A Brief Note on the Roots of Modern Terrorism

The debate on the potential Islamic roots or parallels for the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11 and before, launched and/or coordinated by groups with Islamic affiliations, is making me wonder now, despite my having taken part in it, whether we are not putting too much emphasis on the issue of supposed roots or parallels in Islamic history. Modern terrorism, when you think about it, seems to have a more western origin than anything else.

The tendency itself seems to have begun with the French Revolution but was launched at earnest with the development of anarchist and fascist groups in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In my teenage days, I remember chancing upon an book in an old bookstore that was a translation of a manual written by an Italian anarchist discussing ways for developing and managing underground commando cells. But then, it is not exactly a secret for many scholars in the field of ME studies that most Arab movements for “national liberation” were actually modeled on known European parties, and that their paramilitary wings were actually quite western or European in style and organization.

Religion did not play much of a role in the struggle for national liberation in the Arab World, except perhaps in providing some personal inspiration for certain small factions, and, in some cases, some sort of a unifying cover for the various groups involved. Thus, it played a rather complementary role in a process that was more patriotic and national in character.

Except for some instances in Algeria, none of the attacks that were characterized as “terrorist” by the European authorities in control at the time were suicidal. Suicidal attacks, on the whole, did not play a role in the struggle for national liberation.

The first major instances of suicide attacks in modern times that I know of are those of the Japanese Zero-plane pilots. I know that when I was a teenager I was fascinated by what I thought of at the time as the “bravery” of those pilots. And I know I was not the only one. The adoption of “terror tactics” by Arabs came only in the context of the Arab Israeli struggle and it was mostly carried out by nationalists not religionists. Again, to my knowledge, religion as an ideology did not play much of a role here.

Suicide bombings and attacks came into being mainly in South Lebanon. But, there too, they were not only championed by “religionists.” The list of suicide bombers include people with Syrian nationalist, communist and Baathist affiliations. The fact that Hizbollah became more successful in waging this type of warfare, however, does involve an undeniable religious element. Still, suicide attacks do indeed reflect a new development in ME history.

The previous example set by the Order of the Assassin seems to be irrelevant here for the following reasons (as for the Wahhabis, they never engaged in such operations):

1)  The Arabs and Muslims, regardless of their particular sectarian affiliations, have long become disassociated from that particular period in their history when the Order of the Assassins flourished. Centuries indeed separate them from that period. The Medievalism observed in modern Arab and Muslim societies these days, and all the atavistic and fundamentalist tendencies they inspire, do not seem to reflect an enduring ideological link to the past, but a psychological one. The Ottoman and Safavid periods in many ways brought with them a clear ideological break with the past, the modes of thoughts that prevailed in these periods and those that had prevailed earlier are remarkably different (But the matter is frankly much too complex to discuss here, and I do not claim to be an authority, these are simply my observations).

2)   More important in this regard is, strictly speaking, the actual absence of any “suicide attacks” in Islamic history up until modern times. Strictly speaking, a suicide attack involves achieving one’s own death in order to achieve the death of others. But, that’s not what happened in Islamic history. After all, how can you achieve the death of others by slitting your own throat for instance? Perhaps, for argument’s sake, we can imagine someone drinking out of a poisoned well in order to appease his would-be victims and encourage them to follow his example, but I haven’t heard of any such incidents.

The assassinations carried out by the followers of Hasan as-Sabbah and his successors involved the risk of almost sure death after the deed is done. But I do not recall reading of any assassin actually committing suicide after his mission was accomplished. If someone can supply some accounts where indeed this did happen, this would not seem to represent a trend, because most of the accounts I remember reading claim that the assassin was killed by the guards of his victim while trying desperately to escape or simply to inflict as much damage as possible before his death. We can sense here, then, a trace of the Islamic prohibition on suicide.

Admittedly, this is no longer the case. A certain threshold seems to have been crossed by radical Islamic groups, and even, some Arab national groups. This “threshold” is not simply a psychological one. From an Islamic point of view, it also represents ajuridical one. Some jurists actually managed to introduce a concept that, in essence and letter, contravenes the teachings of Islam itself. Here, the attack comes before and is necessary to the carrying out of the mission. Death is certainly unavoidable here and suicide is done in a direct and straightforward manner. Still, and because the suicide attack does provide the “leaders” involved with a certain “new” and “effective” tool that could, in their opinion, serve their cause, it is no longer called a suicidal attack but a “martyr operation.”

This new development, then, is quite a modern one and is in part inspired by precedents in the West (as far as terror tactics aimed at civilians per se) and far eastern (as far as actual suicide attacks), and, in an other, by certain amount of “innovation” by certain Islamic jurists.

This is not, however, meant as some sort of an apologia for Islam (the need for self-examination and self-criticism in Islamic culture is now more important than ever). Rather it is meant to suggest that terrorism does not represent “a clash of civilizations,” as some are eager to assert, with an atavistic party on the one side and a future-oriented one on the other. It is rather an internal clash between various interest groups taking place within the same “pluricultural” global civilization that is still struggling to achieve a psychological sense of its unity, having come closer than ever towards achieving an economic, and even “suprapolitical,” one.

A contribution to an electronic forum