Combatting Terrorism: What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Brussels, Belgium.

After the Brussels terrorist attacks, we again saw proliferation of the slogan, “all together against hate”. Of course, it is better for people to love than to hate each other, and there is no doubt that the terrorists hate us, but it is not clear how fighting against a human sentiment, unfortunately extremely widespread, can solve the mess we are in. There is a big difference between not loving someone and killing that person, especially when dealing with people who don’t even know each other. The world is full of people who hate each other but let it go at that.

The supposed causes of terrorism evoked by those who “fight against hate” are hardly convincing. If you say it’s all due to poverty and discrimination, one can ask, for example, why nobody from the Afro-American community in the United States is committing terrorist acts. There were no terrorist attacks committed by anyone from the many immigrant communities which were not always treated with loving kindness in the past. As for the Middle East wars, the terrorists who grew up here in Europe are not direct victims, and the Vietnamese, who were subjected to unprecedented bombing by the United States never thought of committing terror attacks against American civilians. The same goes for Latin American victims of U.S. policies, or German-Americans at the time when their country of origin was being leveled by American bombs during World War II. As for resentment against colonialism, one can ask why the Congolese living in Belgium are so peaceful.

This is not to deny that wars, racism and discrimination exist and that they play a role in the rise of terrorism. The point is that in human affairs, all mono-causal explanations run into counterexamples, and it is doubtful that there is any truly scientific explanation for phenomena as complex as terrorism.

In fact, there are all sorts of ways to react in protest against wars and injustices other than to blow oneself up in the middle of a crowd, and many Muslims are trying to use these alternative ways. That is why terrorism cannot be explained without taking into account the “fanatic” aspect of the terrorists.

In this regard, we are told that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam or with “genuine Islam”. But from a rationalist point of view there is no such thing as genuine Islam or genuine Christianity, because all these religions are illusory and we are confronted merely with a conflict of interpretations. There is no doubt that terrorism is (fortunately!) only the option of a tiny minority of Muslims. Let’s say that 0.1% of a religious group are fanatic, the percentage is very small. But of 1.5 billion Muslims, such a percentage would mean 1.5 million fanatics, which could cause quite a lot of damage (the figures here are meant to illustrate the idea and do not claim to be factual).

To say that Jihadism is not the true Islam is like saying that the Crusaders, Franco or Salazar were not true Christians. Yes they were, according to their interpretation of Christianity, just as Jihadists are good Muslims according to their interpretation of their religion. Saying that certain Jihadists aren’t real Muslims because they fail to obey certain Islamic rules (non-consumption of alcohol, for instance) ignores the fact that incoherence and fanaticism can coexist perfectly in any religion.

We are told that we mustn’t stigmatize the Muslim community. It is perfectly true that each individual is responsible for his acts and other members of his supposed community are not. That goes also for “whites” when they are collectively accused of racism or of responsibility for things that happened in the past (slavery, colonialism or the Holocaust).

Still, it is fair to ask ourselves how it is that all those terrorists claim the same faith and all refer to the same Muslim cultural background. To illustrate the problem, at risk of irritating everybody, we can make the comparison with the “leftist” terrorism of the 1970s, Red Brigades style; one can’t say they hadn’t read Marx and Lenin, but just that they interpreted them in their own way. That tiny minority of terrorists emerged from a fertile field, so to speak, made up of sixties movements, Maoists, Trotkyists, Anarchists, feminists, ecologists, etc. The most politicized militants of that period were the first to condemn ultra-left terrorism, and large numbers of “rebels” were totally non-violent. But that does not contradict the fact that the terrorists emerged from the radical political environment of the period.

To pursue our analogy, there exists in the Muslim world (and not only in Europe) a religious radicalization, in the sense of a more rigorist but also a more political interpretation of Islam, similar to the leftist radicalization of the 1960s and 1970s, from which all sorts of currents are emerging, mostly – but not all – non-violent.

As for leftism, it was easily brought under control. The terrorists were arrested and the non-violent leftists were rapidly integrated during the 1980s, either by abandoning political activism altogether, or by becoming pillars of the system, by way of political ecology, advocacy of humanitarian wars, support to European construction, or the combat to silence bad opinions.

Is a similar process imaginable in the Muslim world? To start with, the problem is of another order of magnitude, due to the size of the populations involved. And then, it is an internal problem of the Muslim world, which is essentially out of reach of Westerners.

But we could at least try not to aggravate the situation, as we have been doing to a catastrophic degree by our foreign policy. It is fairly easy today to say that the US invasion of Iraq engendered Daesh, or sometimes even to admit that the Libyan war was a fiasco, but the problem is much deeper. From the time Islamists were supported in Afghanistan against the Soviets to the arming of “moderate rebels” in Syria, not to mention in Bosnia, the United States and their “allies” have made use of Islamists against regimes they didn’t like. Only certain Islamists, and neither Hamas nor Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia is respectable. Iran is a pariah.

The problem is not simply that bombing Muslim countries engenders terrorism, but also that certain terrorists have been actively supported and strengthened for narrow geopolitical purposes.

Even worse, we are incapable of recognizing that we have potential allies in the (necessarily armed) fight against terrorism: the Syrian government, Hezbollah, Iran and Russia. Except for the latter, these potential allies are also Muslim and even partly Sunni (in Syria). By “potential allies”, I am not suggesting that we should fight with them, because at this point everything we do will backfire, and they do not even ask us to do that, but that we should not try to topple them  or sabotage their efforts.

The current situation may recall that which preceded the Second World War: certain reactionary circles in the West were more or less kindly disposed toward Hitler so long as it was assumed that he would only attack “Bolsheviks”. But the war forced them to ally with Stalin, simply in order to survive. Today we seem unable to acknowledge the need for alliance against fanatic Islamic terrorism with the likes of Putin or Assad, who are teddy bears compared to Uncle Joe.

One can’t help thinking that what makes the difference between good and bad Islamists is largely related to the invisible elephant in the room during all these foreign policy debates: Israel and its influential supporters here. The almost automatic support granted that country’s policies, accepted basically to avoid being accused of anti-Semitism, is another factor which causes us to be hated in the Muslim world. The recent speeches to the pro-Israel lobby by leading candidates in the U.S. presidential election, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, offer scant hope of any change in this matter. And the submission of European leaders to the United States leaves little hope of change in Europe.

This is no doubt why so many people urge us to fight for love against hate. But that is not what politically conscious Muslims are asking for. What they want is a change of policy, which is something considerably more arduous than the expression of nice feelings.

While waiting for that improbable change, we have no choice but to rely for protection on our police forces, whose efficiency sadly remains to be seen.

Translated by Diana Johnstone.


A French version of this article appeared on RT.

JEAN BRICMONT teaches physics at the University of Louvain in Belgium. He is author of Humanitarian Imperialism.  He can be reached at Jean.Bricmont@uclouvain.be