Guest Post by Tom Pettinger
“Religion had nothing to do with this. We watched films. We were shown videos with images of the war in Iraq. We were told we must do something big.”
– failed 7/21/05 London Underground bomber, Hussein Omar
How well do we as a society really understand the causes of terrorism? Since 9/11, and especially 7/7 in London, we’ve been fed the line that Islamic ideology, rather than politics, causes extremism, each new ‘Islamist’ attack apparently proving the theory. And because the theory that terrorists are mentally deranged has no scientific basis, what really drives individuals to engage in this kind of socially deviant and devastating behaviour, sometimes even to a point of killing themselves as well? Is it primarily religious ideology? Is it politics? What is the effect of choosing one narrative over the other?
Following a ‘jihadist’ attack, news coverage hysterically focuses on how individuals were radicalized by an increasingly fanatical Islamic ideology (white-supremacist attacks, conversely, receive far less attention), often with a backdrop of a failed personal life or a lack of integration into modern Western society. The actual motivations for the attacks are rarely investigated. 9/11, the Boston bombing, 7/7 in London, the Brussels attacks, Paris, Florida, Madrid are frequently implied by media and politicians to have no aims other than instilling senseless terror on the basis of a warped interpretation of Islam. It is often ignored that such atrocities attempt to accomplish a goal or communicate a political message. All definitions of terrorism have at their core some political or social aim, but aside from passing comments, we don’t hear about these in news coverage. There is a growing body of literature (see here, here and here) that suggests this direction has been encouraged by governments to silence dissent over their foreign policy; it is in Western governments’ interests to ascribe the attackers’ motivations to reasons other than their military interventions and the so-called ‘War on Terror’. It’s a natural defence mechanism to place the blame for attacks like 9/11 on anything but their own actions (be it invasions, drone strikes, or Guantanamo).
George W. Bush notoriously claimed, “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” This has become commonly accepted; the media and politicians incessantly bombard us with this idea. However, The Defense Science Board, a Federal Advisory Committee established to provide independent advice to the US Secretary of Defense, wrote in 2004 that,
Muslims do not “hate our freedom,” but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.
As well as politics appearing central to acts of terrorism, further problems with taking religious ideology as the principal driver of terrorism are that:
- Most basically, there are people who possess what society deems as ‘radical ideologies’ yet don’t engage in violence;
- To take ‘religious ideology’ as equivalent to brainwashing is misguided when a group’s beliefs are debated to a point where they sometimes split apart;
- Radicalization scholars have found an ideology is only acquired following incorporation within a group;
- Studies have consistently found “no empirical support” for many ideologically-focussed approaches to de-radicalization or countering terrorism, suggesting it plays little part in their radicalization;
- And above all, there is nowhere near enough scientific research into individuals’ motivations to cast generalizations (and where studies have occurred, they often find social interactions play the most important role).
Governments totally ignore the attackers’ motivations in explaining terrorism; look up basically any attack on the West – what do the attackers say? Political grievances and aims are always central. What did the Boston bomber scrawl on the inside of the boat? It wasn’t challenging freedom and democracy, but US foreign affairs and the deaths America has caused. What did the Woolwich attacker say in the street when he was standing over Fusilier Lee Rigby? It wasn’t about creating an Islamic State, but lamenting the suffering Western invasions have brought to other parts of the world. What motivations did the failed US underwear bomber Abdulmutallab give during his court case? Not the rewards from martyrdom, but US tyranny and its oppression of Muslims. As an aside, it should also be remembered that those most affected by ‘Islamic’ terrorism are other Muslims. (Stats can be found here, here, and here.)
The truth is that nobody knows what actually causes terrorism to a point where we can generalize the motivations of all terrorists. There are different levels of explanation – social, individual, structural or political motivations – and whilst each may play a part, the dominant narrative takes a religious ideological approach as fact without any demonstrated scientific basis. If that perspective only seems like common sense, it’s because it has been constantly emphasized by politicians and the media over time. No study has had anywhere near sufficient access to terrorists to show any causation. However, these unfounded assumptions cause us to view certain communities (those perceived to be Muslims) as suspicious, based purely on correlations with widely-publicized attacks that have previously taken place. In Britain for example, following the IRA Birmingham pub bombings, those with Irish accents were viewed with suspicion and hostility; similarly, the now-suspect ‘Muslim community’ is placed under constant suspicion of being a potential threat following jihadi attacks. Studies into the creation of suspect communities show they are treated with disdain and blamed for attacks, that they experience negative interactions with the police, racism and discrimination at work, and feel unsafe walking around and like second-class citizens.
“We are constantly demonized, all through the media. I used to go to the cinema every weekend…I’ve given up because every time I would go…there’s at least one hint somewhere [that Muslims are terrorists or cause terrorism] – and in newspapers and the media as a whole, constantly we’re demonized.”
– Anonymous audience member, Evening with Arun Kundnani, YouTube
The West spends billions on domestic counter-terrorism efforts taking this unproven and highly presumptuous ideology-based explanation to minimize the threat from suspect communities. A frightening consequence of this drive is that particularly within the US, in borrowing predictive principles from the widely-criticized British Prevent Strategy, a network of 15,000 informants has developed to target Muslims, and the practice of entrapment (“tricking someone into committing a crime in order to secure their prosecution”) has escalated. The FBI has even killed Americans on American soil based on opportunities the agency itself has provided to ‘vulnerable’ Muslims. (A recap of the events can be found here, but Arun Kundnani goes into more detail in his book, The Muslims Are Coming.) Judges have repeatedly noted that these entrapped individuals would not otherwise have engaged in such deviant activities had the FBI not placed them in the ‘wrong place’ at the ‘wrong time’. Judge McMahon, sentencing the Newburgh Four, said,
Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr Cromitie, a man whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope… I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except [that] the government instigated it, planned it, and brought it to fruition.
Governments have gradually diluted the threshold for ‘terrorism’ charges: in the UK, non-violent extremism is now a criminal offence, and thousands of children as young as four have gone through the British de-radicalization program. Umm Ahmed, a British Muslim, was jailed for 12 months for the possession of Inspire Magazine which she had obtained to keep updated with her brother’s trial (apparently reading the magazine online does not land you in jail, but possessing it on a USB stick does!). In sentencing her the judge said that Umm posed no threat, that she had no intent to harm, that she was not a terrorist – and even that she was a good Muslim – but that he had to imprison her based on her possession of the magazine.
The idea of a distinct and definable ‘Muslim community’, separate from the rest of the population, has been encouraged by the provision of cohesion funding that targets places with a certain number of Muslims, and by politicians calling for this apparently distinct community to condemn the latest attacks as though they were in some way collectively responsible. David Cameron in his (in)famous multiculturalism speech called for moderate Muslims to condemn the radical ones, and Trump similarly called on Muslims to “report when they see something going on”. This leads to Muslims being seen collectively as a threat, and advancing the perception of them as separate to ‘the rest of us’. In turn, like after the recent Manchester bombing, we see a rise in hate crimes against those perceived to be Muslims, who are often approached in public and told, “shame on you… for what you did”. People have been killed as a result of anti-Muslim attacks, although like other right-wing extremist attacks, they get far less attention than what is considered ‘Islamist’ violence.
We have become obsessed by denouncing those engaging in political violence as deluded Islamist ideologues, when in fact, by their own testimony, the attacks they carry out seem much more like retaliations for Western policy decisions, like invasions and occupations, support for Israel (which is taken as definitional support for the oppression of Palestinians), Guantanamo, drone strikes, and so on. Claims that ideology is the overriding explanation are wholly unfounded and exist to minimize Western governments’ responsibility in motivating the attacks. However, because of these narratives being endlessly repeated, we have succeeded in separating Muslims from non-Muslims, and non-Muslims from Muslims, allowing totally irrational fear and distinction, rather than unity, to triumph.
For more information….
- Prevent Strategy ‘Sowing Mistrust and Fear in Muslim Communities’, The Guardian
- It’s not the Religion that Creates Terrorists, it’s the Politics, The Guardian
- Arun Kundnani Part 2: The Development of Modern Radicalization Theory, YouTube, Brennan Center for Justice,
- ‘Suspect Communities’? : Counter-terrorism Policy, the Press, and the Impact on Irish and Muslim Communities in Britain, Radicalisation Research
- ‘PREVENT: Creating ‘Radicals’ to Strengthen anti-Muslim Narratives’, in Critical Studies on Terrorism
- Ismail Einashe, British Citizen of Somali Origin, Describes How the Status of Migrants Is ‘Permanently Up For Review’ in the New Intolerant Britain, Andy Worthington