The dangers of international terrorism

IssueJune - August 2004
Comment by Bob Glaberson

I write as a lifelong peace campaigner who has been on all the big demos against the Iraq war, and at the same time is very concerned that the peace movement is failing to come to grips with the dangers posed by international terrorism.

The tendency is to blame the US for terrorist atrocities rather than the terrorists themselves, thus making it difficult to confront the issue of terrorism directly. However, terrorism in general and Al Qaeda in particular pose dangers to peace in their own right. Terrorist groups often espouse reactionary doctrines which, along with destructive intentions, should be considered distinct threats to peace. This article is a call for a discussion within the peace movement on these issues.

Identifying danger

International terrorism comes in many forms, from religiously and politically motivated groups to those motivated by financial gain.

At the non-political end of the spectrum, we find groups such as the blackmailers who threatened to attack the French railway system with explosives unless a heavy ransom was paid by the government. Political terrorists have been most active recently and pose the greatest danger at the moment. In addition to the devastation caused, terrorist groups with a political agenda embolden by example groups with a wide variety of motives, including purely criminal ones, to commit acts of terror in the hope of achieving their aims.

To stop terrorism from getting out of control, we need therefore to be clear about what is going on at the sharp end. We need to be clear, in particular, about the characteristics of the more radical offshoots of militant Islamism, for these pose the greatest dangers at the moment.

Islamism is not Islam

Islamism is not the same as Islam. When we think of the latter we think of religion, whereas the former more closely resembles political ideology.

Islamism is a broad spectrum, but the various tendencies are united by the belief that societies should, in some way, be guided by the Qu'ran. Some Islamists participate in secular electoral politics, as in Turkey. At the more extreme end, groups such as Al Qaeda advocate a world-wide theocratic state with curbs on women's freedom, hostility to democracy, an overall intolerance toward ideas which do not fit their views and a commitment to violence to achieve their ends. Such groups also tend to be virulently anti-semitic.

This brings us to the question of what strategies the peace movement(s) ought to adopt to deal with international terrorism. With regard to non-political terrorism, there may be little controversy. Good police work and intelligence may well be readily accepted as applicable. With regard to politicised forms of terrorism, something additional is needed: political opposition.

Peace movement strategy

The current peace movement strategy with regard to radical political Islamism seems to be one of bringing pressure to bear on the United States. If the United States can be dissuaded from some of its foreign policies in the Middle East and elsewhere, the argument goes, terrorists would no longer have either motive or support for their campaigns.

There is every reason to want to change the world in this way because it will undoubtedly help to reduce the threats we face. On the other hand, US foreign policy can, in my view, only indirectly influence the growth or decline of terrorism, whereas international terrorism, and Al Qaeda in particular, pose a direct threat.

In addition, more Islamist violence has been directed against moderate Muslims than the US, which says something about the reactionary nature of the threat, which cannot be assuaged by changes in US policy alone. Further, there is a danger that those on the left may be mis-perceiving the motives of Osama bin Laden and others like him.

There is a tendency to read anti-Americanism as a continuation of the past century's national liberation struggles. Nothing could be wider of the mark. Nationalism and socialism are opposed by many radical Islamists, even to the point of opposing a Palestinian state! A world-wide theocracy brought about through jihad is the antithesis of everything the left has campaigned for in the past.

Rationalising and appeasing

The problem with blaming something outside itself for the crimes of Al Qaeda and others, is that it is a subtle form of rationalising. This often occurs when people talk about “understanding” the actions of terrorists. Understanding is not the same as condoning.

For example, someone may decide to become a nazi because they feel poor and oppressed. I might be able to understand their reasons for becoming a nazi, but I would be bound to argue that they were mistaken in believing that nazism was the best alternative. I would want to argue that socialism, progressive nationalism, democracy, peacemaking, any or all of the above were superior choices. This, it seems to me, is far preferable to my developing a fantasy about becoming a nazi or a terrorist were I in the other person's shoes.

Rationalising, projecting or pre-judging may lead to attempts to appease terrorism, which in my view would be fatal. Appeasement is to terrorism what petrol is to fire. If it is fed what it wants it will burn more fiercely. If it succeeds in frightening one group or country into submission, terrorists will feel that they have scored a victory and try again. If people stand up against terrorism, then the terrorists will have less reason to attack, for they will have nothing to gain.

Political resistance to terrorism

With this in mind, I suggest we need to develop political resistance to all forms of international political terrorism. Without this, there will be no will to campaign for greater vigilance, better security and intelligence, and little stomach for the sorts of education work needed to convince potential terrorists and their supporters that there is a better way.

In this country the Muslim Council of Britain has acted courageously by condemning terrorism and encouraging its members to actively oppose it. Let us follow their example.

Topics: Religion, Terrorism