Understanding terror

Understanding terror
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First Published: Fri, Mar 20 2009. 09 16 PM IST

The Faces of Terrorism: Princeton University Press, 285 pages, $29.95 (Rs1,500 approx)
The Faces of Terrorism: Princeton University Press, 285 pages, $29.95 (Rs1,500 approx)
Updated: Fri, Mar 20 2009. 09 16 PM IST
An old adage has it that winners in a revolution or an independence movement become glorious generals and the losers, terrorists. Is the distinction as simple as that? Is it a mere matter of who calls whom a terrorist? Why do we label the attacks in Mumbai “terrorism”? After all, the Deccan Mujahideen that claimed responsibility for the act didn’t think what it did was terrorism.
The Faces of Terrorism: Princeton University Press, 285 pages, $29.95 (Rs1,500 approx)
From mindless killing of political leaders in the form of anarchism to targeted killing aimed at achieving political goals (for example, the Shia sect of the “Hashshashim” or the Assassins in medieval Islam) to its more modern version, terrorism covers a wide territory. Separatism, “independence” and revolutionary movements use violence but only as a means to an end. The drawing of this line between means and ends is tricky, and the modern answer is to say no to violence for a political cause. It is considered terrorism in our age.
If the political aspect of terrorism is a dominant theme, its motivations, from psychological and sociological roots to its evolution, occupy another vast space. So where does one begin trying to understand terrorism?
The literature on the subject is vast and scattered. It is difficult to pick one book, or a few for that matter, that cover the subject realistically. Of the many books that I have encountered, four come close to covering a large part.
Are some societies more likely to generate terrorists? What role does ideology play in motivating individuals to pick up arms? When do the social and psychological conditions form an explosive blend and when do they coexist in tension but lead to no violence? Neil J. Smelser’s book The Faces of Terrorism: Social and Psychological Dimensions succeeds in providing interesting answers that may or may not enable policy choices that can rein in terrorism but they certainly get one thinking.
One of the pioneering sociologists of the 20th century, Smelser has written a great deal on the strains that accompany the process of modernization of traditional societies and his book is a synthesis of these perspectives. He also tries to answer a vexing question: What forms of violence deserve the label of terrorism?
If deprivation, social isolation and discrimination are sufficient conditions to generate terrorism, psychological factors that propel individuals on that destructive path form the necessary condition. Smelser believes both complement each other and terrorism cannot be generated without both being present. A state such as Bihar has plenty of poverty, deprivation and violence. Yet this concoction does not attract the label terrorism. Why? The psychological factors necessary to suspend rational behaviour and indulge in senseless violence of the kind seen in Mumbai are not present there.
Beyond the social and psychological dimensions, however, lies the history of the subject. Two books that give a historical perspective are Augustus Richard Norton’s Hezbollah: A Short History and Ayesha Jalal’s Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia.
The inclusion of these books in a selection on terrorism can be dubbed by some as unfortunate. But in historical terms, the Hezbollah is one organization that has successfully changed its label from being a mere terrorist organization to a political entity that now controls the destiny of Lebanon. Again, some will dispute whether they were terrorists to begin with. From Smelser’s point of view and the organization’s activities in Beirut in the mid-1980s, there is no way that Hezbollah can escape being labelled terrorist.
In this respect, Norton has an interesting tale to tell. How did one among many parties in a country as fractured as Lebanon gain an upper hand? Political acceptability within the Shia community of southern Lebanon was an essential ingredient in this march. But success could not have been achieved without violence and the means to unleash violence, which lay in Hezbollah’s hands. It’s here that an interesting intersection with themes in Smelser’s book can be seen: What were the conditions that could generate violence and the men who were willing to engage in violence? Norton provides a real world answer to the questions raised by Smelser.
Jalal’s book is closer home. It’s an unsuccessful attempt to restore the original meaning of the expression jihad. Jalal tries to make a distinction between lesser jihad, understood as war in the path of God, and its spiritual meaning. Unfortunately, that distinction is not very convincing in this age. It’s not only 9/11 that changed perspectives; much of the senseless violence in West Asia, too, reinforced the equation of jihad with terrorism. The faithful may deny that and they have every right to do so, but there’s an objective reality beyond the spiritual claims that accompany jihad. But, in any case, it’s an interesting exercise in revisionist history.
The odd book out in this list is Michael Ignatieff’s The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in the Age of Terror. While it serves its own bits and pieces of history, it tries to answer a question that has a contemporary ring, at least after the Mumbai attacks of 26 November. How far should political liberties be curbed to counter the threat from terrorism? How far is the use of violence against terrorists justified? Can political leaders be trusted with taking decisions on such momentous questions?
Ignatieff, the descendant of an expropriated Russian count, a former university professor, a journalist and now a politician in Canada, answers these difficult questions convincingly. In “normal” times, democracies have an established test to answer the question “how far?”.
The test is called Adversarial Justification. Under this, any claims by the executive branch have to be judged in legislatures and courts. But terrorism is a situation that requires quick answers and Adversarial Justification is a prolonged procedure. In extraordinary circumstances is it right to give this up? What about the dangers of an extraordinary situation turning into a “normal course of events”, a situation that might end up consuming democracy? Fighting one evil may just end up giving birth to another, bigger, evil. Ignatieff’s book gives some provocative answers.
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First Published: Fri, Mar 20 2009. 09 16 PM IST