Monday, March 31, 2008

Eqbal Ahmad and Terrorism

I recently read a short collection of essays by and interviews with the Eqbal Ahmad, Terrorism: Theirs and Ours.

In the title piece, “Terrorism: Theirs and Ours,” I read Ahmad as making two important points about what you could call (Ahmad doesn’t phrase it this way) “the discourse of terrorism” or (if you prefer your terminology non-Foucaultian) “the way people tend to write and speak about terrorism.”

1. One of his important points is that “terrorism” as an entity is generally left undefined, with the result being that the term is arbitrarily applied to “their” political violence and not to “ours.” (If I read him correctly, Ahmad is against the use of violence to further political ends in general.) This creates interesting situations over time. For example, Menachim Begin, Yitzak Shamir, and others were at one time “terrorists,” with the British offering rewards for them as “terrorists,” etc., while later, when they became “ours,” they became “liberation fighters.” Or a converse example, many individuals who were later involved in the Taliban and/or Al Qaeda were “freedom fighters” when fighting the Evil Empire and Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and only more lately termed terrorists. I don’t think Ahmad’s point here is to equate Begin and bin Laden, but to say that if we’re going to bandy a term like “terrorism” about, we ought to have a definition of it with some actual content that we then apply consistently (so, for example, Operation Condor would be seen as problematic when engaging in car bombings and extra-judicial killings in South America and not just when the car bombing happens in D.C.).

2. He emphasizes that all instances of terrorism have causes, a point that shouldn’t need to be made (for everything has a cause), but something often studiously left out (or explicitly made verboten) in dominant constructions of “terrorism,” where attempts to understand or explain terrorism are misrepresented as sympathy for terrorism and terroristic violence.

Beyond that, it would be nice if Ahmad had gone further in his discussion of causation. In an email exchange about the work, a colleague wrote me that "he plays the victim card, something like 'If you have been terrorized by xyz, you will become terrorists.'" This colleague went on to point out many of the various groups around the world who have clearly been oppressed, victimized, discriminated against, or terrorized who have not resorted to use of terrorist tactics.

In my reading, Ahmad doesn’t actually “play the victim card” as this email correspondent put it, but I think his reaction points out something crucial about any potential consideration of the causes of terrorism – that there may be certain experiences or structural situations that terrorists of a variety of stripes share in common, but at best an awareness of such factors will indicate contributing, but not sufficient causes for terrorism (because what of all the peoples who have suffered similarly and not turned to terrorism?).

In addition to these points, which I take to be the main points of Ahmad’s argument, as a minor point I did also simply find his take on the PLO to be interesting. He argues that one major problem with the PLO, in addition to the problem of the use of violence for political ends generally, was the lack of any sort of revolutionary ideology, strategy, or practice, such that not only were they terrorists, but ultimately ineffectual terrorists to boot, because of their lack of any sort of program beyond reaction.

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