Thursday, September 09, 2004

some random thoughts on "terrorism"

Hi Gang,

Some brief and tentative remarks on some issues that I know of are of interest to all of you. Any reactions would be appreciated (though, of course, I will be neither shocked nor offended if you have other priorities).

Among other things, I'm trying to figure out whether there are any clear and adequate ways to draw (appropriate) analytical distinctions between varieties of "terrorism," and between "terrorism" and other forms of political violence & mass murder. I have seen a lot of typologies, definitions, and (implicit or explicit) characterization. But (in my humble opinion) none of the ones I've seen fully works. Perhaps this is a hopeless quest (and "terrorism" belongs to a category that might be called "essentially imprecise concepts")? Any thoughts?

Jeff Weintraub

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Beslan - Muslim leaders condemn killers (Observer)
Date: Wed, 08 Sep 2004 11:51:24 -0400
From: Jeff Weintraub
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

"Terrorism" is a difficult term to pin down, not only because of the conceptual and ideological complexities involved, but also because it has gone through a range of different, sometimes sometimes overlapping, historically significant meanings. In the current era, one central meaning of "terrorism" (though not the only one) is the indiscriminate and deliberately conspicuous murder of ordinary civilians for political purposes.

(This distinguishes it, for example, from the deliberate killing of armed combatants in warfare; the accidental killing of civilians in the course of conflicts; and the targeted assassination of combatants, military and/or political leaders, government officials, etc. All these raise their own ethical and political issues, and the last is also a form of terrorism, but all of them differ from the indiscriminate murder of civilians in that they make some attempt to discriminate between legitimate and prohibited targets, and this strikes me as a qualitative difference.)

(Although the conceptual grounds are a little more hazy, I would also distinguish "terrorism" from some other forms of mass murder of civilians, ranging from small-scale local massacres to genocide. While these kinds of mass murder often do aim for a terrorizing effect, among other aims, other purposes predominate, and the social and political dynamics of these atrocities are often different in practice from terrorism--for example, whereas terrorism makes no sense unless it is conspicuous, and in fact "publicity" is often one of its central aims, genocidal or quasi-genocidal campaigns of ethnically-targeted mass murder are often concealed or denied, as in the cases of the Nazi Holocaust or the current Darfur atrocity. At all events, genocidal mass murder seems to me to be a distinctive kind of crime, on a level different from terrorism. But I am still thinking through these issues, since the conceptual and socio-historical ambiguities aren't easy to resolve completely, and any relevant thoughts or suggestions would be welcomed.)

One of the unfortunate developments of the last several decades has been a tendency for "terrorism" in the sense I indicated above (that is, terrorism aimed at the indiscriminate and conspicuous murder of ordinary civilians) to be increasingly accepted as a legitimate mode of political conflict--or, at least, as something which should be "excused," "explained," and/or justified rather than condemned. This acceptance (or even approval) of terrorist attacks on civilians helps make this tactic more useful and effective, while reducing its political costs, which helps to fuel a self-reinforcing process. I think it is increasingly clear that the long-term effects have been pernicious, not least because they involve a dangerous erosion of some crucial moral boundaries.

It is therefore heartening to read that the spectacle of the terrorist atrocity in Beslan, with its televised images of kidnaped and murdered children, has provoked widespread dismay and revulsion in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and even some soul-searching about the moral and political costs of tolerating or glorifying the terrorist murder of civilians. This response is obviously not universal, and it may be transitory, but it is certainly welcome.

Without wanting to discount that, I can't resist mentioning a few flies in the ointment. Ever since the 9/11 attacks, there have been periodic condemnations of "terrorism" in general terms by (some) Muslim clerics, political leaders, and other spokesmen. However, I notice that many journalistic accounts either miss or gloss over the troubling fact that even those spokesmen who condemn "terrorism" or attacks on civilians (especially children) in the abstract often make an exception, implicit or explicit, when it comes to the murder of Israeli or Jewish civilians (including children)--which are not "terrorism," but rather "martyrdom" or "resistance." As far as I can tell from the latest news reports, this generally continues to be true after the Beslan massacre. In many cases, this exception is indicated by omission, but not always. And there are also examples of the characteristic mixture of denial and demonization:

Ali Abdullah, an Islamic scholar in Bahrain who follows the ultra-conservative Salafi stream of Islam, also condemned the school attack as 'unIslamic'. However, he insisted Muslims were not involved and revived an old conspiracy theory: 'I have no doubt that this is the work of the Israelis, who want to tarnish the image of Muslims.'

However, there are also signs that the Beslan atrocity has produced a genuine shock, and with luck it may help to propel a deeper and more thoroughgoing reconsideration. Let's hope so.

=> To avoid any possible misunderstanding, I want to emphasize some further points as clearly and forcefully as I can:

None of this criticism of the Beslan atrocity, and of the kind of terrorism it exemplifies, in any way justifies or excuses the fact that Russia has been fighting an incredibly brutal, destructive, and often appalling war in Chechnya, marked by extensive atrocities (on both sides!), massive civilian deaths, and pervasive violations of the laws of war, including murder, rape, and kidnapping of civilians by Russian troops and security services. However, the opposite is also true. Nothing about the Russian war in Chechnya in any way justifies or excuses this kind of terrorist massacre, which ought to be unreservedly condemned whatever one thinks about the Chechen war.

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub


Hi X,

One of the people who sent me a response to my original message was an Israeli historical & political sociologist who is an old friend of mine. We'll probably have a series of e-mail exchanges on the subject of "terrorism." I thought that some of the points in this first exchange might be of interest to you. (He said he didn't mind if I shared some bits of his message with you, but I've suppressed his name for reasons of privacy.)

Jeff Weintraub

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: some random thoughts on "terrorism"
Date: Thu, 09 Sep 2004 11:12:39 -0400
From: Jeff Weintraub


I am very glad that you decided to take on the role of the wise man and offer your comments and direct some important articles in your friends' way. In my case, your reflections will have further airing as I am scheduled to teach a course on International Terrorism next year.

Thanks for the kind (though excessively generous) words. I'm glad to hear that you're planning to teach a course on that subject., and it would be nice to talk about it further.

I would like to engage you more length but will be very brief this time.
My two quick comments, which support your views, are these.

1. In extending the implied criticism of the notion that one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter, and they have no other meanings, you are quite right in focusing on the indiscriminate nature of their violence. It is by breaking the international law of war, the Geneva and Hague Conventions (1860's, 1899, 1907, 1949) and for that matter Islamic law on the highly regulated jihad, which separate military and civilian populations in categories and territory; prohibit the use of certain weapons, chemical and biological weapons; the hurting of non-combatants, taking civilians as hostages; recognizing neutrality of countries and their citizens, upholding rights of diplomats, etc. that they become terrorist. The distinction between terrorists and others is that the latter are law-abiding. International terrorists disdain any limited areas of combat or neutral territory. When states or their soldiers violate such rules, e.g. wantonly kill civilians during combat, their acts are treated as ‘war crimes’ which can be adjudicated by courts. But, consequently, it is imperative to uphold that law, otherwise the differences will blur and the meaning of law will be cheapened.

All of this is quite right (especially the last point).

I do want to mention, once again, a related issue that has more to do with political sociology than with legality. That has to do with how we can best characterize and identify "terrorism"--and different varieties of terrorism. (I have deliberately not said "define" terrorism, since talking about "definitions" in this context would suggest a misleading picture of the degree of precision we can achieve or ought to aim for.)

You and I agree that "terrorism" belongs in a larger category of deliberate attacks on civilians and non-combatants (which either are or ought to be unlawful). But that category is larger than "terrorism." It also includes, for example, genocide ... or the historically common kinds of inter-communal massacres exemplified by Damour or Sabra & Shatila. Now, it's true that some of these forms of mass murder of civilians have, as one aim among others, the goal of generating terror and panic. (For example, the Luftwaffe machine-gunned columns of fleeing refugees in Belgium and France in 1940, which helped increase panic and snarl up the roads that the British and French forces were trying to use. Schrecklichkeit, as they say. And ethnically-targeted massacres, even small-scale ones, are often useful for stampeding people into mass flight and facilitating ethnic cleansing.) So there are some continuities and ambiguities. But it would be unrealistic and unhelpful to simply describe all forms of indiscriminate murder of civilians as "terrorism." (For example, genocide is quite obviously not the same thing as terrorism.)

In specific cases, I usually find it pretty easy to distinguish between terrorism and other forms of violence against non-combatants. But I am still not satisfied that I have really pinned down the criteria for making the relevant analytical distinctions. That's especially difficult because what's needed is not just to create a tidy conceptual scheme that will satisfy the analytical philosophers (or a set of distinctions sufficient to satisfy the requirements of legalism), but to clarify the differences in ways that are socio-historically meaningful and illuminating..

So we'll probably have to be content with some rough-and-ready, flexible, and tentative concepts & distinctions. But in the process of getting there, a lot of significant issues will have to be worked through. So I'd be interested in hearing any further thoughts you have on these matters.

=> Also, of course, there are different types of actions or strategies that it makes sense to call "terrorism," but which should nevertheless be distinguished. For example, the kind of "terrorism" practiced by the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries and, usually, by the Irgun (i.e., targeted assassinations & attacks on soldiers and officials) is very different from the kind of "terrorism" practiced by Al-Qaeda and its affiliates (i.e., large-scale indiscriminate murder of civilians). Some groups will practice both, of course (e.g., Hezbollah), but the distinction between them is both morally and sociologically important. (Incidentally, Paul Berman has some interesting remarks on the historical slide from the first to the second type in his disappointingly uneven but often illuminating book Terror and Liberalism.)

=> There is also the interesting fact that the terms "terrorism" and "terrorist" emerged (unless I am mistaken) during the French revolution to describe forms of state terror (or state-sponsored terror), whereas nowadays they are usually applied to non-state actors. But that opens up a wide range of issues that would require further discussion ... another time ...

=> Apologists for terrorism sometimes raise the question of why the indiscriminate bombing of cities (practiced by all sides during World War II) shouldn't also be called "terrorism"--especially since part of the intent is to break the will of the enemy's population. Despite the dubious and even despicable motives of some people who make such points, the issues they raise are worth considering. I certainly believe that, at this point in history, the indiscriminate carpet-bombing of cities should be considered a war crime & crime against humanity, and outlawed as effectively as possible. However, I don't think it's useful to simply lump it in the category of "terrorism" ... though it would take a while to spell out my reasons.

This leads to the next point:

2. Like anarchists of old, terrorist still use the "propaganda by the deed" method: expecting that repression will serve to mobilize their supporters. It did then and does now.

Right. Incidentally, do you know Malise Ruthven's (hasty, opinionated, but excellent) book A Fury for God? One theme he emphasizes is the continuity of the tactic of "propaganda by the deed" from 19th-century anarchism to contemporary Islamist radicalism.

Of course, one of the most remarkable treatments (and justifications) of the use of terrorism as a revolutionary strategy for polarizing the situation, generating reprisals, and forcing people to take sides is Pontecorvo's "Battle of Algiers" (which I assume you might want to show in a course like the one you're planning). (Also, by the way, do you remember Godard's mid-1960s film "La Chinoise"?)

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Incidentally, "propaganda by the deed" serves a lot of functions, and stimulating repression is only one of them. As our friend bin Laden helpfully explained in one of his conversations, it is also a show of strength ... and if the targeted opponent fails to respond, that helps, too.

The Observer (London)
September 5, 2004

Muslim leaders condemn killers

David Smith
Sunday September 5, 2004
The Observer

Islamic leaders in the Middle East yesterday denounced the slaughter of children in Russia as 'unIslamic', as commentators asked unusually soul-searching questions about the region and terrorism.

Even the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's biggest Islamic group, condemned the bloody siege in Beslan. Its leader, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, said that kidnappings may be justified but killings are not. He added: 'What happened is not jihad [holy war] because Islam obligates us to respect the souls of human beings; it is not about taking them away.'

While some Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East have long supported fellow Muslims fighting in Chechnya, such was the barbarity of the hostage takers that few voices spoke in support of the actions in Ossetia. Egypt's leading Muslim cleric, Grand Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, was quoted as saying during a Friday sermon: 'What is the guilt of those children? Why should they be responsible for your conflict with the government? You are taking Islam as a cover and it is a deceptive cover; those who carry out the kidnappings are criminals, not Muslims.'

Ali Abdullah, an Islamic scholar in Bahrain who follows the ultra-conservative Salafi stream of Islam, also condemned the school attack as 'unIslamic'. However, he insisted Muslims were not involved and revived an old conspiracy theory: 'I have no doubt that this is the work of the Israelis, who want to tarnish the image of Muslims.'

But the reaction was overwhelmingly filled with revulsion. Abdulrahman al-Rashed wrote an article in the pan-Arab Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper under the headline: 'The Painful Truth: All World Terrorists are Muslims!'

Al-Rashed said that Muslims will not be able to cleanse their image unless 'we admit the scandalous facts... Our terrorist sons are an end-product of our corrupted culture. The picture is humiliating, painful and harsh for all of us.' His extraordinary critique was echoed by Ahmed Bahgat, an Egyptian Islamist. Writing in the pro-government newspaper, Al-Ahram , he said hostage-takers in Russia and Iraq are only harming Islam. 'If all the enemies of Islam united and decided to harm it... they wouldn't have ruined and harmed its image as much as the sons of Islam have done by their stupidity, miscalculations and misunderstanding.' Horrifying images of the dead and wounded students 'showed Muslims as monsters who are fed by the blood of children and the pain of their families'.

Associated Press
September 4, 2004

Siege Prompts Self-Criticism in Arab Media

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- Muslims worldwide are the main perpetrators of terrorism, a humiliating and painful truth that must be acknowledged, a prominent Arab writer and television executive wrote Saturday, as Middle East media and officials expressed horror at the bloody rebel siege of a Russian school.

Unusually forthright self-criticism followed the end of the hostage crisis, along with warnings that such actions inflict more damage to the image of Islam than all its enemies could hope. Arab leaders and Muslim clerics denounced the school seizure as unjustifiable and expressed their sympathy.

Russian commandos stormed the school Friday in Beslan, Russia; it had been taken over by rebels demanding independence for Chechnya. Russian officials said Saturday that the death toll was in the hundreds - many of them children.

Images of terrified young survivors being carried from the scene aired repeatedly on Arab TV stations. Pictures of dead and wounded children ran on front pages of Arab newspapers Saturday.

"Holy warriors" from the Middle East long have supported fellow Muslims fighting in Chechnya, and Russian officials said nine or 10 Arabs were among militants killed.

"Our terrorist sons are an end-product of our corrupted culture," Abdulrahman al-Rashed, general manager of Al-Arabiya television wrote in his daily column published in the pan-Arab Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. It ran under the headline, "The Painful Truth: All the World Terrorists are Muslims!"

Al-Rashed ran through a list of recent attacks by Islamic extremist groups - in Russia, Iraq, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen - many of which are influenced by the ideology of Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi-born leader of the al-Qaida terror network.

"Most perpetrators of suicide operations in buses, schools and residential buildings around the world for the past 10 years have been Muslims," he wrote. Muslims will be unable to cleanse their image unless "we admit the scandalous facts," rather than offer condemnations or justifications.

"The picture is humiliating, painful and harsh for all of us," al-Rashed wrote.

Contributors to Islamic Web sites known for their extremist content had mixed reactions on the hostage crisis, with some praising the separatists. Others wrote that people should wait until the militants had been identified before implicating Arabs in the drama.

Ahmed Bahgat, an Egyptian Islamist, wrote in his column in Egypt's leading pro-government newspaper, Al-Ahram, that hostage-takers in Russia as well as in Iraq are only harming Islam.

"If all the enemies of Islam united together and decided to harm it ... they wouldn't have ruined and harmed its image as much as the sons of Islam have done by their stupidity, miscalculations, and misunderstanding of the nature of this age," Bahgat wrote.

The horrifying images of the dead and wounded Russian students "showed Muslims as monsters who are fed by the blood of children and the pain of their families."

Mohammed Mahdi Akef, leader of Egypt's largest Islamic group, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, said in general, kidnappings may be justified, but killings are not. He said the school siege did not fit the Islamic concept of jihad, or holy war.

"What happened yesterday is not jihad because our Islam obligates us to respect the souls of human beings; it is not about taking them away," Akef told The Associated Press.

Ali Abdullah, a Bahraini scholar who follows the ultraconservative Salafi stream of Islam, condemned the school attack as "un-Islamic," but insisted Muslims weren't behind it.

"I have no doubt in my mind that this is the work of the Israelis who want to tarnish the image of Muslims and are working alongside Russians who have their own agenda against the Muslims in Chechnya," said Abdullah.

An editorial in the Saudi English-language Arab News put some blame for the bloody end to the school siege on Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he couldn't afford to lose his "tough-man image." But it added that "the Chechens, with the choice of their targets, had put themselves in a position where no one would shed tears when the punishment came. They reached a new low when they chose toddlers as bargaining chips."

Heads of state from Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait and Yemen offered their sympathy Friday to Russian officials and to the families of people caught up in the hostage drama. A prominent Muslim cleric also denounced it.

"What is the guilt of those children? Why should they be responsible for your conflict with the government?" Egypt's top Muslim cleric, Grand Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, was quoted as saying during a Friday sermon in Banha, 30 miles north of Cairo.

"You are taking Islam as a cover and it is a deceptive cover; those who carry out the kidnappings are criminals, not Muslims," Tantawi, who heads Al-Azhar University, the highest authority in the Sunni Islamic world, was quoted by Egypt's Middle East News agency as saying.

© 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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