The deadly terror attacks in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheik Red Sea resort in July and the earlier October 2004 bombings at two other Red Sea resorts seem to have disrupted the consistency of the rationale that links the current terrorism upsurge in the Middle East to the US war effort in Iraq.
The Christian Science Monitor newspaper attempted to neatly package the ongoing debate in the West on the root causes of political and ideological terrorism within two primary schools of thought (“Why Jihadists Target the West”, July 25). One school links terror directly to the war on Iraq, another believes that terror groups are ideologically, rather than politically motivated, thus reinforcing the “clash of civilizations” argument.
The civilization argument, as dissected by the Monitor, contends that the Sharm el-Sheik terror – directed at Westerners regardless of the role played by their governments to aid the Iraq war effort – is a perfect case in point. “The Mecca for Westernized Egyptian and European tourists was targeted for the sin of being a beachhead of a globalized, tolerant culture in Arab Muslim territory,” it maintained.
In Egypt itself, the debate is taking on another distinctive, yet equally flawed approach. The Associated Press, for example, reported that some Egyptians are now openly examining the link between culture and extremism, highlighting the assertion that mosques and schools (madrassas) should be blamed for promoting Islamic extremism. The Egyptian debate, while unique in some ways to that country, is a recreation of the ongoing and dubious intellectual scuffle over the role of the madrassas in Pakistan in molding and forging terrorists from an early age.
Not only do these arguments fail to candidly inspect a variety of other factors that might have contributed to the spread of terrorism, but they imprudently encourage measures that will most probably give terrorists more fuel to carry on with their mission of violence, cajoling additional recruits and resources.
Cultural and religious intolerance is certainly not unique to the Middle East, nor is terrorism itself. If madrassas supposedly elucidate the motives behind the militancy of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, what will one make of terrorism in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Spain (Basque separatism prior to the train bombing), and Northern Ireland? It is not as if the list ends there. To the contrary, it barely begins. The truth is that Middle East terrorism became a globalized phenomenon after many regions around the world – that are neither Arab nor Muslim – experienced their share of deadly terror. It goes without saying that the rise of al-Qaeda and its support networks worldwide have not in any way contributed to the decline of terrorism elsewhere. In fact, many innocent people continue to fall victim to terrorism in many other regions and in large numbers. The quandary is that the victims are often not Westerners, thus their plight is either entirely neglected or hastily stated by the world media and then quickly forgotten.
Using the same logic, if the root cause of terrorism is indeed cultural and religious intolerance – advocated in some Islamic schools and mosques – then why aren’t young American neo-conservatives and fundamentalist evangelicals blowing themselves up in crowded Libyan or Sudanese streets? Or why are suicide bombings a prevalent practice employed by Palestinians against Israelis, and not the other way around?
While unofficial terrorism – as opposed to official, state-sponsored terror – can inflict untold hurt, it is often a frantic retort to political, cultural, religious, ideological and even physical oppression and violence. Unprovoked terror, at least in much of the Middle East, if considered objectively is unheard of. Thus, violence in most instances trails behind often greater acts of violence; the Iraqi insurgent (a terrorist according to the prevailing Western media interpretation and a resistance fighter as considered by many Arabs) was, in some ironic way, an American discovery: without a violent invasion and occupation, Iraqis would have had no reason to fight back. By the same token, without an Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and the subsequent violence wrought upon the Palestinians, Palestinians would have had no particular interest in blowing themselves up.
If Islamic religious extremism truly produced terror in a complete vacuum, it would make little sense for an Iraqi woman to be the first suicide bomber following the invasion in March 2003, considering that most extremists forbid women from taking part in physical jihad. It would be equally baffling if one recalls that communist Palestinian revolutionaries are the ones who indeed spearheaded Palestinian terrorism in the 1970s, decades before Hamas was even conceptualized.
Needless to say, a Jewish settler need not blow himself up, nor does a neo-con enthusiast, for they simply don’t have to, as their religious and cultural ideals of intolerance are carried out on a much greater scale through the official policies and practices of their respective governments. Hence, the war in Iraq, which has killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians, is arguably by far the greatest act of terrorism experienced in many years.
As for the case of Egypt, veteran Egyptian journalist, Ayman El-Amir, writing for Al-Ahram Weekly articulated it best: Terrorism (as a consequence of political ostracism, not religious fanaticism) is fomented “not in the mosque or the madrassas but in solitary confinement cells, torture chambers, and the environment of fear wielded by dictatorial regimes as instruments of legitimate governments.”
It’s here where any genuine inquiry into the root causes of terrorism should begin, and most likely, conclude.
-Ramzy Baroud, a veteran Arab American journalist, teaches mass communication at Curtin University of Technology. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Writings on the Second Palestinian Uprising (Pluto Press, London.)