Thursday,23 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)
Thursday,23 May, 2019
Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Terrorism and the blame game

Playing the blame game on terrorism can at least help us to grasp the complexities of the problem, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

A hideous terrorist attack occurs in Europe or the US or elsewhere causing huge Western casualties. All the news channels discuss terrorism, its causes, roots, the evolving nature of the threat, and the relationship between Islam and violent extremism. All the channels invite scholars, experts, columnists, opinion leaders, political leaders, religious leaders and members of the counter-terrorism community. This is where the blame game starts.

This country is the main sponsor of terror. No, this one laid the ground for it because of its ideology. Poverty is the main cause, and society’s failure to deal with this is to blame. No, the former leader of Al-Qaeda Osama bin Laden was not poor. Islam is growing more radical. No, radicalism means opting for jihadism, and this explains the key role played by converts. Deradicalisation is the right approach; no, it is a total failure. The intelligence agencies are not up to the task; no the political leaders are unwilling to allocate the necessary resources.

The police are not well-organised. No, the judiciary is too lenient. The problem lies with Islam; no the problem lies with the West’s behaviour.

Jihadists hate the West’s values; no the jihadists hate what the West is doing in the Muslim world. The main threat is abroad; no it is an internal one. Multiculturalism is the solution; no, it is the cause, and it will only aggravate the problem. Religious institutions are not playing their role; no intellectuals and politicians are to blame. We need psychiatrists; no, you’re kidding — terrorism is not a mental illness.

 Left-wing politicians blame right-wing ones for the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and for budget cuts; right-wingers blame leftists for the complacency of former US presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, along with their unwillingness to name the enemy, for Obama’s use of the “drone option”, and for their naiveté and pro-Islamist bias. Western academics say the Arab states are to blame, as their authoritarianism and religious policies have fuelled the beast. Many Arab experts (myself included) say betting on the Muslim Brotherhood was a blunder of the first magnitude. And so the game goes on.

I am not going to blame the blame game. It has its virtues, and there is no public debate without accusations and counter-accusations. The blame game helps us to grasp the complexities of the issue. It is obvious that the majority has a point, and it is obvious too that it overplays it. Terrorism for many intellectuals is an opportunity to denounce what they do not like in the world, and it is true that there are many distasteful trends. This does not mean that all their arguments are equivalent, however. Some seem solid; others look plausible; and still others are not supported by convincing evidence. Some are simply preposterous.

It is the lack of self-criticism that is worrying, along with all the petty disputes and conflicting claims. A global picture combining long-term trends and immediate causes, along with social, economic and cultural factors, may be too gloomy and of no help to political decision-makers. But it might help us to underline the magnitude of the challenge.

Some long-term trends are well-known. Globalisation creates resources for transnational terrorism and many losers in the centre and the periphery who see their traditional world and family structures being destroyed and their culture and identity threatened. Globalisation means an encounter between different worlds, with massive migration and the global media playing major roles. Many do not like what they see.

In today’s global village, each community is a minority. And for many this is a new and traumatic novelty. So-called recipes for dealing with such new realities are unpalatable and as a result violent ideologies and nihilism gain new life. Their appeal may seduce many almost everywhere, including in Central and Latin America.

Two major historical developments played a role. All the Mediterranean countries, along with Germany, saw the development of what the great German historian George Mosse called “the culture of war” during the last century, a culture that magnified war and individual sacrifice, demonised the enemy, and hid the human toll of conflict’s horrors. The European countries destroyed themselves and finally rejected this culture of death.

In the Middle East, the Muslim caliphate collapsed in 1924, and the Arab-Israeli conflict and national liberation struggles developed in the region. The financial clout of Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood and the decline of traditional religious institutions led to the dissemination of the most puritanical and extreme versions of religious discourse. Minority and victim mindsets that see society as a threat to identity and the spread of a culture of war and rigorist interpretation have been a recipe for huge problems.

Social ills and political repression have worsened the plague. The narcissism of the global elites and the discourse of the global media have been of little help, to say the least. Add to this an accumulation of major political blunders, the most obvious being the Iraq War, and to a lesser extent liberal slowness and naiveté, and the result is the present bleak picture.

In the unfolding of this new reality, terrorism has played a major role. Many countries, many institutions, and many players can be blamed. More worryingly, most are unwilling to consider the steps necessary to ending it, including confronting powerful sponsors. They rightly claim that such actions “will not be enough”, or that “we cannot afford to alienate such and such a country for various reasons.”

Many of these arguments are flawed or even silly. For instance, it could be said that the Palestinian plight has played an important role in the rise of the radicals (right), so the solution of this dispute would quiet down the problem (wrong). The policies and behaviour of the Arab regimes has fuelled the phenomenon (right), and democratic transition is the solution (wrong, as proven by the Tunisian case).

In many cases, we simply do not know what to do. How should we consider conservative segments of the population?  It might be said that they are unwilling to reconsider their religious discourse and that their dislike for the modern world and liberal societies adds to the arguments of the extremists. This may mean that such segments of the population are enemies.

On the other hand, it could be said that they are a crucial segment of the population who may hate the modern and post-modern world, but who are also fierce opponents of Islamist ideologies, considering them to be unwanted novelties carrying with them disastrous and hateful policies. They can be a powerful ally, it might be said, so it is better to placate them.

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

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