Sun Jun 5th, 2016 at 11:41:43 AM EST
There is a group of liberal atheists in the Anglosphere – people like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Bill Maher – whose reaction to 9/11 was to view Islam (in general) as the problem, and religion as the elephant in the bathroom in mainstream discussions about the cause of terrorism. Their views were not all the same – for example, while some became liberal hawks, strange bedfellows with would-be Crusaders in supporting the so-called War on Terror, others remained thoroughly critical of Bush –, but there is enough affinity to speak of a group. I took the "9/11 liberals" moniker from Bill Maher (in a video I saw recently which made me write this diary).
I am an atheist whose view of the net effect of religion on society is barely less negative than that of Richard Dawkins (especially when it comes to child indoctrination). Even in matters where I don't think religion is the original source of problems, I think it tends to make things worse. Yet, I think 9/11 liberals are missing some quite basic facts, and only contribute to Islamophobia.
Frontpaged - Frank Schnittger
9/11 liberals always emphasize the roots of modern (Sunni) Islamist terrorism in Islamic tradition. To me, the most glaring omission in this view is the roots in non-Islamist Middle Eastern terrorism. When I was a child in the early eighties, terrorism of Middle Eastern origin mostly meant car bombings and plane hijackings by leftist and nationalist groups like Fatah, Black September or the PKK. I lived through the time when these groups faltered and were over-taken by more radical alternatives championing the same political causes. More recently, Daesh consolidated an ideologically very diverse Iraqi Sunni resistance movement. In all of these cases, it should be obvious that religion merely provided a new framing for an old political cause.
Most prominent 9/11 liberals are older than me and lived through even earlier stages of the transition from Fatah et al to al-Qaida et al. So I have a difficulty understanding how they can ignore these secular and political roots of modern Islamist terrorism.
It's not just the methods and ideology taken from secular Middle Eastern terrorists that is novel and not at all traditional in modern Islamist terrorism, but some of what differentiated the latter from the secular precedents, too. Take suicide bombing, for example. Traditionally, Islam views suicide as a sin, and it took several steps of ideological innovation to adapt suicide bombing into modern (Sunni) Islamism.
- The way I see it, the first precursor was suicidal tactics applied by Iran's armed forces in the Iran–Iraq War from the early eighties: the human wave attacks of the Basij. For this, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had to update the Shi'a ideal of martyrdom for modern times, after all, there is a difference between facing enemies with swords at overwhelming odds and clearing a minefield by running through it in great enough numbers. And Khomeini's motivation was something very practical rather than theological: Iran was under attack by Saddam Hussein who had superior military hardware.
- The next precursor was car bombs with a driver, as applied by the secretive Islamic Jihad Organization (allegedly a front for Hezbollah) in the Beirut civil war from 1983. The religious aspect was the further expansion of the concept of martyrdom to include the martyr's death at his own hands. The secular, tactical aspect was overcoming heavy security, against mostly military targets (like the US barracks): a poor man's cruise missile.
- The next and most dramatic step was to strap explosives on the suicide bomber's body under his clothes, as a new means of assassination. This innovation wasn't even a Muslim one: it was invented by the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan separatist group. 9/11 liberals keep telling that only belief in the afterlife enables someone to strap on a suicide belt, but for the Tamil Tigers, nationalism – which included a cult of martyrdom similar to that of the Shi'a, but on nationalist rather than religious basis – was enough.
- So how did Sunni Muslim extremists adopt a tactic developed by people whom they must view as heretics resp. pagans? (As far as I know, the Shi'a concept of martyrdom itself is apostatic for Sunnis.) The answer is: under special circumstances, when these differences could be overlooked in a fight against a common enemy. Suicide bombing against explicitly civilian targets was first adopted by Palestinian Sunni Muslim organisation Hamas. Hamas was, on one hand, in "friendly" competition with the Hezbollah-inspired Shi'a Muslim Islamic Jihad over who fights the Israeli occupation harder. On the other hand, the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre by a Jewish setter extremist gave Hamas the opportunity to claim revenge as justification.
- Meanwhile, al-Qaida was forming in Afghanistan. The original ideal of the Mujahideen – wisemen hiding in the desert with frugal simplicity in clothing and lodging, but with modern weapons and cars and propaganda – wasn't really compatible with the clandestineness and pretence required of a suicide bomber. What's more, the al-Qaida people were far from Palestine and still hated the Shi'a as heretics. But they were practical people, and saw what's effective. And, since they sought to create a Sunni Islamist terrorist internationale, in the 2000s, their ideology spread to fellow extremists across the Muslim world.
Speaking of al-Qaida's pragmatic abandonment of Islamic traditions, there is also their propaganda. The Islamic tradition of demonising portraits was not limited to depictions of Muhammad: normally you had to be a Shah or a high cleric to defy this ban. Yet, in spite of their back-to-the-roots romanticism and disdain for the despots ruling the Arab world, al-Qaida turned Osama Bin-Laden into a jihadi Che Guevara and also filmed and promoted their "martyrs" for recruitment purposes.
Overall, I get the sense that for Sunni Islamist terrorists, key tactics and even part of the ideology is very much a matter of practical choice, with religious justifications tacked on to sustain ideological coherence.
Another point 9/11 liberals often make is that the suicide bombers and foot soldiers of jihadi movements have been indoctrinated from early childhood. This is actually true in the case of the Taliban, which was formed by the "alumni" of Koran schools founded by a few, mostly Pakistani mullahs to swallow up the orphans of the Afghan War. However, it's already difficult to apply the claim to the original Mujahideen, who consisted mostly of Afghan tribal militiamen and foreign legionaires who wanted to escape the nihilistic consumerism of the Gulf states (a rebellion even if these same Gulf states bankrolled them).
The indoctrination from early childhood argument gets progressively less tenable if you consider Palestinians joining Hamas (I remember reading stories of suicide bombers who weren't even religious just desperate and out for vengeance), the former members of Saddam's armed forces and middle-class Sunni Iraqis who have fled Shi'a death squads cleaning mixed quarters in Baghdad, the 9/11 terrorists, and finally the European recruits of Daesh. The latest attacks in France and Belgium were committed by a circle of friends who have been hedonistic violent common criminals, converted in prison, and radicalised over a period of no more than a year.
Furthermore, there are the stories questioning the depth of the faiths of the 9/11 Hamburg cell and the Brussels cell behind the recent attacks in France and Belgium, from drinking to striptease bars. I am particularly intrigued by the cases of Ziad Jarrah, the pilot of United Airlines Flight 93 who seems to not have given up on plans to marry his girlfriend in Germany until the last few days; and Salah Abdeslam, the earlier frequenter of gay bars who threw away his suicide belt but nevertheless had a substantial part in the logistics of the Paris attacks. Be it peer pressure or political considerations out-weighing the religious ones, these people still tagged on.
The hope of sex with 72 virgins in paradise is particularly unhelpful in explaining female suicide bombers.
A slightly more nuanced version of the view that modern Sunni Islamist terrorism is all rooted in Islamic tradition focuses on one strand of Islam only: Salafism. With the notable exception of Hamas, most Sunni Islamist armed groups indeed have Salafist roots, and Saudi Arabia is under the thumb of Wahhabi clerics, where Wahhabism is a branch of Salafism. However, to go from there and assume that all Salafists are ticking bombs is a leap of logic.
From what I know, the typical Salafist is like the typical Orthodox Jew: obsessed with praying, mostly withdrawing to the community of the fellow faithful, oppressing the fellow faithful, and occasionally rioting when the outside world interferes. For such people to get pro-actively violent, there has to be a context of political struggle, like Israel's colonisation of Palestine in the case of radical settlers. Violence also involves an aspect of rebellion: men of action despise the inactive as people not true to their words.
What these points boil down to in my mind is that the ideology of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists is more a rebellion against than a direct continuation of tradition, even if they all claim to want to get back to the roots. (In that, they are similar to the various Protestant sects in 16th to 18th century Europe.)
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I conclude this train of thought with a thought experiment: what would be the fate of terrorism of Middle Eastern origin if Islamic fundamentalism would falter and go out of fashion? I think it would find a new ideological framing and continue, as long as the underlying problems of the region remain the same.