When the first wave of terrorism linked to the Middle East started in the 1970s, the assumption in the West was that the disturbing phenomenon reflected Arab anger over the Israel-Palestine issue. By the 1980s, however, a new wave of terror had appeared, striking principally in Europe, linked to the Khomeinist revolution in Iran. This time the assumption was that Shi’ites wanted to avenge their unspecified humiliation against unspecified foes. By the 1990s a third wave of terror had struck, this time assumed to be linked to Muslim anger over the American military presence in parts of the Middle East. By the year 2000, however, it must have become clear to anyone who wished to see that the phenomenon was not rooted in any of those particular issues.
Peace between Israel on the one hand, and Egypt and Jordan on the other didn’t tone down terror attacks. Nor did the Oslo accords between Yasser Arafat and the Israelis achieve a reduction in terrorist violence.
Khomeinist terror was not abated by the fact that the Reagan Administration, in cahoots with the Israelis, smuggled arms to Khomeinist Iran to defeat Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In 1985, the Americans unrolled the red carpet for Mehdi, son of Hashemi Rafsanjani, then President of the Islamic Republic, at the White House without securing immunity against terror attacks by Iran-controlled groups in the Middle East and beyond.
By 2001, there were no American troops in the so-called Muslim heartland. And, yet, the 9/11 attacks were unleashed against the United States, claiming almost 3000 lives. Since then a new situation has developed in which, in the words of Al-Qaeda theoretician Yussef Al-Ayyeri, in his book “Governance in the Wilderness”, no one is safe anywhere in the world except in parcels of territory controlled by “true Islamic authorities.” In the past 15 years we have had no fewer than 400 attacks of various dimensions in more than 60 countries across the globe.
The world made two big mistakes in its analysis of “Islamist terror.” The first was to link it to specific issues, assuming that once those issues are addressed terrorism will fade away. Three decades and thousands of deaths later we have learned that, unlike old terrorists who had specific territorial or ideological grievances that could be addressed and removed, these neo- terrorists don’t want anything in particular because they want everything.
The second mistake was to assume that we have good and bad terrorists. Many intellectuals and even some governments in the region supported various terror groups because they believed that their aims were just or that they would operate only against “others.” Some Western powers made the same mistake. The French paid protection money to Palestinian groups for years in exchange for not hijacking French aircraft. The Germans and some other Europeans turned a blind eye to Khomeinist terrorism in exchange for business contracts and the illusion of influence.
Even today, Tehran mullahs are vehement in their claim that terrorism by Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and kindred groups in Iraq and Yemen is “truly Islamic”. At the other end of the spectrum, there are Arab states that long maintained a difference between legitimate and illegitimate use of terror and violence. But when Iran and the Arab states, not to mention poor Bangladesh and harmless Malaysia, are hit by terror groups claiming to be “truly Islamic”, they feign disbelief.
For the past 15 years the world has been trying to agree on a definition of terrorism and failed. The issue has been on the agenda of the G-7 and G-8 summits and at least two summits of the Islamic Conference Organization. Every year, the United Nations’ general Assembly has grappled with the issue, getting nowhere. The issue has also been the bread-and-butter of countless think tanks across the globe, again with no results.
There are several reasons for this. The first is that the contemporary world automatically assumes that every definition contains an element of ethical judgement. Such an assumption would have surprised Aristotle, the father of definitions, who knew that describing things as he found them was a cold, almost clinical, act that implied no moral evaluation. Such evaluation was the province of ethics, an entirely different category. Aristotle would first establish whether a proposition was true or not before telling us whether he agreed it with it or not. Facts were sacred while opinion was free.
The second reason is that the dialectics of subject-object relationship is perverted in this case. Let us explain. Take war as an example. Both he who initiates it and he who is its victim agree on what it is. Both call it war. The initiator may also call it: just war, war of resistance or he may use any other
adjective that he deems fit for his own purposes. The same is true of the victim. Both, however, agree, that what they are involved in is war. That fact made international agreement on a definition of war possible and, in time, helped codify its rules.
The same thing could be said of theft. The thief may well justify his act on whatever grounds: he did it out of poverty or revenge or wanted to take from the rich and give to the poor etc. But he does not deny that taking someone else’s property illegally is theft.
In the case of terrorism, however, there is no common definitional ground between the perpetrator and the victim. The victim, if he stays alive, shouts that he has been struck by terrorism. The perpetrator, if he has the courage of admitting his deed, boasts that he is doing something else: waging holy war, for example.
This was not always the case. Until recently, terror was recognized and understood, though with distaste by many, as a fact of human life. Homer knew it well and described it in the Iliad ,whose hero Achilles bears the nickname “the terror”.
The leaders of the French Revolution in 1793 took pride in describing their policy as The Great Terror. Robespierre and Saint Just had no qualms about being called “terrorists.” The French national anthem, La Marseillaise, contains several couplets that preach terrorism, especially against counter-revolutionaries and foreigners.
The Russian Narodniks were proud of calling themselves “terrorists” while anarchists, from Prince Kropotkin to the vagabond Nechaev, praised terrorism as “the highest form of revolutionary action.” Some of Dostoevski’s heroes vacillate between terrorism and Christianity as alternative paths to salvation.
In 1905, Heydar Amoghli, a pioneer of Communism in Iran, called his secret organization “The Terror Committee”. Its members were called “terrorist brothers.” Likewise, Gavril Princip, the Serbian nationalist who assassinated Franz Josef, the Austrian crown prince, in Sarajevo in 1914, took pride in calling himself “terrorist”.
The Bolshevik leader Lenin did not shy away from preaching terrorism as a means of furthering his revolution. His colleague and rival Trotsky authored the notorious “Edict on the Hostages” which made it legal for the revolutionary regime to kidnap the children and wives of Czarist government officials and to assassinate them as “a means of spreading terror”.
From 1920 to 1960 the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and in the 1940s and 1950s, the Fedayeen Islam in Iran openly boasted of using “terror in the service of the sacred cause”.
The problem is that those who conduct acts of terror today refuse to be described as terrorists. This is because terrorism has not only lost its revolutionary luster but has been universally recognized as a barbarous form of political violence. There is, of course, no chance that terrorism will ever regain the romantic aura that it once enjoyed. Thus, there is little possibility that those who use terrorism will ever acknowledge their deeds in such terms. As long as no one is ready to admit that he is a terrorist, no one will be able to impose a universal definition of terrorism.
So what is the way out? We could, of course, shrug our shoulders and admit that in a world that asks “What is the definition of a definition?” there is little chance of defining terrorism in universally acceptable terms. After all, there are many facts of life that we cannot define in such terms. For example, we all know what stupidity is but will never agree on its exact definition. Or we could approach terrorism as a method, a form of action, and refrain from even the slightest hint of ethical judgment when proposing a definition.
Such an approach could provide us with a possible definition: terrorism is any act or series of violent acts against civilians designed to persuade a part or the whole of a community or a group of communities to do something that the terrorists like or to stop doing something that the terrorists do not like.
Once the method has been defined, the international community could then debate whether or not to legitimize and codify it or declare it a crime and combat it. One wonders what Aristotle would have said.