Saturday, October 05, 2013

Religion, Politics and Terrorism

The original  Draft was written and published in September 2005

Religion, Politics and Terrorism

Ali-Asghar Kazemi*

“It is not in the temporal interest of a religious communion that all its members should be reasonable minded. The violent spirits, who adhere to it solely out of fastidiousness, perform   for it, humanly speaking a thousand valuable services.  So it is useful that hotheaded of this sort  should  be  found  in  its ranks;  this  is  necessary  evil.”

                                                                         Pierre Bayle [1]

Recent terrorist attacks in Jordan’s relatively calm capital on November 9, 2005, and the unfortunate killing of a number of innocent peoples[2], raise once again the vital question of religious fanaticism in the region. It appears that this unfortunate phenomenon is the most essential peril of the overall world order at the beginning of 21st century. It seems that the threat of terrorism is really getting out of hand and is causing immense damage to almost everybody throughout the globe.

Almost four years after September 11th, and despite the fact that most powerful nations on earth, including the United States of America and other European states, have mobilized their full military, political, intelligence and financial capacity to cope with this curse, the situation seems to be much worse than ever before.  Many books papers, articles, guidelines and directives have been written in order to devise strategies and course of actions to tackle with this problem, yet there appears to be no solution for it and no end to it. Are we really condemned to accept this horrifying carnage and surrender to it? Is this really a necessary evil of our modern civilization? Does it seek its roots in religious intolerance of zealous Moslem devout?

This short paper shall attempt to briefly address those questions in order to shed some light on this most unusual calamity which is endangering the present social order and international peace.

What is Terrorism? Problem of definition
Since the League of Nations, several attempts to arrive at an internationally accepted definition of terrorism have proved to be fruitless.[3] Despite numerous efforts of international institutions, academics, and specialists in the field, there still seems to be no consensus on the legal, political and practical meaning of terrorism. This lack of agreement has created major obstruction to devising effective measures and strategy to cope with this horrific phenomenon which in the present century is threatening the whole fabric of human societies. One reason for this impediment is the contradicting views and perceptions on the terminology. Cynics who want to simplify the matter argue that: one state's ‘terrorist’ is another state's ‘freedom fighter’. Therefore, it appears that we are caught in a terminological stalemate in defining terrorism right from the start. However, there has been some endeavor by the United Nations to set some more or less acceptable standards upon which terrorism could be defined. [4]
Despites those attempts, the UN Member States still have no consensus and agreed-upon definition for terrorism. Some have suggested equating acts of terrorism as “peacetime equivalents of war crimes.”[5] It is not however quite clear as to whether having a comprehensive single convention on terrorism at the international level, instead of numerous piecemeal treaties and protocol, may necessarily solve any problem. Since, those non-states actors who recourse to such inhuman actions for dubious and evil causes, would never feel obligated to any such legal instrument which has the effect of limiting their deeds. Nonetheless, one could make a case that the lack of an agreement on a definition of terrorism leaves the matter to the will of any single state to take any arbitrary countermeasures which seem appropriate and suitable to its interests. Furthermore, critics have often commented that if terrorism is defined strictly in terms of attacks on civilian populations and non-military targets, numerous assaults on military installations, residences, convoys and soldiers' quarters, which have been prime targets of terrorists in recent years, would be excluded from the lists.

When Terrorism gained Momentum?

Terror and terrorism have existed throughout the history of human civilization. Despite its long history, terrorism and low-level violence associated with religious movements are more recent phenomena. In the past, despotic rulers used terror as a means to subjugate their own people. The post-revolutionary France has passed through the trauma of Robespierre’s terror. The memory of systematic state terror in Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany and other dictators is still alive.

Curiously, one of the earliest groups to use terror by religious heresy and in the name of God was the “Persian Assassins,” whose trans-national activities plagued the Islamic world from the end of eleventh century to the beginning of the thirteenth.[6] The Assassins who belonged to a secret order of Moslem fanatics terrorized and killed without mercy the Christian crusaders.

The rapid spread of religious fever and revolutionary appeal in the troubled Middle-East after the Iranian revolution, created extreme fear for oil-rich traditional Moslem societies such as Saudi-Arabia and other small states of the Persian Gulf. The fall of the Shah of Iran enhanced the confidence of other dormant and latent religious movements in the region. Soon after Iran’s revolution, destabilizing forces throughout the Middle East gained momentum under the guise of religion. Saudi-Arabia was one of the first targets, where fundamentalist groups launched attacks against and occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca at a time when King Khalid was expected to be worshipping there.[7]

Since the first version of this paper was written almost two decades before September 11th, 2001, [8] the world has experienced unbelievable rise in terrorist activities. In those days, terrorism was merely categorized as “low-level violence”, carried by certain extremist groups and mainly directed toward limited objectives. Their causes were more or less known and their means were rather limited to hostage takings, high jacking and other petty actions for the purpose of gaining some publicity and recognition.

In the past terrorism had merely a pejorative connotation in world public opinion, and for the authors it was merely another kind of legitimate struggle involving use of force and violence, for presumably legitimate causes and objectives. Terrorists were described as “non-state actors” employing unconventional as well as orthodox techniques of violence in order to attain certain political objectives.[9]

But today this dimension of terrorism has changed drastically. We are now witnessing the tremendous spread of a new face of terror, associated with violent behavior of religious extremists, whose cruel actions and drive to cause extensive bloodshed, go beyond sane imagination. This phenomenon is described as one of the sad paradox of our time; the myth of “romantic revolution” whose promoters are the ideologues, whose dupes are the young and idealistic and whose victims are the week and the little men, the children, the old and defenseless.[10]

With the advent of sophisticated communications and relations among nations, terrorism, whether directed toward states or individuals, has gained new dimensions and consequently attracted the attention of world public opinion. It has also provided appetizing food for mass media around the world and hence incentive for terrorists to gain reputation through wide publicity.[11] Unlike the past when conventional media, such as radio and television broadcast and newspapers could limit the propaganda impact of terrorism, today the internet has become a rather uncontrollable, easy and handy tool for murderer to expose their horrifying acts to the public   around the world. We have seen with revulsion the shocking video clips showing the act of beheading of innocent people in Iraq.

Terrorism: Means and Ends

During the past decade or so, not only the momentum of terror activities but also the means and ends of terrorism have drastically changed. Today we fear about terrorist attacks by unconventional means such as: nuclear, biological and chemical agents. Unfortunately, terrorist organizations and groups, such as Al-Qaeda, have accumulated huge amounts of financial assets through clandestine or even legitimate activities or have   been provided money and other means by states at odd with the prevailing norms and status of international community.
Terrorist organizations use diverse methods for their actions and violence. From hand-made bomb explosions in crowded places of business, banks, military installations, communication centers, to hijacking of airplanes, political abductions, and assassination of important private or public figures. Terrorists employ every conceivable means of violence to promote their cause; provided they really have one.

In recent years, especially after the American military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorists have gone to the extreme by conducting suicidal attacks against their targets. Of course, we shall not forget the suicide attacks against embassies and troop’s headquarters of Western powers around the world before that period; among which militia actions in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Argentina… are the most notorious. Despite extreme precautionary security measures, these operations and the likes are still being carried out by the terrorists, for the purpose of gaining attention of the media, intimidating an opponent or toppling a shaky and weak government. The present Iraq is an ill-fated example of such daily occurrence.

Political assassinations, sabotage and mass murder activities by religious factions in the Middle-East have been among the most atrocious actions in the recent years. Even Iran, which is accused to support certain terrorist groups in the Middle East, has experienced the harshest and the bloodiest terrorist operations conducted by opponent and antagonistic religious groups during and after the 1979 revolution.[12]

Curiously, it was in the midst of this religious turmoil in the Middle East that the opportunist Soviets began to promote their own cause in the region. The invasion of Afghanistan[13], along with pro-soviet terrorist activities, made the ground ready for further religious movements directed toward political ends.
After the collapse of the Soviet communism, which traditionally supported terrorist activities throughout the world, religious conviction became the motivating force for those who wanted to change the rule of the game in international relations with the objective to alter the prevailing conditions by bringing down the infidel and corrupt rulers and ousting their   foreign supporters.

A brief chronology of significant terrorist activities in an interval of about 40 years (1961-2003), prepared by the U.S. State Department shows hundreds of such operations which claimed the lives of thousands of innocent peoples around the world.[14] These operations range from high jacking, hostage taking, attacks on military headquarters, embassy, hotels, restaurants, churches, mosques, assassinations of political and religious figures, kidnappings, suicide bombings and the likes. Perhaps September 11th attacks on U.S. cities were the most significant and unprecedented operations, which indeed thoroughly changed the security perception of the Americans as well as all other nations around the Globe. [15]

State Sponsored Terrorism
The lack of a clear definition for terrorism makes it quite problematic to distinguish between domestic violence and repression against political dissidents by the government in power or its proxy. To label such actions as terrorism may depend on whose eyes one considers the matter. Usually, when it applies to nationals of a particular state, the incumbent power uses justification for its actions against dissidents by accusing them to complot for toppling the legitimate government. These operations however are not considered as state sponsored terrorism as such. But when states plan to perform through its agents some clandestine terror actions inside or outside its territory in pursuit of some political objectives, then it can be labeled as act of terrorism. Some critics have argued against distinction between state and non-state acts of terror on the ground that it may justify state supported violence. Nonetheless, in several occasions states have been accused to commit genocide and crime against humanity for systematic and willful mass murder. [16]
State sponsored terrorism either to counter domestic dissensions or to intimidate and humiliate foreign countries, is a dangerous development of the so-called low-level violence in international relations. There is no doubt that the support of terrorist activities, in whatever manner, by a state or group of states will further increase these latter’s capacity for violence, by encouraging recourses to such operations for the settlement of ethnic, political or religious differences.[17]Just recently, Syria was accused to plot a terrorist act against former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, which led to the UN investigations on the event and a UN Security Council Resolution on the matter, which paved the way for a drastic geopolitical change in the Middle East.[18] 

Apart from the terrorist attacks on the lives of political and religious leaders of the world during the past years,[19] as mentioned earlier, the international system has also experienced the development of highly sophisticated and unprecedented terrorist activities against the interests of Western powers throughout the globe. All of these operations, whether conducted by “liberation fighters” or “terrorists”, depending whose side we consider the matter, are actions aimed at creating psychological impact on the opponents.[20] These latter may be domestic government, foreign occupying or intermediary unwanted forces, or simply competing factions of the same political or religious movements.

Terrorism and Freedom Fighters

As mentioned above, distinction between terrorists and freedom fighters has always posed difficult questions for devising internationally agreed upon measures to cope effectively with terrorism. In the past, religious inspired terrorism has helped certain colonial territories to fight against powerful countries for their liberation. In such case the freedom fighters or liberation movements sought justification for their operations via the attainment of a legitimate cause. For example, the Algerian struggle for independence turned to terrorism, once the rebel armies were virtually beaten in the field by the French forces. It was only after recourse to such activities that French military might in Algeria came to its knees.[21]

The Moslem Shiite Militia in South Lebanon did the same with Israel in their occupied land through harshest terrorist activities.[22] Afghan Moslem Mujahedeens fought with a Superpower (USSR) through guerrilla warfare and terrorist operations in occupied Afghanistan. [23]They caused   much trouble to Moscow, as did North Vietnamese to the United States.[24] Current daily bloodshed in Iraq and to some extent in Afghanistan by insurgent groups, seek their logic in such pretexts.

Urban guerrilla warfare, low-level violence or mob actions directed by religious groups are dimensions of ideological conflicts and revolutionary theories which now manifest in form of domestic and international terrorism. Dissidents of tyrant leaders and dictatorial regimes find their voice heard and their cause achieved through what we call terrorism for sake of simplicity, but they consider it legitimate jihad or just struggle against their enemies.[25]

In all cases, culprits and victims believe that they are acting in the best interest of their causes and in accordance to their respective moral values. On the one hand, the cause of the state, social order and the  preservation of the status quo; on the other hand, the causes of salvation, justice, human rights, liberation, and the changing of the status quo.[26]

The Future of Terrorism

We are living in a dangerous world no prophet ever predicted. The spread and magnitude of terror activities have made all nations very vulnerable. What happened recently in Amman- Jordan can occur any time and any where without discrimination. Terrorists have already demonstrated that they can achieve disproportionately large effects in world order with a relatively small number and limited capacity for violence.[27] They have caused widespread alarm, compelling governments with a clear preponderance of conventional military power to negotiate with them, to grant them concessions or simply to back down with humiliation.[28]

Unfortunately, religion, in this particular case Islam, has become a scapegoat for the cowards and cruel backward fanatics in order to discharge their evil intentions and capacity.  Religiously inspired terrors are understandably more ferocious and brutal than mere political violence or mob actions. When for example, martyrdom is considered as a grace and blessing of God, an obsessive Moslem believer can easily risk his life in a suicidal attack in order to do damage to his ideological opponents[29]. The resurgence of the Islamic fundamentalist movements in the Middle-East whose participants preach total devotion and submission to the will of God, and negation of earthly materialism, is indeed a crucial development of our time which is capable of destabilizing the international system and world order.

Thus far all endeavors to effectively deal with this kind of terrorism seem to have failed. It is not quite clear how the world should approach this evil of the 21st century. Use of force and naked power has proved to be inefficacious. It would be rather hard to believe that terrorism may be uprooted for good in the years to come. Perhaps we should think of some unconventional means to contain this unusual phenomenon called terrorism.  

*          *          *

* Professor of international relations, Political Analyst.
[1] Quoted from Pierre Bayle, Dictionnaire Historique et Critique, by Arnold Toynbee, An Historian’s Approach to Religion, (London: Oxford University Press, 1957, p.172. 
[2] Among the victims of the suicide bomb attack was our Palestinian friend and colleague Abed Alloun, who so eagerly hoped for peace and quiet in the Middle East.
[3] The first attempt to arrive at an internationally acceptable definition was made under the League of Nations, but the convention drafted in 1937 never came into existence. The League of Nations Convention (1937) provides the following definition for terrorism:  "All criminal acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public".
[4] In 1999 a  UN Resolution was passed in which a rather clear  language was used to define and condemn terrorism:
1.    " Strongly condemns all acts, methods and practices of terrorism as criminal and unjustifiable, wherever and by whomsoever committed;
2.       “Reiterates that criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them". (GA Res. 51/210 Measures to eliminate international terrorism).
[5] In order to cut through the Gordian definitional knot, terrorism expert A. Schmid suggested in 1992 in a report for the then UN Crime Branch that it might be a good idea to take the existing consensus on what constitutes a "war crime" as a point of departure. If the core of war crimes - deliberate attacks on civilians, hostage taking and the killing of prisoners - is extended to peacetime, we could simply define acts of terrorism as "peacetime equivalents of war crimes". See: UNODC - Terrorism Definitions.htm, Monday, 14 November 2005
[6]. The name comes from the Medieval Latin assassinus (Hachischins in French) identifying Ismailian Moslems of West Asia.
[7]. In this incident, Saudi security forces, after initial difficulties, were able to suppress the violence. While Saudi Officials denied “foreign government involvement” in these operations led by “religious extremists;” later on intelligent sources found unequivocal evidence of the Soviet, Libyan and South Yemeni (PDRY) hands in the trouble. See e.g. Gregory Copley, “The Troubled Middle-East: More Fluid, More Important than Ever,” Defense and Foreign Affairs 6 (1980), p. 10.
[8] The main structure of this paper is taken from : Ali-Asghar Kazemi, Religion and Politics: In Search of Compatibility and Compromise, Monograph, Tehran, 1985
[9]. cf. “Focus on Terrorism,” Orbis 19, No. 4 (winter, 1976), passim.
[10]. Quoted by Maurice Tugwell, “The Utility of Terror,” Jane’s Defense Review 2(1980), p.151.
[11]. Specialists have suggested that one way to curb terrorism is to make it less attractive to adventures who seek to gain publicity, simply by not giving them this opportunity in mass media. See e.g. “Ten Ways to Fight Terrorism,” Newsweek, The International Newsmagazine, July 1, 1985, pp.20-23.
[12]. A number of successive bloody terrors and explosions in post-revolution Iran claimed the lives of hundred of very important political and religious figures, including members of the parliament, cabinet ministers, Islamic Republican Party’s chief ideologue, and above all the president and the prime Minister. For an account of these events see: “Iran, A Government Beheaded,” Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine, no. 37, September 14, 1981, pp.10-12. In connection with these terrorist activities whose real culprits are not yet quite known but are claimed to be the Mojahedine Khalq Organization (MKO), observers believe that the Islamic regime of Iran has successfully passed the test of survivability and thenceforth started systematic persecution of political dissidents.
[13]. The Soviet Red Army moved in to Afghanistan in December 1979.
[14] Significant Terrorist Incidents, 1961-2003: A Brief Chronology, Historical Background Office of the Historian Bureau of Public Affairs- U.S. Department of State

[15] Terrorist Attacks on U.S. Homeland, September 11, 2001: Two hijacked airliners crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Soon thereafter, the Pentagon was struck by a third hijacked plane. A fourth hijacked plane, suspected to be bound for a high-profile target in Washington, crashed into a field in southern Pennsylvania. The attacks killed 3,025 U.S. citizens and other nationals. President Bush and Cabinet officials indicated that Usama Bin Laden was the prime suspect and that they considered the United States in a state of war with international terrorism. In the aftermath of the attacks, the United States formed the Global Coalition Against Terrorism.

[16] We don’t want to engage into act of terror committed by armed forces during active hostilities and international wars, which are essentially covered by laws of war as well as 1949 Geneva Conventions and its related 1977 protocols covering domestic conflicts.
[17].The alleged cooperation, support or machination of terrorist activities by the East and West secret services or countries such as Libya, Iran, Cuba, etc. are examples of such contentions.

[18] The Security Council has established an “international independent investigation Commission” based in Lebanon to investigate the killing of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. To ensure an effective probe into Hariri’s murder, the Council calls on Lebanese authorities to grant the Commission full access to information relevant to the inquiry. If Beirut fails to cooperate with the UN investigation into the “terrorist act,” it could face UN sanctions which seek to root out terrorism See: Security Council Resolution 1595 (April 7, 2005).    
 Following the submission of the first stage report of the investigation to the Security Council, a second resolution was adopted. In this resolution, the Security Council calls on Syria to cooperate with the efforts to investigate the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. To obtain the consent of veto-wielding China and Russia, the US, Britain, and France agreed to replace the threat of sanctions against Damascus by a warning of "further action" if Syria fails to collaborate. See: Security Council Resolution 1636 (October 31, 2005)
[19]. The Killing of: the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1983 by religious groups belonging to Moslem Brotherhood, the Lebanese President Bashir jamayel by religious rivals, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by Sikh religious fanatics in 1984, and the unsuccessful attempt at the life of world religious leader Pope John Paul II are among the many terrorist actions conducted directly or indirectly under the influence of religion.
[20]. The hostage taking of the American diplomats in Tehran by Moslem Students (of the Imam’s Line), which later was endorsed by the revolutionary regime, has been labeled by western analysts as “terrorism by analogy” aimed at humiliating the United States. This tactics succeeded to blackmail the incumbent president (Jimmy Carter) into impotence and ultimately changed the course of domestic US politics and international relations, by removing the frustrated president from the White House.

[21]. See e.g. Alf Andrew Heggoy, Insurgency and Counter Insurgency in Algeria (Bloomington, 1972), passim.
[22]. See: “Lebanon’s Holy Warrior; The lowly Shiite Muslims seek power and revenge,” Newsweek, International Newsmagazine, July 1, 1985, pp.18-19.
[23] It is interesting to note that Afghan freedom fighters were helped by Moslem zealous of other Middle Eastern countries and they were equipped and supported by the United States. Surprisingly, Ussameh Bin Laden, the notorious Al-Qaeda terrorist head and some of his entourage are citizen of Saudi Arabia.

[24]. In both cases the two Superpowers have used all kinds of military means, short of nuclear weapons, in order to bring the freedom fighters to a situation to accept the status quo and to give up hope. The United States has failed to achieve this objective, and the Soviets were not be able to succeed in their attempt.
[25]. There are various Shiite groups now claiming to be engaged in Jihad, Islamic Holy War, e. g.: Hezbollah, and Al Dawa Islamiya.
[26]. Notice that I have benefited from the above mentioned short essay “Defenders of the Faith,” in exposing the idea in a different manner in the development of the subject under consideration.

[27]. CF. e.g. Brian M. Jenkins, “High Technology Terrorism and Surrogate War: The Impact of New Technology on Low-Level violence,” in Geoffrey Kemp et al. The Other Arms Race, (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Book, D.C, Heath & Co. 1975), p. 91.
[28]. The withdrawal of US and French forces from embattled Lebanon, following Moslem suicidal attacks on their military installations comes to mind in this connection.
[29] It has to be  noted that some countries are openly inviting devoted Moslem youngsters to sign up for the “Army of Volunteer Martyrs’’ in order to use them for suicidal attacks against their potential enemies. They are being trained and prepared for martyrdom. In their view, this is some sort of deterrence vis-à-vis powerful states who want to dictate their will to other nations. This gruesome tactic indeed may intimidate those for whom life is a precious thing and are ready to pay any price in order to save the soul of a an innocent human being.   

* Ali Asghar Kazemi is professor of Law and International Relations in Tehran-Iran. Students, researchers, academic institutions, media or any party interested in using all or parts ‎of this article are welcomed to do so with the condition of giving full attribution to the author, Scholar -Journal and the ‎Middle East Academic Forum. ©All Copy Rights Reserved.‎