Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1348, (8 - 14 June 2017)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1348, (8 - 14 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Terrorism — the wrong debate

Thinking that jihadist acts of terror prove there is something wrong with different political regimes is fundamentally the wrong approach, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

Whenever France is hit by terrorist attacks, many pundits, whether American, French or others, say there is a serious problem with the “French model”. This model of “republican integration” is suspect, they say, as it tries to impose on the various segments of society a common culture that is modern and secular.

This, according to the pundits, shows contempt for religious people, for local sub-cultures, and for the “cultures of the other”. It is inherently violent and schizophrenic: the common culture claims that it sanctifies individual and human rights, yet it tries to impose common behaviour on everyone, they say, in what amounts to a contemporary form of racism. A subtler attack says that the traditional French model cannot act against discrimination in the private sphere, and indeed has a say in it, as it tries to suppress certain identities in the name of the dominant one.

When Egypt is hit by terrorist attacks, the same pundits and others say that terrorism is a reaction to authoritarianism. The regime is undemocratic, they say, as it suppresses political activities and does not respect human rights. Moreover, social inequalities are huge and increasing. The poor have no option but violence, such pundits says, and this is the only way to achieve change. They also say that the violence of successive regimes in Egypt has been the main cause of terrorism despite the plain fact that if you look at the chronology it has more often than not been the other way around.

In both cases, the concept of symbolic violence is helpful to those who adopt the approach that says that “society is wrong, and terrorism is the result of avoidable social ills.” In France and Egypt, some people become radicalised in jail. In Egypt, torture under former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser is said to have been the cause of many Islamists’ radicalisation. Islamist ideologue Sayed Qotb wrote his book Milestones on the Road while in prison, for example. In France, the numbers of those radicalised in prison says a lot, and there is an ongoing debate that is trying to find solutions to it.

Now it is the turn of England. A renowned French academic has said that the recent terrorist atrocities in England have proved that the “communitarian” and multiculturalist model is more of a failure than the “universalist” French one. This model says that a society can consist of a juxtaposition of disunited ghettos, the academic says, adding that this has encouraged a tendency to let self-proclaimed religious leaders govern some of these at the expense of the community as a whole.

The model has shown too much tolerance for all kinds of speech, the pundits say. It did not seem to consider the possibility that the proliferation of ideologies that advocate the eradication of others should not be permitted. It thought ethnic or religious origins were determining for individuals, and this idea became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. It led to a system of quotas, for example.

To cut a long story short, all societies hit by terrorism are now paying for their sins. There is something deeply wrong in all their models.

I am not claiming that there are no differences between democracies and authoritarian regimes, and I am not saying a serious and in-depth discussion of the respective strengths and weaknesses of “republican integration” and of “multiculturalism” is not overdue. Experience has shown that the former has a strong bias against the expression of religious beliefs in the public sphere and religious differentiation, while the latter is very ill-equipped to deal with dangerous discourses and practices and allows too much space for differences. A recipe that proves effective in one society can prove catastrophic in another, so social engineers should proceed with caution. But none of this is my main point.

I am saying that to think that acts of terror perpetrated by jihadists prove by their existence that there is something wrong with different political regimes or societal models and structures is the wrong approach. The great variety of the jihadists’ targets should warn us against it.

Any political regime or any societal organisation is about the integration of individuals and cohabitation among them. Of course, some systems are more successful than others, and in all cases there is a price to pay, with some people feeling that they are the losers. The society where everybody is satisfied and thinks there is hope to improve his lot, or that of his children’s, has yet to be found. This is in some ways a fortunate thing, as dissatisfaction is usually a powerful incentive for progress.

The jihadist doctrine is one that is against integration and coexistence. It considers the other, any other, to be evil, seeing the other as something that must be suppressed, or at least made to submit or suffer humiliation. As a result, any formula guaranteeing a kind of coexistence will be the enemy. It should not be allowed to work, and whatever the political formula that organises coexistence, this should also be fought as long as it is not similar to the jihadists’ interpretation of Islamic doctrine. A formula that works is a worse enemy than a dysfunctional one.

Jihadism says that anger is legitimate and expressing it by violent means proves that the jihadist is superior as someone who belongs to an elite group of fighters who can accomplish duties that will be rewarded by God. This message can seduce and provide solace for those who have no hope, but Al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahri do not fit into this scheme. They were both the sons of very rich families.

The debate on the respective virtues of political and societal formulas assumes there ought to be some way to radically reduce discontent, to bring hope, or even to make everybody happy. No economic system is immune to crisis, but the problem lies deeper than that. Capitalism has created a very tough world, and the coexistence of different ways of life and beliefs leaves some people unhappy, including those who think that society, instead of saying that beliefs are relative, should provide them with absolute truth and then enforce it, those who think they are, or they are becoming, a minority, and those who simply do not like what they see around them.

Convincing all such people that destroying society is not the solution is not an easy task, especially if they do not see a way to take power or if they are told destruction is the road to paradise. At least a few will be tempted.    

The writer is professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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