Posts Tagged terrorism
Fawaz Gerges, media-friendly academic, is out and about, telling us that Al Qaeda is over, it’s had its day, it’s history. Al Qaeda is “organizationally moribund.” Indeed, it “peaked with the 9/11 attacks.”
After bin Laden, his cohort, and the Taliban were expelled from Afghanistan, al-Qaeda was effectively decapitated. The leadership was on the run or captured. Dispersed haphazardly into various countries, most of which were unwelcoming, bin Laden’s men were rounded up by vigilant local security services competing to show Americans how cooperative they were.
Al Qaeda’s numbers have also plummeted: “At the height of its power in the late 1990s, al Qaeda marshaled 3,000–4,000 armed fighters. Today its ranks have dwindled to around 300, if not fewer.” For years now, it has faced “a serious shortage of skilled recruits in the Muslim heartland.” Gerges has written a book—more an extended essay—devoted to this proposition, entitled The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda. There he complains that “America’s political culture remains obsessed with al-Qaeda and the terrorism narrative continues to resonate both with ordinary Americans and with top military commanders.”
Maybe, maybe not. The problem is that I remember having heard the same thing from Gerges sometime in the past—to be precise, just one year before 9/11. Here is Gerges, fall 2000:
Despite Washington’s exaggerated rhetoric about the threat to Western interests still represented by Bin Ladin—US officials term Bin Ladin “the pre-eminent organizer and financier of international terrorism” and have placed him on the FBI’s “10 most wanted” list—his organization, Al-Qa’ida, is by now a shadow of its former self. Shunned by the vast majority of Middle Eastern governments, with a $5 million US bounty on his head, Bin Ladin has in practice been confined to Afghanistan, constantly on the run from US, Egyptian, and Saudi Arabian intelligence services. Furthermore, consumed by internecine rivalry on the one hand, and hemmed in by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt on the other, Bin Ladin’s resources are depleting rapidly. Washington plays into his hands by inflating his importance. Bin Ladin is exceptionally isolated, and is preoccupied mainly with survival, not attacking American targets. Since the blasts in Africa [in 1998], not a single American life has been lost to al-Qa’ida.
Not a single one! And here was Gerges, only six months before 9/11:
Should not observers and academics keep skeptical about the U.S. government’s assessment of the terrorist threat? To what extent do terrorist “experts” indirectly perpetuate this irrational fear of terrorism by focusing too much on farfetched horrible scenarios? Does the terrorist industry, consciously or unconsciously, exaggerate the nature and degree of the terrorist threat to American citizens?
These have to go down as the most embarrassing assessments of Al Qaeda and terrorism made by anyone prior to 9/11. But while Gerges obviously didn’t know much about Al Qaeda at the time, he did know something about America: everything you’ve said quickly gets forgotten if you keep talking, especially if you actively cover your tracks. This is how he tried to do it one week after the 9/11 attacks:
Sadly, I’m not surprised that the evidence for the most devastating terrorist attack in history points to a Middle East connection.
I have just returned from the area after almost two years there as a MacArthur fellow. I was conducting field research on how Islamic movements perceive and interact with the West, particularly the United States. The writing was all over the wall.
Not surprised! Writing all over the wall! Well, it would have been a total surprise to anyone who’d read Gerges before 9/11, and I’d wager it was a total surprise to him as well.
Gerges only knows one tune: Muslims hate the terrorists among them, so the terrorists are always losing popularity, struggling to survive, “on the run,” and so on. Just leave the Muslims alone, they’ll sort it out. The idea may look debatable to you, but it’s worked for him—professorships, book contracts, media gigs. How well it holds up in practice doesn’t really matter, given the public’s memory deficit. Still, it’s amazing (to me) that Gerges shows not a smidgeon of the humility usually imparted by a rough encounter with reality. Not him! He just repeats his same old arguments, made with the same measure of cocksure certitude.
I don’t know if Al Qaeda is up for another round or has gone down for the count, and experts disagree on it. I do know that Fawaz Gerges doesn’t know either. And if it were my day job to know, I’d be worried—should Gerges, by some strange aberration of nature, actually be some sort of negative oracle, whose assertions are reliably and consistently false.
Posted by Martin Kramer in on October 11, 2010
Martin Kramer, “The Jihad Against the Jews,” Commentary, October 1994, pp. 38-42.
ON JULY 18, 1994 a ferocious bomb explosion ripped through the seven-story building at 633 Pasteur Street, in the traditionally Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires. The building completely collapsed, and the final death count reached 85 persons. It was Argentina’s worst terrorist attack.
In many ways this strike resembled the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in March 1992, which left 29 people dead. That earlier bombing immediately followed Israel’s assassination in south Lebanon of the secretary-general of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite “Party of God.” Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah’s clandestine branch, made a convincing claim of responsibility for the embassy bombing, although the Argentine authorities never picked up its trail.
The attack in July, as the chief U.S. counter-terrorism official later put it, also had “the hallmarks of a Hezbollah operation.” It likewise seemed to be an act of revenge, perhaps for an accumulation of grievances: the massacre of Muslim worshippers in Hebron’s mosque by an Israeli settler; or Israel’s June raid on a Hezbollah base deep in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, which killed nearly 30 trainees.
The technique of the massive car bomb, so reminiscent of Beirut, was also identical in both instances, and pointed in the direction of Muslim extremists generally, and Hezbollah in particular. While Argentina has over 30 neo-Nazi and far-Right movements, which presumably would wish Israel and the Jews harm, the quantity of explosives and the method of delivery guaranteed that the dying would be indiscriminate. Indeed, nearly a third of those killed were non-Jewish passersby. Resort to such a technique required not only a determination to destroy the target, but a total lack of regard for the inevitable “collateral damage.” It seemed probable that only complete outsiders would be willing to kill Argentines so randomly in order to get at their target.
Yet for all their similarities, this latest bombing differed in a crucial respect from its predecessor: it was directed not at Israelis but at Jews as such. No Israeli agencies operated from the building on Pasteur Street. The devastated structure housed the Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), the main organizational body of the Buenos Aires Jewish Community, which had just marked its centennial; and the Delegacion de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas (DAIA), the organizational umbrella of Argentine Jewry, established over 60 years ago. The building included everything from social-aid offices, where the elderly collected pensions, to the archives of AMIA and the records of the city’s hevra kedisha, its burial society.
The choice of a Jewish target was no mistake. It came as the culmination of a shift in the thinking of many Muslim fundamentalists. Today they are in thrall to the idea that Jews everywhere, in league with Israel, are behind a sinister plot to destroy Islam. The battleground is anywhere Jews are organized to assist and aid in this plot.
This is a new concept even for Islamic fundamentalism, and it represents an especially virulent form of anti-Semitism, one so widespread and potentially violent that it could eclipse all other forms of anti-Semitism over the next decade.
RELIGIOUS prejudice always colored the traditional Islamic view of the Jews, but it also affected Muslim attitudes to Christians and all other nonbelievers. Most importantly, Muslims did not consider Jews a race apart. They regarded Jews as forming a community of belief—an errant belief, to be sure, but one entitled to a large measure of toleration.
Modern anti-Semitism in Muslim lands dates only from about the beginning of this century, following the spread of European racial theories. The idea of the Jews as a band of conspirators came to Muslim lands largely through the translation of anti-Semitic texts into Arabic, and above all The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Europe’s anti-Semitism, like its nationalism, had an immense impact on Muslim thinking, persuading many Muslims that the Jews did constitute a distinct race, whose members had always been treacherous in all places and at all times, because it was in their fundamental nature to be so.
Not surprisingly, European-inspired racial anti-Semitism reached the height of its influence with the genocidal Nazi war against the Jews. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Arab-nationalist leaders found support and then refuge in Berlin, and Arabic translations of Mein Kampf and the Protocols enjoyed their widest circulation.
These ideas persisted into the postwar period, when Jews were forced from Arab lands. Despite their deep roots in these lands, Arab nationalist dogma drew on the anti-Semitic doctrines of Europe to portray the Jews as aliens in every place, at every time. The Arab nationalists claimed that the hearts and minds of all Jews belonged ultimately to the new state of Israel, and so any Jew could be held accountable for the supposed sins of the Jewish state. This provided the legitimation for the mass expulsion of Jews from Arab lands in the 1950’s. There were once 800,000 Jews in the Arab world; today there are only about 20,000, most of them in Morocco.
Arab anti-Semitism took on a new guise in the 1960’s and 1970’s, under the impact of the fashionable anti-Zionism of the Left. While denying any anti-Semitic prejudice, the new “anti-Zionists” also denied Jews the right to self-definition as a nation. The Jews had wronged all mankind by deciding that they constituted a nation, and then by creating Israel in the heartland of another nation.
It followed that the only solution to the Jewish problem was denationalization, to be achieved by the defeat and dismantlement of the state of Israel and the return of the Jews whence they came. It was an idea that dovetailed nicely with the growing influence of Soviet and New Left anti-Zionism, and reached its apex with the “Zionism is racism” resolution of the UN General Assembly.
Throughout these many changing fads of Arab anti-Semitism, however, an earlier generation of Muslim fundamentalists still adhered to a strict reading of the Islamic tradition. Their attitude to the Jews rested not upon the imported European doctrines of race and nation, which they rejected, but upon religion. As careful readers of their own texts, they knew that the Qur’an faulted the Jews of Muhammad’s time for failing to recognize his prophethood. But they did not understand this as a lesson on the character of Jews in all times and places.
Nor did these more traditional fundamentalists hold the Jews to be a conspiratorial race, or subscribe to any of the various solutions, from expulsion to extermination, held out by European example. In their view, Islam provided the perfect solution to the Jewish problem: the creation of an Islamic state, which would accord Jews the status of an autonomous, protected religious community. Their model was the dhimma, the covenant of submission and protection offered to Jews and Christians during the first Islamic conquests.
This view still allowed for a distinction between Judaism and Zionism and, by extension, between Jews and Israelis. An example of fundamentalist rigor on this point could be found in the thought of the late Ismail Faruqi of Temple University in Philadelphia, a Palestinian fundamentalist of the old school. Faruqi regarded anti-Semitism as one more European disease which Muslims had caught by sleeping with the West, and which a return to true Islam would eradicate. “There cannot be any doubt that the Jew is a sufferer of injustice at the hands of the Christian West,” admitted Faruqi, rejecting the idea that the Jews were everywhere evil and deserving of retribution. As Faruqi saw it, “Islam offers a perfect solution to the Jewish problem which has beset the Jews and the West for two millennia,” since it would allow Jews complete communal and religious autonomy, and the right to reside anywhere in the ideal Islamic state.
Of course, Faruqi went on to add a crucial punch line: “The Islamic position leaves no chance for the Zionist state but to be dismantled and destroyed, and its wealth confiscated to pay off its liabilities.” But Faruqi never would have conceived of the conflict with Israel as entailing a global struggle between Islam and Judaism.
FARUQI’S idea that “the relation of Islam to Judaism is one of sympathy, even identity” would appall the new generation of Muslim fundamentalists who have emerged since the 1980’s. Many of them have been thoroughly imbued with imported doctrines of anti-Semitism. Some are born-again Muslims, ill-acquainted with Islamic tradition, who often see Islam only as an ideology of power.
These new fundamentalists deemphasize the long history of Islamic tolerance of the Jews across centuries and continents, fixating instead upon the early conflict between Muhammad and the Jewish tribes of 7th-century Arabia. The Jews who clashed with Muhammad are presented as archetypes of a universal Jew, treacherous by nature, whose perfidy threatens not only Islam but all humanity.
In this discourse, which purports to be the authentic voice of Islam, all manner of themes and sources intermingle. Verses from the Qur’an abut quotations from the Protocols. The role of the Jews in Arabia of the 7th century is compared with the alleged international power of the Jews in the late 20th. And in this collapsing of sources and history, another distinction—between anti-Zionism and anti-Judaism—is lost. The fundamentalist arguments mobilized against the state of Israel are invariably arguments against the Jews in general.
In short, the Islamic fundamentalist position has now been thoroughly penetrated by classic European anti-Semitism. This has been facilitated by the fact that so many fundamentalist thinkers of the present generation have spent time in the West, collecting advanced degrees at the universities of London and Paris. There they internalized the anti-Semitism of the extreme Left and Right, and they now retail a comprehensive indictment of the Jews which goes far beyond anti-Zionism. Their tales of unbridled Jewish power enjoy even more credibility among their listeners at home, since they can claim to have seen and experienced it firsthand. They wax persuasive when they declare that an international Jewish conspiracy stands behind Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, or the fall of the Muslim-owned Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI).
Consider the spiritual mentor of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, whose teeming flock overflows into Beirut’s streets to hear his mosque sermon each Friday. According to Fadlallah, “The struggle against the Jewish state, in which the Muslims are engaged, is a continuation of the old struggle of the Muslims against the Jews’ conspiracy against Islam.” Muslims now face
a world Jewish movement working to deprive Islam of its positions of actual power—spiritually, on the question of Jerusalem; geographically, on the question of Palestine; politically, by bringing pressures to block Islam’s movement at more than one place; and economically, in an effort to control Islam’s economic potential and resources, in production and consumption.
Fadlallah thus rejects the argument, which is still made by some nationalists and fundamentalists, that Israel is but an instrument of American imperialism. “The Jews want to be a world superpower….No one should imagine that the Jews act on behalf of any super or minor power. It is their personality to make for themselves a future world presence.” The very purpose of Israel is to bring “all the Jews in the world to this region, to make it the nucleus for spreading their economic and cultural domination.”
For Fadlallah, then, Israel is “not merely a group that established a state at the expense of a people. It is a group which wants to establish Jewish culture at the expense of Islamic culture.” Here is a view of Muslims and Jews locked in a timeless and total confrontation, until one completely subjugates the other.
Along with this notion has come the idea that Jews everywhere are Israel’s co-conspirators in a plot against Islam. A leading protagonist of this idea is Rashid al-Ghannushi, the exiled leader of al-Nahda, the banned Tunisian fundamentalist movement.
Last year, Ghannushi was granted political asylum in Britain, and he is now the foremost fundamentalist ideologue in the West. From the belly of the beast, he has contended that the Jews everywhere are behind a worldwide campaign against Islam. Islam and the West could reach an accommodation, he says, were it not for the worldwide machinations of the Jews, who fan the fires of mistrust. Beware the Jews, he admonishes the West: “We Islamists hope that the West is not carried away by the Jewish strategy of linking the future of its relationship with the Islamic world with a war against Islam.”
THE recent agreement between Israel and the PLO, and Israel’s continuing negotiations with Arab states, have, if anything, exacerbated fundamentalist anti-Semitism. Opposed to any negotiated agreement, the fundamentalists now seek to frighten Islamic opinion by warning that peace will subject the Muslim world to complete Jewish domination.
Since the expulsion of the Jews from the Arab world over a generation ago, domestic Jewish influence has not been a major issue, either for nationalists or fundamentalists. But now the fundamentalists are declaring that the “normalization” provisions of any peace treaty will mean a massive influx of Jews into Arab countries—as diplomats, journalists, businessmen, and tourists. Their objective, say the fundamentalists, will be to dominate and corrupt the Islamic world.
This is the line now being taken by the leading spokesman of the Palestinian Hamas, Ibrahim Ghawsha, who resides in Jordan. Ghawsha subscribes to the concept that the conflict with the Jews is not over territory but truth, and is therefore eternal: “We think the conflict between the Arabs and Jews, between the Muslims and the Jews, is a cultural conflict that will continue to rage throughout all time.” With peace, he warns, the Jews will gain the upper hand in that conflict; the return of Arab territory is a clever Jewish ruse, which will allow Israel to extend its hegemony over the entire region. Israel’s economic resources, he reminds Muslims,
are extremely advanced technologically and scientifically. God forbid, if by means of signing the peace accords the Arabs and Israelis reach a compromise and they implement their plan for autonomy. Arab economies will collapse because they will not be able to compete with the Israelis’ modern industries. Thus, Israel will dominate the region as Japan dominates Southeast Asia, and the Arabs will all become employees of the Jews.
The image of the Jew is thus transformed, from a ruthless enemy on the battlefield to a ruthless boss on the factory floor. In the same spirit, Ghannushi has called the Israel-PLO accord “a Jewish-American plan encompassing the entire region, which would cleanse it of all resistance and open it to Jewish economic and cultural activity, culminating in complete Jewish hegemony from Marrakesh to Kazakhstan.”
This Jewish hegemony would extend even into Arabia, to the sacred precincts of Islam, from which Muhammad expelled the Jews. “The Jews are planning to return to Khaybar,” warns Ghawsha, referring to the town near Medina which was the largest Jewish settlement in Arabia at the time of Muhammad, and against which Muhammad waged war. “Actually, by this accord, they will go there. They will go back peacefully. They will ask for the houses of their grandfathers.”
From the fundamentalist vantage point, this scenario of Jews penetrating their world, demanding a return even to Arabia, is the nightmarish prelude to the ultimate eradication of Islam by its most intractable enemy.
And so fundamentalists must now proceed to the task of portraying the Jews in their true light. Hezbollah’s Fadlallah takes for granted that agreements will be reached between Israel and weak Arab governments. Their implementation therefore must be combated at the popular level. And Fadlallah points to the source from which Muslims can draw inspiration:
In the vocabulary of the Qur’an, Islamists have much of what they need to awaken the consciousness of Muslims, relying on the literal text of the Qur’an, because the Qur’an speaks about the Jews in a negative way, concerning both their historical conduct and future schemes.
THIS species of anti-Semitism is intended by its creators to amplify a genuine apprehension. As more accords are reached, Jews are appearing in Arab countries either where they were never present, or where they disappeared over a millennium ago, or whence they fled a generation ago. Fear of subjugation runs deep in Arab societies, and it will not be surprising if this shrill anti-Semitism gains a widespread hearing.
But the invigorated anti-Semitism of Muslim fundamentalists is a threat not only in the Middle East. Muslim immigrants and visitors have arrived in ever greater numbers to the West, in countries where Jews are long established: Britain, France, the U.S., Argentina, and Australia. Today virtually every trend in Islamic thought and activism is represented in the Americas and Europe, including the most militant forms of extremism. Britain, for example, is home to organizations of Iran’s supporters, especially around the so-called “Muslim Parliament”; to the Palestinian Hamas, which publishes its flagship magazine in London; and to the Hizb al-Tahrir, or “Liberation Party,” clandestine in the Middle East but highly visible on British campuses. This is the kind of volatile mix one would be hard-pressed to find in any single Middle Eastern country.
In recent years, the Jews have not been at the top of the agenda of Muslim fundamentalists in the West, who have been much more preoccupied with two other objectives. First, they have tried to purge Muslim ranks of “deviants,” to create an atmosphere of intellectual intimidation so that only their ideas can be safely aired. This was the portent of the Rushdie affair in Britain. Second, they have tried, often through violence, to compel Western governments to abandon support for secular, pro-Western regimes in the Islamic world. This was the apparent motive behind the World Trade Center bombing. Until now, the Jews have been marginal to the quest for purity and power; and until Buenos Aires, Jews as such had not been singled out for death threats or bomb attacks.
But the progress of the Arab-Israeli peace process has altered fundamentalist priorities. If the peace process cannot be stopped on Middle Eastern ground, then perhaps its momentum can be checked by a counteroffensive on foreign ground. And for those fundamentalists who have thoroughly refined their theory of a world Jewish conspiracy against Islam, a Jewish target will do as well as an Israeli one. Indeed, the message of Buenos Aires is that Jewish targets, because they are so numerous and indefensible, might even be preferred under certain circumstances.
The upshot is that all of Jewry is held hostage against the conduct of Israel. The choice probably fell first on Argentina because it has no effective investigative apparatus of its own—a weakness demonstrated by its failure to solve the Israeli embassy bombing of 1992. But a similar strike could be delivered just as readily in any other country. The infrastructure is already in place.
FORTUNATELY, against this temptation to strike soft Jewish targets, there are also ideological and practical constraints. On one plane, the distinction between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora is vital to fundamentalists. Here is the secretary-general of Hezbollah, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, in an interview last year:
I wish to send a message to all the Jews who came to Palestine I want to tell them that their ambitions, dreams, and aggression can never provide them with the security, stability, and regional power they want. If they truly want security, peace, and stability, they must return from where they came. I believe the climate in Paris is better than in Palestine. Let them return to Paris, London, Australia, from wherever they were before.
Yet now, by threatening all of world Jewry, Islam’s fundamentalists have contradicted this logic, strengthening the perception that it is the Jews of Israel who are the most secure of all. Moreover, when Israel’s Jews do “return,” it is from a position of strength—in the tragic case of Buenos Aires, not only to help dig bodies out of the rubble, but also to assist the Argentine government in its investigation. An international carte blanche for the Mossad is a risk not all fundamentalists are prepared to run.
Such attacks also corrode the moral underpinnings of the fundamentalists themselves. Jihad is a moral code of warfare, regulated by provisions of Islamic law. As adherents of that law, many fundamentalists know that such attacks stretch it too far. Hence the silence among Hezbollah’s clerics over the bombing, and the statement by one of them that, because the bombing killed women and children, “this act cannot be the work of those who are committed to Islam.”
True, Hezbollah has abducted and bombed innocents of various nationalities many times before. But those acts have always created a measure of internal discord between hard-nosed operatives and the guardians of the law. This is something Hezbollah usually seeks to avoid, and may serve as a brake on any rapid descent into all-out terror against Jewish targets worldwide.
More practically, Muslim fundamentalists are discovering again that attacks against Jews as such yield no benefits and provide no relief from Israel’s military strikes. This is a repeat lesson, since a decade ago, Hezbollah gained nothing from holding another Jewish community hostage against Israel’s conduct.
Thus, in 1984 and 1985, a group operating under the wing of Hezbollah and calling itself the “Organization of the Oppressed of the Earth” abducted one in every ten of the remaining 100 Jews in Lebanon, hoping to force the release of Shiites detained by an Israel-backed militia in south Lebanon. Hezbollah accused its Jewish hostages of espionage: “We did not take these people because they are Jewish.” The charge was dismissed even by Lebanese Shiites, most notably in the case of Elie Hallak, the “doctor of the poor,” who had ministered largely to Shiites in the Ein-el-Mreisse quarter of West Beirut.
In 1985, Hezbollah began to murder its Jewish hostages, ultimately killing all of them, including Dr. Hallak, in retaliation for Israeli strikes in south Lebanon. But Israel did not negotiate for their release. Nor did it retaliate for their murder.
Israel’s policy, then and now, remains one of no negotiation over Jewish hostages. It will not drop its own defense if enemies threaten Jews elsewhere. Nor is it obliged to retaliate when Jews elsewhere are struck. And so, although Israel extended a hand to the dazed Jewish community of Buenos Aires, it did not take any retaliatory action in Lebanon for the bombing. On the other hand, Israel still retaliates against every rocket fired in its own direction by Hezbollah, and can be expected to do so in the future.
Israel’s policy has been to signal that when Hezbollah attacks Israelis, Israel will invariably respond. But when it attacks Jews elsewhere, it must reckon not with Israel, but with the world. Today, many fundamentalist movements seek political legitimacy in the eyes of the world as they pursue power at home. If attacks on Jews fail to move Israel, but do move the world against them, their calculation becomes complicated.
BUT these constraints alone will not suffice to put an end to terrorism. There is now a great backwash of extreme fundamentalists into the West, the result of crackdowns in the Middle East and North Africa. They are gaining shelter, visas, and even political asylum. While some respect the laws of their host countries, some do not. There are fundamentalists who look upon the West as one more arena for the conduct of their jihad—against Western governments, their own governments, Israel, and the Jews.
If they are to be stopped, Western governments will have to show an absolute determination to keep their ground free of the violence that characterizes conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. This can best be done by preventing the entry of more fundamentalist standard bearers; by regarding those already in the West as potentially violent; and by employing every legal means of surveillance against them.
Jewish communities also must grow alert to the danger. The prescient introduction to the Anti-Semitism World Report for 1992, published by the Institute of Jewish Affairs in London, determined that “Jewish security throughout the world is perhaps affected most seriously of all by Islamic fundamentalist groups.” Yet at the same time, the report admitted that “this is an area about which there is more speculation than hard evidence,” and that there is “an insufficient knowledge of the extent of [Muslim] anti-Jewish activity and propaganda” even in Britain and France.
The explanation for this failing is the obvious tendency to focus upon the heirs to the most destructive anti-Semitism of the past: neo-Nazis and the racist Right. Hence in the aftermath of the Buenos Aires bombings, there were many Argentine Jews who assumed that only the extreme Right could have been responsible for so heinous an assault.
This is a view of anti-Semitism that looks backward, not forward. For the greatest threat today comes not from neo-Nazis but from those fundamentalists of Islam who see in every Jew a political target in their war against Israel. Much more must be done by Jews to thwart them, including in-depth research, defensive measures, close cooperation with law-enforcement agencies, and dialogue with responsible Arab and Muslim organizations. If such activity is not made a priority, Buenos Aires may turn out to be only the first strike in a global jihad against the Jews.
© Martin Kramer
Commemorations on the 19th anniversary of the AMIA bombing, July 2013.
On November 8, 2005, Robert Pape and Martin Kramer debated the origins of suicide terrorism and the proper responses to it at The Washington Institute’s Special Policy Forum. Following is the full text of Martin Kramer’s prepared remarks. Read a rapporteur’s summary of the entire debate. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.
I am delighted to appear here with Professor Pape. I enjoyed reading his book, but it is an experience to hear him make the argument in person, in his dynamic manner. And he is to be congratulated for descending from the ivory tower and stimulating our thought with his provocative thesis.
We Want to Believe
Professor Pape’s thesis has resonated quite widely, and before I approach it, let me say a word about why I think it has had such an appeal. Why are people eager to find his thesis plausible?
First, it is reassuring. No one likes the idea that we may have embarked on a generations-long struggle against growing tides of suicidal fanatics. Professor Pape tells us that it need not be so, that we have it in our power to stop it now. This reminds me of a scene in the Wizard of Oz. After battling flying monkeys and a nasty witch, Dorothy demands to be transported home. The Good Witch tells her she always had it in her power to go home; she just had to shut her eyes, click her heels three times, and repeat: “There’s no place like home.” Professor Pape likewise reassures us that if we, too, get our heels off the ground in the Persian Gulf and repeat: “There’s no place like offshore,” we will awaken safe in our beds in Kansas. It is a very reassuring and appealing notion.
Second, it is empirical. The speculative and polemical interpretations and counter-interpretations of the threat confuse us. We want metrics, pie charts and graphs—something quantifiable and proven. Even when we know that databases can be flawed, samples can be too small, and statistics can be misleading, we still perk up at the first slide of the Powerpoint.
Third, it is secular. The idea of religion as an independent variable is foreign to our mode of thought. As a result, our political sciences have almost nothing to say about it. And what really scares us is Islam, which seems to combine bottomless grievance and limitless ambition. But nationalism—well, that’s a horse of a different color: we have faced it before, its aims are limited, and with nationalists you can sometimes cut a deal and split the difference. Say that Al-Qaeda is really just Arabian nationalism, and people will listen.
So the popularity of Professor Pape’s thesis tells us interesting things about ourselves. But the question is whether it tells us valid things about suicide terrorism.
Thesis vs. Reality
Now let me start with a statement of beginning assumptions. I do not pretend to have an alternative unified theory of suicide terrorism, incorporating everything from the PKK to the Tamil Tigers. Frankly, I am not sure there is a need for one. I do not know why suicide bombing has to signify the same thing everywhere. Why can’t it have different origins and achieve different purposes in different contexts? At the end of the day, it is a weapons system, and the history of such systems is diffusion and mutation under different conditions.
In fact, I think that is precisely the case. So I want to focus on Professor Pape’s thesis as it relates to three instances I know best, and that are central to the story: Hezbollah, Hamas, and Al-Qaeda. Rather than offer a big theory of my own, I am going to ask whether Professor Pape’s big theory fits these cases. Remember that Professor Pape’s thesis is only as valid as its weakest case. So all I seek to do here is plant one seed of doubt. To anticipate myself, I would summarize my argument as follows: sometimes it fits, sometimes it fits but loosely, and in the most important case for U.S. policy, it is just too small.
The Lebanese and Palestinian cases adhere closest to Professor Pape’s theory. Here we have instances of Israeli military occupations, in one case accompanied by settlements, and a host of movements, some Islamist and some not, that have employed suicide bombing in systematic campaigns. But even these cases deviate somewhat from the paradigm, because of the prominence of Islamic themes in their genesis.
Now I find it interesting that Professor Pape does not completely discount religion as a factor. He does allow that “religious difference” serves as a kind of multiplier in suicide bombing campaigns. It is obvious that most of these campaigns take place across religious divides. So Professor Pape lets religion into his formula through the back door. But he clearly casts religious difference as a subordinate factor, which exacerbates the territorial grievances of occupied peoples. And he shows the usual academic reticence about fingering Muslims or Islamists as exceptionally prone to the method.
In the case of Lebanon, the resistance to Israeli occupation did form across a very wide front, and all of the organizations used suicide bombings: the Islamist Hezbollah, the Shiite sectarian Amal, and the pro-Syrian secular Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP).
But I think Professor Pape might have looked more closely at the sequencing of this campaign. It first began with the Islamist Hezbollah, and then spread to its secular competitors. Now why did it start there? The evidence shows that it took the reworking of an Islamic concept—the idea of martyrdom—to make the initial breakthrough. Islamism is not present in all suicide bombings. But it had to be there at the creation.
Ayatollah Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, when he was still the spiritual mentor of Hezbollah, contributed crucially to that breakthrough. This quote is an example of the conceptual leap that inaugurated the attacks: “What is the difference between setting out for battle knowing you will die after killing ten [of the enemy], and setting out to the field to kill ten and knowing you will die while killing them? There is no difference between dying with a gun in your hand or exploding yourself.” That sounds simple, but it actually involved an overturning of a whole corpus of doctrine and tradition.
Certainly the reality of Israeli occupation was needed to raise the temperature in Lebanon to the point where this breakthrough became possible. But I think it unlikely that secular groups could have reached it independently. Remember, too, that Muslims under long and repressive occupations in the colonial period did not make the leap either. The precondition is the rise of an Islamist sensibility, and its modern utilitarian outlook. Professor Pape has rightly said that suicide bombings require a “strategic logic” or cost-benefit rationale; a “social logic” or support system; and an “individual logic” or personal motive. To this I would add a “moral logic,” which is the entry point for innovative interpretations of Islam. Like the other logics, it is necessary, although like them it is not sufficient.
The Palestinian case gets more complicated than Professor Pape allows, because the context is not just one of struggle against occupation, but also struggle for primacy among rivals. Israel had been in occupation of the West Bank and Gaza for over thirty years, facing nationalist resistance and terrorism, before the first Palestinian suicide bombings. Why did it take so long? Professor Pape would have us believe that frustration with Oslo and settlement expansion made for some sort of tipping point. In his book, he provides graphs of Palestinian opinion and settlement figures.
But over the years there were other spurts of Jewish settlement growth, many Palestinian disappointments, and numerous failed peace plans. Since the 1920s, the expansion of the Jewish presence has prompted repeated, spontaneous uprisings—most notably from 1936 to 1939 and again from 1987 to 1990. Much blood was split, yet there were no suicide bombings. Hamas itself, which played an important role in the first intifada, did not resort to them.
So why did they commence only from the mid-1990s? It seems to me impossible to separate the advent of Palestinian suicide bombing from the intensified political struggle for dominance in the Palestinian arena, primarily between Hamas and the powerful institutions of the PLO—a battle finally fully engaged after the established leadership returned from abroad.
The suicide bombings, pioneered by Hamas originally in open defiance of the PLO, were superficially an emulation of the Lebanese precedent. But they have never served a conventional nationalist concept of liberation. By bombing in Israel proper and against civilians, Hamas and its rivals actually achieved the opposite of nationalist goals: the attacks brought about a reoccupation of much of the West Bank, the legitimation of Israel’s security fence, and the loss of international sympathy, traditionally a core element of Palestinian national strategy. It substituted for these tangible assets a crowd-pleasing spectacle of death in Israel’s cities, which other groups were quick to copy to preserve their market share.
So the suicide attacks seem disconnected from a nationalist “strategic logic.” What the attacks have unquestionably achieved is shattering the political monopoly of the PLO. I submit that was their purpose. True, the Islamized strategy bears a superficial resemblance to a nationalist one. But look closely: the objectives have grown larger (all of Palestine, elimination of Israel), the timeline has grown longer, winning minds has become more important than regaining territory, and international sympathy has lost its strategic significance. In the Palestinian case, the occupation is the context of the suicide bombing, and it is the fuel. But ending the occupation is not the prime objective of the suicide campaign. The Palestinian bombings are spectacles intended to win over converts and build an identity over time.
The Qaeda Exception
So far, then, we can say that Professor Pape’s thesis fits best in Lebanon, where suicide bombing was meant to liberate a defined piece of territory in a short time frame; and less in Palestine, where it has been a lever used by upstarts to undercut an establishment. Where I think it does not fit at all is the case of Al-Qaeda.
Let me remind you of Professor Pape’s claim: Al-Qaeda is a movement of Arabian nationalism, provoked by the presence of U.S. troops in Arabia. It may not look like an occupation to us, but it looks like one to them, and they are reacting to it with violence. If we want to prevent another 9/11, we should get ourselves out of the Persian Gulf, to an offshore position.
This is where I part entirely from Professor Pape, because this is where his evidence seems to me forced, and his definitions are over-stretched.
Professor Pape emphasizes the large number of Saudis among Al-Qaeda suicide attackers. So for his thesis to hold, he has to maintain that Arabia, too, is under a humiliating foreign occupation. But the size of the occupying U.S. forces is placed at only about 12,000 in 2001, on the eve of 9/11. In Table 10 of his book, Arabia appears as the occupied region with the largest population of any occupied place: 50 million. But it is also the region with the fewest deaths from the foreign military presence: nil.
Now there is no doubt that Bin Laden has criticized the “Crusader” presence in Arabia. It is a theme he uses to trump the royal house. But to even put this U.S. presence on the same table as Chechnya, with 50,000 dead, and Lebanon with 19,000 dead—both countries with small populations of a million or so, and which suffered widespread destruction—defies common sense. It is forced, and it is contrived. The U.S. troop presence in Arabia had none of the features of an occupation.
The question, then, is why Osama succeeded in mobilizing as many Saudis as he did to attack the U.S., especially on 9/11. In fact, I see nothing remarkable about the over-representation of Saudis among jihadists. Decades ago, the Saudi royal house set up Saudi Arabia as the font of normative Islam, its defender in all places, in money, missionaries, and manpower. Saudis were schooled to see themselves as the upright minority, duty-bound to remind Muslims elsewhere of the demands of the true faith.
Professor Pape is aware of this Saudi specialization, and he wants to factor it out. So he has put together an Appendix meant to show that there are other Sunni countries with Salafists in large numbers, and they have not produced as many suicide bombers. His explanation is those U.S. “occupation” forces in Arabia. That occupation is what makes Saudi Salafists more dangerous than, say, Bangladeshi ones.
This is entirely unpersuasive. Simplistic analogies are hazardous, but just as the papacy was long dominated by Italians, so the Salafi “church” is a privileged Saudi domain. In fact, the Saudi prominence in suicide bombings against the U.S., like Osama’s own prominence in Al-Qaeda, is the parallel of official Saudi prominence in Islamic causes everywhere.
Nor is Professor Pape persuasive when he claims that the U.S. troop presence in Arabia was the prime theme in Al-Qaeda’s recruitment campaign. In Al-Qaeda’s rhetoric, you will not encounter mention of atrocities committed by U.S. troops against Arabians. The casualties of this occupation, as noted by Professor Pape, are nil. The recruiting message is invariably focused elsewhere, on American crimes committed elsewhere: Palestine (via Israel), or directly in Afghanistan, and now Iraq. These are the images that Al-Qaeda collects and circulates, and that permeate the general media like Al-Jazeera and the Internet. They are its most powerful recruiting tools.
The contribution of French scholars, and especially Olivier Roy in his book Globalized Islam, is to demonstrate for us the emergence of a transnational network of floating grievance, attached to no single place. We have today a growing number of Muslims for whom any victimization of any Muslim anywhere is vivid, real, and personal. Saudis were always taught to see these distant causes as their own—hence their early involvement in Afghanistan and Bosnia. But now groups like Al-Qaeda and its affiliates can deliver the message more widely, and with their own emphases.
What Al-Qaeda provides is the “moral logic” that makes the images of torture in Abu Ghraib personally humiliating for a British-born Pakistani in London. It is a mark of modernity to feel passion and obligation over distances. We are not the only ones being globalized in this way, and we are not the only ones transcending nationalism.
So I side here with the French-Iranian sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar, who has interviewed imprisoned terrorists and has written a fascinating book entitled Suicide Bombers: Allah’s New Martyrs. Yes, he writes, there are movements that use martyrdom in nation-formation or in war with other nations. This is true, he adds, of Iran, Palestine, Chechnya, Algeria, and Afghanistan. The aim for which they fight is clear. But of Al-Qaeda he writes: “Although it does have many things in common with national forms of martyrdom, the subjectivity that inspires its actors and the form taken by its hatred of the world are fundamentally different.” In this subjective world, if any place is occupied, if any Muslim is oppressed, and it can be shown on television and on the Internet, mobilization for another 9/11 is a distinct possibility. Whether there are 10,000 U.S. troops, or 5,000 troops, or no troops in Arabia is quite irrelevant.
Al-Qaeda is meant to be the sum of all Muslim grievances, which can only be redressed through the spectacular humiliation of America and its allies, wherever and whenever possible. It is about who we are, and what we do, and what we have, and what they are not. To say now that it has but limited goals, fixed upon some territory, is to trivialize it. I do not think Professor Pape does that, but I have seen it done by others, and I was alarmed to see them invoke his research.
The Prediction Test
I conclude. No one thesis explains it all. And since Professor Pape did his research, suicide bombing continues to mutate, in directions his thesis did not predict or anticipate. A most remarkable development has been the prominence of North Africans, especially Moroccans, in the “second wave” of Al-Qaeda suicide attackers. Even in Professor Pape’s tables, they were right behind Saudi Arabia in numbers, and those numbers are growing. We have seen British-born Pakistanis undertake a suicide attack in Israel, and the 7/7 attacks in London. And we have seen dozens of suicide bombings of Sunni against Shiite, in Iraq but also across Pakistan. Professor Pape’s thesis is just not elastic enough to accommodate all these evolutions. He drew far-reaching conclusions on the basis of one stage in the development of the phenomenon. But it is already mutating, in two directions: into more globalized, transnational forms; and into sub-national, sectarian forms.
Professor Pape’s thesis is thus a rather thin reed on which to hang his far-reaching policy conclusion: the U.S., to end the suicide scourge, should leave where it can, and adopt a posture of offshore balancing. Stephen Walt has made the argument at greater length in his new book Taming American Power.
I am not unreceptive to the idea, not because I think it will prevent another 9/11, but because I think the United States has a lot more to do in the region, and onshore commitments are slowing it down. But offshore balancing is a quaint and archaic way to describe the alternative. The problem in the Persian Gulf for twenty years has been that it is massively unbalanced. Technology, nuclear and otherwise, is spreading unevenly, and there are massive disparities of wealth and population. It is impossible to keep the Gulf on an even keel by an arms sale here or a threat of sanctions there. That means the U.S. will have no choice but to intervene, or project the willingness to intervene, pretty much on a continuous basis—unless, of course, we all begin to bicycle to work.
But whatever posture the U.S. assumes, however near or far it will stand, we will still face a globalized jihad to push us back still further. The very fact that we are the balancer, at whatever distance, will make us a target. This is the price of hegemony. It underestimates our adversaries to think they will forget about us if they cannot see the whites of our soldiers’ eyes. They, like us, can see over the near horizon. They have a global vision, and a global reach.
Like Professor Pape, I too miss the days when all those people in the Middle East were old-fashioned, deal-cutting nationalists, and a few State Department Arabists and oil company executives could play them from afar. That is the way it was circa 1975. But unlike Professor Pape, I do not think we can bring those days back. We live in world that has grown complex, and no matter how much we click our heels, it won’t get us back to Kansas.
The bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh again raise disturbing questions about the nexus of smuggling, Islamism, and terrorism in the Sinai. In summer 2004, when I was still editor of the Middle East Quarterly, I published an article by Maj. Gen. Doron Almog, who headed Israel’s Southern Command from 2000 to 2003. Almog focused on the smuggling and inflitration network from Egypt into Gaza and Israel a network that’s flourished under the noses of Egyptian authorities. Almog explained the dynamic: “Tolerance for smuggling and infiltration, like anti-Israel demonstrations in Cairo and incitement in the media, appears to be designed to relieve some of the pressure exerted by anti-Israeli public opinion in Egypt.”
But Almog warned that this could backfire, in a passage that seems prophetic in light of the subsequent attacks in Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh:
There is growing evidence that the smuggling-infiltration network operating from Egyptian territory against Israel is linked at some level to Egyptian Islamist groups. There are Egyptian Islamists who see the border area, and Gaza in particular, as a mini-Afghanistan a point of entry and vector for opening another Islamist front against infidel occupiers. Right now, this cannot take the form of armed volunteers, as in Afghanistan in the 1990s and Iraq today. But there is no impediment to smuggling and infiltration, which could be expanded into more substantial involvement in post-Mubarak circumstances. In the meantime, the smuggling itself is eroding the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord, which has always been a prime Islamist objective.
Informally, the Egyptians have signaled that the moment the Israeli-Palestinian issue is resolved, smuggling and infiltration will be dramatically reduced. The problem, they claim, is driven by the conflict itself and the occupation. But this notion is wholly mistaken. Not only does the smuggling have a strong economic incentive, but it is also linked to ideological groups that have far-reaching objectives, that reject the authority of the Egyptian government and the Palestinian Authority, and that would regard any progress toward peace as a trigger for even more intensive efforts against it. From the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in October 1981, to horrific acts of terror such as the 1997 murder of fifty-eight tourists in Luxor, the regime has demonstrated its inability to eradicate this Islamist threat. That the regime would succeed, precisely on Egypt’s border with Israel, seems very unlikely.
Almog then added this conclusion:
The smuggling and infiltration network should be regarded as part and parcel of the global terrorism network, and the battle against it as part of the global war on terror. Smuggling constitutes a strategic convergence between the Palestinian terror apparatus in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and global militant Islam. It is a reflection of the strengthening of militant Islam in post-9/11 Egypt and in the post-Saddam Middle East.
Ah, some readers probably said to themselves: another Israeli trying to hitch a ride on the global war on terror. But Almog was right, and the Sharm el-Sheikh attack is proof of it. For the Sinai is also a stage set on which Husni Mubarak receives foreign leaders in sumptuous surroundings. As long as that same Sinai remains an Islamist “vector” toward Israel, some of the terror network’s resources are bound to be spent on the peninsula’s underbelly. I say “bound to” because one kind of Islamist terrorism breeds another. Look the other way when it’s directed against your neighbor, and soon enough it’ll turn around and get you.
Photo: Husni Mubarak and George Bush at Sharm el-Sheikh, June 2003.
Martin Kramer delivered this address on a panel on “The Idea of Violent Resistance,” at the University of Chicago’s International House on November 17, 2003. Co-panelists: Martha Nussbaum, Nathan Tarcov, and Paul Breslin. A report on the panel from the Chicago Maroon follows the text of the address. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.
This past Saturday morning, suicide bombers attacked the two major synagogues in Istanbul as Jews were assembled for prayer. You have seen the details in the media: over twenty dead, several hundred wounded—a third of them Turkish Jews, two-thirds of them Turkish Muslims, although the Jews were obviously the prime target. We don’t yet know exactly who committed this act, but we can know one thing for certain: those who planned it and carried it out regarded it as a legitimate act of resistance, presumably against the U.S. and Israel.
How so? If you believe that the Jews of the world are loyal only to world Jewry; that their leaders plan the world policy of the Jews, as implemented by Israel and the United States; and that this Jewish-driven policy is directly responsible for the oppression of Palestinians, Iraqis, Arabs, or Muslims—if you believe these things, what happened in Istanbul could well seem to you a form of legitimate resistance.
The assumptions I just cited are not at all rare. In fact, last spring, some professors on American campuses were insinuating these very things. The war to remove Saddam, they said, was being driven by a Likudnik cabal in Washington, acting on behalf of Israel. (Likudnik is a transparent codeword for Zionist American Jew.) It’s easy to see how some people in the Arab or Muslim world, overhearing this claim, might conclude that attacking synagoguges full of Jews—outposts of the cabal—could constitute legitimate resistance to Israeli or U.S. policies.
Now I imagine and assume that all of you would find the notion preposterous. But in some parts of the world, all of you would be in a clear minority. For example, even statesmen in these parts have been equivocal about what happened on Saturday. The Arab League secretary-general, Amr Musa, was quoted yesterday, to the effect that the Istanbul bombing was “unacceptable”—not reprehensible, or despicable, or barbaric, but “unacceptable”—and then he went on to add this: “Responsibility for all this comes back to Israeli policy.” If this is what the head of the League of Arab States is saying, imagine what is being said in coffee shops and mosques.
Now the word “resistance” is ubiquitous in the Middle East. The region, and particularly the Arab lands and Iran, constitute a zone that professes itself to be in continuous resistance. It resists Western hegemony; American power; consumer culture; Israel and Zionism; regime oppression; religious skepticism; the scientific spirit—I could go on and on. It’s a region that actively defines itself in terms of resistance. There is resistance in Lebanon, and there is resistance in Palestine, and now there is resistance in Iraq. In these places, it’s actually called resistance, or muqawama in Arabic, which usually refers to armed or violent resistance—to military occupation; elsewhere it’s called jihad, which can be parsed as resistance to the “enemies of God.” How are we to approach these many forms of resistance? Is all of it legitimate? Is none of it legitimate? Is some of it legitimate? Is some of it so illegitimate as to constitute terrorism, against which we are waging a war? And what are our criteria for making our determination?
There are three ways to approach the dilemma. The first is to assume a completely relativist position, and effectively endorse whatever is done in the name of a cause perceived as legitimate to be ipso facto legitimate. The pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement (ISM) has taken the position that “we recognize the Palestinian right to resist Israeli violence and occupation via legitimate armed struggle.” Since the movement has never defined legitimate armed struggle, or never condemned any Palestinian armed act as illegitimate, and since its numerous spokespersons have said that the Palestinians have the right to resist in any way they deem appropriate, the ISM has effectively absolved any Palestinian for any act against any Israeli Jew. The International Solidarity Movement refuses to draw any lines for the Palestinians—this is its definition of solidarity, which is unquestioning. Having made just one moral choice against occupation, the ISM is on automatic pilot; it accepts whatever moral and strategic choices are made by any Palestinian decisionmaker, down to the Hamas cell leader preparing a suicide belt. After all, who are we to judge them? Who are we to impose our categories on them?
The second approach is to contextualize the violence in such a way as to legitimize it, or diminish its illegitimacy. This is what I would call the “yes, but” approach—yes, those who committed this particularly unsavory or indiscriminate act of violence crossed a line, but they were pushed or pulled across it. It’s not legitimate resistance, but it’s not terrorism either. There is a rule, but for one reason or another, it doesn’t apply to this special case, which is exceptional. There are many ways to contextualize violence or cast it as a legitimate exception; the usual one is to underline the violence or humiliation inflicted by the other side.
Academics can give this approach a very interesting twist. For example, there is a professor of cultural anthropology who has written an article for a scholarly journal on how suicide bombings in cafes are reported in the Israeli press. The article is sanitized of any mention of the blood and glass; it’s all post-modern analysis of the discourse of the Israeli daily press on the “emptiness” of public places created by fear, relating this to the “emptiness” of Palestine assumed by Zionism, etc. The ultimate point is to suggest that Israelis, by these bombings, have been denied their pursuit of leisure, whereas the Palestinians have been denied their very freedom. The whole purpose of this exegetical exercise is to diminish or mitigate the illegitimacy of suicide bombings of cafes and restaurants. And in case the point is missed, the author studiously avoids the word terrorism, instead calling the blowing up of cafes acts of Palestinian “militarism.” The author seems to be unconcerned that the semantic space of the word “militarism” is already occupied—the dictionaries already define it. But why submit to the hegemonic authority of Merriam-Webster, when you can make it all up to suit yourself?
The third approach is to try to formulate something which I would dare to call a standard—that is, a set of general principles, against which to measure and judge specific cases. This is the most rigorous of the three approaches. It doesn’t simply accept the other’s choices, like the relativist “solidarity” approach. It doesn’t treat its favorite case as unique, like the “yet, but” approach. It requires the full integration of moral, analytical, and political factors. It is a calculus. It shouldn’t be value-free, it can’t be culture-free, and it’s rarely interest-free. The extent to which such a standard becomes universal reflects the extent to which it appears to be one standard, as opposed to two or ten or a hundred.
The essence of this approach is that it distinguishes, in situations of conflict, between legitimate resistance and terrorism, and does so down the line, according to a set of coherent principles. That is, it acknowledges that while there is legitimate resistance, there is also illegitimate resistance, which is tantamount to terrorism. The core of that standard is self-evident to us. The experience of total war in this century has created a strong disposition in the West to affirm that it’s never legitimate to deliberately target non-combattants.
Now we’re painfully aware of the imperfection of this effort at consistency, and we understand that its achievement is ever a work-in-progress. But at least we attempt it. And now I come to the most controversial part of my presentation. The very discussion we’re conducting here, the striving for a universal standard, is a defining characteristic of the West and the parts of the world that have incorporated its values. In most of the Middle East, the discussion we’re having would be impossible to conduct on a public podium, and it wouldn’t matter. Because in this part of the world, there is only one approach to violence against the “other”: the “solidarity” approach. And because of that, because the Arab and Muslim world is retreating from its past moral, ethical, and legal engagement with the West, because it is even retreating from its own moral, ethical, and legal legacy, the scope of violence is expanding almost faster than we can document it. It’s not just that every form of resistance is evolving inexorably toward terrorism; it’s that this evolution can always find some justification from public figures, intellectuals, and spiritual leaders. People of this caliber, who act in our societies as brakes on the exercise of the almost limitless power we command, in those societies advocate the erasing of one red line after another.
Let me show how this works in the case of the suicide bombings. The first ones took place in Lebanon in the early 1980s, the most important were conducted by Hizbullah. Back then, I published an article called “The Moral Logic of Hizbullah,” in which I discussed the way Shiite jurists debated the permissibility of this tactic. Twenty years ago, there was a lot of debate over whether such acts constituted suicide, which is expressly forbidden in Islam. After considerable back and forth, it was deemed permissible, but only if it inflicted massive casualties on the enemy. When this couldn’t be guaranteed, the act was not permitted. And the operations were conducted only against occupying military forces in Lebanon.
After the successes registered by Hizbullah’s resistance against Israel, the Palestinians imitated the technique, but gave it a new dimension. Whereas Hizbullah was highly discriminating in going for “quality operations,” in their phrase, the Palestinians have essentially released a suicide human wave some 700 persons in three years. Almost all of them have bypassed Israeli military personnel in order to target non-combattants. In other words, the Palestinians took forward the precedents of Hizbullah, but crossed many of the red lines set by Hizbullah.
But the Palestinians, from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, did have their own red lines. They didn’t operate outside of Israel and the territories; and they made an effort, in their targeting, to kill primarily Jews.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have gone even further than the Palestinians. They’ve built on the Palestinian precedent of deliberately targeting non-combattants with suicide bombers. But they’ve erased two more red lines: they operate internationally, they’ve expanded the targeting to anyone anywhere, from office workers in Manhattan to tourists in Bali, and they are entirely indifferent to how many Africans they killed when they bomb two U.S. embassies in 1998, or how many Turks died when they bombed two synagogues, as happened this weekend. Indeed, to undermine a regime, as in Saudi Arabia, they are perfectly willing to bomb a residential compound full of Arabs, as they did two weeks ago. The debate I chronicled, less than twenty years ago, about whether a bomber detonating himself was a suicide or martyr, now looks quaint. Once there were qualms about the death of one Muslim in such bombings, the bomber himself. Now there are no qualms even about killing dozens more Muslims. It’s just “collateral damage.”
What is tragically obvious is that the Arab and Muslim world—its intellectuals, its philosophers, its poets, its politicians—don’t have the authority or the courage to stop this downward spiral into nihilism—a nihilism that accepts or contextualizes or legitimizes every form of violence that bombers produce. There are no brakes; this has become the heart of darkness, comparable in its despair to Europe in the 1930s, a part of the world that has progressively abandoned its own philosophical, historical, and religious concepts of the permissible and the forbidden.
Surely, you say, there is a great debate raging. I think you would be surprised to find how little debate there really has been, and how denial has come to replace it. 9/11 is a case in point. Instead of a debate, opinion rallied to this position: America certainly deserved it, though the innocents in the Twin Towers did not, but in any case none of us did it; it was a plot by the Mossad to discredit the Muslims. They do not debate or denounce the acts; they deny them.
Why is this happening? The slide towards nihilism, the prevalence of denial, are inseparable from post-colonial decay. Because masses of the disaffected have failed to find an avenue to modernity, they’re in a rage against its representatives. And there’s no one point from which to lever a change in this situation. It isn’t in a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the removal of Saddam, or regime change elsewhere. It’s a condition that’s endemic and profound.
Does that mean that there is nothing to be done, except to fight, as Yeats wrote in 1919, like “weasels in a hole”? Certainly there is a fight here: the war against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates won’t end in a peace agreement. Al-Qaeda has never made a demand, it’s following a path of jihad to erode and destroy the power of the West. There are some in Palestinian ranks, in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, whose declared goal is the erosion and destruction of Israel. Theirs isn’t resistance to occupation, it’s resistance to Israel’s existence. In these cases, there must be a fight.
But parallel with that battle, there’s a struggle for hearts and minds. We’re losing that battle in part because there are those among us who have accepted the redefinition of legitimate resistance made by the planners of suicide bombings. There are those among us who, rather than adhere to a definition of terror that emerges from our own terrible history, are willing to accept one that accommodates theirs. There are those who, in the name of the right to resistance, are prepared to accept a double standard, or to say that they have cultural norms that diverge from ours, and that must be respected.
Now there is nothing static about cultures, and certainly not in the way they conceive force. American society, nearly sixty years ago, embraced the use of nuclear weapons against civilians as a shortcut to ending a war it was winning. That would be unthinkable today. Now we face societies that are abandoning their own traditional constraints, that are building intellectual constructs that will allow even more killing. Does anyone here doubt that the 9/11 hijackers, and the Palestinian suicide bombers, would use weapons of mass destruction if they had them? We have entered a very dangerous moment. But there is nothing inevitable about the slide toward an Armageddon in the name of resistance; and that slide needs to be resisted—yes, resisted especially by those of you who share the political aspirations of these peoples.
Let me give an example of how that could be done. In July 2002, Amnesty International issued a report entitled “Without Distinction: Attacks on Civilians by Palestinian Armed Groups.” The report noted that Amnesty had made many criticisms of Israeli policy over the years, and it noted the right of peoples to struggle against foreign occupation. But it then emphasized: “The attacks against civilians by Palestinian armed groups are widespread, systematic, and in pursuit of an explicit policy to attack civilians. They therefore constitute crimes against humanity under international law. They may also constitute war crimes, depending on the legal characterisation of the hostilities and the Palestinian armed groups under international humanitarian law.”
This is the message that has to go forth from those who see themselves as friends of these causes. Israel and the West do not lack outspoken domestic critics of the way they use force. This is not so on the other side of the divide. Those critics, who now lay low, have to be emboldened. That is best done by holding this part of the world to the minimal standard we would wish to see diffused through all humankind. Anything less will enshrine two different kinds of warfare as legitimate, establish two radically different codes of conduct. There have always been descrepancies of power among states, but that doesn’t mean that there should not be one code. Indeed, without one, we will soon find ourselves on an irrevocable course to a war of civilizations.
“Panel considers violent resistance,” by Isaac Wolf, Chicago Maroon, November 18, 2003.
In the last three years, international relations have been dominated by news of violent attacks related to the Muslim and Arab world: the continuous bloodshed between Israel and the Palestinians; the explosive terror of 9/11; and the recent intensification of attacks on Western targets in Iraq.
On Monday, the moral implications of these acts were evaluated through the lens of academics, who drew on varied fields of expertise to explore recent developments in a panel discussion entitled, “The Idea of Violent Resistance.”
With special attention given to addressing the ethical question of suicide attacks on civilians in Israel, three of the four panel speakers elaborated on specific topics of theory and then teased out insights into the arena of current events.
The event drew a crowd of 300 students, professors and community members, with attendees spilling into the upper deck of the International House auditorium. Presented by the Student Committee on the Middle East, the lecture was co-sponsored by a broad base of student groups.
The first speaker was Martha Nussbaum, a professor in the Law School. She attempted to frame the current conception of international law in terms of the Western philosophical tradition. She drew first on Cicero, the Roman philosopher who espoused the view that acts of violence should exist solely in the framework of a long-term plan for peace.
“To assault someone aggressively is to treat them as a tool,” Nussbaum said with reference to Cicero.
Relating these ideas to the world’s present situation, Nussbaum said that few clear conclusions regarding the moral guidelines for violent resistance could be drawn from the canon of Western philosophy. One thing that can be said with clarity, Nussbaum said, is that civilians are being abused “in ways that threaten life.”
Nussbaum’s comments contrasted with those of Nathan Tarcov, a professor in the Committee on Social Thought, who used the Declaration of Independence, a landmark document of resistance, as a baseline for discussion.
In his analysis of the Declaration, Tarcov balanced the idea that the document called for immediate action as a “fundamental statement of resistance” with its invocation of “prudent judgment.” He said that the Declaration embodies the notion that all people have the right to resistance, but it doesn’t demand that they actually act on that right.
Martin Kramer, the third speaker, repudiated the idea that violent attacks on civilians are legitimate. He rejected the relativism and contextualization that, he believes, often occur in the adjudication of violent attacks. To believe that the American or Israeli targets deserve to be bombed, he said, is to sincerely believe that the two nations are run by an “American Jewish cabal” of Likudniks that specifically dictate a policy of repression and hatred against Muslims and Arabs.
“All of you would find this notion preposterous,” he said. “But in some parts of the world, you would be the minority.”
Kramer then attempted to link the lack of public debate in the Middle East to the proliferation of violence, showing that a decrease of public discussion has created an environment ripe for attacks. He mentioned a case 20 years ago when Lebanese clerics debated the permissibility of suicide bombings, and said that this is a “debate the Palestinian resistance has not had.”
Kramer’s viewpoints were originally supposed to be refuted by Mark Wegner, a professor in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. But Wegner, citing personal reasons, did not speak on the panel, and was replaced by Northwestern University English professor Paul Breslin.
Breslin drew on his background in post-colonial theory to describe the work of Franz Fanon, the 20th-century writer who championed violence as a means of repelling colonialism and developing a new societal identity.
Rejecting the importance Fanon ascribed to violence, Breslin conceded that he could make little connection between the post-colonial theorists and the morality of violent resistance.
“Speaking as a human being to a group of human beings, there are different kinds of violence and these distinctions and circumstances matter,” he said.