Behind the mask of terror


Who are these people, why do they cut short their lives and destroy themselves along with others, and what is the purpose, if any, of playing this deadly game?
On global television, we have witnessed ghastly scenes of ordinary, unsuspecting folk engaged in their daily business or participating in religious congregations being blown to pieces. It is too sad for anyone with any respect for human life and dignity to have to watch or read about these scenes. People of all faiths and religious pursuits have been targets of suicide attacks in almost every continent.
In recent years, suicide squads have increasingly attacked civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Pakistan. Young men, women and even children have blown themselves up in market places, underground trains, buses, mosques and religious gatherings. Who are these people, why do they cut short their lives and destroy themselves along with others, and what is the purpose, if any, of playing this deadly game?
Let us first state two undeniable facts about the suicide bombers, relating to their identity and the nature of the disputes they are involved in.
They are Muslims, people of my faith. This is not to say that historically only Muslims have been suicide bombers. Tamils involved in ethnic strife in Sri Lanka and Japan’s Kamikaze crashing onto American warships during the WWII are some other examples. The Tamils, who are Hindus by faith, continue to use suicide as a political weapon.
The second fact about them is the troubled lands they come from, which are going through vicious cycles of civil war, foreign military intervention, and loss of homeland in the case of the Palestinians.
Most experts and state authorities, in Western countries and in our part of the world, have made convenient arguments to explain the phenomenon of the suicide bomber. In the Western media and intellectual discourses on terrorism, the focus has been on Islam as a religion.
It is unfortunate that those elements that demonise Muslims and Islam get more airtime and therefore more prominence. Some of them attack the fundamentals of Islam, more to make the Muslims see red than to engage with them in a rational argument. They also assert that Islam is too orthodox to adjust to the demands of modern world, and Muslims having been left behind are unnecessarily blaming Western countries for their woes and backwardness.
But if orthodoxy, which has been a dominant stream in Muslim thought and practices, were a problem, then why is it that some Muslims have resorted to terrorism and suicide bombing now and not before?
The superficial observation that Muslim communities are intolerant, culturally insular and socially non-coexistential has also been made. A single template to explain Muslim culture and behaviour would be too simplistic. One can find even within a single Muslim country so many religious traditions and variations in thought and ritual. Most Muslims are as enraged by acts of terrorism as peoples of other faiths.
There are, however, groups emerging in troubled Muslim societies who have trained, indoctrinated and employed young men and women to carry out suicide bombing missions. But this fringe element of Muslim societies should not be allowed to define the rest of us, or be able to take our collective identity, interests and destiny in their hands. We have a greater responsibility to understand the social, economic and political dynamics of suicide bombing and terrorism than others, but we also need to remind other, mostly Western countries that they have largely contributed to our difficulties.
Failure to settle the Palestinian issue or restrain Israel from expanding beyond its recognised boundaries and resorting to frequent use of force against Palestinians has been one of the constant sources of anger and frustration among the Muslims. Consequently, they have lost faith in the principles of justice, peace and fairness. Some of them have resorted to reactive violence without much reflection or ability to understand the consequences of their strategy.
In my view violence is both a political statement as well as an instrument of political empowerment. The conduct of violence, ethnic as well as religious, whether you call it sectarian terrorism or give it any other name, is instrumental, has a political purpose. Those who engage in it have a well-defined strategy. I would put their objectives in three rough categories.
The first is resistance against more powerful countries that have intervened militarily to change a regime or occupy a land. I don’t wish to get into the controversy of just and unjust war, or whether or not people have the right to resistance against foreign forces. I wish only to discuss the fact that some sections of divided societies have taken up the task of militant resistance, while others have extended cooperation to the intervening forces. Afghanistan and Iraq fit into this example.
In the second category of objectives we have the local contenders for power engaged in unforgiving reactive violence for ethnic and sectarian dominance.
A third emerging trend in terrorism is directed at the unrepresentative, authoritarian governments that are oppressive and intolerant of political opposition. The nature of politics in Muslim societies should be part of our larger picture in explaining violence as a political weapon. When normal democratic channels of empowerment become clogged for too long, normal political expression through democratic means is quite often disrupted. If those who claim representation have a false mandate, then extremist groups do emerge as an alternative opposition force. Even in the kind of false democracy we have in Pakistan, the contest or representation is confined to powerful clans, families, tribes and castes. Other political aspirants either stay on the margins or join them as courtiers, flatters and sycophants.
With the exception of Turkey, an emerging democracy, other Muslim countries have by not reforming politically created social and economic conditions that are conducive to the formation of violent groups. Democracy, rule of law and constitutionalism are the best guarantees for peaceful change, political certainty and inclusive politics. Representative governments will slowly but certainly moderate Muslim societies. On the other hand, authoritarianism would continue to fuel tensions, generate conflicts and push sectarian and ethnic elements to terrorism. Poverty, income inequality, social and regional disparities are factors that we need to address, but they are, in my view, a coincidental not the major contributing ones.
In the modern age, Muslim societies have confronted too many injustices at home, and many indignities of imperial rule and its humiliation. What should have been or now be our response to the contemporary challenges? We find the Muslims divided on this question.
Religious Muslims want to go back to the fundamentals and build an Islamic state and society based on Islamic law. A section of them have resorted to violence as a means to empowering themselves and fighting against the excesses of the nation state or of foreign powers. The liberal response has been incomplete, weak and imitative rather than being indigenous and creative.
We have wasted too much time in grieving over the past and fumbling over what should be the future direction of our societies. Social development and modernisation, with the purpose of creating an egalitarian welfare society, might have given us tools to handle the problem of terrorism and suicide attacks more effectively. We have fallen short on any of these counts.
With all the weaknesses that we have, we cannot and shouldn’t accord legitimacy and respect to suicide bombers or glorify their death, as some Muslims have tended to do. Their strategy is, in my view, as defeatist and irrational as it has been counter-productive to the general, collective interests of the Muslims.
The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.