TwoFaith, Power and Terror

Even before the attacks on New York and Washington, DC, on 11 September 2001, ‘Islamic terrorism’ was a highly-charged topic. Public opinion in the West, driven by television images of bearded militants, has tended to identify suicide missions with Islamic fanaticism, with young acolytes lured into sacrificing themselves, and others, by the prospect of Paradise with the infinite pleasures it offers. In the case of the Iran-Iraq war, the Hezbollah campaign in Lebanon and the campaigns against Israel by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, there was some truth in this picture: before undertaking suicide missions, the militants prepared videos in which the themes of sacrifice, martyrdom and Paradise loomed large. It would be a mistake, however, to over-emphasise the religious factor. A significant number of suicide missions have been undertaken by non-religious operatives, including the Marxist-oriented Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party in Southern Lebanon - the latter producing 13 ‘martyrs’ during the 1980s, half of them women. Secular-oriented Palestinian groups such as the al-Aqsa brigade and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine have also undertaken suicide missions. In general, the tactic spread because of its perceived efficacy, rather than its supposed religious inspiration.

The use of violence directed at non-combatants has historic roots in the Middle East but is far from being exclusive to one confession. Arguably the first modern act of political terrorism in the region was the bombing in July 1946 of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem by Irgun Zvi Leumi under the leadership of Menachem Begin; and the assassinations of Lord Moyne, the British Minister Resident, and Count Bernadotte, the UN mediator, by Jewish extremists long preceded that of Anwar Sadat by their Muslim counterparts. The massacres of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon, in September 1982, connived at if not actively encouraged by the Israeli Army, and the Israeli bombings of other Palestinian camps in Lebanon, cost many more non-combatant lives than atrocities committed by Palestinians.

At the same time it would be wrong to deny that there can be a religious dimension to modern terrorism and it is not just related to the VIP treatment that martyrs expect in Paradise. What might be called the ‘ideologisation’ or ‘reification’ of religious narrative is a phenomenon of our time, with militants seeking justification for their actions in the scriptures as well as in ideological tracts. God assisted Joshua in the slaughter of the Canaanities - a lesson not lost on Dr Baruch Goldstein, the American-born physician who massacred 29 Muslim worshippers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in February 1994. Muhammad expelled or massacred the Jewish tribes of Medina and waged jihad against the Meccan polytheists. Though his campaigns might have been moderate by the standards of the day, the precedents remain, enshrined in the Qur’an and still usable by those modern Islamist ideologues who push aside centuries of qualifying scholarship with a dismissive sweep of the hand.

This section looks at terrorism and counter-terrorism, including al-Qaeda and US President George W. Bush’s ill-conceived response to its attacks in the ‘war on terror’ through the writings of notable experts, including Richard English, a specialist in the Ulster conflict; Peter Bergen, noted television journalist and security expert; and Marc Sageman, a former CIA operations director. Explorations of the Islamic factor in conflicts that include terrorism are provided by historians Michael Bonner and John Kelsay, while the former Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali and dissenting Catholic theologian Hans Kung offer broader theological perspectives. The section concludes with a piece on the Lockerbie affair - the worst terrorist atrocity to have taken place in Britain. Doubts about its true perpetrators persist, despite the fall of the Qaddafi regime in 2011.

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