The Genealogy of Terrorism -- by Russell Berman (TELOS 144 -- Fall 2008)
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Islamist terrorism is not disappearing, nor is the challenge to understand its origins. Whenever it began, it catapulted to the forefront of public attention on 9/11 and has been haunting the world ever since. The diversity of its venues makes it a global phenomenon. Successful attacks and foiled plots have taken place in Bali and Bosnia, in China and Indonesia, in Denmark and Germany, in Spain and England, in Israel and Jordan, in Algeria and Argentina, in Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, and Tunisia—demonstrating the wrongheadedness of that simplistic thinking that blamed the massacres in New York and Washington solely on U.S. policies. What we face is a worldwide threat defined by a willingness to use extreme violence against civilians while justifying it with appeals to Islam.
...As frequently noted, the designation "war on terror" avoids naming which terror. This reluctance has weakened efforts to articulate the scope of the conflict and to specify the enemy. Yet it would have been politically disastrous if the West explained its response to Islamism in a language that lent support to its misrepresentation by our enemies as a war on Islam. Still, it is Islamist terror, not terror as such, that is the enemy. There are other networks that utilize non-state violence for political goals—in the name of separatist aspirations, as with the Basques, or for idealist goals, as with some environmentalist groups. Their violence too is illegal, and the respective states attempt to combat it as criminal activity. Islamist terrorism occupies a different space, a gray zone of non-state warfare, drawing on a global vision (unlike local separatist movements), international networks, and a revolutionary-redemptive ideology.
... Meanwhile, its protean forms elicit multiple responses, from naïve denial—always an appealing pipe dream for those who imagine the world to be without difficulties—to an assimilation into the categories of business-as-usual policies and to a repertoire of repressive police mechanisms, which, while registering some successes, have also threatened to undermine civil libertarian norms.
... Although no response to Islamist terrorism can forego a consideration of its origins, the origins discussion itself can suffer from the same kind of oversimplification that undermines the "war on terror" rhetoric. Just as that terminology refuses to name the Islamist milieu of the perpetrators, suggesting some empty abstract terror, the corollary simplification reduces Islamism to Islam, setting up a one-to-one correspondence between ancient sacred texts and modern murderous acts. Islamism has ancient roots, so goes the argument, and springs afresh from the Qur'an and the Hadith in every act of violence. .
... The unique character of Islamist terrorism is the asynchronous combination of an appeal to archaic materials, the Salifist dream of a return to the seventh-century Caliphate, and a psychology of terrorist violence that echoes very western contents, the modernist discontent with modernity, the aestheticist rejection of the falsity of bourgeois comfort, and the totalitarian libido of evil. The jihad of terror pretends to be a return to Islamic origins, but in fact it is acting out a lust for indiscriminate slaughter with a good European pedigree.
...Terrorism pretends to pursue substantive goals, be they political or religious, but actually has little to do with either. Instead it plays out a grim existentialist drama, an animosity to normalcy, a disdain for comfort, and a contempt for human happiness.