In the aftermath of the terrorist bombings in London, the usual analysis on the roots of extremism and terrorism, focusing on the socio-economic causes of violence, was repeated across the city. Terror, according to this framework, is best understood as a reflection of a deep crisis in society, caused by poverty, a lack of opportunity and institutional support, in addition to social restrictions. A number of commentators ascribed to this line of thoughts so as not to provoke Muslims and associate terrorism with Islam. Others agreed in the spirit of the moment. Undoubtedly, this framework is popular with socio-political analysts and is based on a number of strong arguments.
No one can deny that poverty, marginalization, despotism, and injustice are factors that contribute to the spread of extremism. Yet, a closer examination of the backgrounds and actions of this new breed of terrorists, especially al Qaeda and similar groups, reveals a new reality that can not be accounted for by the above analysis. It is well know that the suicide bombers who attacked US cities on September 11, 2001 were the sons of well to do families. They were Western- educated and specialized in the latest technologies which enabled them to use their knowledge of communications to commit heinous violence.
The fact is those who solely follow the socio-economic framework of analysis are mistaken; they believe that honesty and objectivity are exclusive to the intellectual class, while extremism and violence are popular amongst those who are unable to think for themselves and therefore easily succumb to fundamentalism.
Two aspects of this line of thought immediately stand out:
1- A critical arrogance or the view that the masses, by their nature, are gullible, irrational and receptive to extremist ideas. According to this perspective, the masses are unable to act reasonably and objectively as they are motivated by myth and imagination. They are accustomed to depravity and exploitation. As such, it is for the intellectual class, as the sole guardian of reason and logic, to create the social and economic conditions that will assist the masses.
2- A nihilist tendency or the loss of hope regarding attempts at social reform and the tacit acceptance of repression, exploitation, and despotism in Western societies.
Both aspects are found in philosophical treatises, from Plato and al Farabi to Foucault and Derida. What happens when bigoted and extremist sentiments grow amongst the prvileged few? This is a provocative question. The evidence before our eyes suggests that the indoctrination and destructive ideologies that have terrorized the world in recent years are held by members of the elite.
It is easy to forget that rationality, in itself, doesn’t protect against extremism and fundamentalism. In fact, it is sometimes the most effective tool to legitimize tyranny and inequality. Nietzsche believed as much and Foucault analyzed the relationship between power and knowledge. In fact, the brightest minds in the history of human thought have, for the most part, supported authoritarianism and justified repression. The founder of philosophy, Plato, was known for his attacks on Athenian democracy which he sought to replace with the dictatorship of the philosophers. The rational Mutazilites who supported the interpretation of the Quran persecuted their opponents and, while Sufis were being persecuted for their opinions, the philosophers of Islam, such as al Frabi, Avicenna, and Averroes enjoyed the privileges of their association with Islamic rulers. This model applies to the Western world as well as the life of the founder of modern philosophy Descartes reveals. Recent information has shed light on the intimate relations between some of the most prominent German thinkers and the racist extremist Nazi ideology, Heidegger being a prime example.
Things are no different in the Arab World. I was astounded, during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, to hear one of the most widely read Arab intellectuals justify Baghdad’s actions as “the sacred violence that will usher in a new Arab renaissance.” It is wrong to assume that the roots of extremism lie in the masses and their erroneous beliefs, as Mohammed Arkoun says, basing his arguments on shaky anthropological premises.
Even if terrorist groups are support by the masses, from time to time, they remain separated from the lower classes because of their elitist approach and their intellectual notions. These groups are also distinguished from religious elements who are mostly peace loving members of society. Had it not been for isolated efforts to explain extremist positions as a reaction to Western foreign policy, extremist groups would have lacked any support from the masses.
Intellectuals usually play two roles in society: they criticize society and contribute to building its foundation. The first responsibility is crucial to undermine dogma and combat idleness. The second is very dangerous and can, unfortunately, lead to a rise in fundamentalist ideologies and extremist thought that inevitably lead to exclusion, repression, and violence.