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 are 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.