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Tuesday, November 21, 2006
The Silliness of the War on Terror

I was reading a forwarded email from my sister (who, in the interest of full disclosure is in the air force), the text of which can be found here: (There is value in reading it, so I suggest that you do so.)

It was the usual clap-trap suggesting that the current war on terror is the most dangerous and important war that America has ever waged. Since so few people these days actually believe that "terrorism" is a real threat, or that fighting the war on terror in any sense 'matters' for American security, I do not feel a need to emphasize that part of my argument. (Though if anyone wanted to make a serious case that terrorism 'matters' for American security, feel free. I'll be happy to take up that argument if necessary.)

My real beef (or tofu since I'm a vegetarian) with the "Omg, the terrorists are going to kill us all" line of argument is its emphasis on the unique threat posed by Islamic radicalism (or whatever term of endearment once prefers. The term "Islamofascism," I believe, is en vogue these days). That hypothesis/claim-- that radical, politicized, violent Islam is a threat to American security--is false and wrong. Critics of that belief usually respond with along two lines, both of which are valid, but neither of which eviscerate the heart of the argument.

The first response is that Islam is an inherently peaceful religion and therefore it is racist/imperialist/orientalist/close-minded to impute to Islam fanatical and violent tendencies. This response is inadequate because no religion, from a secular point of view, is inherently anything; the religion is what its practitioners make it. The form of that religion could be violent, liberal, dovish, or anti-statist; whatever interpretation or form a religion takes, however, is a result of the particular context and process of (discursive) reasoning ensconced within unique historical trajectories.

The second argument against the Islamic radicalism hypothesis is the power politics critique. This response basically says that even if Muslims are a threat, they can't do anything to the United States. Poor nations simply lack the resources and material capabilities to threaten the biggest state in the world. If the poor nations get uppity and ever truly threaten the United States, then that state will be invaded or remade by the United States, absent said state possessing a small nuclear deterrent. In short, resistance to the United States which threatens its existence is suicide and is therefore futile. Needless to say that this argument does not really address the claim, but says that the claim doesn't matter.

My argument against the "Radical Muslims are dangerous" hypothesis attacks the central logic that Islam provides an ideological recruiting ground for an endless and deadly struggle of attrition. This logic correctly assumes that radical leaders are only dangerous when they can convinced the moderates to acquiesce or join them in the struggle. (We have evidence from other violent revolutionary movements that this is the case.) We have more evidence that the radical Islamists are having a hard time recruiting 'martyrs' and willing recruits for missions. Proponents of the radical Muslims thesis usually point out the rabid anti-Americanism around the globe where, in some countries, figures are as high as 80% of people who think that what America is doing is bad. The proponents have overstated their case. If so many people are anti-American and if Islam creates a fertile recruiting ground, why are there so few martyrs in struggle? The case of the missing martyrs is a bit damning and requires further elaboration.

Anti-American is chic these days. How many chat rooms regularly produce what could be considered anti-American speech? Many do. But when it comes to supporting violent Islamist parties in their countries, or even non-violent parties who wish to implement sharia, the voters consistently give them less than 5% of the vote. (Islamist parties who are running in elections against a ruling party/ family tend to do well, but, given that they are only opposition, that is not surprising.) Rather than see a threat everywhere, we should be struck by the infrequency of terrorist attacks, random shootings, arson by Muslims in particular and by potential sympathizers in general.

In summary, terrorism is not a threat that we should worry about. Moreover, the terrorism that has occurred can't be explained by links between the acts of violence and Muslims.

A potential counter to my claim is that while terrorism is not an existential threat for the United States, what's happening in southern Thailand, not to mention the Philippines, Indonesia, Sudan, Somalia, Chechnya, and Pakistan, suggests that terrorism in the name of Islam is indeed a threat worth taking seriously, even if these terrorists are not primarily motivated by Islam. I agree that these countries face serious threats by militants invoking Islam, but what do we gain, either descriptively or analytically, by considering them terrorists and not simply insurgents?

For instance, consider the war in Sri Lanka with the Tamil Tigers. Suicide bombing occurs against the population almost everyday. There is a way in which terrorism adequately describes what is going on: each armed gang, loosely connected to one of the 'sides', is attempting to reduce the other side's popular support from fence-sittiers and for the committed, to make supporting the side very costly. However, focusing simply on the suicide terrorism obscures the master political cleavage which is driving the acts of violence: that there exists an organized group of people who do not wish to live in a unified Sri Lankan state. Many of the Islamic wars in central Asia, or the insurgencies in Pakistan and Yemen, do employ Islamic rhetoric and deploy Islamic symbols. The focus of their violence and symbolism, however, targets those regimes suppression of internal ethnic and political minorities, and/or those regimes' cooperation with the United States. We must not lose sight of the fact that these are radical revolutionary movements aiming toward civil war, and not simply 'terrorism.'

The move toward classifying as terrorist those armed gangs who, through invocations of Islam, perpetrate violence against states and citizens, cloaks the fact that they are simply revolutionary movements in states who want them to just go away. The 'terrorist' framework, instead of focusing on the goals and incentives of the organizations, categorizes them according to their tactics. In this way, the images of barbarians who behead reporters, stone women, kill civilians, sabotage commercial airlines, and recruit children for suicide missions comes to predominate over the reasons the people are in that situation in the first place. Violence in the 'terrorist' framework becomes its own explanation and source of condemnation: an exquisite, if crude, way of chronicling violence to distinguish between the civilized 'us' and the barbarian 'them.'

The reasons I argue against the terrorist framing is that violence should never be considered as an end to itself, but only as a means. The study of acts of violence must primarily be historical and then political. By historical study, I mean inquiry that situates the actors within their context in a complex chain of contingent human events. Without this context, acts of violence lose their meaning and the reasons that those acts became thinkable and doable in the first place. By political study, I mean sustained and comparative focus on who the targets are and why they were selected, and who the perpetrators are. Historical study describes the process by which a certain menu of options became available, and political study details how and why the options that were chosen got chosen.

Therefore the question for Thailand becomes not "how many Muslims are resisting the state and prepared to do violence against civilians" but rather "Why do the Muslims feel it necessary to turn to violence against this regime?"