Is it true that All revolutions are born in terror? How can current terror attacks be stopped?
Is it true that All revolutions are born in terror?
How can current terror attacks be stopped?
‘Virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue…’ Maximilien Robespierre, On the Principles of Political Morality (1794)
(We can justify anything with resounding nonsense)
As pundits and politicians stoked the recent shootings in California into an existential threat; as French troops were deployed in Paris; as Belgian police locked down Brussels, and US and Russian planes intensified air attacks in Syria following yet another slaughter perpetrated in the name of the so-called Islamic State, it was easy to lose sight of a central fact.
Amid the bullets, bombs and bluster, we are not only failing to stop the spread of radical Islam, but our efforts often appear to contribute to it.
(That’s exactly the purpose of the US, France and England: to extend terrors overseas)
“The war with ISIS is a battle of ideas and values. The youth that radicalise seek to be subsumed in something bigger than themselves and a world they’ve come to see as meaningless and material.
Fomenting violence and belittling their rhetoric only fuels the fire.
In this sweeping essay, Scott Atran, the foremost expert on the psychology of radicalisation, analyses ISIS in the context of past revolutions. An absolute must-read: ow.ly/VSgjr”
What accounts for the failure of ‘The War on Terror’ and associated efforts to counter the spread of violent extremism?
The failure starts with reacting in anger and revenge, engendering more savagery without stopping to grasp the revolutionary character of radical Arab Sunni revivalism.
(If we have to fool ourselves by calling Wahhabism as an Islamic revival)
This revival is a dynamic, countercultural movement of world-historic proportions spearheaded by ISIS, (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
In less than two years, it has created a dominion over hundreds of thousands of square kilometres and millions of people. And it possesses the largest and most diverse volunteer fighting force since the Second World War (And spreading everywhere people have felt subjugated and treated with indignity).
What the United Nations community regards as senseless acts of horrific violence are to ISIS’s acolytes part of an exalted campaign of purification through sacrificial killing and self-immolation:
Know that Paradise lies under the shade of swords, says a hadith, (third parties hearing of what the Prophet might have said); this one comes from the Sahih al-Bukhari, a collection of the Prophet’s sayings considered second only to the Qu’ran in authenticity and is now a motto of ISIS fighters.
(Almost most Islamic teaching are extracted from the collection of Hadith stories, and most of these stories are unreliable)
This is the purposeful plan of violence that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-anointed Caliph, outlined in his call for ‘volcanoes of jihad’: to create a globe-spanning jihadi archipelago that will eventually unite to destroy the present world and create a new-old world of universal justice and peace under the Prophet’s banner.
A key tactic in this strategy is to inspire sympathisers abroad to violence: do what you can, with whatever you have, wherever you are, whenever possible.
To understand the revolution, my research team has conducted dozens of structured interviews and behavioural experiments with youth in Paris, London and Barcelona, as well as with captured ISIS fighters in Iraq and members of Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria).
We also focused on youth from distressed neighbourhoods previously associated with violence or jihadi support – for example, the Paris suburbs of Clichy-sous-Bois and Épinay-sur-Seine, the Moroccan neighbourhoods of Sidi Moumen in Casablanca and Jamaa Mezuak in Tetuán.
While many in the West dismiss radical Islam as simply nihilistic, our work suggests something far more menacing: a profoundly alluring mission to change and save the world.
In the West, the seriousness of this mission is denied.
Olivier Roy, usually a deep and subtle thinker, wrote last month in Le Monde that the Paris plotters represent most who flock to ISIS; they are marginal misfits largely ignorant of religion and geopolitics, and bereft of real historical grievances.
They ride the wave of radical Islam as an outlet for their nihilism because it’s the biggest and baddest countercultural movement around. And how else could one explain a mother who abandons her baby to die butchering innocents in San Bernadino who never did her harm?
But the worldwide ISIS revolution is hardly just a bandwagon for losers.
Although attacked on all sides by internal and external foes, the Islamic State has not deteriorated to any appreciable degree, while rooting ever stronger in areas it controls and expanding its influence in deepening pockets throughout Eurasia and Africa.
Despite recent White House reassurances, US intelligence tells us that ISIS is not being contained. Repeated claims that ISIS is being degraded and on the way to inevitable defeat ring hollow for almost anyone who has had direct experience in the field.
Only Kurdish frontline combatants and some Iranian-led forces have managed to fight ISIS to a standstill on the ground, and only with significant French and US air support. (Trying to forget the Russian massive engagement?)
Despite our relentless propaganda campaign against the Islamic State as vicious, predatory and cruel – most of which might be right – there is little recognition of its genuine appeal, and even less of the joy it engenders.
The mainly young people who volunteer to fight for it unto death feel a joy that comes from joining with comrades in a glorious cause, as well as a joy that comes from satiation of anger and the gratification of revenge (whose sweetness, says science, can be experienced by brain and body much like other forms of happiness).
But there is also a subliminal joy felt across the region for those who reject the Islamic State’s murderous violence yet yearn for the revival of a Muslim Caliphate and the end to a nation-state order that the Great Powers invented and imposed.
It is an order that has failed, and that the US, Russia and their respective allies are trying willy-nilly to resurrect, and it is an order that many in the region believe to be the root of their misery.
What the ISIS revolution is Not, is a simple desire to return to the ancient past. The idea that ISIS seeks a return to medieval times makes no more sense than the idea that the US Tea Party wants to return to 1776.
‘We are not sending people back to the time of the carrier pigeon,’ Abu Mousa, ISIS’s press officer in Raqqa, has said. ‘On the contrary, we will benefit from development. But in a way that doesn’t contradict the religion.’
(Total nonsense: The results on the ground are not promising that development is on the rise)
The Caliphate seeks a new order based on a culture of today. Unless we recognise these passions and aspirations, and deal with them using more than just military means, we will likely fan those passions and lose another generation to war and worse.
Treating the Islamic State as merely a form of terrorism or violent extremism masks the menace. All novel developments are ‘extremist’ compared with what was the norm before.
What matters for history is whether these movements survive and thrive against the competition.
For our singularly self-predatory species, success has depended on willingness to shed blood, including the sacrifice of one’s own, not merely for family and tribe, wealth or status, but for some greater cause. (Mostly deep belief in myths)
This has been especially true since the start of the Axial Age more than two millennia ago. At that time, large-scale civilisations arose under the watchful gaze of powerful divinities, who mercilessly punished moral transgressors – thus ensuring that even strangers in multiethnic empires would work and fight as one.
Call it ‘god’ or whatever secular ideology one prefers, including any of the great modern salvational -isms: colonialism, socialism, anarchism, communism, fascism and liberalism.
In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes deemed sacrifice for a transcendent ideal ‘the privilege of absurdity to which no creature but man is subject’. Humans make their greatest commitments and exertions, for ill or good, for the sake of ideas that give a sense of significance.
In an inherently chaotic universe, where humans alone recognise that death is unavoidable, there is an overwhelming psychological impetus to overcome this tragedy of cognition: to realise ‘why I am’ and ‘who we are’.
In The Descent of Man (1871), Charles Darwin cast this devotion as the virtue of ‘morality… the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy’ with which winning groups are better endowed in history’s spiralling competition for survival and dominance.
It is the sacred values, immune to material tradeoffs, that bind us most.
In any culture, an unwillingness to sell out one’s kin or religious and political brotherhoods and motherlands is the line we usually will not cross. Devotion to these values can drive successes which are out of all proportion to expected outcomes.
Asymmetric operations involving spectacular killings to destabilise the social order is a tactic that has been around as long as recorded history
Often these values, tethered to beliefs such as our ‘God is great, bodiless but omnipotent’ or our ‘free markets are always wise’, are attributed to Providence or Nature.
They can never be verified by empirical evidence, and their meaning is impossible to pin down.
The term ‘sacred values’ intuitively denotes religious belief, as when land is holy, but can also include the ‘secularised sacred’ such as the ‘hallowed ground’ of Gettysburg or the site of the attacks on New York City of 11 September 2001 (9/11).
The foundational beliefs of the great ideological–isms and the quasi-religious notion of the Nation itself have been ritualised in song and ceremony and sacrifice.
‘Nothing human is alien to me,’ said Terence, the Roman slave who became a playwright and gave my own field of anthropology an enduring credo: to empathise with those most different from one’s own moral culture, without necessarily sympathising.
This is our call to comprehend. If we can only grasp why otherwise normal humans would want to die killing masses of other humans who have harmed no one, we might ourselves better avoid killing and being killed.
In our liberal democracy, intentional mass bloodshed is considered evil, an expression of human nature gone awry. But across most of human history and cultures, violence against other groups was considered a moral virtue, a classification necessary for killing masses of people innocent of harming others.
Besides, brutal terror scares the hell out of enemies and fence-sitters.
Kurdish leaders told my research group that when 350-400 Islamic State fighters came in a convoy of some 80 trucks to free Sunni captives (and massacre more than 600 Shia inmates) from Badoush prison in Iraq’s second largest city Mosul, a relatively well-equipped Iraqi army of some 18,000 troops under US-trained leaders immediately disappeared or ran away.
When I asked one Arab Sunni soldier embedded with a Kurdish Peshmerga force on the Mosul-Erbil front why fellow soldiers fled, he simply said: ‘They wanted to keep their heads.’ (Head beheading practices by ISIS and Saudi Kingdom)
The shutdown of Brussels in the wake of the Paris attacks, or of Boston in the aftermath of the marathon bombings in 2013, speaks to a comparable fear, and contributes to an underlying lack of faith in our own societies and values, something that terror attacks are designed to promote.
During the Second World War, not even the full might of the German Luftwaffe at the height of the Blitz could compel the UK government and the people of London to cower so (falling into the propaganda trap again: They cowered but Hitler spared them the indignity by stopping the bombing campaign).
Today, mere mention of an attack on New York in an ISIS video has US officials scurrying to calm the public.
Media exposure, which is the oxygen of terror in our age, not only amplifies the perception of danger but, in generating such hysteria, makes the bloated threat to society real.
This is especially true today because the media is mostly designed to titillate the public rather than inform it. Thus, it has become child’s play for ISIS to turn our own propaganda machine, the world’s mightiest, into theirs – boosting a novel, highly potent jujitsu style of asymmetric warfare that we could counter with responsible restraint and straight-up information, but we won’t.
The outcome is dangerous and preposterous. The US Justice Department, with overwhelming support from Congress and the media, now considers the common kitchen pressure cooker to be a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ if used for terrorism.
This ludicrously levels a cooking pot with a thermonuclear bomb that has many billions of times greater destructive power. It trivialises true weapons of mass destruction, making their acceptance more palatable and their use more conceivable.
In this present hyper-reality, messaging is war by other means. ISIS’s manipulation of our media creates a sense of foreboding of mass destruction where it isn’t really possible, and at the same time obscures any real future threat.
Asymmetric operations involving spectacular killings to destabilise the social order is a tactic that has been around as long as recorded history. Violent political and religious groups routinely provoke their enemies into overreacting, preferably by committing atrocities to get the others to drive in the sheep and collect the wool.
When the Romans occupied Judea following the death of Christ, the first revolts involved Jewish youths throwing stones.
The Jewish Zealots and especially their most extreme variant, the Sicarii (‘dagger men’), amped things up, attacking Roman soldiers and Greek underlings in self-sacrificial acts during public ceremonies, cranking the wheels of revenge and retribution.
(The occupied Palestinians are adopting the only weapon they have: kitchen knives)