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The Roots and Origins of Islamic Terrorism Essay

Since the 1970s terrorism against the US has been growing and on September 11th it became apparent that terrorism will be a major problem the US will face in the years ahead. The question this essay seeks to explore is: what is terrorism and what are some the causes of this anti-US terrorism? In order to find the causes of anti-US terrorism, this essay will research various academic works in an effort to find some explanations of what causes anti-US terrorism. I will examine a couple different hypothesis that try to explain the causes of terrorism, but my research I plan to argue that anti-US terrorism is rooted in political and social movements by angry Islamic fundamentalists who believe using non-conventional tactics are the most rational way to fight the US and the western powers. Terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda, do not see diplomacy with the US as an option to voice their demands because they see the US as a superpower that is unwilling to listen to their demands and also because most of the Arab governments are friends with the US. Because diplomacy is not an available option and there is an inability to formally fight the west militarily, terrorists groups have chosen to use non-traditional tactics to fight the west.

Research into this issue is very important for political research because terrorism has become a major security issue for the US and other countries around the world. Also, research into the causes of terrorism is important because it is a tactic that non-state actors can and will be using the years ahead as a form of leverage against the US and the West. In my conclusion I will present some possible solutions how terrorism can hopefully be stopped in the future. Defining terrorism as one definite thing is not an easy task, but generally terrorism is considered to be non-conventional form of warfare that individuals or groups can use to fight for their agenda, whether it is a political, social, religious and/or economic cause. Terrorists use many non-conventional ways of fighting such as car bombs, keeping people hostage, and in some cases hijacking air planes. As a ‘weapon of the weak’, terrorism is deployed by groups to gain media attention and visibility as the first step in gaining ‘name recognition’ within the international community. (Nacos 1994).

Through the publicity generated by their violence, terrorists seek to obtain the leverage, influence and power they otherwise lack to create political change on either a local or an international scale. The traditional laws of war do not apply to terrorism, partly because terrorist groups do not abide to treaties on war, and also because terrorist groups use fear as their form of leverage, which is why it is okay for them to kill innocent people. In cases of groups such as Al-Qaeda killing innocent people is not considered a bad thing because to them there is a religious justification. Power has always played a crucial role in the international system and based on this principle we can believe that the struggle for power has a major influence on the decision of terrorist groups to commit acts of terrorism. (Sobeck & Braithwaite 2005) In a study by David Sobek and Alex Braithwaite the two researchers hypothesize that as political, military, and diplomatic capabilities become concentrated into American and allied hands, the amount of terrorism directed against America’s interests will increase as a way to counter balance this power.

Because terrorists are non-state actors they do not have access to conventional forms of fighting or the diplomatic channels that states use to resolve their disputes, they must use non-conventional forms of fighting. The choice to employ terrorist activities arises rationally from the environmental context within which these groups find themselves in, in that terrorism is the most cost-effective way for the terrorists to accomplish their goals. (Ajami 2001) The United States’ predominant position in the world affects the decision of terrorist groups to launch terrorist attacks against US interests internationally. As the United States becomes increasingly dominant, the amount of terrorism directed against it is likely to increase. Terrorism is seen by the terrorists as a counter-balancing mechanism. (Sobeck & Braithwaite 2005) Increasing American dominance limits the ability of groups with revisionist views of the international system, such as that of the Palestinians, to be heard, let alone changed. (Sobeck & Braithwaite 2005)

The options available for these groups to act are diplomacy, perhaps through a NGO or their home state if they are willing to listen, or terrorism, which is intended to create an instant response (Most & Starr, 1989) From these choices, terrorist groups choose strategies that they see as rational that will maximize their expected outcome. (Sobeck & Braithwaite 2005) This means that the decision to engage in terrorism relates directly to the expected efficacy of an action and the likely payoffs received if it is successful. For example the terrorist activities of 9/11 cost Al-Qaeda roughly 400,000 dollars and nineteen lives were lost in the process, but the outcome of causing thousands of deaths, several billion dollars of damage, and most importantly creating fear in the minds of millions of people world-wide was a very ‘cost-effective’ decision by Al-Qaeda to put world spotlight on their anti-US position. (Sobeck & Braithwaite 2005)

The desire to counter-balance the US and west and remove from the Middle East a long with belief that it possible has caused the creation of many terrorist groups since the 1970s. This anti-western feeling had been around for a long time, but the creation of Israel and the growing amount of western influence in the region really sparked terrorist movements in this time period. Groups such as Hezbollah, a Lebanese group that has been around since the 1980s, have realized that using non-conventional warfare, such as blowing up the US Embassy in Beirut, can be a way to fight and neutralize the conventional military superiority of a superpower. (Cannistraro and Giraldi 2007) This action seemed to be a victory for Hezbollah as US and French forces withdrew from the country after the bombing. This act of removing western countries using terrorism inspired other terrorist groups to try to fight Western influence in their home countries and to fight western countries in their homeland as seen by the attacks of 9/11 and the bombings in Madrid.

It is a common misperception that terrorists are insane and not rational actors because they use tactics such as suicide, but this is not necessarily the case. Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer, studied the rationality of terrorists and found that the popular depictions of brainwashed or poor and uneducated terrorists are generally not true. He profiled 382 terrorists and his work reveals that terrorists are more likely to be normal, well-educated types with families and good professional-level jobs. (Sageman 2002) Most are middle or upper class and not poor, young, single, and/or deluded. (Sageman 2002) Only a small percentage had any religious education, and many, more than 70 percent, had some university education. (Sageman 2002) Sageman concluded that Al Qaeda and its associated groups are generally composed of men who are very well educated, well off, and stable. According to Vincent Cannistraro and Philip Giraldi terrorists act as they do not because they are crazy but because they believe what they do will bring about change to the global political status quo.

Terrorists see terrorism as a way to create power where there is none or to consolidate power where there is very little. (Hoffman 1998) For the global Salafist terrorists, the objective is to put an end to corrupt Arab regimes, replacing them with theocracies, and to bring and end to western influence from Muslim lands. For the regionally based groups such as Hamas, the purpose of terrorism is national liberation from occupying powers e.g. Israel. (Cannistraro and Giraldi 2007) It can also be argued that even though acts of terrorism are universally condemned, they stimulate media coverage of an issue and provide an opening for moderate organizations to ask the public to consider the legitimacy of what the terrorists are fighting for as a separate issue from the tactics the groups use i.e. it can be argued that the terrorism in Israel has increased awareness of poor conditions of the Palestinian people. (Adamson)

Along with being a political movement, terrorism has now also become a sociological phenomenon in parts of the Muslim world and in the west. In parts of the Middle East terrorists groups begin to form when members of the society feel upset with their home government for working with the US or other reasons that make them feel outcast i.e. economic reasons, feeling less dignified than people of the west, etc. It usually takes a charismatic leader to take the frustration of the many outcast people and channel it into a movement. In the words of Eric Hoffer, it is usually “an externalizing hatemongering leader” who “manipulates the slime of discontented souls.” (Hoffer 1989) Terrorist group leaders, such as Osama Bin Laden, are considered to be a therapist for the group and they blame an external cause for their difficulties of the group and righteously justify aggression against the believed source i.e. the US. (Robins & Post, 1997). Once members are recruited into these groups, there is a clear fusing of individual identity and group identity, particularly among the more radical elements of each organization.

This is true both for the Islamist terrorists of Hamas as well as Al Qaeda and the global Salafi jihad. (Post 2005) For members of these terrorist groups ‘success’ within the community is defined as fighting for ‘the cause,’ which can be thought of as political, social, and religious growth of the groups beliefs. As young men adopt this view of success, their own self image becomes more intimately intertwined with the success of the organization. (Post 2005) With no other means to achieve status and ‘success,’ the organization’s success becomes central to individual identity and provides a “reason for living” for group members. (Post 2005)

As an individual’s identity succumbs to the organization, there is no room for individuality, meaning no individual ideas, identity, and decision-making. At the same time self-perceived success becomes more and more linked to the organization This creates a cycle where group members have a direct need to increase the power and prestige of the group through increasingly dramatic and violent operations because this will increase their own perceived ‘success’ (Post 2005) This fusion with the group seems to provide the necessary justification for their actions and loss of responsibility to the individual. Guilt or remorse by the individual is not tolerated because the organization does not express it. This is intensified among Islamist groups who feel they have a moral obligation to the cause and a religiously sanctioned justification for their actions e.g. Jihad (Post 2005).

In Europe and in the US terrorist groups have formed from a different social phenomenon. When Marc Sageman did his detailed study on 382 terrorists, he found some interesting information about the origins of many Al-Qaeda terrorists. Sageman found that the average al Qaeda–type terrorist has traveled, frequently studied in the West, and that many terrorists developed their radicalism while they were studying or working in the West. (Sageman 2002) He discovered that most terrorists entered into the jihadi cause from the bottom up, meaning that they volunteered and were not actively recruited.

Sageman explains that these terrorists frequently drifted into radical mosques as an act of cultural assertion, often because they felt homesick or alienated from the dominant Western culture. Once there, they joined cliques or “friendship groups” of the like-minded people also searching for a new identity. (Sageman 2002) According to Sageman, “The groups are characterized by a sense of anomie, their social and political alienation eventually being attributed to the decadence, corruption, and immorality of the West.” The next step for these outcast individuals is to join an organization that is doing something to combat and roll back the western values. Sageman concluded from his study that it is the “alienation arising from the misguided multiculturalism that treats Muslims like a group needing to be protected that creates its own sense of victimization.” (Sageman 2002)

Another explanation that some might give to explain terrorism is that it is a psychological disorder that is caused by a pneumopathological consciousness that involves the construction of an imaginative “second reality” where terrorism has intended and magical effects. (Cooper 2005) This belief that terrorism is caused by a second reality says when individuals, who out of necessity exist within commonsensical or “first” reality attempt to live within the imaginative or fantasy-based second reality and characteristic frictions between the two arise. With respect to modern terrorism, the chief conflicts are between religious or spiritual realities and their symbolization and the realities of unfavorable living conditions in the Middle East relative to countries of the West. The tension between the first and second reality is brought to life by the perverse logic of this second reality that interprets murder as self-sacrifice according to this theory. (Cooper 2005) No matter how pragmatically destructive these acts of political violence may be in commonsense terms, for the people existing imaginatively within a second reality, they “are sanitized by virtue of the fact that they are religiously symbolic. They are stripped of their horror by being invested with religious meaning.” (Juergensmeyer 1996)

Of the different academic works I have looked into, this theory that terrorism is caused by a psychological disorder seems to be the least plausible. The problem with the theory is that it is not possible to test the psychological dysfunctions of the terrorists partly because of an internal belief in this theory that the terrorists are able to live in the ‘first reality.’ Also since other researchers such as Marc Sageman have done case studies that show that terrorists are rational and normal people, there is strong evidence that contradicts this theory.

This theory does not take into account the strong evidence put forth by the other works I have researched that convincingly explain how terrorism is a rational way for the terrorists to fight the west of social and political reasons. While it is true that some terrorists groups are fighting in the name of religion, most terrorists groups have used religion as a justification and cover up for doing violent acts that are politically and socially motivated. Overall, this belief that terrorism is caused by a pneumopathological consciousness does little in supporting my hypothesis.

Some of the articles I read gave me support for my hypothesis that terrorism is caused by political and social forces. “The Long War” by Vincent Cannistraro and Philip Giraldi was one of the articles that supported my hypothesis. The general theme of the article was that social alienation from the West, revenge for previous blood debt, a desire to put an end to corrupt Arab regimes and replace them with theocracies along with bringing about a retreat of the West, particularly the United States, from Muslim lands is what causes terrorism. Also “Victim of Success” by David Sobeck and Alex Braithwaite supported my hypothesis because it explained terrorism as political maneuver by groups like Al Qaeda to counter balance the military and political superiority of the US. An article that supported my notion that terrorism also has social motivations was the case study of terrorists my Marc Sageman, which explain how social alienation by Muslims living in the west causes these groups to feel hatred toward the west and act on their feelings.

With a better understanding of the political and social causes of terrorism better efforts should be made by US foreign policy makers to tackle these root causes. It will be difficult to stop Muslim extremists from feeling outcast from their home governments, but better efforts need to be made by people living in the west to understand Islam and the problems Muslims in the Middle East face. Also people in the west need to do a better job of helping Muslims living in the west to assimilate into western society so they do not feel social alienation. A lot of this social tension between Muslims and the west can possibly be fixed with better education of Islam in schools and less negative depictions of Muslims and the Middle East in the media.

The political causes of terrorism will be a little bit more difficult to fix. It is not likely that the US will lessen its power, but the US could try to do more to change its policy that affects the millions of Muslims living in the Middle East. First, the US should stop this double-standard of promoting peace in Isreal, while at the same time giving full support militarily and economically to the Israeli government, which doing very little to help the Palestinians. Next, the US should try to stop supporting Arab governments which are very oppressive towards their people. Although it is unlikely, the US and US companies should try to reduce their presence in the Middle East because we are clearly not welcome and many of the people living in the area think we are exploiting them while also corrupting their way of life with our more liberal social values.

Also what the US should do to help stop terrorism is to increase the legitimacy of using diplomacy in the region because doing so would make terrorism not the most rational option for these angry groups. The implications of US foreign policy in the Middle East are very important if we want to see terrorism come to an end. It is unfortunate that the Islamic fundamentalists had to resort to using terrorism to fight for their political and social causes, but if the US does more to understand their needs and frustrations of these peoples and also act on this information, then hopefully we will see an the end of this era of terrorism.

References:

Adamson, Fiona B. (2005). Globalization, Transnational Political Mobilization, and Networks of Violence. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, retrieved November 5, 2007, From Academic Search Premier database

Ajami, F. (2001). The Uneasy Imperium: Pax Americana in the Middle East. How did this happen? Terrorism and the new war. Public Affairs Reports, Retrieved November 11, 2007, from Academic Search Premier database

Cannistraro,Vincent; Giraldi,Philip.(2007). The Long War Mediterranean Q., (Duke University Press) Retrieved November 5, 2007 from Academic Search Premier database

Cooper, Barry. (2005). Terrorism and Globalization. Perspectives on Global Development and Technology. Retrieved November 5, 2007 from Academic Search Premier database

Hoffer, E. (1989). The true believer: Thoughts on the nature of mass movements. Harper and Rowe Perennial Library. Retrieved November 5, 2007 from Academic Search Premier database

Juergensmeyer, Mark (1996) The Worldwide Rise of Religious Nationalism. Journal of International Affairs. Retrieved November 5, 2007 from Academic Search Premier database

Most, B. and Starr, H. (1989). Inquiry, logic, and international politics. University of South Carolina Press. Retrieved November 11, 2007 from Academic Search Premier database

Nacos, B. (1994). Terrorism and the Media: From the Iran Hostage Crisis to the Oklahoma City Bombing. Columbia University Press. Retrieved November 5, 2007 from Academic Search Premier database

Post,Jerrold M. (2005). When Hatred Is Bred in the Bone: Psycho-Cultural Foundations of Contemporary Terrorism. Polit.Psychol. Retrieved November 5, 2007 from Academic Search Premier database

Robins, R & Post, J (1997). Political paranoia: The psychopolitics of hatred. New Haven: Yale University Press. Retrieved November 11, 2007 from Academic Search Premier database

Sageman, Marc. (2002). Understanding Terror Networks. University of Pennsylvania Press. Retrieved November 5, 2007 from Academic Search Premier database

Sobek,David & Braithwaite,Alex (2005). Victim of Success: American Dominance and Terrorism. Conflict Management and Peace Science. Department of Political Science, Louisiana State University & Department of Political
Science, Pennsylvania State University Retrieved November 11 2007, From Academic Search Premier database


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