There is a very strong tendency to avoid asking some key questions about terrorism, thereby maintaining various myths and delusions that prevent a number of unpleasant realities from being faced up to.
Question 1: What justifications do terrorists give for their actions. Direct statements from them are not so easy to come by as the security people dealing with them make a determined and pretty successful effort to prevent their views from being heard, but those who have subsequently interviewed them have found that motivation has not been primarily to do with religious beliefs but has been to do with Western foreign policy and behavior.
Here is a little of the relevant evidence. According to Zalman’s study, (2016) although many people today believe that religious fanaticism “causes” terrorism, “…it isn’t true…” Pape (2005) identified 315 terrorism incidents and found that essential to almost all was a concern with foreign occupation (although the non-Isamic religion of the occupier was relevant.) Bloom’s (2005) interviews with relatives and acquaintances of suicide terrorists confirmed the significance of foreign occupation.
Burke (2004) says, “This perception that a belligerent West is set on the humiliation, division and eventual conquest of the Islamic world is at the root of Muslim violence. The militants believe they are fighting a last-ditch battle for the survival of their society, culture, religion and way of life. Muslims … know from their own histories that these attacks have continued without a break for the past two centuries.” They believe “…the West never abandoned the Crusades.”
In his November 2002 “Letter to America” bin Laden, (2002) makes little reference to religion but provides a lengthy critique of several Western foreign policies and actions, including the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, US support of Israel, and sanctions against Iraq. He says, “Why are we fighting and opposing you? The answer is very simple … Because you attacked us and continue to attack us.”
Question 2: Do terrorists have grounds for holding those views?
Anyone with the slightest familiarity with Western history knows how abundant the grounds are. Here are a few summary statements.
Jeremy Salt (2017) says:
“… ‘Western’ wars … have killed millions of Muslims since the invasion of Iraq in 1991. The twelve years of sanctions alone (1990-2002) were responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. The first war on Iraq was followed by the invasion of 2003, the destruction of Libya and then the war on Syria. If the death toll is extended back to Afghanistan it stands at a minimum of about four million, with estimates reaching as high as eight million.
“Countless millions of other Afghans, Iraqis, Libyans and Syrians have been turned into homeless refugees inside their own countries, or have been driven beyond their borders. In the aftermath of these wars thousands of people, men, women and children, down to infants and babies, have drowned in the Aegean or Mediterranean trying to reach safety in Europe. The ‘western’ governments that went to war against their countries must be held fully responsible for the short and long-term consequences of what they have done even if they are not prepared to admit responsibility themselves. …These appalling events would seem sufficient reason for any Muslim … to be very angry at what ‘the west’ has done and justification for the very small number of people who want to strike back….They know … that these attacks have continued without a break for the past two centuries…They are right to be resentful.”
Recent articles by John Menadue are among many sources that could be quoted aligning with Salt’s comments:
“The invasion of Iraq created chaos and set loose centuries old religious, sectarian and tribal disputes. …Western governments have deliberately set about destroying secular regimes in Iraq, Libya and now Syria … Our media and politicians exploit every opportunity to talk about the dangers of terrorism, but scarcely ever examine the causes of that terrorism and our particular contribution to it. (2017a)
“The most important and inescapable fact is that terrorist attacks today are driven by a thirst for revenge. Young, alienated Muslim men see terrorism as pay-back for the West invading and exploiting Muslim lands.” (2017b)
Question 3: Why has the West behaved in these ways?
Again the documentation is abundant. Let’s just take a few of Chomsky’s summary comments. (2016.)
“…through the post World War 11 period …the global system … dominated by the United States, was threatened by …’radical nationalistic regimes’ that responded to popular internal pressures for independent development…” This has been “… the reason for overthrowing many governments.” (p. 153.)
“Independent, “nationalist” development is seen as a virus that must not be allowed to spread.” (p. 156.) This has been the basic reason for US aggression against many countries, including Chile, Vietnam and Cuba. (p. 207.) For instance, “Vietnam itself was of no particular concern, but … successful independent development there might spread contagion throughout the region.” (p.185.)
The Clinton doctrine given in congressional testimony made the situation clear: “…the United States is entitled to resort to the unilateral use of military power” … to ensure “…uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources.” (pp. 185, 229. Clinton’s speech to this effect at the UN General Assembly, 27th Sept. 1993 is noted on p.183.)
Much of the turmoil in the Middle East today, and in many other regions, can be largely explained in these terms, i.e., the maintenance of the empire enabling the West’s access to resources, markets and profitable investment outlets, which from time to time requires uncooperative regimes to be replaced. As Alison Broinowski (2017) says, “Since 1996, the Pentagon’s mission has been to maintain ‘full-spectrum dominance’ of land, sea, air, space, and information in every part of the world.”
Question 4: Is terrorism therefore justified?
While religious beliefs are likely to have fed in significantly to various terrorist acts, it seems clear to me that most of the terrorism we are currently dealing with is not surprising and is quite understandable, that we deliberately misinterpret it, that we refuse to attend to the ways we have contributed to it, and that it is among the consequences of centuries of imperial thuggery. This does not mean I see it as “justified”, or rational; indeed it would seem to me to be highly counter-productive given that Western prejudices ensure that it reinforces the conviction that terrorists are no more than mad and evil religious fanatics.
Question 5: So what should we do?
It all depends. If we in the rich countries are determine to not just continue living affluently but to increase ”living standards” all the time, i.e., to take limitless economic growth as our supreme goal, when resources are far too scarce for all to live as we do now and are dwindling, then my advice is to remain heavily armed and increase CIA funding. We cannot expect to go on getting far more than our fair share unless we are prepared to prevent others from getting a reasonable share. So we will need to defend and extend our empire, and cope with the resulting terrorist blowback as best we can. If on the other hand we were serious about living in ways that enabled global sustainability and justice for all, then we would have to shift to The Simpler Way, which would eliminate any need for an empire. That would actually be easy to do, (see thesimplerway.info/htm) … if we wanted to do it…
Ted Trainer is a retired lecturer in Sociology of Education, UNSW. Author of many books and papers on sustainability with a focus on alternatives to consumer-capitalist society. Developing Pigface Point as a site illustrating Simpler Way themes.
Bin Laden, O., (2002), Full text; bin Laden’s letter to America, The Guardian, 24th Nov. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/nov/24/theobserver
Broinowski A., (2017), Agents of influence and affluence, Pearls and Irritations, 6 June.
Burke, J., (2004) What exactly does al-Qaeda want? The Guardian, Sunday 21 March
Chomsky, N., (2016), Who Rules the World, Hamish Hamilton, New York.
Pape, R., (2005), The Logic of Suicide Terrorism: It’s the occupation, not the fundamentalism. The American Conservative. 18th July.
http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-logic-of-suicide-terrorism/Zalman, A., (2016),The causes of terrorism, ThoughtCo. September 30.
Menadue, J., (2017a), The terrorists are over here because our troops are over there. Pearls and Irritations. 5th June.
Menadue, J., (2017b), “We need to better understand terrorism – how we got here and how best to respond”, Pearls and Irritations. 9 June 2017
Salt, J., (2017), The ‘West’ and Its ‘War on Terror’: Treating the Symptoms, Not Curing the Disease, The Palestine Chronicle, Thursday, June 08, 2017.