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The roots of terrorism


Terrorism studies within the academic fields of sociology, social-policy, criminology and political sciences have produced a vast amount of literatur, especially after 9/11 the discourse increased, not only within the academic field but also in the public discourse. Different scholars and other experts have tried to make sense of this phenomenon; the result is a variety of explanations and answers but not a concrete definition of the researched subject. There is hardly any satisfying answer to key questions and only a rare consens about the root causes of terrorism. We spend a lot of time to find out the main characteristics of terrorists, we try to understand his/her madness. Especially spectacular acts like suicide attacs are too often present in the analyses. In order to make sense of the motivation behind lethal assaults and "sensless" violence most of the commentators get stucked with ideological explanation. Officials are using their empirical evidences and correlations to produce simple causality. Therefore it is easy to ascribe the roots of terrorism in terms of geography or culture and religion to specific subjects. Terrorism debates are often and consistently linked to Islam and the Middle East. Even if lot scholars have tried to prove that terrorism can be found in nearly every culture and society, the media representation and the public imagination tends to believe the "offical facts." With reservations of course. Not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims, more libearls would maybe argue that even if Islam is not the solely cause, there must be something within Islam which supports this kind of violence. The heroic martyrdom has always been a source for threat and fascination. The same applies to the study of Islam in general. Assumed experts among Western scholars reached academic and general success by prooving the hitch within Islam. This paper will discuss some of the main arguments from Lewis and Huntington, two popular and influential figures in this field. The well-known assumption, that Islamic history has never passed an era, which is compareable to the Enlightenment era of the judeo-christian West is a leading explanation for today's problems. Religious fanatics are threatening the civilised world - which is represented by the communities based on secular rationality and humanistic uversalism - because of their backwardness. The traditions and rules of Islam do not fit into Western modernity. Comments and explanations like these are the result of a discourse, in which Islam is often seen, studied and portrait as a real object, which is consistent and simple to understand, a defined and fix corpus that serves as an antagonism towards "our" world. This Paper will show that such arguments are not solid, often without any evidence or the product of weak methodology and loose understanding. The works of O. Roy and J. Gray will serve as two alternative perspectives in the mentioned debate.

There is a problem with Islam. Not a problem of or within the Islamic world. The problem is within the academic world, their understanding and concept of Islam, their perspective on and analysis of Islam is a problem.

Terrorism and Islam

As already mentioned there is no precise definition of terrorism. The common version contains references to an individual or a group, which uses violenst against uninvolved parties (often described as innocent civilians) to threaten third parties. The use of violence in this respect is never senseless, even if media representations and other commentators tend to emphasize the absurd character of these acts. Terrorism and the use of violence is always normative, it serves political interests and challanges existing power structures. The loose definition of terrorism has specific effects and is not unitended. The terrorist enemy has an increasingly diffuse and abstract character. The Universal Adversary potentises the imagination, virtually every form of grievance leads towards a scenario where anyone can be represented as a potential foe. This ends up in a daily exercise, where the enemy is probably best personified by "You Know Who"(c.f. F. Furedi 2007, p. xiv).

Victoroff presents in a major review of the existing literature that the quantity of theories and concepts surpasses any reality. He is concerned about how the emotional and subjective approaches of researchers have created an own obstacle to clarify important issues. Terrorism is handled as something that erodes a logical discourse (c.f. J. Victoroff 2005, p.33). This belief acquired the character of a dogma that simply did not require any proof. Instead of intelligence and scientific understanding for the subject, the discourse has reinforced dogmatic prejudices, which provides justification for existing restrictions and policies. Terrorism as a social phenomenon influences daily realities on various levels. Societies are trying to measure the effects and are responding through/with institutional instruments. Individuals of nearly any society/community are suffering under the effects of both the terroristic threat in itself and under the „reactive" actions of our governments.

So the term `terrorism´ is obviously a loaded one, highly subjective, with aggressive connotations and dogmatic prejudices. It acquires extremly negative associations; the terrorist label serves as a health warning, suggesting that those whom it is attached are morally inferior individuals (c.f. F. Furedi 2007, p. xxx). The strong connection between Islam and terrorism in the popular discourse has strengthened the weight of moral arguments. Even academia has fortified morality in its explanations. Blaming the described other is often the general praxis. Lewis for example has a confrontational view of Islam; he describes Islam as a source for universally acceptable set of rules and princibles for the regulation of public and social live, which has pervasive political notions and attitudes. Further he suggests that this source is returning in modified forms, to its previous dominance (c.f. B. Lewis 2003, p. 11). Moreover Lewis argues that in most Islamic countries religion measures a major factor - far more indeed than in any Christian country (Lewis makes also the assumption that Christian countries are no longer Christian - but Islamic countries are still profoundly Muslim). His historic reference/evidence is simple and apparently not questionable.

"From the lifetime of its Founder, and therefore in its sacred scriptures, Islam is associated in the minds and memories of Muslims with the exercise of political and military power."

This is a comment that claims absoluteness the author goes on and defines Islam as a theocracy with a supreme souvereign. Striving in the path of Islam is consequently violent, especially in modern times, where according to Lewis the military cannotation has increased and the Islamic concept of a community has lost its holiness and openness. Religious intensity of a particularly violent kind can be ascribed solely to Islam, is the general assumption. A retreat into religion is the way most Islamic states can be explained. Mundane issues on a political level are explained through religion. The role of Islam is always underpined in the represantation of Middle Eastern states - but at the same time you can rarly find any references to religion (esp. negative cannotiated) in the portrait of Israel. In contrast Israel is often announced as the only democracy and ally. Commentatorship on the Middle East in general and comments about Islam and terrorism in particular are always constructed with a distinctive logic. The tendency in the Western discourse that whenever a problem between the West and Islam occurs the relatively detached instruments of scientific, quasi-objective representations are used to portrait "Islam" and to make the "true nature" of its threats more clear (E. Said 1997, p. 25). The relevant language and understanding, which is needed to cover the topic in a serious way has been neglected more and more. Instead the Western discourse has often reinforced official and conventional knowledge and images to simplify the phenomenon and blame the subjects. Edward Said argues in his various publications that it is not possible to discover any period in European or American history since the Middle Ages in which Islam was generally discussed or thought about outside a framework created by passion, prejudices and political interests (E. Said 1997, p. 24). He has established the term Orientalism, which in few words describes the pervasive Western tradition to produce knowledge about the East that is based on prejudiced outsider interpretations. Subjective knowledge about the Other as a exercise and production of power, a working system of relations, a machinery in operation. Knowledge that classifies, imagines, orders and constructs our realities. Said was critical of this onesided scholarly tradition and particularly of Bernard Lewis, who was a declared orientalist in his view.

Beyond Orientalism

Ever since the early works of Michel Foucault, we have known that no knowledge is neutral, however scientific its appearance. We know, in contrast to the positivistic and instrumental assumptions of natural science, which are more and more common within humanities, that knowledge is not a mirror of the real nor a tool that lies reliably in the hands of man (A. Burke 2008, p.1). Knowledge is serving power as it conceals its political function within claims to objectivity and expertise. A bedrock of assumptions about the nature of culture, the political, the necessary and the good are persistent. Lewis and other Orientalists are infleuntial actors in the discourse, their arguments are simplified realities prepared in a bite-sized format with a high public presence. In this case the complex phenomenon of terrorism becomes a simple question of Islam. The lack of Enlightenment f.e. is a popular myth which tends to answer a lot of today´s questions, from terrorism to migration. The concept of Islam is classified as something that does not fit into Western rationality (modernity). The strong unity between State and Church, the indivisibility of religious and mundane realities. Such interpretations are solely evidences for a poor understanding of the analysed subject or the proof of how emotive and ideological the engagement of the supporters is. A small knowledge about the orient is enough to explain why this kind of approaches and comparisons are not very useful. The Enlightenment was for the West the disembarrassment from the dark-ages, the salvation from the church and religion. Islam in contrast must be understood as the release from darkness. Pre-Islamic societies in the Middle East were widely dominated by cult-images, Islam's self-conception portraits an image where religion is light and everything else represents the darkness, which is constituted by the variety of the "wrongs." Therefore Islam's problems with modernity should be understood in a paradox way. Because the individualised consumer world of the West recalls memories of a world dominated by cult-images. The seductive world of consumerism is the greatest threat to Islam. It is advertised as modern but reminds the Muslim thought to its roots and early struggles.

The problem is not the incapacity of Islam to accept foreign knowledge. In contrast Muslim communities have shown in their history how tolerant and acceptive they can be. Islam and Christianity have been living side by side for almost 1400 years, always as neighbours, mostly as rivals and far too often as enemies. In fact, they may be regarded as coreligionists since they share the same Jewish, Hellenistic and Oriental heritage. At one and the same time they have been old acquaintances and intimate hereditary enemies, and their conflicts have been particularly bitter precisely because of their common origins. Both sides have been divided more by their similarity than by their differences. The Islamic "culture" is therefore not as foreign to Christians as it appears to be in the light of Western prejudices and clichés. One of the most persistent and widespread myths is that Charles Martel, the ruler of the Franks, saved the West from destruction by his victory over the "Saracens" at Poitiers in 732. The Saracens were driven back over the Pyrenees and they returned to southern Spain where a Muslim state then existed for almost 800 years. This Islamic presence on the European continent did not lead to a collapse of the Western civilization but instead to a unique and fruitful symbiosis between Islam, Christianity and Judaism which resulted in an unparalleled boom in science, philosophy, culture and art. (c.f. Ingmar Karlsson 2000, pp.223).

Further examples for coexistences are the Balkan states, where Muslims and Christians have lived for centuries side by side in peace and freedom under rule of the Ottomans. The influences of the Ottoman-empire towards the European kingdoms and vice versa was breed and important. The sultans in Istanbul have always seen themselves as Western leaders, and in contempt of all the rivalities and conflicts, the interactions have lead to constitute the West of today. The formations and structures of today's West would not be imaginable without the influences of the Muslim world. The long-lasting influence of the Sufi-tradition within Islamic thought and history, with its unprecedented openness and tolerance, which has lead to a flourishing intellectual culture throughout the Islamic world, a sort of "Golden Age" between the 13th and 16th centuries whose artefacts are still present, is never mentioned in debates about the "true nature" of Islam. Thus, we should not talk about the West in the mirror of Islam or in contrary to Islam, because it is the product of its intermingled history, and this process is still going on. The era of Enlightenment, which for Lewis and others is not existent in the history of Islam, is on clother examination the result of a cooperative era between orient and occident. The ancient Greek texts were in possession of the Muslims they were studying Aristotle and Plato since centuries, and only a shared access and common intelligence between Muslims and the West has enabled the Enlightenment.

With this in mind the assumed superiority is no more acceptable and should not be raisen again. Terrorism is not a problem of Islam, and studying or rather judging Islam will and cannot help to reduce or to understand terrorism.

Islamic civilizations and Western clashes

Islam is less and less ascribed to a specific territory and civilisational area, even if some scholars (f.e. S.P. Huntington) still have this image of Islam the borders between Islam and the West have became blurred. The deterritorialisation of Islam has nothing to do with Islam as such, even if a third of the world's Muslim population live as members of a minority. But this figure shows how important the case of Muslims as a minority group is.

The issue is not the theological content of the Islamic religion as such, but the way believers refer to this corpus to adopt and explain their behaviours in a context where religion has lost its social authority. Huntington is maybe not the best represent for a typical Westerner because for him religion, culture and civilization are significant determinants in this context. He has prefigured the clash of civilizations as the battle lines in our times in 1993, and his influence within the US policy has strongly contributed to today's battlefields. Civilising missions in the Middle East, ongoing major conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Somalia are excerpts of recent conflicts between the West and the Islamic world. The mentioned deterritorialisation can be seen as high mobility and forwardness but it serves mostly to underpin the deep trench between Muslims and non-Muslims (judeo-christians). The increased visibility of foreigners in the Western world has lead to daily problems within the heartlands of the modern West.

The French scholar Olivier Roy talks about "Globalized Islam," which is explicitly fundamentalist, by stressing the need to return to a pure Islam that of pious ancestors. In this respect, we have to analyse on which way this corpus is produced, structured, circulated and used by his "actors" and "customers". The immutability of Koran has leaded the Islamic Arts to a culture of re-reading and ongoing reinterpretation this strong connection between the holy script and its savants is often misunderstood as fundamentalism. This practice represents a major pillar of Islamic thought and the varieties within the Muslim realities are the demonstration of a complex tradition with many faces. Instead of re-writing which is a Western practice to adapt changes and proclaim progress, Muslims have always tried to reinterpret the verses of their holy book. This should not be understood as backwardness or inflexibility but only as a different practice.

The so-called political Islam is on the rise, not only in the Eastern-countries but also in the West, especially as a subject within academia, with recovered ideas and new methodologies of instrumentalisation. The experts argue, that the actors have adopted generally modern instruments. Their ideologies are now seen as compatible with existing democratic principles, at least on the theoretical level. Political Islam is present if not in democratic then within parliamentarian movements and often with the face of civil society agents. Many Islamist movements have become "normal" national parties in the Middle East, and civil-organisations in the West (f. e. Saadet Partisi in Turkey or Milli Görus in Europe). But the Islamist movements in the West differ from Islamism in the countries of origin. While Islamism in the Middle East is connected to nationalism and ethnic inclusiveness, the Migrant-Muslims, which live as a minority in Western democracies, tend to turn to religious revivalism beyond cultural and national linkages (c.f. O. Roy 2004, p. 2). This westernisation is a result of the deterritoritalisation of Muslims. This community is of course not homogeneous they differ widely, between secular liberals and militant conservatives, exactly like their opponents in the West. These remarks show how complex the issue of Islam is we cannot simplify the subject as a homogeneous body that has to be combated.

A common believe in the West is that state and religion are inseparable for Islamists, but this is not the fact. All Islamic states are only partly linked with their religion; most of them have a contradictionaly structure of legitimacy (see Iran, Algeria or Pakistan). Furthermore it is not true that Islamists in Europe or elsewhere have the common aim to declare a Muslim empire based on the Koran. Even if some radicals may have this in mind, the struggles between the different groups within Islam are bigger then the conflicts with non-Muslims. Far from being a uniform or even a coherent movement, "the return to Islam" embodies a number of political actualities. Post-Islamism does not go hand in hand with a decline of religion, rather it expresses the crisis of the relationship between religion and polities, and between religious identity and authority. The contemporary religious revival in Islam is targeting society more than the state. This leads to multiform expressions of religious practices and discourse. The Western world takes only notice from these issues on a political level, even if these practices have non-political intentions (c.f. O. Roy 2004, p. 3). As already mentioned we have to differentiate between movements of Muslims as a minority group in the West and movements in Middle Eastern states, in the latter case the struggles are motivated by political ambitions and tend to ascribe their messages towards accursed leaders and their detested supporters. Even if the ambitions are articulated in political terms the real motifs are often founded by economic and social inequalities. Religious leaders as spokesperson are the result of socio-historic developments and not the evidence for a clash of civilizations. This becomes more obvious when we look to Islamic movements in the West, where Muslims tend to unify under the umbrella of religion to articulate their needs and interests. The religious corpus is often not more than a compensation for the lack of public institutions and opportunities. The options to participate in decision-making processes and to influence the public discourse are limited, hence the religious apparatuses are often the only promising and available options. This is especially true in Middle Eastern countries where oppositional groups have been tracked and oppressed by force through totalitarian leaders and Western intelligence services. Mosques and Madrasah have always enjoyed a minimum of freedom and autonomy especially during the cold war, thus has lead to the politicisation of Islam nowadays and not the inseparability of religious and political issues within Islam.

Radical Islamism accompanies the privatisation of faith the formation of closed religious communities and the construction of pseudo ethnic or cultural identities. Roy emphasizes the link between the growing deterritorialisation of Islam and the reinforcement of imagined identities. The new form of religiosity of Muslims mean not a revival of old values, this is a misrepresented common notion. It is more a kind of reformation or transformation of Islam. The mutations into radical violent forms are the product of a neo-fundamental westernisation and not a return to the Koran (c.f. O. Roy 2004, p. 6). Western scholars, intellectuals, politicians and the media are sometimes too willingly to explain this kind of Islamism by analysing the Koran. Such analyses are generally focusing on some verses, which then serves as the fundament to understand and explain the whole Koran, its effects and meanings to the people. But the question is not what the Koran says; it is what radical Muslims say or think what the Koran says. Therefore it is not very helpful to use those topics and concepts to make sense of Islam or Terrorism, the consequences are unproductive and sometimes lethal.

Further a religion is usually embedded in more than one culture therefore it cannot be reduced to a single culture or group, even if this is exactly what Huntington and others are trying to do. Islam is strongly connected with the Arabic culture in the West, but the figures show that only 20% of the Muslim population are Arabs. It is difficult or maybe not possible to establish a causal relationship between religion and a single culture (c.f. O. Roy 2004, p. 11). This can be easily observed in Europe, where Muslims with different cultural backgrounds hit each other. The search for a purely Islam has therefore developed different tendencies, even if all of them try to conceptualise a believe system beyond any culture and tradition. Therefore we should not try to establish causal linkages between single cultures and violence, or between Islam and radicalism. It is important to understand the sociological circumstances and psychological reasons of such radicalisations.

Like mentioned above, the territorial borders between the Muslim- and Christian civilisations are fading away but at the same time mental borders are being reinvented to define the otherness. Ethnicity and religion became more and more instruments to draw new borders between groups whose identity relies on a performative definition. We can observe that special forms of nationalism and religiousness are increasing as a compensation of non-recognition or a form to underline the otherness.

Utopian ideals & realities

The wide spectrum of Muslims and the understanding of Islam requires new ways to analyse political Islam or the different Islamic movements in general. It is a common failure of the West to stigmatize Islam as a unified body or to reduce the variety among the Muslim world. The gap between perception and reality is increasing the belief of a cosmic war between good and evil, a belief that has animated a dualistic world-view is the result. The Western scholars are into the idea that Islam is more violent because it promises a utopian redemption for its soldiers. John Gray shows in a neat way the religious influences in Western realities and the effects of utopian ideals and motivations.

Utopias are dreams of collective deliverance, projects that are by their nature unachievable. Utopian imagination opens up vistas that would otherwise remain closed; it expands the range of human possibility and must not end in disastrous projects (Gray 2007, p. 24). The use of inhuman methods to achieve impossible ends is a revolutionary utopianism and the outcome of European history. The growing knowledge during Enlightenment has been used to establish new kinds of tyranny and wage ever more destructive wars. In struggling to answer the existing questions Enlightenment thinkers cannot help falling back into a view of history as a battle between light and dark. The light may be that of knowledge and not anymore religion, but the view of the world is the same. Modern political structures may reject Christianity, but they cannot do without demonology (Gray 2007, p.35). Yet no one believes that violence can perfect humanity but every one has faith in the liberating power of violence.

Particular after the end of the cold war but also during those decades, Western governments have committed themselves under the direction of the United States, to install democracy throughout the world. Again no one belives that democracy creates a perfect humanity but simultaneously no one questions its liberating power. The democratisation of the world is a utopian ideal, an impossible dream that in many situations could only produce chaos. It is a mission that fails to distinguish between new (unprecedented) real threats and normal, ongoing conflicts of history. The result of the attempt to democratise the world has been a steep decline of both Western democracy in general and American power in particular, non-democratic regimes have never been so popular like nowadays since the Enlightenment. Civilising missions are well known phenomenon in human history, even if the recent awareness of missionary movements tend to focus on Islam. The enlightened Europe has created an imperial entitlement that lead to the repression of vast areas around the globe. Continents and cultures were dominated by the enlightened their social and natural resources are exploited up to the present day by their fellow ancestors. Nazi-Germany and other regimes with the demand of superiority are products of increased knowledge during the Enlightenment. Biological and evolutionary explanations have fed the idea of white supremacy. The Rule of Law and the principle of democratic participation failed to often as control instruments rather they served as iconic symbols to legitimize imperial capitalism and free markets. The spread throughout the world was never aimed, as a peaceful process -the intensive application of military force - was considered as necessary from the very first.

John Gray describes it as follows:

Totalitarian movements of the last century are seen as anomalies in western history... These outbreaks of mass killing are seen as departures from the peaceful norms of a civilization that is good, healthy and harmonious. Not all the world's evils come from "the West" (neither from the Orient)... but the West is distinctive in using force and terror to alter history and perfect humanity. The chiliastic passions... are not aberrations from a pristine western tradition. They go back all the way, and they continue today... they are embodied in secular regimes that aimed to remake humanity by force.

Grey's illustrations are presenting a perspective in which the secular West looses its universal rationality and objective supremacy. With all this in mind the subjective knowledge on Islam and the restricted view on terrorism becomes more understandable. Victoroff as mentioned above is concerned about how the emotional and subjective approaches of researchers have created an own obstacle to clarify important issues. Terrorism is handled as something that erodes a logical discourse (c.f. J. Victoroff 2005, p.33). The abnormal character opens a debate where the battle between light and dark is crucial, loose assumptions are handled as unremovable truth. A Western analysis of Islam or terrorism will always be a judeo-christian perspective on the issue, no matter how much it relies on scientific truth. This connotation will not disappear at the same time it must not serve as an insurmountable obstacle. Unfortunately in the recent usages this implementation gains wide popularity and importance. The omnipresent threat, which is caused by the unknown other - emerges from this perspective to a well-known enemy under the green umbrella. "You Know Who"- becomes a genteel construction for religious and racist discrimination- no one speaks it out but everyone means the same, radical-islamistic-terror dominates recent fears and serves as the evil source for the propaganda of secular and democratic demonology.

Towards an End

So much of Islamic life is neither bound by texts nor confined to personalities or neat structures, it is an ongoing search of answers and humans who try to give their lives a meaning and who try to combine their daily realities with learned values (E. Said 1997, p. 65). These values are as fluctuating and diverse as the daily realities of the individuals. Islam just like terrorism are social categories of defined emotions, images and knowledge combined through a causal rationality as products of objective reality. Realities more than bite-sized information's. The discourse on terrorism and Islam has always leaded to criticism. Huntington and Lewis have been discussed highly controversial from the very first but there is no controversy about the real impact of their ideas. Simplistic wisdoms are conducting our governments and societies at the same time we are increasing mental borders to manifest evil opponents as constituent realities.

The way we look to these realities, the way we try to understand and make sense of them defines also our potential to handle them. Terrorism, Islam, the conflicts between or within the West and the other have never been analysed properly, at least in a wider spectrum. Limited concepts constitute the perceptions of the majority. The results are today's battlefields, which are not reducible to geographic borders. The sway on daily realities becomes ever more noticeable. The free world has trapped into a mental cage the liberating power of violence is not cognizable but humanity suffers the pain it causes.


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