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Terrorism, ideology and misconceptions

S. M. Faizan Ahmed is Research Assistant at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 18, 2009

    Terrorism is at the forefront of international politics and is a major crisis of our age. Not found in pre-modern times, this phenomenon finds its root in ideological movements and not in religion. While referring to different forms of terrorism several scholars have suggested nihilism in modern times as the source of the problem. They view nihilism as a decline in values, or in other words, a tendency of ‘devaluing all values’. This analysis may remain relevant as a theoretical explanation of the problem with some specific examples of terrorism, but it helps us little when we look at the problem in South Asia. South Asia is at the heart of global terrorism, leading to a progressive weakening of the government as violence weakens the established structure. Countries surrounding India are affected by political instability. But the main locus of terrorism is Pakistan and West Asia from where people and finances are being mobilized.

    Terrorism is not restricted to any location – be it the location of identity, territory or religion. However, in our times, Islam is often being portrayed in association with violence, aggression and terrorism. This is largely due to the media, both national and international, which has constantly depicted Muslims in such stereotypical ways. Buddhists for instance are most known for their pacifist spiritual lifestyle and generally regarded as the most unlikely candidates who would resort to violence in the name of religion. However, we know that there are terrorist outfits among Buddhists in Burma and Sri Lanka. Hence, terrorism is not a Muslim problem per se.

    Terrorism does not have any intrinsic link with any culture, race, region or community. There are jihadis everywhere and not only among Muslims. At one level, yes! All ‘Jihadi’ terror attacks were carried out by Muslims. But a particular reading of jihad alone cannot define Islam, as the term ‘jihad’ itself is a contested domain and, perhaps, no single inference can claim to be the real understanding of jihad, just as there can be no single reading of Islam that would be considered authentic because we access it only through interpretation. Similarly, the various ‘Islamic’ terrorist outfits too can at best be termed as a particular ideological breed of Islam. This is typical of ideological aggression that has unfortunately found its refuge in political movements within Muslim societies.

    Ideological aggression finds expression, in one form or the other, among significant populations of the world. One is anti-American (or anti-Western) sentiment, which can be found even among educated intellectuals in the West. The other narrative is of injustice being carried out in or against communities or states. In the specific context of the Muslim experience, the major argument that comes from Western readings is that Muslims are barbaric, uncivilized, brainwashed by their faith, aggressive, oppressive and are opposed to freedom. But the problem is linked with the issue of Freedom. Since we are acquiring more and more freedom in our private and public lives, there are others who feel deprived of it – that is, to say, freedom to practice one’s own faith or ideology both in public and private arenas and yet live with dignity. Why must Freedom freeze with one party? This is how old elites and aspiring youth, involved or sympathetic with such movements, formulate their question. This notion of independence sometimes leads them to make extremely radical and inhuman choices, where they become hopeless towards any dialogue and refuse all negotiations. As long as people and communities keep coming to the State with their demands and grievances, the State should not feel threatened by it – it is, in fact, a sign of a healthy State. But as soon as they block all communication from the State, it should be considered an alarming sign – this is when terrorism finds its birth.

    Freedom is the core urge of modernity. This does not mean that other faiths do not have any idea of liberation. Modern values are but just one way of viewing life; perhaps, it is too late to address this issue; but still, modern minds need to know how to come to terms with this reality – a reality that carves its support from not only a section of Muslims, but also from leftists, post-modernists and even the uneducated masses. A specific critique of the state is one that all these groups share. They all are waging ‘war’ against the nation-state in multifaceted forms. Their criticisms are certainly directed against nation-states, but each group’s content and strategies differ. The only difference is some choose the method of protest and others go for armed struggle.

    On the other hand, most nation-states have incorporated modern values into their Constitutions, with their own flavor of course, and we know that we are living in the modern age. However, this age, in many ways, does not belong to us. We have all accomplishments of modernity, but what is missing? Where does modernity satisfy our soul? It is not that jihadists are not using modern technologies and living in a barbaric age. They too know modern jargon and its fallout; and those who are at the helm of instrumental rationality still donate for their own people without any substantive reason. The real issue is, indeed, a problem of identity that goes beyond all reasons that modernity is able to offer. What history and polity a nation must construct to satisfy all sections of society remains an unresolved and ever evolving challenge.

    Terrorism is a tactic and one cannot really kill a tactic. Hence, terror tactics require constant study and analysis. Terrorist groups are very small players who have ambitions much bigger than their size, though they cause deeply disturbing challenges and consequences for stability of the state and for humanity. Their objective is not to destabilize the sources of power but to change the perspective of the power structure. Terrorists are playing upon the internal cohesion of state-society relationship, where the state ensures protection and freedom to its citizens. Measures to eliminate terrorism will have to be deployed with prudence and precision. Otherwise, it will only prove to be counterproductive. Since a terrorist is a warrior and holds a worldview of his own, it is those worldviews that require special attention and urgent address. Without understanding the mind of the terrorist, nothing can prove to be fruitful in this regard. Focus on near term and immediate solutions are needed. For example, reforming agriculture is one solution for the problem in Afghanistan. Good governance will ensure trust and confidence of people that will curb recruitment of terrorists in the region. At the domestic level, intelligence is the frontline in the war against terror. There is thus a need to have adequate databases, which is possible only through proper training of the beat constable who knows his area in greater detail than anyone else. Most importantly, India should not replicate the Western way of dealing with terrorism, which declares the body as diseased instead of treating the specific part or organ that is diseased. Given its diversity, any labeling of a particular community would necessarily pose a threat to India’s internal cohesion. The way to tackle terrorism should be on a case by case basis, keeping in mind each outfit’s specific instances and peculiarities and isolating radical elements from the community.

    In our times, all people in all societies are getting more and more liberated from their earlier social bonds, and individualism is increasingly being celebrated especially by those who have attained modern education. But at the same time all societies and governments are equally threatened and security concerns are no longer restricted to the State. Since we are threatened by the unknown and unpredictable, we all are concerned over security in our life; and there can be no security, if we do not develop trust in our relations.