Our role in the terror

by Karen Armstrong
Thursday September 18, 2003
The Guardian

Since the second anniversary of September 11, we have had sober reminders that military force alone cannot eliminate the threat of religiously inspired terrorism. There has been the dramatic, if disputed, reappearance of Osama bin Laden; new reports that Islamist extremism is again gaining ground in Afghanistan; and in the wake of horrific attacks by Hamas, the Israeli right has called for the expulsion of Yasser Arafat – a move that would almost certainly provoke a new spate of suicide bombings.

How do we account for the rise of this religious violence in the post-Enlightenment world? Ever since 9/11, President Bush has repeatedly condemned Islamist terror as an atavistic rejection of American freedom, while Tony Blair recently called it a virus, as though, like AIDS, its origins are inexplicable. They are wrong, on both counts. The terrorists' methods are appalling, but they regard themselves as freedom fighters, and there is nothing mysterious about the source of these extremist groups: to a significant degree, they are the result of our own policies.

History can tell us a great deal about the profile of these movements. Over the centuries people have often resisted colonial domination or oppressive governments by evolving millennial visions that amounted to a systematic repudiation of the mainstream culture. These millennial groups usually developed after a crisis or disaster had in some sense destroyed the world they had known. Inspired by a corrosive sense of political helplessness, they fought for a new world order, in which the first should be last and the last first.

The "fundamentalist" movements that emerged in every major faith tradition during the 20th century conform to this pattern. Wherever a western-style, secularist society has been established, a religious counterculture has developed alongside it. The persistence of this militant piety shows a disturbing and worldwide alienation from western modernity. Every group that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam has experienced secularism as destructive, and is engaged in a battle designed to push God and religion back to centre stage. All are convinced that the secularist liberal establishment is determined, in one way or another, to wipe them out.

Only a small minority of fundamentalists take part in acts of terror, but when people feel that their backs are to the wall, they can lash out violently. In the past, any attempt to suppress a fundamentalist group has usually made it more extreme, because it has simply confirmed this deep-rooted fear of annihilation. Far from quelling Islamist terror, Israel's assassination of its leaders has only inspired Hamas to further atrocities, and the invasion of Iraq, which had no links with al-Qaida, has predictably opened a new terror front, convincing some Muslims that the West is truly engaged in a new crusade against the Islamic world.

Yet even though they have given us terrifying demonstrations of their power, those brought up in the secular tradition find it difficult to assess these movements. "Whoever cared about religion?" cried an exasperated official in the US state department after the Iranian revolution. People seem to assume that Muslim extremists are mechanistically driven by a fanatical strain inherent in Islam itself, which is patently not the case, since the terrorism that currently concerns us is chiefly confined to the Arab world, which makes up only 20% of the Islamic population. It is widely believed that the terrorists are simply inspired by a fanatical yearning for paradise and martyrdom that has fuelled both Hamas and the Iranian revolution in exactly the same way.

These reductionist theories are dangerous. Iranians who exposed themselves to the Shah's bullets were engaged in a distinctively Shia battle against a cruel dictatorship, while Hamas has been influenced by Zionism. Apart from the cult of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, there has been little veneration of land in Islam, but in their struggle with the Israelis, Palestinians have introduced the characteristically Jewish themes of exile, nostalgia for the sacred homeland and restoration into their Islamist resistance.

Ironically, we tend to become like our enemies. In describing his war against terror as a battle between good and evil, President Bush has unwittingly reproduced the rhetoric of Bin Laden, who subscribes to a form of Sunni fundamentalism that divides the world into two diametrically opposed camps in just the same way. The last thing the Israelis intended was to create "Palestinian Zionism", and yet in the early days Israel aided and abetted Hamas, which virulently opposed the secularist ideology of the PLO, in order to undermine Arafat. They should have learned from the tragic fate of Egypt's Anwar Sadat, who, at the beginning of his presidency, sought to create an independent power base by courting the Islamists who eventually killed him.

The West has also cultivated its future enemies, by arming Bin Laden and other Arab mujahedin in Afghanistan during the Cold War and by giving initial support to the Taliban. These exploitative policies reflect a thinly veiled contempt; the religious ideas of these groups were dismissed as beneath serious consideration. Yet to those who had studied these movements it was clear long before 9/11 that fundamentalists all over the world were expressing fears and anxieties that no government could safely ignore.

We have also nurtured extremism by allowing conflicts to fester beyond the point where a secular, pragmatic solution was possible. In the past, millennial movements often became more religious when conventional politics failed. So too in the Middle East. After the six-day war of 1967, when nationalism and socialism seemed to have brought only humiliation and defeat, there was a revival of religious politics in the Arab world. Palestinians long held out against this trend, but despairing of the ordinary political process, the Islamist parties finally emerged in 1987. Once God is brought into the conflict, positions become absolute, sacred and far more difficult to negotiate.

The west has contributed to the growth of radical Islam in the region by repeatedly supporting undemocratic regimes, which allow little effective opposition. As a result, the only place where the people have been able to express their anger and discontent has been the mosque. Iran is the classic case. After the Mossadeq government deposed the Shah in 1953, British intelligence and the CIA organised a coup that put him back on the throne. The US continued to support the Shah, even though he denied Iranian's human rights that most Americans take for granted. The result was the Islamist revolution of 1978-79.

Had its intelligence taken the trouble to learn more about the dynamics of Shiism, the US could have avoided bad mistakes in Iran. We can no longer dismiss religious movements with secularist disdain, but must study them as seriously as other ideologies. In particular, we must educate ourselves to see the distress, helplessness, fear and, latterly, rage that underly the various fundamentalisms, if only because these groups now have powers of destruction that were formerly only the prerogative of nation states.

Terrorism is wicked and abhorrent, but it has not come out of the blue. If we simply write off these movements as irrational and inexplicable, we will feel no need to examine our own policies and behaviour. The shocking nihilism of the suicide killers shows they feel they have nothing to lose. Millennial or fundamentalist extremism has risen in nearly every cultural tradition where there are pronounced inequalities of wealth, power and status. The only way to create a safer world is to ensure that it is more just.

Karen Armstrong is the author of The Battle for God: a History of Fundamentalism

Extracted 09/27/03 from The Guardian Unlimited


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