By Umair Javed
18 July 2016
WHAT causes a person to drive a truck through local citizens and tourists celebrating a national holiday? What compels someone to open fire on unsuspecting patrons at a nightclub?
Closer to home in Pakistan, we’ve grappled with far too many of these questions on far too regular a basis. How can you kill children? How can you kill oppressed minorities? How can you kill innocent worshippers?
Finding root causes for militancy or terrorism is a difficult task. Part of this is because very few individuals actually resort to violence, and partly because researchers don’t have access to a large enough number of militants. In the few cases where some are caught, they’re kept locked away and subjected to the secretive grind of the anti-terrorism judicial system. As a result, we are often left with sparsely detailed life stories and lots of hypotheses — some moderately tested, some plausible, and others still mere conjecture.
Within existing contemporary research, two particular analytical strands stand out most clearly. The first is what is commonly called the materialist or structuralist perspective. This is best represented in the view that militant activity represents reaction or rebellion of particular groups against perceived marginalisation and oppression. The French social scientist, Giles Kepel, sees economic, social, and spatial ghettoisation of immigrant populations and anti-Muslim racism as a prime cultivator of resentment and, consequently, militancy.
The role of ideology adds further complexity to the alleged relationship between religion and terrorism.
Another prime example is explaining Middle Eastern insurgencies as a product of state oppression of particular communities. Similarly in Pakistan, militancy in the northwest is frequently seen as a result of long-standing deprivations, American foreign policy interventions, and the oppressive, colonial-era governing arrangements installed in the tribal areas.
The other major camp is best represented through the views of another French scholar, Olivier Roy. He argues that individual-specific factors are key to understanding particular types of violent activity. The starting point is that those resorting to violence are often a very small number of individuals from a larger group’s population. Therefore, psychosocial traits, personal experiences, and individual value frameworks are more crucial given that ‘mass revolt’ isn’t taking place. Roy labels this the ‘Islamisation of radicalism’, and sees its encapsulation in the often criminal and unstable backgrounds of individuals like the Orlando bar shooter, Omar Mateen.
Structuralist and individual-centric explanations are not mutually exclusive. In fact, given the general indeterminacy around terrorism research, it is impossible to confidently assert one set of analysis over the other. At most, we can say they are mutually constitutive in so far as communal experience of deprivation and racism combine with individual psychological traits.
There is, however, one factor that appears central to all schools of thought that are studying acts of militancy and the larger spectre of religious radicalisation: the role of particular beliefs and ideology.
Ideology allows human beings to make sense of the world around them. It arms them with values, moral frameworks, and the ability to understand and add meanings in relations.
The history of the 20th century tells us that marginalised populations don’t just mobilise spontaneously. Back then, it was left-wing ideology that played a central role in first creating a sense of community (as workers or peasants) and then imbuing that community with a sense of political purpose.
In other cases, workers simply didn’t rise up, or rose up in defence of arrangements that were thought to be against their interests (such as fascism).
History tells us ideology can interact with individual-level factors in different ways and can produce varied results. In the past two decades, particular interpretations of religious texts have given birth to ideologies that provide a sense of meaning to individuals and glorify acts of violence as logical actions. In many cases, these ideologies are consumed without being acted upon in any major way. Sometimes they manifest themselves through vocal support and propagation. In a few cases, they compel individuals to undertake acts of violence on their own or to build or join organisations that would allow them to do so.
The role of ideology adds further complexity to the alleged relationship between religion and terrorism. Many in the Muslim community are quick to distance Islam from ideological variants that preach violence. The most common refrain now heard is that terrorism has no religion.
This reaction is somewhat understandable as most believers would not want themselves or their belief system to be associated with heinous acts.
Religion, however, is as much a social phenomenon as it is a divine one. It is practised by human beings and is very much a part of all their moral failings and successes. Given its widespread nature, and the legitimacy endowed to it by human society, religion is a central component of many constructed ideologies, both peaceful and violent. When someone buys into the ideology of jihadism, his or her sense of self, community, and the world at large is derived from an extreme interpretation of religion and its associated practices.
Well-intentioned prescriptions from existing research suggest focusing on marginalised communities and removing the source of deprivation and marginalisation. Some also talk about the need to provide individual-level support to ensure disaffected individuals don’t resort to violence. Beyond these, the fight against militancy cannot ignore the role of ideology, and the part played by violent interpretations of religion.
When this last factor is considered, the role of religious communities becomes paramount. One important contribution that communities can make is to locate and isolate ideologues preaching hatred and violence. Another would be to ensure adequate efforts are exerted to institutionalise non-violent and pro-social interpretations and norms.
Whatever efforts are made, it is increasingly clear that a variety of interventions are required. Only by addressing structural, individual-level, and ideological roots of terrorism do states stand any chance of eradicating this menace.