Origins of Terrorism in the Middle East

I just recently came across a very, very good book on the history of the Middle East. As far as theory goes, it is lacking, but it is readable enough that the intelligent layman can pick it up and learn new things from it. Written by historian Eugene Rogan, it’s titled The Arabs: A History and it has won numerous awards. Be sure to check it out. One new fact that I learned is that while terrorism as a tactic in the Middle East did not appear on the radar until the 1920s, it was undertaken on behalf of Jewish interests, not Muslim ones. Rogan explains:

The terrorists had achieved their first objective: they had forced the British to withdraw from Palestine. Though their methods were publicly denounced by the leaders of the Jewish Agency [the pre-state government], the Irgun and Lehi [terrorist organizations] had played a key role in removing a major impediment to Jewish statehood. By using terror tactics to achieve political objectives, they also set a dangerous precedent in Middle Eastern history-one that plagues the region down to the present day.

Now, I am not “blaming the Jews” for terrorism in the Middle East, nor is the historian. What I would like to do is point out that the theories and excuses about Islam’s violent penchant produced by Western analysts is horribly wrong. In a similar vein, Arab culture is not to blame for the violence in the region, either. Terrorism is entirely a product of politics.

What we have in the Middle East is simply a problem of statecraft. A conceptual turn away from cultural and religious explanations for the violence in the Middle East and towards one that looks at political and legal institutions and the economic consequences that arise from them would do wonders for the region (and the world). If we cannot even agree on the fundamentals of what is wrong with the Middle East institutionally, we sure as hell are not going to agree upon anything else. This goes for domestic and regional factions in the Middle East as well as for Western ones.

Israel exists. It is a state in the Middle East, and a highly successful one at that. This may well explain why terrorism has been used so often, as a political tactic, for almost a century in the Middle East. It also helps to explain – conceptually – why terrorist attack rates were so high in Sri Lanka until the defeat of the guerrilla insurgency a few years ago, and why Latin America has suffered from chronic terrorism. Arab culture and Islam, on the other hand, do not explain terrorism in other parts of the world. I see no reason why we should make an exception to the rule for terrorism in Middle East. This is an institutional problem, not a cultural one.

13 thoughts on “Origins of Terrorism in the Middle East”

  1. Yes, one should avoid making an exception for the Middle East when explaining terrorism. There was much terrorism in Catholic and free-thinking Latin American for a long time and the first terrorism in the Middle East since the creation of Israel was carried out by Christians . You might have added, Brandon, that thirty years of terrorism in Northern Ireland was not fomented by religious belief although the fracture lines sounded religious.

    None of this is a good reason to deny Islam’s “violent penchant.” The founder of that particular religion was a successful was leader. Mohamed is still celebrated as such today by many if not by all Muslims. There is no other religion that makes holy war a primary religious obligation. (N, not Christianity.) In the past two hundred years, there have been no religious authorities who invited all the faithful to assassinate a man because of what he had written ( The case of Salman Rushdie, of course who had to live in hiding for twenty years.) There is no other religious doctrine that enjoins any of the faithful witnessing some wrong behavior to try to set it right immediately by any means necessary. In the past hundred and fifty years, the only people who have decreed that the proper punishment for “adulterous” women was public stoning to death have declared they did it in the name of Islam and all had Muslim names. Incidentally, under some real live interpretations of Sharia – live now – a woman who has sex outside of marriage is adulterous by definition . Hence, 98% of women in Santa Cruz, California are candidates for stoning to death; (OK, I am exaggerating, it’s only 90%. )

    Every years tens of thousands of little girls from Muslim families are subjected to grotesque, painful , crippling genital mutilation. It is true that Muslims are not the only ones engaging in this criminal, barbarous practice and it’s also true that it’s not required or even recommended by Islam. However, the silence of the Muslim authorities who are neighbors to the little victims is thundering.

    No violent penchant!

    No one need trust my information because I have checked it with people who have Muslim names but who sometimes drink beer with me. When I try to check it with people who have Muslim names and who don’t touch alcohol, they stutter, get angry and fail to provide useful denials or alternative explanations.

    I hope Notes on LIberty has a catholic enough readership ( small “c”) that a practicing Muslim or two will be moved to contradict me in a calm, reasonable manner. I hope this happens because I have a soft spot in my heart for Muslim culture in spite of the acts of savagery listed above.

    1. All of this is pure speculation and hearsay; fit for a coffee shop full of ex-Leninists! Observe:

      You might have added, Brandon, that thirty years of terrorism in Northern Ireland was not fomented by religious belief although the fracture lines sounded religious.

      If you substitute “Northern Ireland” with any state in the Middle East and you will be well on your way to understanding how the Middle East works. Congrats!

      Dr. J pretends none of this matters. He is using a classic double standard, thus becoming a victim of confirmation bias. Observe:

      There is no other religion that makes holy war a primary religious obligation.

      Can you provide any evidence to suggest this is the case for Islam only? Of course not! On the other hand, of course you can. Everybody has his or her own interpretations of old proverbs and beatitudes (“holy books”). With so much diversity of opinion, how can there be one true Muslim way? There isn’t one, obviously. See Dr. J’s point on Northern Ireland above.

      In the past two hundred years, there have been no religious authorities who invited all the faithful to assassinate a man because of what he had written ( The case of Salman Rushdie, of course who had to live in hiding for twenty years.)

      Oh, you mean when the Head of State of Iran issued a fatwa? You just proved my point. What would happen if Iranian citizens refused to comply with the state’s wishes? If the fatwa hadn’t been issued by a Head of State, would anyone have listened? Would anyone have cared?

      There is no other religious doctrine that enjoins any of the faithful witnessing some wrong behavior to try to set it right immediately by any means necessary.

      Again, where is the evidence? If you point to the Quran, you must acknowledge interpretation, which in turn suggests you are simply a victim of confirmation bias. If you point to the Hamas Charter, you are proving my point.

      In the past hundred and fifty years, the only people who have decreed that the proper punishment for “adulterous” women was public stoning to death have declared they did it in the name of Islam and all had Muslim names.

      Again (!!), there is no evidence for this. Zero.

      Ah! The evidence at last:

      No one need trust my information because I have checked it with people who have Muslim names but who sometimes drink beer with me.

      How can anybody argue with that?

  2. I read Brandon’s rejoinder. It speaks for itself:

    There is no evidence that the only case where the punishment for adultery is stoning to death is found only under Islam!

  3. PS Exam: Between March 11th and March 19th 2012, in southwestern France, a man, or several men, murdered three French soldiers of whom two had Muslims names and one was mulatto. Then, the same individual or individual,s assassinated three children in a Jewish school and also on Jewish adult. One man whom French police said was the killer in all six cases died in a shootout with French police shortly thereafter.

    1 The man who died in the shootout was :

    a a Roman Catholic;
    b a Muslim;
    c a Lutheran;
    d none of the above.

    2 The man killed in the shootout with police has nothing to do with the six murders; He was an innocent French Muslim trapped by French police to make it look like a Muslim with several trips to the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan had committed the crimes.

    T F

    1. There was a shootout in France? And the shooter was a Muslim?

      Therefore, Islam is to blame for terrorism in the Middle East (and France!).

      How could I not see the connection before?!

  4. Not what I said. I took exception to your earlier statement denouncing the propensity to see a violent penchant in Islam. There is a violent penchant in slam as compared to other religions considered since the eighteenth century (probably not before).

    But now that you insist: Yes, I believe that the only people who have shot strangers in France since the seventies were people who called themselves Muslims and who had Muslim names. (Exceptions are cops and robbers.)They were preceded, in the seventies and early eighties, by killers with Arabic last names who were mostly not (NOT) Muslims.

    What can I tell you.?

    The only creatures who have eaten human beings above the Arctic Circle of the Western Hemisphere have been polar bears for more than one hundred years. Says nothing about polar bears, right?

    1. I’m sorry Dr. J but your imagination just won’t cut it anymore.

      Show me the evidence of Islam’s violent penchant. I don’t want anymore anecdotal evidence. I don’t want anymore old wives’ tales. I don’t want anymore rumors.

      Either show me the hard evidence of Islam’s violent penchant – based on statistical reasoning – or stop insulting the intelligence of our humble readership.

  5. The facts that the shooter in France killed two Muslim soldiers and three children and an adult in a Jewish school are both irrelevant, right?

    Go ahead, don’t be shy; answer.

    1. Yes. It’s very irrelevant.

      Two Muslims and four Jews were killed by a nutjob on a shooting rampage.

      Therefore, Islam is violent and is responsible for terrorism in the Middle East.

      Stop insulting the intelligence of our humble readership.

  6. A French citizen with a Muslim name goes on vacation to the tribal areas of Pakistan and to Afghanistan. Latter on he goes on a shooting rampage. The probabilities are such that he has to have sought his victims. The first set of victims were Muslim soldiers in the French army. Of course, for a jihadist such soldiers are traitors. The second set of victims were Jewish children and an adult in a Jewish school. You have to look for a Jewish school in France. I wouldn’t know how to find one. It’s not as if the killer wanted to kill children and then he went to as school that happened to be Jewish.

    None of this means anything according to Brandon. Of course, this anecdote is only one of of several I presented in support of the idea that Islam has a violent penchant. Brandon dismisses “anecdotes” as evidence. He seems to say that if I had presented a thousand anecdotes, I would have accomplished nothing. I imagine he believes it’s enough to say “not so” for his negative thesis (no violent penchant) to be considered true.

    Strange mental world!

    I did not say anything about what is responsible for terrorism in the Middle East. I only took exception to a small statement of faith of Brandon’s in a larger development.

    1. Stoning and The Confirmation Bias

      Note: I wish this were a full essay rather than a comment but I don’t know how to make it happen, technically, I mean.

      I am glad Brandon has drawn attention to the confirmation bias in Notes on Liberty. The words refer to the universal tendency of human beings to notice and to remember facts that support what they already believe to be true to the detriment of information favoring different and opposing views. Thus someone who believes that human activity has been causing global warming will collect and recall unusually hot days and he will tend to discount unusually cool days.

      The confirmation bias is the bane of casual discussion such as are conducted in coffee shops, around the kitchen table and, in immense numbers now, on the web. Unfortunately the confirmation bias also frequently affects adversely empirical research designed to protect against biases in general. Scholarly submissions that present disconfirming evidence regularly have to jump higher hurdles than scholarly papers that extend orthodoxy. Yet, good methods afford partial protection in the social sciences and systematic critique also limits the damage to truth caused by the confirmation bias and by other biases.

      But well designed and well conducted social science is expensive and time consuming. In the meantime, we have to live; we must make decisions, we cannot avoid choices. We are not able to wait for everything to become the object of a good study and for the study to be published in a respected journal to do what we have to do. Exaggerated deference to rigorous empirical studies is tantamount to delivering the floor to the most emotional, to the least rational to the blindest fanatics among us. Like it or not, we must rely on anecdotal evidence most of the time. Yet, anecdotal evidence must, in time, give way to good studies published in a respected scholarly journals.

      So, what is to be done about the confirmation bias usually associated with the gathering of anecdotal evidence? First, obviously each commentator of any political fact or perception must exercise extreme self-discipline in this respect, knowing that confirmation bias is not an accident but a normal tendency of the human mind. It helps a great deal if the commentator knows he is addressing an audience, a public, that praises intellectual honesty.

      Secondly and most importantly, arguments should be subjected to criticism. I may easily, and in all honesty, be blind to my own confirmation bias but disinterested observers, and especially, adversaries, will ferret it out in no time. It’s also important to have reasonably public venues where biases in general and the confirmation bias in particular can be called out. I believe that Notes on Liberty and my own personal blog, Factsmatter, are two such venues. They should not be taken for granted. They may be the few exceptions among hundreds or thousands of blogs.

      The context that motivated Brandon, the founder and co-editor of Notes on Liberty, to denounce my alleged confirmation bias is a comment of mine on his essay: “Origins of Terrorism in the Middle East.” In my comment, I take exception to his dismissal of the idea of “Islam’s violent penchant.”

      I believe that, in fact, Islam has inherently violent tendencies. (I recognize at the same time the overwhelming peacefulness of the overwhelming numbers of Muslims.) In support of an assertion to the effect that Islam has a violent penchant, I list a number of violent practices which I argue are especially associated with Islam. Incidentally, I always mean “Islam the culture.” I am not a theologian able to discuss what Islamic scriptures and Islamic doctrine “really mean.” I am only able to observe reality on the ground.

      Since my observation is neither exhaustive nor randomly conducted, the risk of confirmation bias is quite real. There is danger that I assign unconsciously to practitioners of Islam objectionable practices that are just as common among followers of other religions. It would be like treating Christians, for example, as especially likely to abuse alcohol as compared to Muslims. (And how silly can one get!)

      In the situation at hand, I made the claim, among many others, that the only people who condemn to death by stoning women they judge adulterous do it in the name of Islam, (in the name of Islamic law specifically), and that they have Muslim names. Incidentally, this is a god point to correct myself; I should have said, “ in the last one hundred years.” Going back to what I asserted above, the main corrective to selection bias is criticism. In this case, I expect Brandon – and anyone else who is so moved – to point out to me the group or groups unassociated with Islam in any way who affirm that public stoning to death is an appropriate way to deal with adulterous women.

      I will be waiting.

      It seems to me that there are three major vices that regularly interfere with intelligent people’s exercise of reason. One is political correctness. The second is the desire to simplify at all costs issues that are inherently complex. The other it a perverse wish to insist that things cannot be as simple as they seem on the surface, that observable reality only masks a deeper, more correct interpretation of real reality.

Please keep it civil (unless it relates to Jacques)

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