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Islamic Movement

Terrorism and political violence in contemporary history

Iqbal Siddiqui

Here we present an abridged version of a speech given by IQBAL SIDDIQUI at a conference on Terrorism: Definitions, Causes, Roots and Solutions convened by the Institute of Islamic Studies, London, at the Islamic Centre of England on November 13, 2001.

One feature of the aftermath of the events of September 11 has been a great deal of talk about Islamic terrorism, Islam and violence, and the nature of jihad. Much of this talk has been conducted as inter-faith dialogues with Christian and Jewish groups on the grounds that Islam should not be tainted by association with violence.

One thing we need to understand, however, is that — for all the talk about Islamic terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, the problem of Islam and the clash of civilisations — the events of September 11 cannot be understood in terms of religion. That is not to say that they are not associated with religion, but they cannot be understood in a purely religious context, any more than problems of crime in inner cities, or the international drug-trade, or air safety for that matter, can be considered in religious terms. Contemporary terrorism (I use the term in the sense that everybody generally understands it, without going into details of definition) needs to be looked at in the context of politics and history, and those two of course are very closely linked.

All political activity is defined in terms of the values that people hold and seek to promote. Thus people who are predominantly religious in their sense of identity define their political activity in religious terms. A great deal of political activity consists of violence, inevitably and unchangeably. The world we live in today has been shaped by force; the world order as we know it has been established by force: it is inevitable that those who seek to change it are going to seek to change it by force, because those who benefit from the present world order will use any means necessary, including force, to protect it.

What we need to understand is that we live in what is an extremely and routinely violent world. What happened on September 11 was not unprecedented, and it was not something that came out of the blue. It is just that it was unprecedented in America, and it came as a shock to Americans because they are not used to being subject to political violence; they are more used to giving it out.

The violence of the world today is of many kinds. It is not only physical violence, military violence: there is also a huge amount of political violence, economic violence and social violence, most of it perpetrated by the powerful of the world against the weak. For most people in the world, unlike the Americans, life is defined by forces beyond their control; the circumstances and societies in which they live are defined by forces beyond their control, and their experience of these forces is often, routinely, extremely brutal and violent. That is the nature of the world in which we need to understand September 11.

We will never know who committed those events, those atrocities; obviously it goes without saying that we cannot accept any politician’s word for who committed them. Politicians lie automatically, instinctively, almost as a qualification for the job. But what we can say is that the explanations coming forward from people in the West, and in America especially, are unrealistic and untenable. A recent American news programme featured a presenter and a guest commentator discussing whether the sort of people responsible for terrorism are more offended by the fact that America is free or by the fact that America wants other people to be free. The discussion then moved on to discuss whether terrorists are psychopaths who value killing other people for its own sake, or whether they value killing other people for some rational reason, such as that they might get some divine favour from it.

What nobody seemed capable of understanding is that a lot of people are angry with America because they identify it with a lot of what is wrong in the world. The West talks about a ‘new world order’; the rest of the world sees only continuing global disorder, based on the untrammelled exercise of power by a global bully. The west understands a conception of history as consisting of people continually striving for freedom from political oppression and from injustice, and trying to establish better modes and circumstances of life for themselves and their societies. This is how the resistance, often by war and the use of force, against Nazi Germany, against Stalinist Russia and, as we go further back, against absolutist oppressive monarchies, are understood. What people do not seem to realise, especially in the west, is that that is precisely how a lot of people in the world regard the west and the power of the west: as a successor, as a continuation, of the sort of power-based, oppressive, selfish, exploitative governments and regimes that we recognise very easily when we look at Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany.

To understand why this is the case, we need only look at America’s record in the world. The time I have for this presentation is far too short to spend listing examples from America’s record: the reasons that the rest of the world might not share America’s high opinion of itself. Two that are often quoted, however, are those of Iraq and Palestine. Both are well known, but it is worth remembering that more people die in Iraq each month than were killed in New York and Washington on September 11. We could also look at Nicaragua in the 1980s and since; the School of the Americas at Fort Benning (it still exists, but has been renamed) was effectively a terrorist training-camp in Florida from which Latin American guerrillas were sent to wage what, under current standards and definitions, can only be regarded as terrorism against popular governments in Nicaragua and other Latin American states. In Sudan, 50 percent of Sudan’s pharmaceutical production capacity and more than 50 percent of its standing stock of pharmaceuticals were destroyed in a single bombing raid in August 1998. Is killing people indirectly somehow less wrong than killing them directly? Are the people who gave those orders somehow less culpable than the people who ordered hijackings and attacks in Washington and New York?

These are some of the reasons that the world cannot take America’s rhetoric seriously. The gap between what America and the West say and what America and the West do is simply too great. People are realistic: they understand that nobody can ever live up to the standards they set themselves. But what they see in the case of America and the west is not a failure to live up to lofty standards, but the fact that the words and the actions are diametrically opposed. One is reminded of the American Indian saying that "white man speaks with forked tongue".

That is the nature of the world we live in. We understand it when we think historically, in terms of the world of the past, even of the not-very-distant past. Francis Fukuyama spoke of the "end of history" in a Hegelian sense. He thought that the struggle for right had ended, that universal values had prevailed with the end of the Cold War. For the rest of the world, however, history goes on because all the end of the Cold War did was create one global oppressive superpower in place of two that had at least balanced each other to a certain extent.

Of course, those who say that none of this justifies terrorism are quite right. But understanding is essential for seeing what needs to be done in order to prevent these things from happening again. The present world order is based on the law of the jungle: might is right. But with power, with might, comes responsibility: and that power can only be entrusted to those who have the morality, ethics and conscience to exercise that responsibility wisely and for the common good, which we do not see in the world today. History also teaches us that the only effective way of challenging oppression and the only effective way of fighting injustice is through force; that is simply the way of the world.

Pacifism is all too often a weapon of the status quo: those people who use force, use violence, freely to establish themselves in the world, and then to maintain their dominance in the world, at the same time speak of peace not because they believe in it — their actions routinely show that they do not believe in it — but as a weapon against their enemies, to disarm and discredit them.

When Islamic movements in the world do need to resort to the use of force, that force must be used morally. When extreme fringes of those movements are pushed to use force indiscriminately, immorally, wrongly against illegitimate targets, and using illegitimate weapons (such hijacked jumbo jets), those are crimes for which the people who share their cause, who share their view of the world, their understanding of the need to use force, must also criticise them, turn against them, isolate them. Our standards must be higher than those of the people whom we are fighting, because if we descend to their standards then there is no difference between us.

So, yes: we must condemn terrorism, even as we understand some of the reasons that it happens, even as we might sympathise with some of those who are pushed to use such methods, in the same way that we sympathise with the plight of abused and beaten people; for example women who turn on and kill their violent and abusive husbands. Those are crimes for which there are extenuating circumstances, but they are still crimes. And precisely the same standard we must apply to the terrorists.

But unless we understand the violence of terrorism in a historical context, in terms of the world we live in and in terms of the forces that have shaped that world, unless we find solutions to these problems, then all the morality, all the piety, all the religious feeling in the world, all the pain of good people in the world, will not be able to prevent these tragedies from happening again.

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