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Terrorism: flawed theories

October 15, 2013

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.