself for the raw deal he believes he has received at its hands. He is redressing the balance: if his life is not worth saving, then neither is that of his enemies. The difference between them is that he is ready to die, they are not. This warped logic must be confronted and defeated.
If terrorists are ready to play the game of death, anti-terrorism must be capable of upholding the game of life. What does that mean? It means to be aware that the spread of frustration, despondency and despair is actually a process in which all parties are losers. So how to invent an alternative means out of which all can win?
A characteristic of the international economic situation today is that the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. One way out of this vicious circle is to link the wealth of the rich to the poverty of the poor in a more constructive manner, say by levying a tax on wealthy nations and using the proceeds to set up a fund from which to finance development projects in poor countries. Of course, the main problem here is getting all parties to agree to such a mechanism to begin with and then to agree on the body that should be given discretionary power to manage the fund and determine how it is to be used. Another problem is that the concept of setting up a fund of this sort runs counter to current economic trends, which oppose anything that smacks of interventionism and over-planning as promoting bureaucracy and frustrating private enterprise.
How to overcome this dilemma, which stands at the heart of the problem of terrorism? The huge and growing gap between rich and poor, the unfair distribution of global wealth and welfare and the unchallenged supremacy of market forces in today's world have created a disgruntled and resentful underclass whose members make ideal recruits for terrorism.
This is an issue that must be promptly addressed before it gets completely out of hand. Until recently, intervention in economic life did promote bureaucracy, but this need no longer be the case. With the digital revolution comes the ability to access and deal with facts and figures at the touch of a button, dispensing with the need for unwieldy bureaucracies.
But while technology can play a vital role in combating terrorism, it can do so only in tandem with the political will to address the underlying causes of this modern scourge.