Dispatches From the Moderate Left

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Apologising for Terror

There seems to be an outcry from the right whenever someone dares to suggest that Islamic terror (terror done in the name of Islam, anyway) against western targets is related to the foreign policy of these countries. The outcry is usually directed towards "liberal apologists" or "terrorist appeasers" on the left, but for some reason those on the (libertarian) far right who agree with the same sorts of argument are routinely ignored.

The argument which is usually run is that Islamic terror is a response to troop occupation of Arabic lands by western democracies in Saudi Arabia and now Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as their attitude to the Israel/Palestine conflict. I do have some severe problems with this argument, particularly when it is expressed by anti-semitic (eg 1, 2) apologists like George Galloway (via Donklephant):
Two of your beautiful daughters are in the hands of foreigners - Jerusalem and Baghdad. The foreigners are doing to your daughters as they will. The daughters are crying for help, and the Arab world is silent. And some of them are collaborating with the rape of these two beautiful Arab daughters. Why? Because they are too weak and too corrupt to do anything about it.

This started out as a wish to terrorize the world with American power, or as Sharon would say, ‘terrrrrrorize’ the world with American power. But in fact it ended demonstrating the exact opposite. They can control the skies, but only if they don’t come within range of an RPG, but they can’t control one single street in any part of occupied Iraq. Not one street. Not one street anywhere. These poor Iraqis - ragged people, with their sandals, with their Kalashnikovs, with the lightest and most basic of weapons - are writing the names of their cities and towns in the stars, with 145 military operations every day, which has made the country ungovernable by the people who occupy it.

America is losing the war in Iraq. And this will not change. The resistance is getting stronger every day, and the will to remain as an occupier by Britain and America is getting weaker everyday. Therefore, it can be said, truly said, that the Iraqi resistance is not just defending Iraq. They are defending all the Arabs, and they are defending all the people of the world from American hegemony.

It’s not the Muslims who are the terrorists. The biggest terrorists are Bush, and Blair, and Berlusconi, and Aznar, but it is definitely not a clash of civilizations. George Bush doesn’t have any civilization, he doesn’t represent any civilization. We believe in the Prophets, peace be upon them. He believes in the profits, and how to get a piece of them. That’s his god. That’s his god. George Bush worships money. That’s his god - Mammon.

Further, the argument often goes to far as it ignores the fact that groups like Al Quaeda will tolerate nothing short of the elimination of the state of Israel, removal of all western troops from Islamic lands (even when it's for a fairly legitimate purpose such as the ouster of the Taliban or the US troop presence in Saudi Arabia for the purpose of prosecuting Gulf War I) and, ultimately, the establishment of a pan-Arabic Caliphate encompassing Al Andalus (Spain).

However, the argument does have some fundamental validity. Just because the very most extreme elements of Islamic terror networks will never renounce violence under any tolerable set of circumstances does not mean that actions like the current Iraq war do not exacerbate the terrorist problem by engendering extremism in some who were once more marginal. The argument that many countries were attacked before the Iraq war and that there are terrorist threats in countries opposed to the war like France is a non-sequiter (one our prime minister and other western leaders regularly spout). There's no reason to think that Islamic extremists are a perfectly homogenous group and it's entirely possible that Iraq has pushed some potential or actual terrorists closer to acts of violence.

To me, this is not apologism and nor does it mean that our actions must be dictated by extremist sympathies. It is, respectively, an attempt to understand the causes of terrorism and a way of analysing the full costs of our actions. Exploring the causes does not necessarily mean you are justifying terrorism (though some, like Galloway and Arundhati Roy, do cross the line) nor does it have the racist effect of denying Arabic agency. Even if one might agree with some of the things that terrorists use as justification for their actions, it isn't necessarily apologism if it's done in the context of a genuine and absolute condemnation of a violent terrorist response (which is why I think some cross the line). Analysing the costs of our actions doesn't mean we should never take actions which do have costs, it just allows us to make better decisions and to not take acts which are likely to cause a large increase in terrorism unless there is a correspondingly high benefit.

What I find particularly fascinating about this is that another type of exploration of and explicit agreement with the possible causes of terrorism doesn't meet with the same sort of right-wing outrage. The sort of 'root causes' I've been discussing so far are "they hate us because of what we do" but another argument is "they hate us because of who we are". While some see that having our morality and freedoms opposed by Taliban-wannabes is a good thing, a number of Christian and Conservative moralisers agree with Islamist and terrorist descriptions of western society as immoral and degraded. Some of these people are truly deranged (the sort of people who protest at the funerals of US soldiers because the army and the country in general doesn't have a homosexual inquisition), but others are a little more sober:
One of the things that strikes me more, not less, forcibly as time has passed is the contempt that Muslim extremists feel for us. They despise us for our decadence, and I feel more and more forced to accept the painful truth that they have a point.

(I say sober, but still quite crazy. Why the author thinks that terrorism will stop if parents discipline their children, hospitals get cleaner, illiteracy goes down and multicultralism gets shown the door is simply beyond me)

So where's the outrage over these terrorist "apologists"? As with other people the right gets outraged over, they are describing what they see as the reasons for terrorism and then agreeing with those reasons. While they denounce terrorist acts, conservatives don't take that as an excuse from those who dare suggest that western foreign policies cause/exacerbate terrorism.

The reason for the lack of outrage is obvious - those conservatives agree with the "for who we are" and disagree with the "for what we do" argument. But, as with so many other things, the argument often isn't presented as a substantive criticism of what is said but is presented on a higher level of moral principle. So rather than debating people who say that our actions cause terrorism, they get outraged and yell "apologists", making a high minded point that to ascribe and agree with causes for terrorism puts you one shade away from a terrorist (allowing the argument to be ignored).

The hypocrisy of this moral position is revealed when you realise that the same principle isn't applied to people whose method is the same but whose substance they agree with. I don't have any problem with people who try and substantively debate the "for what we do" argument in a rational way (although the evidence does seem to back it up), but it annoys the heck out of me when people hypocritically try to close their minds to that line of thought by screaming "terrorist apologiser".


  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:20 PM  

  • It's called 'paranoid delusion syndrome' - a threat is internalised to the point where it becomes a caricature, and every subsequent event simply reinforces that caricature. Instead of thinking through the terrorist problem, we dismiss it with tags like 'Islamofascist' that comfort us but on examination make no sense (someone explain to me exactly how Nazism and al-Qaida fit into the same paradigm). It's the flipside of anti-Americanism: people are so convinced they know the nature of Islamic terorism that they don't analyse it anymore. It's an intellectual fix that politicians and media pundits shoot into the bloodstream of public opinion, sedating demands for something more than quick-fixes or the pursuit of unrelated agendas.

    To claim we're winning the war on terror, you have to show reductions in -

    - the number of terrorist attacks around the world
    - the locations available for militants to train, arm and organise
    - the global availability of WMD (e.g. nuclear materials) to terrorists

    We haven't made progress in any of these fields. To the contrary they've all become worse, chiefly due to events in Iraq since March03 and their political repercussions - not just validation of the idea that the west is waging war on Muslims, but also the diversion of western resources and attention, e.g. from securing nuclear weapons in the former USSR.

    No thinking person can swallow the idea that 'terrorists attack us because they hate our way of life'. Hate it enough to blow themselves up to commit mass murder? We're sticking our heads in the sand and calling it 'moral clarity'

    By Blogger John Lee, at 12:13 AM  

  • @anon
    Sorry, I hate to delete posts but that was a completely gratuitous piece of profanity. If you're going to randomly troll, please keep it clean.

    Yeah, delusion seems like a good explanation. See the discussion over at Ari's, I feel like I'm beating my head against a brick wall.

    As an aside, I don't think "islamofascist" is such an innacurate name. The taliban were demonstrably fascist and that's pretty much what Al Quaeda and co want to instigate. It's a different shade of fascism, but an autocratic theocratic regime which attempts to enforce morality in its population with extreme violence and persecutes (to death) jews and christians is on the same page.

    By Blogger Jeremy, at 10:22 AM  

  • at least people reply to your comments on Ari's posts. i wonder if people read mine at all...

    paranoid coherent delusion syndrome was raised by Paris Aristotle (director of the Vic Foundation for the Survivors of Torture) at the lecture he gave at the law school yesterday on the quesiton of whether torture can be justified. you probably saw him on tv during the Bagaric (Deakin Uni) affair a few months back. He sees the push to legitimate torture as a manifestation of this social psychosis.

    But the most profound thing he said concerned the nature of torture. Torture is not about extracting information, as the public debate often assumes; it's not an interrogation technique that can be legitimately employed within defined boundaries, as argued by Bagaric/Dershowitz et al. Torture is about the destruction of a human being, the breakdown of personality - that's why it's used by totalitarian regimes (think Orwell's 1984).
    It's well known that the lasting damage caused by torture is not physicali but psychological, yet we rarely think through the implications - a society based on respect for inherent human dignity cannot practice torture, period. Arguments that we can step onto the 'slippery slope' so long as we're careful are misguided.
    There is no slippery slope here, there's a cliff - we either stand on our principles or we step into the gulf.

    Torture advocates may accept that torture is an unreliable source of information, but they necessarily assume that all human beings have a 'breaking point' at which torture can squeeze out the truth. Empirically this isn't borne out. Among the examples given by Aristotle was the Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler - none of the Gestapo's techniques could extract the desired information from conspirators, and the Gestapo eventually had to report failure to Hitler. Another case, taken up by the VFST and thus in Aristotle's personal experience, concerned a Latin American dissident who was told his seven year old daughter would be raped and tortured to death in the next room if he didn't give the information; he still refused, having made a moral decision that the lives of hundreds of his comrades outweighed his daughter's fate. Then there's the countless cases of Christians who refused to give up their faith under the worst that totalitarian regimes in China and Eastern Europe could do to them. It seems that sufficient devotion to a cause can fortify a person against any amount of pain, physical or mental

    By Blogger John Lee, at 11:57 AM  

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