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Terror as a path to power

June 30, 2012

RECENTLY, I came across a quote ascribed to Albert Camus: “No cause is worth a single innocent human life.” Applauding the sentiment, I did a quick search for the context in which the Nobel Prize winner might have written the sentence.

Sadly, I failed to find the reference in the French philosopher and novelist’s works. If a reader can supply the exact quote and where Camus expressed the thought, I will be grateful.

The reason I want to pin it down is that increasingly, I am depressed by the rising violence in actions and rhetoric, not just in Pakistan, but the world over. The last decade, in particular, has witnessed a steady upward trend in state-directed violence as well as terrorist activities.

The rise in the number, sophistication and reach of non-state actors has been met with disproportionate force from some governments. Often, states have supplied terrorist groups with the justification to turn to violence. But mostly, romantics, utopians and nihilists have flocked to the extremist banner in their search for adventure, identity and self-worth.

Nine-eleven has given rise to the perception that terrorism is the exclusive preserve of Islamic extremists. But the fact is that it has been widely used by secular groups just as it has been by groups drawing their inspiration from religion.

Terrorism has always been a weapon of the weak. The targets are undefended civilians, and the objective is to destabilise the state by repeated blows at the innocent.

Thus, when the Zionist Irgun gang attacked the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing a number of British soldiers and civilians after the end of the Second World War, their aim was to drive the British army out of Palestine. Incidentally, the leader of the terrorist group was Menachem Begin, the future prime minister of Israel.

In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers, a secular group, pioneered many of the terror techniques and weapons copied by other groups around the world. Suicide bombing, in particular, is a gift to us from this deadly, and now defunct, band of killers. But whatever we may think of their methods, the fact is that their goals were political, and the causes of Tamil discontent persist three years after the end of the civil war.

After 9/11, many nationalist movements with legitimate political goals were lumped into the category of terrorists. However, in many cases, they lost legitimacy and respect by deliberately slaughtering innocent civilians. In Kashmir and Chechnya, for example, freedom fighters often turned their guns on bystanders, thereby losing international support. This also gave New Delhi and Moscow an excuse to increase their repressive measures.

Fred Halliday was, until his early death at 64, one of the leading British experts on the Middle East. A scholar and linguist, he brought an impressive degree of intellectual rigour to his writing. With 20 books to his name, he contributed a number of essays to the webzine Open Democracy that were later published as a collection called Political Journeys. In the section titled ‘Violence and Politics’, Halliday writes:

“…[ T ]errorism, as ideology and instrument of struggle, is a modern phenomenon, a product of the conflict between contemporary states and their restive societies. In rich and poor countries alike, it has developed as part of a transnational model of political engagement. Its roots are in modern secular politics; it has no specific regional or cultural attachment; it is an instrument, one among several, for those aspiring to challenge states and one day to take power themselves.”

So as I have observed in this space before, religion has little to do with the acts of terrorism that have become routine in Pakistan. Although the Pakistani Taliban and their many evil offshoots use Islam as a fig-leaf to hide behind as they slaughter innocent men, women and children, the truth is that what they really seek is power. The Sharia is merely a device they use to browbeat and impress the rest of us with.

Their success in their asymmetrical struggle against the Pakistani security forces and the state has been made possible by the enabling space created by politicians, the judiciary and the media alike.

In many cases, terrorists have been released by judges either on bail, or because of insufficient evidence. Being armed at the time of capture apparently is not proof enough. In TV studios, there is seldom any condemnation of jihadi terrorism; similarly, politicians hardly ever criticise terrorist groups for their actions. The recent beheading of seven Pakistani soldiers went largely unnoticed by our media and the political class.

This benign attitude towards vicious killers lends them a spurious legitimacy that encourages them to further violence. Many fail to condemn them because they are supposed to be fighting for an avowedly Islamic cause. But anybody even vaguely familiar with the tenets of the faith would know the Taliban’s claim to be utterly false. No religion in the world permits or justifies the violence these people have inflicted on thousands of innocent people.

Ultimately, violence dehumanises us all. But paradoxically, its prevalence and increased intensity is met with acceptance at various levels. Governments are reluctant to make the political decisions necessary to drain the swamp of the poison of extremism.

The harsh Israeli occupation of the West Bank continues to infuriate and radicalise Muslims. Nato’s ill-conceived operations in Afghanistan, and American drone attacks, provide militants justification for their attacks on innocent civilians. In the wake of the Second World War, a system for peacekeeping under the UN was put in place to prevent future conflicts. Never perfect, these institutions did manage to make the world a safer place for 50 years. And when the Cold War ended, we thought an era of peace would finally emerge. Dream on.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.