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Terrorism is not a cultural problem

September 3, 2014 at 5:06 pm

Certain religious and intellectual questions are posed in an attempt to understand terrorism. The resultant explanations are often weak and overlook factors such as political violence and political objectives.

With the emergence of groups such as ISIS, we have returned to the atmosphere that prevailed on the global stage after 9/11, especially in terms of the vast number of analysts who have taken it upon themselves to try to explain this phenomenon. We have returned to our conversation of what causes it, what are the motives behind it and how to counter it. People often discuss terrorism and its motives without analysing what the term “terrorism” itself actually means, therefore rendering the term vague and unhelpful. In this particular debate terrorism is often described as an act of violence that targets innocent civilians by political groups functioning outside a governmental framework. This definition, although generally accepted, cannot be limited to militant groups but also applies to state-induced violence, which is rarely described in such a way.

The writings of renowned philosopher Jacques Derrida confirm that, historically, states have always practised terrorism on their own people and others in times of war and of peace. Thus, he argues that one cannot distinguish between state-induced terrorism and stateless terrorism. The prevalent use and understanding of the word terrorism today came into existence during the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror in particular, during which Robespierre was in power. In fact, Robespierre practised this terrorism to rid the state of any and all domestic enemies and he did so in the name of the sovereign state.

This background gives credence to the use of terrorism in reference to state-induced violence and it also confirms that this term is often used to describe a service that is used in the name of a political agenda. This idea becomes perfectly clear when considering the United States and how Washington chose to refer to certain militant groups as “freedom fighters” when their struggle worked to the benefit of US interests. Not surprisingly, these same individuals were later deemed to be “terrorists” when it suited the US to do so.

Many explanations of terrorism often ignore instances where a state chooses to use terror tactics against its own people; religious and cultural motives are suggested instead. For example, terrorism is often explained as a problem born out of Arab or Islamic cultures and religious affiliations; this is an orientalist approach which ignores the fact that in the past it was the West’s colonial violence and imperialism, with attendant mass killings and genocide used to justify a Western agenda by deeming the Other as culturally inferior. The West’s violent history is evident from the major exterminations of indigenous populations in North America to the Holocaust in Europe and other examples of Western colonialism. Ironically, mass murder using drones is never interpreted as a moral or cultural problem within Western culture. Moreover, ISIS’s recruitment of Muslims and Arabs to fight in their ranks is never compared to the recruitment of American and Canadian Jews who choose to join the ranks of the Israel Defence Forces and fight in Palestine. Israel’s recruitment of American and Canadian Jews has never been viewed as a specifically and problematic North American cultural defect.

Many Saudi media and literary personalities are talking about the need to address the religious curriculums that are being used in public education and the need to address religious discourses. The general sentiment that is being diffused in public considers Islamists to be the parties responsible for violence and do not take into account the vast number of differences between these groups. Oft times the goal of this interpretation is to encourage the state to fight Islamists and replace religious values with those based on Western liberalism. This mainstream interpretation is in line with the idea that religious and cultural texts breed terrorism and completely ignore the political circumstances that give rise to violence. The political rise of groups such as ISIS and others cannot be attributed solely to a religious text but to the presence of socio-political and economic conditions that make possible the use of a religious justification for political violence. Exercising violence is a practice that is present in Christian traditions, as seen through individuals such as George Bush, and Jewish traditions as well, which is clearly outlined by the Zionist agenda.

ISIS and other groups are the result of many factors, most notably the erosion of the legitimacy of Arab regimes and their inability to provide for their citizens. Moreover, the state’s use of violence against its own citizens is often the catalyst behind the creation of militant groups and the motive for their violent reactions. The failure of the Arab states to counter foreign dominance and hegemony as well as their inability to combat the Israeli occupation, coupled with the lack of comprehensive nationalistic state institutions that provide efficient services to their people, are all reasons as to why groups like ISIS were formed and given room to thrive. These state failures are what allowed violent groups to form and gain prominence in a foreign context and they derive their legitimacy by arguing that they fight for a certain class of people, one that is not represented by the governing state apparatus. Groups such as ISIS claim to defend groups in the face of state-induced violence or argue that they seek to counter western hegemony or the Israeli occupation, which tends to be the case with resistance groups.

A national group such as ISIS not only demonstrates the lack of legitimacy present in Arab regimes but also represents a reaction to unjust state practices. The current reality in the Middle East, as it embodied by ISIS’ new found prominence, demonstrates the West’s oppression of the rest of the world. German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas argues that unrestrained capitalism is what led to the hierarchical classification of global societies and that the unmerciful division of the world into groups of winners and losers is what produces powerful spiritual reactions to this reality. Habermas’s philosophies challenge the interpretations of thinkers such as Samuel Huntington, who believe that the world is divided into a number of inherently different civilisations.

The ideological beliefs of a group such as ISIS cannot be ignored, as it is clearly a Wahhabi-based organisation. Yet, the ideological foundation of this group cannot fully explain its origin, which is due to a plethora of socio-political and economic factors that drive it to violence.

Remaining in the vicious cycle of attributing terrorism to social and religious factors while ignoring the political and economic reasons behind it, ensures the continuation of the problem. Building legitimate Arab states that are capable of representing the interests of their citizens is what will allow us to reduce violence and bring an end to groups such as ISIS and the conditions in which they are bred.

Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 1 September, 2014

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.