Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Village's Vanguard

Foreign Policy magazine has an interesting web-only Think Again column penned by C. Christine Fair and Husain Haqqani which endeavors to refute some of the popular myths associated with the origins of "Islamist Terrorism" as they term it. First, some relevant myth-busting excerpts that are worth a look (in statement and answer form):

"Fixing the Israel-Palestinian Problem Will Make Terrorism Go Away"

Hardly. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is important, but it is by no means the only issue inspiring the ideology of global jihad. There are several pivotal conflicts around the world that animate militant Islamist ideology, from the Caucasus and the Balkans to the Southern Philippines and the intractable Kashmir conflict. Militant Islamists also see a connection between their local issues and global politics. To them, Muslims are victims in every conflict and the West is responsible for Muslim suffering and powerlessness. [...]

"Young, Unmarried Muslim Males Are the Most Likely to Become Terrorists"

No. It is de rigueur to suggest that young, unmarried, Muslim males are the most likely population to become terrorists or to support terrorism. But from the perspective of the global supply of terrorists, this claim is false. [...]

"Madrasas Are Terrorist Factories"

That’s an exaggeration. Do madrasas (ultra-conservative religious schools) produce students who are less tolerant towards other religions, opposed to the rights of women, and more likely to support militant means for resolving disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims? Definitely. But this is not tantamount to training for terrorism. None of the 9/11 hijackers attended a madrasa. And there is no evidence that any of the terrorists involved in major international terror attacks during the last four years ever enrolled as regular students in a madrasa, though they may have passed through madrasas on the way to terrorist training camps. [...]
So with all those "contras" laid out, the authors offer up a "pro":

"Perceived Threats to Islam Create Support for Terrorism"

Absolutely. There is tremendous hesitance to admit that Muslim populations, on whose behalf terrorists claim to operate, have grievances or concerns that need to be addressed as a means to minimizing public support for terrorism. For some, this is the moral equivalent of negotiating with terrorism. This is unfortunate, because these grievances matter.

In some countries, including Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan, and more than 70 percent of the population believes that Islam is under threat. Support for terrorism feeds on the belief that large segments of the Muslim world are victims of ongoing injustice. Some experts argue, with justification, that the perception of threats to Islam is deliberately cultivated by Islamist political groups and authoritarian Muslim governments to generate support for their agenda. But support for terrorism is unlikely to decline without addressing that perception, whether the perception is the product of propaganda or the result of legitimate political grievance.
I think that, in many ways, this is true. Unfortunately - due to the intractable nature of many of the problems giving rise to this siege mentality and (in the alternative) the presumption that these attitudes are solely (or predominately) the result of manipulative propaganda - many policy makers are too quick to take the prospect of re-assessing the underlying well-springs of discontent off the table. In addition, as pointed out by the authors, responding to these grievances, rightly or wrongly, carries the taint of "negotiating with terrorism." It shouldn't, because it's not.

Democracy will not be a panacea for "Islamist Terrorism" unless and until its advent is combined with a strategy designed to address this widespread perception in the Muslim world - and its myriad underlying sources. Part of that strategy should involve influencing opinion and countering virulent propaganda, other aspects might include a strategic realignment or recalibration of some goals and positions, and part of this process might actually entail crafting a foreign policy that pays attention to how certain of our actions could be interpreted by the target population - especially one predisposed to cynicism and suspicion.

For example, if the Muslim world is feeling under constant attack from the West, and this attitude is leading people to support terrorism generally (and Bin Laden in particular for his ability to "confront the West") the estimation of the potential costs of invading yet another Muslim nation should go up when making the associated cost/benefit calculations. This should have been a central part of the discussion pre-Iraq invasion, and is just as relevant now as the Iran war drums are beginning to beat louder and louder.

This is especially true considering how war inevitably plays out. Abu Ghraib, and the other incidents of abuse, torture, sexual assault, rape, sodomy and murder committed by US military personnel at various detention facilities, together with the unintended civilian casualties resulting from air strikes, checkpoint miscommunications, highway incidents, etc., are - unfortunately - the rule and not the exception. There is no way to eliminate atrocities, war crimes and collateral damage from war - they are inextricably linked and the result of hardwired human responses to such stresses. But if the Umma is under the impression that it is the victim of ongoing injustice at the hands of the West, these incidents take on a more pronounced meaning and tend to resonate with preconceived notions.

These concerns should also inform the discourse concerning our potential reception by the applicable indigenous population - whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran. Not only will the larger Muslim population view our initial military actions as consistent with a pattern of aggression and contempt, but similar lenses will color the interpretation (by the internal and external populations) of our incremental actions while in-country. We will not be given the benefit of the doubt. Quite the opposite.

I also wanted to quibble with a portion of Fair and Haqqani's analysis, however, as it relates to this passage:

"Poverty, Unemployment, and Lack of Education Make Terrorists"

Prove it. Poverty, unemployment, and lack of education are serious problems in some of the world’s most populous Muslim countries. There is, however, no evidence of a correlation between these social and economic ills and terrorism. Terrorists are not always poor and prosperity does not end terrorism. In fact, in the world's 50 poorest countries, there is little terrorism. It is too soon to dismiss socio-economic conditions completely, but studies have generally found that terrorists tend not to be from societies' most deprived groups. Instead, terrorists are generally well educated and unlikely to be poor. [...]

Terrorist groups, like other employers, impose standards of quality in their recruitment efforts. Research shows that terrorists tend to be of "higher quality" —more educated or accomplished in other jobs and pursuits.
I think this analysis is more or less factually accurate, but might be missing some big-picture implications. Allow me to explain my thinking. Most of the modern political/ideological/religious movements have been led by individuals with above-average means/education/rank. In this sense, mass movements often have at the "vanguard" those with the time and means to dedicate themselves to fleshing out such weighty concepts. But it might be wrong to ignore the effect that widespread poverty or other social ills might have on the leaders of these causes simply because the leaders themselves do not fit into those underprivileged groups. The authors skirt around this issue by noting the interplay of diasporadic populations on movements within their respective home countries:

Diasporas have long been a source of ethnonationalist extremism and activities. Something about the state of diasporas motivates people to understand their identities in new and sometimes disturbing ways. Examples of that abound: Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, India's Mohandas Gandhi, and Pakistan's Mohammad Ali Jinnah all began to reformulate national identities when they were abroad.
While this is true, that the diaspora dynamic can cause an inflated sense of nationalism, most of those same persons also share another important characteristic: they would not be counted as "impoverished" and most had high levels of education. Add to this list names like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Robespierre, Che Guevara, Mandela, Biko, Castro, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, etc., and a pattern emerges.

With that in mind, then, it would be wrong to downplay the impact that the poverty of the larger population had in informing the views of those "vanguard" individuals and groups. While Lenin, Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Mandela, Gandhi and Guevara might not have been from the peasant/proletariat classes, the conditions of those groups greatly influenced, and possibly gave rise to, the ideological undergirding of their respective missions.

Similarly, I believe that the rampant "[p]overty, unemployment, and lack of education" in large swathes of the Muslim world interacts with the motivations/ideological basis of actual terrorists (who themselves tend to be better off than the masses). In terrorist ideology, the abject conditions of the Umma are often blamed on the machinations of the same nefarious "West" (through affirmative acts and cultural imperialism) and should be included in the litany of abuses (real and imagined) giving rise to the siege mentality cited above. It is not uncommon to hear Zawahiri and other terrorist ideologues refer to themselves as the "vanguard" of the Umma pushing toward the revival of true Islam in order to receive Allah's blessings which would propel the Muslim world ahead of the West.

While poverty on its own may not give rise to terrorism, and while terrorists themselves are more often recruited from the upper echelons of otherwise impoverished societies, there is likely an element of vengeance and reprisal for those conditions of poverty in the terrorist credo. These conditions are a source of unease, humiliation and anger, and they demand an explanation, a scapegoat and a solution. Salafist terrorist ideology has offered a series of responses to those needs.

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