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Terrorism: flawed theories

Published Oct 15, 2013 07:18am


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WHY do people blow themselves up to kill others? There are two approaches to understanding terrorism.

The amateur approach blames particular religions, especially Islam and Christianity, for causing terrorism. Scientists designate X as the cause of Y if its presence usually produces Y. So, these religions can only be designated as causes if the majority of their adherents become terrorists.

Since not even 1pc followers of these two religions practise terrorism, the evidence for such amateur theories is weak. Even Darwin would have received little acclaim had he informed his stunned audience that his theory of evolution applied to very few species. Yet, despite presenting meagre evidence, armchair analysts hope that their theories will earn them Darwin-like acclaim.

Faced with uncomfortable questions, such analysts market their theories by arguing that while most Muslims are not terrorists, most terrorists are Muslims. This latter assertion, even if true, still leaves rational social scientists unconvinced.

Rejecting Islam as the cause since most Muslims are not terrorists, they identify other time-bound causes for why most terrorists today are Muslims. Applying sophisticated statistical tools to historical terrorism trends, they identify multi-layered causes of terrorism.

Their starting point is perceived or real injustice. But, since people fighting injustice employ vastly different strategies, eg social activism, political participation, intellectual scholarship and violence, these scholars view injustice as a stand-alone explanation for the initial instigation of anger.

The next layer in such theories argues that the past strategies of political elites determine whether people adopt violent or peaceful strategies based on this anger. Societies where elites previously discouraged peaceful strategies and validated violence, especially by non-state actors, will more likely see people adopting terrorism to fight subsequent injustices.

This explanation emphasises the age-old insight that individual behaviour is heavily influenced by ideas dominating the social environment. Since the majority even in such societies eschews violence, the theories finally utilise sociological and psychological analysis to identify the types of groups and individuals that actually adopt terrorism.

Such multi-layered theories of terrorism, utilising political, sociological and psychological analysis, withstand the scrutiny of evidence far better than half-baked religion-focused theories that thrive on religious biases and insufficient knowledge about both scientific inquiry and other religions.

Such theories provide powerful lenses for understanding the rapid spread of terrorism in Pakistan and among Muslims recently. Driven by Cold War goals, the trio of the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia supported and glorified non-state violent groups fighting in Afghanistan against the former USSR. They labelled their fight as jihad in stark contrast to its historical Islamic meaning. Thus, the perverse political strategies of these countries rather than religion have contributed to making terrorism so common among Muslims today.

Dumped subsequently by their state supporters, many of these rebels and their direct descendants scout the globe today searching for new causes. In their worldview, ‘live and let live’ has become ‘die and let die’ and ‘an eye for an eye’ has become ‘any eye for an eye’.

The USSR would have collapsed even without the Afghan war. Due to the instigation of that war by the trio, terrorism thrives even 25 years after the Soviet collapse.

Pakistan’s military is alleged to still use many of these groups for furthering its regional goals. Having let the genie out, the generals are battling to simultaneously put it back into the bottle in some places while continuing to utilise it for other battles.

Pakistani military officers boast about being far smarter than civilians. Looking at the consequences of their failed policies, one struggles to discern any smartness, morality or worldly knowledge underpinning them.

Regionally, China has become the world’s manufacturing hub; India its software hub; Thailand, the Maldives and Sri Lanka its tourism hubs but Pakistan is the terrorism hub.

These other countries view their educated population as their main strategic assets. Pakistan keeps its population largely uneducated while pursuing myopic goals and instead views barely educated, militant groups as its strategic assets.

In contrast with such smug cockiness, it was refreshing to recently meet an army officer who admitted candidly that the military people develop tunnel vision. But, surely, even people with tunnel vision should be able to see a train wreck hurtling down the tunnel, and change course! Thus, Pakistan’s establishment actually suffers from not just tunnel vision but short-sighted tunnel vision.

With the vision of its establishment so restricted three-dimensionally, it is a miracle that this nuclear-armed, economically distressed and ethnically fractured country of nearly 200 million mostly young and frustrated people does not collapse totally. Hardiness and resilience keep Pakistan afloat despite continuous self-destructive official policies.

Besides explaining terrorism’s rise, these scholars also study and identify some historical paths to its demise in different countries. These different ways essentially include two main categories: peace negotiations and military action.

Historically, peace negotiations succeeded more easily with militant groups pursuing legitimate identity-based grievances. It is easier for governments to accept their core demand about ethnic fairness, which actually strengthens democracy and modern governance. The warring groups have the incentive of leading provincial governments after disavowing terrorism.

However, talks rarely succeed with militants with despicable ideologies since their core demands about applying their ideology countrywide undermines democracy and modern governance.

Applying these historical lessons to Pakistan, they suggest that negotiations are more likely to succeed with Baloch insurgents than with the Taliban. With the latter, military action may eventually be required. Sweet talk and tricks may not get this particular genie back into the bottle.

The writer is a political economist at UC Berkeley.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (18) Closed

Anuj Oct 15, 2013 08:47am

Point well made. In fact the marked difference in handling a home grown disenchanted Baloch struggle will succeed through talks, action of development and empowerment; the Taliban on the other hand only understand two things - brutal force - the army and security need to battle them thoroughly; and simultaneously destroy the Taliban credibility by ensuring their actions, viciousness, and inside stories, hitherto hidden from citizens of their brutality (they were assets, so news was locked up in many cases) are opened up, with security doing a mea culpa on their earlier role of support to some Taliban, and now their new role against them. The awaam shall ensure they start distancing from the Talibs , who currently a lot of confused citizens do not know whether to call criminals or respect as genuine saviours of their faith.

TAriq Jamal Oct 15, 2013 10:40am

Military is not responsible for evry evil in the country; if they have tunnel vision , people with broad vision including national leadership should provide direction to the nation.

Omer Oct 15, 2013 12:01pm

You hereby seem to stereotype Army officers as myopic gun wielding maniacs with a superior complex running through their veins. I dare to disagree. Keeping the propaganda aside, which is so prevalent these days by worshippers of democratic demi God, the military leadership of the country has proven to be the most disciplined, highly educated and analytical in our country. Can any of us say the same thing even about half of the politicians? Would you expect them to make a sound foreign policy based on some ideals? Very unfortunately not. As an Army officer you are required to undergo a dearth of courses in your career which only alongwith your hardwork are guarantee of your success. Military life does not only disciplines but also grooms and broadens an officers outlook. Effective analysis of problems is the main ingredient in this crucible of military training of offrs. Military does its job most efficiently and professionally in this country and that is something majority will agree. Now lets start at basics. Why in this country a strategic doctrine is missing? Military doctrine of a country is derived from this strategic doctrine formulated at national level by a civillian government. We live in a stange scenario. This country's military has a military doctrine but there is no strategic security doctrine!! and we have periods of adequate civil rule now to have no excuse for the absence of such a doctrine. Let's swallow a bitter pill. Our politicians have time and again proved incompetent, shortsighted and disillusioned. All the qualities that leave vacuums in a state. And running a state is a serious business. This job gives no excuse to the incompetent. For the longest war in our history politicians could not even unite public opinion!! The basic and foremost duty of any civil leadership. This is a mockery of democracy!! If you so want to restrict Army to barracks, first produce politicians of such calibre that nation including the military follows them. That is called leadership. And I don't see any of this country's politicians fullfilling a even the basic criteria of leadership. Money alone doesnot qualify you for leadership!!

Abhishek Tomar Oct 15, 2013 01:03pm

Christian terrorism? I never even heard that. Where did you see that? I can recall Irishmen blowing bombs in England cities but that too for a separate country not on the name of catholic Christianity. LTTE was also predominately Hindu but their cause was a separate Tamil land. Honestly, I know I will get a lot of flakes for it, I have seen none other then Muslims killing others on the name of religion. And that has given Islam a bad face.

Sethu Oct 15, 2013 02:36pm

Great article. Hope the decision makers in Islamabad read this. In order to get out of the mess they are in, Pakistanis should get rid of their obsession with religion and army and concentrate on education and overall development. This would bring stability to the entire region. The best method is to bring the current assets to the liability column and try to create new assets which can perform in the long run.

jen Oct 15, 2013 05:34pm

Christianity was once like Islam. Blasphemy, superiority complex(by imaginary blessed feeling compared to other faiths/atheists). Once a section of christians rebelled against their ummahs with the help of science, they found peace. Now you see a more tolerant west where each and every muslim of muslim majority nations wants to live. Therefore, the simple solution for peace for muslims: start reading about other faiths and atheists. you will stop feeling superior and also stop behaving like protectors of GOD.

G.Sharma Oct 15, 2013 05:44pm

An Alumni of UC, Berkeley & I am very happy to see this rational write up from a Pakistani citizen. I hope responsible people in Pak Govt. should read this & learn a lesson or two.

Jawwad Oct 15, 2013 10:09pm

90% of the so called terrorist are kids either sold by their parents for money or abducted/kidnapped by local gangs and sold to either begging mafia or terrorists depending who pays most. Once sold to Taliban, these kids are constantly being drugged, kept in chains and when the day comes they are drugged more, strapped to a bomb and then calamity. Start asking parents just what good that money does for them which is causing mayhem in the lives of others?

BRR Oct 15, 2013 11:12pm

@Omer: With intellecutally bankrupt and dishonest people like Omer, there is no hope for Pakistan.

Parvez Oct 15, 2013 11:28pm

The religious extremist uses force to forward his agenda, so you are correct that he will only understand force if he is to be stayed. The problem is its time to bell the cat but what we see is foot dragging and vacillating by all concerned.

BRR Oct 16, 2013 04:31am

@jen: Muslims have been acting as if Allah will go out of business but for their help.

rob Oct 16, 2013 01:44pm

I m an indian Christian. I would like to say religion does not define a man. man defines himself. jihad, which I have learnt is to fight against oppression. Pakistani youth ( not all) should learn that hunger, poverty, homelessness, etc is oppression. so fight against these. get under the sun n plough the field. study hard. some times to survive u gotta go sleepless even hungry to support or family or even the country. at least in India its the survival of the fittest. we have to work real hard to survive. strapping up a bomb and pressing the button or pressing the trigger Is just not at all tough. its damn easy. Pakistani says they are tougher. then show it.

mir Oct 17, 2013 03:30am

@Omer: In all progressive nations job of military is to guard the borders and in case of natural disasters help out to bring relief. Military must stay in barracks, in case of Pakistan it should be down sized and made more efficient. Pakistan will not progress when substantial portion of their monetary funds are used up to support the armed forces.

S.H.Moulana Oct 17, 2013 01:36pm

Dear brother Murtaza,

Thank you very much for enlightening us of what is actually happening in Pakistan. We read your article in 'the dawn' with great interest. Who has the courage to refute any of the facts you have stated in your masterpiece of an article. Being Sri Lankan Muslims and having such close relation with a country, which could be considered as a true 'friend in need' we pray Almighty Allah to see a terrorism free Pakistan soon, Insha Allah. Pakistan needs people of your caliber who will speak the truth without any fear or favor.

Jazakallah Al Khair.



raj Oct 17, 2013 11:35pm

This beautifully written article is not only analytical but provides a comprehensive review of the terrorism world as it exists today. The unfortunate part is that while Somalia and Afghanistan terror will eventually die out due to lack of public support, the Pakistani terror will be more difficult to eradicate as it has the imprimatur of the state, which has sanctioned terror as an instrument of military tactics. In addition the hudood ordinances, also sanctioned by the state, have generated hatred against minorities and made them targets of terror. The lack of education and opportunities for employment will turn its youth to embrace terror as a means of its livelihood.

Obaid Oct 18, 2013 01:15am

@Omer: "the military leadership of the country has proven to be the most disciplined, highly educated and analytical in our country."

Are you talking about the same military who is the corporation that owns everything in Pakistan, Who has started several wars and lost all of them. Who has no accountability and who can't even defend themselves from terrorist attacks ?

a Oct 18, 2013 01:49am

Its funny when you try to be in the extremists shoes. What would you do if your home is bombed by national and international forces. By the way, I'm personally a very moderate and NON-extremist person.

A Rauf Khan Oct 18, 2013 10:37am

The proxy wars are part of the problem but no less important are the economic issues. It is easy to recruit for any purpose from the army of unemployed, uneducated, alienated with no hope and nothing to look forward to. In such a situation it becomes very easy for the handlers to use religion as a dressing. Who would easily take up a gun or tie around a suicide belt if he has a descent education, has a descent job and a stack in the society? Our rulers have sinned a lot in the last six and half decades. They have stolen from the poor of this country with both hands. These are not perceived but real grievances. Second, we have been meddling in the affairs of other countries for a long time. What goes comes round.