[Opinion] Study of Terrorism

Aziz Ali Dad

‘Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is’ said Albert Camus. It means that the being of man is being of possibilities. Considering the gregarious nature of human beings Aristotle declared man a ‘social animal’. In the proceeding centuries several philosophers expanded on his observation and deemed man as a rational, religious, metaphorical, thinking, selfish, political and suicidal animal. Currently we see him as terrorist animal – homo terroristicus. What remains immutable in the process of adjectival accretions is the word ‘animal’. In fact, one of the characteristics that separate man being from animal is his capacity to commit suicide to kill his own species at his volition.

The freedom of Homo Sapiens to kill himself and his own species emanates from his/her freedom from the natural safeguards of instinct. Since animal live within the boundaries of instinct, it does not enjoy the freedom to act on its will. On the other hand, human beings are different as they are not constraint by limits of instinct; rather they are free to make choices and act. During a particular stage in human evolution, Homo Sapiens succeeded to overcome the limits of instinct. This has enabled him to enter the domain of freewill, and suicide and killing is one of its outcomes. Animals do not have luxury to commit suicide to kill his own species.

Currently terrorism is condemned for killing innocent human beings without any reason. But there is reason behind apparently lunatic acts of terrorism. To terrorize people terrorists employ different methods. Suicide attacks have become hall mark/symbol of terrorism in contemporary age. In order to understand terrorism we need to understand human beings in the broader context of society in which socio-cultural, psychological, political and economic forces exert influence on human actions. The question arises here is whether terrorism is determined by socio-political, psychological and economic forces or springs from individual? In the case of terrorism extra social causes do not explain much, because in extra social causes we have to examine individual psychological factors and extra physical environment. This is the reason individual suicide has neither been termed terrorism, nor it has forced nations of the world to make alliances against it.

Durkheim in his monumental study on ‘Suicide’ rejects individual psychology and environment because these do not explain much of the social suicide. Instead he finds causes of social suicide in states of various social environments, which includes religious confessions, familial and political society, occupational groups etc. Terrorism is defined as ‘the systematic use of terror and violence for political ends.’ Therefore, it is imperative to study the social, political, religious and economic environments that cause terrorism to germinate and flourish.

Terrorism occupied the centre stage of the world politics only after the devastating attacks on World Trade Centre. Unfortunately, in post 9/11 period the radicals on both side of the divide, the West and Muslims, analyzed terrorism through the jaundiced eyes of ideology and ignore the socio-political and economic structure of the world that breeds terrorism. As a consequence, the real causes of terrorism could not be ascertained, and laymen rely on sages of terrorism who trace causes of terrorism through timeless verities.

For instance, Tom Scott’s article “Grim lessons from a legendary Muslim” in Financial Times (Weekend October 6-7, 2001) and George Jonas’ column “Mortal Enemies Are to be Destroyed” (October 8, 2001) traced genealogical roots of Al-Qaeda to Assassins of the 12th and 13th century. These writers failed to diagnose the real causes of modern acts of terrorism within the context of modernity. Instead, they prefer to work within the framework of Orientalism which attributes timeless essence to the ‘Other’ and infer conclusions from it. Edward Said condemned Orientalism because it saw Islam, as a cultural synthesis that could be studied apart from the economics, sociology, and politics of the Islamic people.

Writers during the 12th century failed to diagnose the root cause of suicide attacks on eminent personalities of the age by fidā’īs. Instead of understanding it with reference to religious ethos, cultural context and socio-political situation of that period, the medieval writers explained the attacks of the followers of Hassan Sabbah through wide spread rumors, propaganda, and oral stories about the use of Hashish by fidā’īs. With the advent of crusaders the myths of fidā’īs were taken to the West where Orientalists, artists and writers augmented Assassin myth by embellishing it with their imagination.

Traditionally, orthodox ulama of Muslims did not subscribe to the faith and actions of Nizārī Ismailies. In Urdu literature, Abdul Halim Sharar in Firdos-e-Bareen, Inayat Ullah in Firdos-e-Iblis and Suspense Digest in serial stories about the old man of the mountain have popularized myths about assassins. In these writings the followers of Sabbah were painted as assassins who killed eminent personalities of both Muslims and Crusaders to secure a place in earthly paradise of Alamut. Equating followers of Hassan Sabbah and proponents of Osama is a conceptual fallacy, for the latter espouses salafi ideology, which has been traditionally hostile to the batini variant of Islam. Now the proponents of fundamentalist Islam commonly employ the term fidā’ī. The politically changed scenario of the post cold war world in general and 9/11 in particular caused movement of tectonic plates of Islamic sects.

Dr. Faisal Devji in his path breaking book ‘Landscape of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity’ rejects the intellectual discourse that draws a strong link between the global militancy represented by Al-Qaeda and Islamists who came before them, because it ignores the impact of profound historical shifts like the end of the Cold War that have changed the face of political life around the globe. Terrorism in late modernity is the cumulative result of political developments and shifts in post World War II period. Therefore, its roots lie within modernity. Any attempt to comprehend modern terrorism in the light of a different time and space creates more confusion than clarity.

In 1930s, the famous German philosopher Walter Benjamin analyzed and predicted the emergence of terrorism in context of the socio-political and economic structures, and media dominated ambience of modernity. He held modernity responsible for suicide and terrorism. Benjamin thinks ‘the resistance which modernity offers to the natural productive élan of a person is out of proportion to his strength. It is understandable if a person grows tired and takes refuge in death.’ What follow is the lesson that ‘If suicide was the extreme option of the alienated individual, terrorism was, for Benjamin, the desperate modern equivalent of the alienated community.’

Although terrorism seems akin to nihilism, it, unlike nihilism, does convey a message/meaning which is to get even with the oppressor by bringing the existential condition of the oppressor to that of the oppressed. Hence, we can say that terrorism is dialogic at deeper level but the medium of dialogue is violence. The media is an efficacious tool for production and dissemination of this message. Terrorists try to make their acts a spectacle for society where the social realities and politics are mediated through images. Devji thinks that the martyrdom only achieves meaning by being witnessed by the media. Terrorists’ attack on WTC and hotels in Mumbai adds cogency to his argument.

The question arises here is: why perpetrators of destructive acts need audience or witness? In a psychological analysis of pathology of destructive character, like terrorists, Walter Benjamin shows us the psychology of destructive character. He thinks that ‘the destructive character does his work; the only work he avoids is being creative. Just as the creator seeks solitude, the destroyer must be constantly surrounded by people, witness to his efficacy. The destructive character is a signal.’

The modern age, Benjamin writes, ‘kills the productive élan of individual’ because the power of the former exceeds the strength of the latter.’ Under such conditions suicide is often, in the words of Walter Benjamin ‘an act which seals a heroic will’. It was in comparable circumstances Benjamin had to face the acid test of what he thought about suicide and terrorism. In 1940 he fled towards Spanish border while Nazis pursuing him. Upon finding the border closed he found himself trapped in a desperate situation whose pressure was out of proportion to his strength. In desperation Walter Benjamin committed suicide on the border. What he thought was proved right by his final act – suicide.

Even in his death Benjamin bequeathed us a lesson. That is, if the sense of alienation in society turns inwards the individuals commits suicide, in case it turns outward it manifests in the shape of terrorism by a particular group. To avert the dangers of terrorism we need to drastically change the contemporary order of things, which alienates weak segments of societies, maintain status quo and double standard of morality to serve the interest of a particular people. Only by doing so, we can root out the causes of terrorism and create modus vivendi for heterogeneous communities of global village.

The writer is a Pakistan based social scientist. Originally published on March 3, 2009 at

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