Within the framework of the "War on Terror", the administration of former US President George W. Bush proposed the idea of promoting democracy in the Middle East as an antidote to terrorism; or at least to correct the error that was believed to be the cause of terrorism in the region. According to Bush's security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, the US advanced its notions of security based on democracy but ended up losing on both fronts. Of course, she was referring to the unconditional sense of commitment that existed between the Arab regimes and the US government.
Prior to the 9/11 attacks, I put forth several questions in the region's academic forums, which centred on the relationship between tyranny and terrorism, as it seems as though the Middle East is the only region in which these two phenomena meet. Many researchers have also classified terrorism as something that is prevalent in democratic societies or, at least, societies with a relative sense of openness. Thus, it is difficult to counter tyrannical regimes with terrorism because these regimes are terrorist by their very nature.
From a practical standpoint, it is difficult to establish terrorist organisations in countries whose regimes practise systematic oppression, for many reasons. The first is that terrorism (which is defined here as a violent action that targets non-combatants to send out a greater political message) is basically an attempt to put pressure on a political system by swaying public opinion. Such actions, however, require public opinion to play a significant role in the society in question, that media outlets have the freedom to convey their opinions and that the governing power actually cares about protecting the lives of innocent people. Moreover, one might assume that a terrorist would choose a more controlled target; this, though, does not match the repeated pattern we see unfolding when terrorists continue to target society's weak points, such as prisoners, children and families.
Yet, despite all of this, authoritarian regimes do not care about public opinion nor do they care about protecting the lives of innocent people unless they are related to the people in power, and even then that fact might not matter. For an example, we find that Vladimir Putin in Russia ordered the death of innocents in the Bisan School and Moscow theatre by gas poisoning. The former dictator of Ethiopia, Mengistu Haile Mariam, was known for kidnapping his opponents' wives and children and threatening to kill them. In dictatorships, troops are often used to retaliate by committing a terrorist act against the opposition, as the Nazis did, for example, when whole villages were wiped out in revenge for the death of one of their soldiers.
In regimes like Saddam's Iraq or Assad's Syria collective punishment has been carried out by gassing civilians, not to mention the forced displacement of entire towns before they were destroyed. Assassinations, political arrests and rape are all tactics that are used commonly by the leaders of tyrannical regimes. Thus, it is not possible to counter them with acts of terrorism because they have a monopoly on terror.
This raises the central question as to why there are all kinds of terrorist actions and groups in every corner of the Arab world, which also is home to the largest number of authoritarian regimes in the wider Muslim world. How can authoritarian regimes, which monopolise tyranny and terror, in turn breed more terrorists?
Does this question prompt us to reconsider the belief that tyranny and terrorism cannot co-exist in the same society so long as they come from different sources? Syria has been plagued with Al-Assad, ISIS, Nasra, Halesh and Al-Fadl among other catastrophes, all at the same time.
As for Iraq, we have Malki, Suleimani, ISIS, Sadrists, Badrists, Ghaban, Hashadis and Jazbalis among other, hidden, factions. The same goes for Mubarak's successors in Egypt as well as the situations in Algeria, Yemen and Libya, among others. The Arab world as a region has become a hotbed of terrorism, from every sect, religion and class. Has it been subject to terror on all fronts in that we either have a terrorist in power or a terrorist in opposition to the regime?
Unfortunately, this is what is being indicated by the region's current reality no matter how much we try to twist it. Terrorism, in its definition as an act of violence that targets civilians to achieve a political goal, no matter how menial or noble the original intention may be, is something that is being practised by those in power and those in opposition in many states. It remains important to note, however, that the regimes still have a monopoly on terror for the most part.
A given regime's intelligence apparatus will kidnap, assassinate, torture, threaten and torment innocent people to achieve its goals. They may even become the masterminds behind a terrorist act against their own people in order to justify more state terror. And yet, we see that a plethora of Sunni, Shiite, secular and even nationalist terrorist organisations have emerged in our region. The question remains, why has terrorism found a home among us?
To paraphrase Shakespeare, "That is the question."
One cannot provide a comprehensive and concise answer, although saying that the region is full of people on a suicide mission because everyone thinks that they are in danger just about sums it up. The narrative that is prevalent among each and every faction is that they are in mortal danger from the wider community and that they will be destroyed if extraordinary measures are not taken. When matters revolve around a question of survival, everything is rendered legitimate; everything is justified despite the barbarity of the action in question.
All factions within the Middle East are subject to a network of narratives based on fear, destruction and demonisation. According to some sources, on one hand we have Iran and the Shia fighting to gain control of the region in a potential conspiracy with Israel and the US, while some argue that the Gulf States have conspired with the US and Israel (again) to gain control of the area in order to supress opposition groups and any uprising.
According to certain US narratives, terrorist groups in the Middle East are increasing on an industrial scale and will soon take over the world due to their large arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. Even in Israel, the prevailing narrative argues that the country in its entirety is threatened by terrorism should the military takes its eye off the ball for an instant. We need not even go into Assad's greater plot for Syria or Al-Sisi's allegations that Egypt has been "Brotherhoodified", for both of these regimes have accused their opponents of terrorism.
What these ideas confirm, then, is that the region in its entirety has fallen victim to collective hallucinations and hysteria as every individual faction and sect fears that they will be attacked and vanquished by their enemy. Each group views itself as the last guardian of good, virtue and enlightenment. Such ideologies can be compared to fantasy films such as World War Z, Independence Day, Transformers and any other film that depicts an entire world under threat from an evil force.
Perhaps what is fuelling this phenomenon further is the region's obsession with religion as each faction becomes more and more convinced that it, and it alone, is God's chosen group peopled by His faithful servants. There is little distinction to be made between the ultra-Zionists who believe they have the right to Palestine in its entirety, or the Hazabalawis who believe that they are the guards of the Mahdi Army, or even the members of ISIS who believe that the Prophet left them his Ummah. Each of these groups believes that God will protect them in their fight against their divine enemies, even if the whole world turns against them.
One cannot distinguish between madness and perceptions of divine selection because it is clear that the US Congress's last report on the CIA's use of torture shows that its determination to advocate such lethal methods is just as dangerous as the Ebola virus. Anyone can catch it.
There are those who are "in their right mind" in the Machiavellian sense; personalities like Al-Assad, Netanyahu and Iranian and Iraqi political leaders who are not gullible enough to join the rest of the world in their obsessive hallucinations, but are smart enough to use these points of weakness to their advantage in their quest to achieve their short term goals. Thus, we can view their kind as the directors of this production.
For the viewers, the solution does not lie in leaving the scene of the crime or changing the channel because there are real people who have fallen victim to this horror film against their will. We can only hope that the directors flee the scene before the whole studio goes down in flames as well.
Translated from Al Quds Al Arabi, 15 December 2014
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.