Injustice and Terrorism:
“Injustice and not ideological fanaticism is at the root of global terrorism”
Recent articles on terrorism nearly always begin with a reference to the events of 11 September 2001, better known as 9/11. In most parts of the world, the day evoked horror and condemnation, but in others it was greeted with joy and celebration. It is sometimes said that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’, yet it was widely argued that on 9/11 the world had met a different kind of terrorist to that associated with political movements of the past. In the pre-9/11 era, terrorists, on the whole, possessed clear goals for their violence and groups claimed responsibility for their actions. While the tactics and methods used by terrorists today are arguably similar to those employed in the past, the goals and motivations of the modern terrorist are rather less clear. They are less obviously linked to national liberation movements, or to any group or nation-state at all: indeed, as one writer argues, the modern terrorist is likely to be a ‘non-state actor’ perpetuating ‘a kind of terrorism with no political or social objectives’.
In attempting to understand the motivation behind major recent terrorist attacks and plots – from 9/11 to the terror plot for which Dhiren Barot was jailed in London in 2006, to the Mumbai attacks of 2008 – religious fanaticism has emerged as one explanation. Islamism has become a key concept to describe a border-less network of individuals connected primarily by their shared faith and their willingness to use extreme and violent methods. However, another side of the debate argues that emphasising the religious rhetoric employed by some terrorists to explain their motivations is simplistic and misguided. The root causes of terrorism, they argue, should be understood in the context of relationships of injustice and oppression – for example, between India and Kashmir, Israel and Palestine, or the Western and the developing world. Without condoning terrorist attacks, is it right to see this violence as a consequence of historic injustice and brutality – or are these just excuses, as Salman Rushdie claims, for fundamentalists to erode the quality of civilian freedom? Does religious belief motivate individuals to kill, or is fanaticism better understood as the form that is taken by those reacting to political and economic injustices?
The debate in context:
Is global terrorism rooted in injustice and exploitation?
Terrorism is often explained as an outlet for the groundswell of suffering by people who lack the means to fight injustice by conventional strength. The terrorist hotspots of the world read as a list of British colonial interventions: Palestine, Afghanistan, Kashmir and East Africa. Furthermore, it is sometimes pointed out that today’s terrorist groups are the direct products of imperialist power-play: for example, the Islamic Mujahideen received significant support from the USA during the Cold War, when it fought against the pro-Soviet Afghan government. Arundhati Roy accuses the Indian State of continuing to colonise its subjects, particularly Muslims and rural tribal people. On this basis, should we recognise terrorism as one of the few means that the poor and exploited have of fighting back and something that will inevitably continue to occur whilst injustice and oppression remain?
On the other hand, it has been noted that some of those committing the most terrible acts of recent years were not impoverished members of oppressed societies, but middle-class young men brought up in the West; and that their goals could scarcely be seen to improve the lives of people living in the developing world. The arrest of the Doon school and London-educated Maoist ideologue Kobad Gandhy adds to the list of those from wealthy backgrounds who have become terrorists or terrorist sympathisers, indicating again that poverty and educational disadvantage have very little to do with fanaticism.
Does religion create fanatics?
Many accuse religion of blunting the human instinct for free inquiry and rational thought, making indoctrination easier. Johann Hari explains the irrationality of the religious right in America by saying: ‘faith based thinking spreads and contaminates the rational.’ In this sense, is it plausible to view religious fundamentalism as the root cause of the majority of contemporary terror attacks? The US’s National Commission on Terrorism, pre 9/11, found fanaticism – more than political interests – to be the motivating factor and noted that terrorists were becoming more unrestrained than ever before in their methods. Some of those who have been involved in extremist Islamic movements talk about the methods of indoctrination employed by religious fanatics, providing a much more individualised rationale for engaging in terrorism. One organisation known to provide religious justifications for its violence is Hezbollah, which is also a revolutionary party. The Lashkar-e-Toiba, opposed to Indian sovereignty over Kashmir, proclaim (according to the Council on Foreign Relations) ‘restoration of Islamic rule over all parts of India ‘as their agenda and declare ‘the United States, Israel, and India as existential enemies of Islam’.
The concept of a ‘holy war’ obliterates the line between religion and violent politics. However, academics like Edward Said caution against tarring entire religions with the same brush: it would be reductionist to conclude that a few fundamentalists represent a whole religion. Others point out that it is logistically impossible to wage large-scale war without the active patronage of a nation state. For example, Al-Qaida is said to enjoy the patronage of the Taliban, sovereign in parts of Afghanistan, as well as elements in the Pakistan military and some Arab countries. Furthermore, statistical analysis of suicide bombings reveal that more attacks have taken place at the behest of left leaning secular groups rather than religious organisations. The report’s author warns that ‘the presumed connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism is misleading’.
The battle for hearts and minds
There remains confusion about which types of terrorists or organisations constitute the major threat: as one US national defence specialist noted in 2002 – until the anthrax attacks on US politicians and media representatives in 2001, ‘it was thought that the terrorists most likely to attempt attacks with weapons of mass destruction were extremist religious groups and small splinter terrorist cells’, but a subsequent investigation suggested that ‘a domestic “lone wolf” with professional biotechnical expertise may be
Others argue that it is not the strength of the terrorists’ religion that has enabled them to have such an impact, but the weakness of ideological thought and commitment within the Western world. The sociologist Professor Frank Furedi has critiqued Western elites’ presentations of ‘potential terror recruits as vulnerable isolated children’. According to Furedi, the concern about ‘how such ideas can apparently warp and win over young people betrays their belief that they themselves could not possibly convince others about the superiority of the British or Western way of life’. Noting that many terrorists do not promote a coherent outlook based on particular values, Dr Bill Durodie argues that they seem to reflect a privileged disengaged and disgruntled attitude to the very society of which they are part. In this sense, it may be that the absence of a stronger and more convincing sense of belonging within societies fuels disillusionment amongst the many and destruction by the few. Could it be, as Durodie suggests, in the absence of any demands or anyone claiming responsibility for the attack, that the Mumbai attackers may not have had a cause?
Debunking myths on terrorism Munajat The Jakarta Post 09 August 2009
Religious fanaticism and terrorism Ahmed Fuan Fadani The Jakarta Post 08 July 2009
Religion, Radicalism and Terrorism Dr. Bill Durodie 02 June 2009
The seeds of hatred Jay Tolson US News 07 April 2008
Multiculturalism and the road to terror Kenan Malik KenanMalik.com 03 January 2006
What makes suicide bombers tick? Stan Crock BusinessWeek 06 July 2005
Suicide terrorism in the Middle East: Origins and Response Joshua Prober Washington Institute for Near East Policy 16 November 2005
Imperial Temptation Amitav Ghosh The Nation 2002
Religion is not the primary motivation of suicide bombers Riaz Hassan Daily Star 11 September 2009
The monster in the mirror Arundhati Roy Guardian 13 December 2008
Fighting injustice, oppression only way to defeat terrorism Todd Richissin The Sydney Morning Herald 03 September 2004
The roots of terrorism Sultan Ahmed Defence Journal October 2001
Let's blame it on Islam Naveen Jagan (Debate with Subrata Mukherjee) Boloji.com 12 October 2000
A terror so great we forgot it at once Melanie Phillips Spectator 8 December 2006
I know how these terrorists are inspired Ed Husain Telegraph (UK) 02 May 2007
Global terrorism and Religious Fanaticism Subrata Mukherjee (Debate with Naveen Jagan) Boloji.com 05 October 2000
Tracing Lashkar-e-Toiba The Viewspaper 19 August 2007
The futile search for the root causes of Terrorism Dr. Michael Radu American Diplomacy 16 August 2002
Terrorism as political ideology Dr. Ronald Meinardus Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty
Religious fanaticism fuels terrorism Barry James New York Times 31 October 1995
Terrorism in Kashmir: The non-state actor bugbear Sreeram Sundar Chaulia Kashmir Herald 09 February 2002
The new terrorism Abdel-Moniem Said Al-Ahram 06 December 2001
The moral logic of Hizballah Martin Kramer Origins of terrorism
Salman Rushdie: His life, his work and his religion Independent 13 October 2006
The sociology and psychology of terrorism: who becomes a terrorist and why? Federal Research Division Library of Congress September 2009
International Terrorism and Security Research Terrorist Research
Terrorism’s causes About.com
Terrorism MSN Encarta
Extremism The Doha Debates
Understanding evil WhyFiles
In the news:
Ten US soldiers killed in Afghanisthan Times Online 04 October 2009
Somalia’s president says terrorism growing there Amy Fortili Associated Press 04 October 2009
U.S. strategy in Afghanisthan in under fire Sheldon Alberts Canwest News Service 03 October 2009
Afghan insurgency seen spilling into Central Asia Maria Golovnina Reuters 01 October 2009
Kasab replaces Ravana in Indore Dussehra festival Sify News 28 September 2009
From Smiling Coffee Vendor to Terror Suspect Michael Wilson New York Times 25 September 2009
India’s unlikely Maoist revolutionary BBC 23 September 2009
Editorial: Non-state actors in South Punjab Daily Times 15 September 2009
Tears and raindrops mix at 9/11 ceremonies MSNBC 11 September 2009
Israel rejects UN criticism of Gaza war conduct Tom A. Peter Christian Science Monitor 09 September 2009
Fight against Maoists is failing, admits PM Times of India 15 September 2009
Key facts on Mumbai gunman Mohammad Ajmal Kasab Reuters 20 July 2009
Prabhakaran's death and fall of LTTE lead to street celebrations in Sri Lanka Mark Tran Guardian 18 May 2009
“Pakistan Generals promoted religious fanaticism”: Former Minister says Musharraf was more deceptive The Hindu 6 March 2009
Death toll in Mumbai attacks reaches 195 Times of India 29 November 2008
‘Hindu terrorism’ debate grips India Zubair Ahmed BBC 21 November 2008
15 hostages freed as FARC is fooled in cunning operation Chris Kraul Los Angeles Times 03 July 2008
Canadian journalist hits out at Sikh extremism The Times of India 01 July 2007
Official British reports examine causes of London bombings Christian Science Monitor 11 May 2006
IC 814 hijacker plotted Pearl kidnap Press Trust of India 15 February 2002