Tue, 02 Dec 2003

Terrorism should not overwhelm the world

Jonathan Power, The Jakarta Post, London

We have to stop looking at terrorism like it's the end of the world. It is for the people who die from it. But for the rest of us we have a duty to ourselves, to the harmony of our families and to the equilibrium of our countries to keep it in perspective.

We can gain some clarity by putting Al Qaeda on one side for a moment. Before Osama bin Laden's organization came on the scene and gathered speed in the late 1990s there was no doubt that during the 1980s and early 1990s there was a decline in terrorist action all over the world.

In fact the main terrorist hot spot was Sri Lanka. The Tamil Tigers who after 20 terrifying years of civil war now seem ready for negotiations can teach us a lot.

In particular that the most brutal variants of terrorism can evolve for no good reason other than that there is a peculiarly successful kind of charistmatic leadership -- in the persona of the Tiger leader, Prabhakaran, who has played a role similar to that of Hitler in European fascism.

The Tamils in neighboring India who are also a minority are poorer and live in a more unequal society than their kith and kin but have shown little desire to emulate this kind of struggle. Indeed the Tigers do not seem to have been motivated by either religious or social issues and as a minority they have a better status than most of the minorities elsewhere in Asia.

One suspects that if the Sri Lankan authorities had done a better job in tracking down and apprehending the Tiger's remarkable leader negotiations would have come about long ago.

We can also learn from modern history that terrorist movements like many other human endeavors enjoy success for a while and then can wither rather quickly away.

Sometimes this is because there have been sophisticated negotiations leading to subtle compromises -- as with the Irish Republican Army and Britain; or Libya with Britain, France and the U.S.; and indeed with the Palestinian terrorists of the 1980s who massacred athletes and blew up planes. (Incidentally most of these early Palestinian terrorists were Christians not Muslims.)

Sometimes success came about because the policing worked -- as with the Baader Meinhoff gang of West Germany. Sometimes because repression worked -- as with many of the military regimes in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s (but at great cost to the well-being of society).

We should also realize that it is not enough to explain terrorism in terms of poverty, lack of opportunity or even ethnic and religious strife. We should look at where terrorism does NOT occur -- for example the 240 million untouchables in South Asia who have every reason in the world to rebel never have engaged in terrorism.

In Europe whilst the Catholics of Ulster, the Basques of Spain and the Chechens of Russia have taken to terrorism there are many minorities, such as the Catalans in Spain or the Tatars of Russia, whose causes are similar, who never have.

Which brings us to Al Qaeda.

Yes, most of today's worst terrorism is led by angry Muslims but while there is some truth in the notion of the "clash of civilizations" it is not the whole of it. Many reasons have been given -- from poverty, to Palestinian rights to religious fervor -- yet without the incubation -- a quite unique event -- of the mujahidin resistance to the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, aided and abetted in many crucial ways by the CIA and the Saudi and Pakistani intelligence services, these free lance terrorists would never have built up the confidence, the knowledge, the discipline and the expertise to embark on a worldwide jihad.

One of the most remarkable of contemporary developments is the decline of terrorism in Muslim Egypt even though the problems in society have not much changed. There is no doubt the much of the inspiration for Al Qaeda came from Egyptian writers, sheiks and the organizational prowess of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet at the very time that Al Qaeda was growing, terrorism in Egypt, after a long and bitter struggle that took the lives of thousands of innocents and of President Anwar Sadat, came to an end in 1999. Last year the imprisoned terrorist leaders of the Gama'a, as the terrorist movement was called, published a sensational series of books in which they argued that their actions had not been in accordance with Muslim law and said they had forbidden their members to join Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda is the most virulent terrorist virus the world has ever known, yet to date, apart from September 2001 the fatalities it has caused are less than that of the Tamil Tigers or the Gama'a in their heyday.

There is no reason why a combination of sophisticated politics and clever policing cannot make a lot of progress in defeating it. We don't, as yet, have to initiate more wars or to sacrifice our standards of justice and our peace of mind to combat it.