In a recent op-ed, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum called for a battle of ideas against terrorism. The current military onslaught against what I term as the ‘Terrorist State’ – known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - will defeat it on the ground but it will not eradicate terrorism from its roots, or at least minimize its threat to say the least.
The key element in his view was to “counter malignant ideas with enlightened thinking.” He also pointed to the need of improving governance and achieving higher levels of development as a means to uplift the lives of people whose current lifestyle makes the choice of terrorism appealing. I want to focus here on the type of “enlightened thinking” which I believe is needed to counter terrorism.
It is important to state at first that there is very little we know about terrorism despite the decades of research on the matter.
The definitions of terrorism are many, and there are many psychological and sociological theories competing for answers. This is extremely frustrating for anyone thinking of a research-based policy to combat terror. Secondly, many forms of terrorism are inevitable because many types are related to individual temperaments, something that is beyond the control of any government. Some people grow to become criminals, others grow to become terrorists.
We are disregarding the effective ideas that the public debate should include and are venturing into futile theological and jurisprudential debatesAbdullah Hamidaddin
The third and most important thing that we must know is that terrorism has little to do with religion. I am not writing a polemic for religion; I am saying this because as long we focus on religion as a driver for terrorism we will miss the chance of focusing on the real drivers. Even suicide attacks which are considered absolutely religious have been shown by evidence-based research to be motivated by other psycho-social factors. Religion does not offer the motivation to commit a terrorist act.
Accusing Islam – or another religion - of being a terrorist laden ideology can serve the political purposes of some but it does not provide us with the right understanding about terrorism. And as we should not look in Islam for the reasons of terrorism, we should also not look for a solution in it. The set of enlightened ideas that combat terrorism would not include moderate versions of any religion precisely because one can become a terrorist despite having adopted such a version. This is not to minimize the important role of moderate religions, but not in the domain of combating terrorism. In one word forget the word ‘religion’ when analyzing terrorism.
Rich public space
One of the counterintuitive insights about terrorism is that it emerges in stable societies where there is little hope for revolution. The masses are seen by an elite of revolutionaries as passive. While they see themselves as “emancipated and progressive operating among, and for the eventual benefit of, a vast and inert mass of the ignorant and misled common people, which would no doubt welcome liberation when it came, but could not be expected to take much part in preparing it," wrote British Marxist historian E.J. Hobsbawn.
This may explain why many terrorists are from the educated middle class. In such a situation they decide to revert to terrorism as a means to achieve their ‘righteous’ goals. This may also give us an idea of who is going to condone terrorism or support it financially.
They would also be middle and upper middle class individuals, who have revolutionary ideas and are frustrated by the passivity of their society; but do not have the psychological temperament to commit violence directly. This makes me think of the importance of the public space as a means to minimize terrorism. One of the factors that sustain revolutionary ideas is that revolutionaries keep talking to themselves reaffirming the ideal world that exists in their minds. Engaging them more with society may serve as a reality check that tempers their idealism. Revolutionaries adopt a very strict ‘us’ versus ‘them’ way of thinking and the high walls between those binaries can only fall if people talked more to each other.
But for that to work, the public space has to be fused with other forms of ideas about the real world, about what can be achieved, about what has already been achieved, about the meaning of evil, justice, the good world, the possible world, the inevitableness of engaging and befriending people whose morals and principles are at odds, about moral dilemmas and how to maneuver through them, about action and consequence, magical thinking, the goods and evils of authority… All of this deals with matters that constitute the mind and psyche of a terrorist or of his/her supporter.
One will find that terrorists from different cultures have a similar attitudes towards the ideal world, a total disregard for gradual solutions, an inability to deal with moral dilemmas, an abhorrence of societies and individuals that do not live up to the standards they hold.
But probably the most important idea to tackle through the public space and also through schools is the sense of frustration on which Arab and Islamic terrorism has thrived for the past 40 years. Political psychologist John Chowing Davies stated four decades ago that: “Violence is always a response to frustration.” I want to add here that it is a response to a certain type of frustration; a civilizational frustration one caused by an entity that is considered the extreme ‘them’. Most people live through many different types of frustrations due to their life circumstances and they do not become terrorists. But almost all those who are frustrated from another civilization will condone terrorism against it and some will be willing participants to partake in terrorist acts.
We are frustrated from the West. We blame it for all our ills. And this goes very, very deep; even with many of our liberals and intellectuals. We need to engage with each other to deconstruct this feeling. We need to talk to the West about it – though the ‘West’ is a complex term.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1