Friday, May 14, 2010

Terrorism's 'Brute Cause'?

I don't want to be one of those joining in the chorus clamoring against Ezra Klein for speculating on the root causes to Faisal Shahzad's attempt at terrorism, but we can at least examine what Klein said in a May 4th column titled "The economic crisis meets terrorism":
Annie Lowrey catches something unexpected: The arrested subject of last weekend’s Times Square bomb plot is a homeowner in the midst of foreclosure. Here's MSNBC:
[Faisal Shahzad] defaulted on a $200,000 mortgage on his Connecticut home and the Shelton property is now in foreclosure, according to court records. The foreclosure records show Faisal Shahzad took out the mortgage in 2004, and that he co-owned the home with a woman named Huma Mian. Chase Home Finance LLC sued Shahzad, 30, in September to force the foreclosure. The case is pending in Milford Superior Court.
This guy is like string theory for the media: He brings together the seemingly incompatible stories that drove the past decade. That said, you of course don't want to speculate on why someone "really" did something. The hearts of men are opaque, and motives are complex. But it's a reminder that foreclosures generate an enormous amount of misery and anxiety and depression that can tip people into all sorts of dangerous behaviors that don't make headlines but do ruin lives. And for all that we've done to save the financial sector, we've not done nearly enough to help struggling homeowners.
Klein is being cagy, careful not to say the wrong thing on the root causes of terrorism, but he does seem to be tracing, if obscurely, a line from foreclosure to terrorism in Shahzad's case. This line, however, only connects things if one holds the usually unarticulated assumption that Islam is a religion intrinsically more susceptible to violence on the part of its adherents. In fact, a lot of people appear to think this about Islam, including very many Muslims themselves since we're often warned by Muslim spokesmen that depictions of their prophet, for instance, will result in violent outbursts by Muslims around the world, violence that these same spokesmen can do nothing to forestall.

Call this the assumption of terrorism's 'brute cause': Islam.

But while Islam is certainly a factor, given the overwhelming fact of so many Islamist terrorists, not every Muslim turns to terrorism -- in fact, most do not. Obviously, other factors play a role, perhaps even a foreclosure on one's home.

But I doubt that foreclosure is the significant factor in Shahzad's case. Rather, I suspect that Pakistan's long-standing identity crisis as a Muslim state carved out of a larger 'infidel' state is the significant factor. Pakistan has gravitated over the years toward an Islamist identity supported by the army to encourage animosity toward India and use jihadist ideology to motivate Pakistanis against Hindu India, a policy Fareed Zakaria reminds us of in a recent Newsweek column, "Terrorism's Supermarket" (May 17, 2010):
[F]rom its founding, the Pakistani government has supported and encouraged jihadi groups, creating an atmosphere that has allowed them to flourish . . . . [T]he government's jihadist connections go back to the country's creation as an ideological, Islamic state and the decision by successive governments to use jihad both to gain domestic support and to hurt its perennial rival, India.
The dictatorships of prior years in Pakistan have subsidized radical Islam and allowed it to set up thousands of madrassas and dominate the field of education there. The resulting radicalization many young Pakistanis should therefore hardly be surprising. This sort of thing, rather than the brute fact of Islam alone, accounts for the specter of Islamist terrorism that confronts the world.

Or so it seems to me from where I sit . . .

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At 5:39 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

One analysis I heard (on NPR, I think) said the mortgage default may have been part of his rebellion against the West.

North Korea skipped out on a lot of loans and trade invoices with European, Australian and Japanese firms and called it a victory over capitalism.

At 6:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From what I hear about the FBI, CIA, and the military, I think experts do indeed have a serious and nuanced view of the roots of terrorism. I think our experts have a more correct and complex view of the phenomenon of terrorism than the vast majority of the people on earth. For one thing, they have long noticed that many notorious terrorists have come from professional and affluent backgrounds and have experienced higher education and a positive childhood.

Perhaps in this particular case, what set off this fool's desire to violence may have indeed been his financial circumstance. But there is no reason why someone writing for the Washington Post should allege a possible connection when there is no justification for doing so. Such irresponsible behavior should only be undertaken by anonymous ignorants commenting in the blogosphere--such as myself. :p

Like you, Jeffery, I do not think that there is anything inherent in Islam that makes it more likely to produce terrorists. I think history offers us enough evidence to conclude that any religion can be used as rationale for radicalized people to commit terrorist actions.

Terrorism's causes are no doubt many and complex. And even the mere act of radicalization is not in itself sufficient to cause someone to actually commit violent acts on people just going about their daily business. After all, while you do allude here to the entrenchment and profound reach of the Madrasahs in southwest Asia, you also happen to notice that the vast majority of Muslims in the region have not turned to terrorism. Furthermore, I do not think that the Madrasahs tend to teach their youths to kill other Muslims, which is interesting to note because Muslim terrorists direct a large part of their bombing attacks against other Muslims. Which is to say that low-level sectarian warfare is part of what's going on in the Middle East. Nevertheless, radicalization in itself seems not to be sufficient to explain this sectarian warfare, either.


At 6:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

DC, thanks for the comment. I also wondered if he'd defaulted with that 'rebellious' intent.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Lollabrats, thanks for the nuanced comment.

We mostly agree, with one nuanced difference. I do think that Islam has a particular problem with violence due to its complex doctrine of jihad, its division of the world into the realm of Islam and the realm of war, and its synthesis of religion and politics.

That doesn't add up to terrorism as legitimate on Islamic principles, but it does make distortion of those principles easier, unfortunately.

And even legitimate jihad does remain a problem, in my opinion.

(By the way, I'll try this weekend to get to that material that you sent.)

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps, I should further clarify my views above. I do not mean to imply that state sponsored Madarasahs have no effect. They do have a negative effect.

But trying to enumerate the causes of terrorism may be a job best left to scholars. As a practical matter, I think experts have identified major changes that would have to be made to decrease the violence. Unfortunately, such changes need to be made at the state levels all across the region. The problem is simply that there is not the money nor the desire by these governments to make many of the necessary changes.

For instance, in Egypt, a key and influential Arab state, the leadership needs to liberalize their political system because it is a necessary ingredient to modernizing their economy and realizing the vast potential of the Egyptian people. But the leadership does not want to do so because they have legitimate fears that doing so will empower the radicalized Islmaic political parties. But by not liberalizing, they have only empowered radicals. This is because Egypt is a very young society that should be experiencing a flowering of their economy and culture. But the stifling political system with its self-destructive regulatory systems are keeping their economy from expanding and creating jobs. This seems to be empowering radicalized movements because these movements are inherently anti-state. This seems to be an unfortunate Catch-22.

But, being a westerner, I can't help but hold the naive view that the Egyptians will be alright in the end if they let go of their fear and do liberalize both their political system and their economy. I believe that creative solutions to the problem does in fact exist for the Egyptians, but only if the Mubarak family will first buy into the notion that the people and the family would both benefit by allowing greater political freedoms.

As for Pakistan, at least one thing we may see as a consequence of increasing Pakistani Taliban terrorist strikes against the rest of Pakistan itself may be that the cosmopolitan Pakistanis may be forced to reassess their own views and understanding of the nature of Islamic terrorism and the role their own Madrasah system plays in it. The Pakistanis have already come a long way since only last year when they viewed India as the only major threat to their security.


At 7:45 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Lollabrats, thanks again. The Catch-22 that you note is the problem. More democratization would devolve toward Islamism . . . initially. In the longer run, democratization would counter Islamist rule as their economic incompetence would become clear. Moreover, people would tire of their rules and personal interference.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"We mostly agree, with one nuanced difference. I do think that Islam has a particular problem with violence due to its complex doctrine of jihad, its division of the world into the realm of Islam and the realm of war, and its synthesis of religion and politics."
--Horace Jeffery Hodges

I must disagree here. The Old Testament is full of martial jingoism and advocation for murderous deeds. And Revelations continues to inspire radicalized Christians today. I think if there is a major difference between Christian sectarian warfare and Islamic ones is that the Christians have pretty much already tired themselves out from killing each other. The Muslims still haven't been able to tire themselves out from killing each other. The last real example of Christian sectarian warfare--in Ireland--was inexorably linked to the issue of sovereignty regarding Northern Ireland.

Furthermore, I think the most important issues regarding terrorism and Muslim sectarian violence has more to do with the complex causes of the region's inability to modernize than with the nature of Islam.


At 8:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In the longer run, democratization would counter Islamist rule as their economic incompetence would become clear. Moreover, people would tire of their rules and personal interference."
--Horace Jeffery Hodges

I agree with this. Indonesia offers clues as to how Muslims do feel about competent government. Indonesia, which occassionally erupts in violence against minority religious groups, such as against the Catholics, shows that an Islamic Asian people do prefer sectarian competent governments to radicalized Islamic parties specifically because they believe that Islamic parties would stifle ecnomic growth. It does seem that Islamic political parties in Indonesia have had to moderate their rhetoric because their inflamatory rhetoric have led to the loss of credibility among the general public.

As for Egypt, I think a sudden liberalization of their political system would lead to results contrary to democratic reform. I think the Mubarak family and the military would be seen as national heroes if they oversaw liberalization of the system in scheduled stages. The details may be difficult, but the Mubaraks need to give secular movements time to demonstrate competence. As things are going now, the defining legacy of the Mubaraks may be that they were so incompetent that they could not even arrange for someone to pick up the local garbage.


At 8:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"shows that an Islamic Asian people do prefer sectarian competent governments to radicalized Islamic parties "

oops, that should be "prefer secular competent government"


At 8:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"We mostly agree, with one nuanced difference. I do think that Islam has a particular problem with violence due to its complex doctrine of jihad, its division of the world into the realm of Islam and the realm of war, and its synthesis of religion and politics."
--Horace Jeffery Hodges

Furthermore, the Christians did have their own experiences with their own version of holy warfare against infidels abroad. That was ostensibly what the Crusades were about. And it was also an important rationale for their many pogroms and massacres against infidels at home and in their colonies abroad.

Moreover, religious rationales for war and violence are not limited to just the Muslims and Christians. It just so happens that they have been notably successful at it. But their successes should not be attributed to the nature of either religions. Rather, other circumstances probably have had much greater influences as to why these two religions have been so bloodily successful, starting with the nature and attributes of the geographic locations of the peoples who adopted these religions.


At 8:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems in the above comment I, too, have erroenously conflated religion and the people who practice them. This was your topic in your previous post, I believe.

Pardon. :p


At 11:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Lollabrats, those are several posts, but I will try to respond generally rather than individually.

I agree that Christians have also had a problem with violence, partly for the scriptural reasons that you note. Generally, however, the Old Testament has been considered replaced by the new covenant, so the holy war described there is easily relegated to the past. Similarly, the warfare in Revelation is usually understood to occur at the time of God's intervention in history and not to be separately undertaken on human initiative.

Jihad, on the other hand, is part of history and in principle incumbent at all times even if not always undertaken.

For this reason, I think that Islam has a special problem with violence that will be difficult to overcome.

Jeffery Hodges

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