Archive for the ‘Terrorism’ Category

Some of My Best Friends are Extremists

October 12, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Could it be argued that there are good and bad extremists just as there are good and bad Muslims? If so, the proposal to identify extremists in universities might be misplaced.

Extremism has become conflated with violence and terrorism which is a partial interpretation. The dictionary defines extremism as “belief in and support for ideas that are very far from what most people consider correct or reasonable” which widens the scope for a more nuanced understanding.

Put that neutral definition together with the observation of Bertrand Russell that “the tyranny of the majority is a very real danger” and that “it is mistake to think that the majority is necessarily right” and one can argue that almost all human progress has been due to extremists who have challenged the moribund ideas of majorities. Think of Galileo  or of the injunction to learn even if it required traveling to China.

It is possible, of course, that extremism could lead to poor judgement with negative consequences. Mr. Jinnah’s position in Dhaka that Urdu would be the sole national language of Pakistan was arguably extremist and one that contributed to subsequent problems. However, no one would accuse Mr. Jinnah of evil intentions. Mitigating errors of judgement calls for inclusive decision-making not surveillance by intelligence agencies.

The example above should remind us that extremism is often not an individual attribute but is contextually determined – the position regarding Urdu could have been mainstream opinion in one part of the country but a fringe one in the other. Consider another example, the position on Creation where the mainstream view in Pakistan accords with the story of Adam and Eve. If a mainstream Pakistani migrated to Europe he would become there the holder of a relatively extreme position. Would it be warranted for European intelligence agencies to interrogate his “extremism” when nothing else changed in his personality?

Increasing globalization has exacerbated this problem of contextual extremism. In the West beards and turbans have become symbols of extremism while bikinis and bars are considered likewise in other parts of the world. The clash of civilizations reflects in part the harmless divergence among different mainstream opinions.

In the face of these arguments many discussants concede the point that private views, however extreme, are not problematic per se. In their view the problem emerges when some individuals try to impose their extreme views on others. This suggests that the problem is not extremism of one’s views but intolerance of those of others.

This is a serious concern if true because the entire ethos of the educational system in Pakistan is built around bolstering the conviction that we are right and those who disagree with us are wrong. Every unsanctioned opinion is liable to severe punishment. The State also propagates the extremist sentiment that every citizen should be prepared to die for the nation and destroy its enemy. An apocryphal story of a teenager apprehended crossing the border in 1965 to annihilate infidels is telling in this regard. Asked to identify the source of his extreme views he ascribed them all to watching PTV. Hannah Arendt had warned that such “commitment can easily carry you to a point where you no longer think.” Only a heavy dose of self-reflection of the type exemplified by Bulleh Shah and Kabir can reverse the trend towards mindlessness.

This lethal problem of intolerance cannot be solved by surveillance of students but by a renewed examination of State commitments and the realization that many agents of the State are themselves extremely intolerant. It is ironic for a set of agents fostering intolerance to start combing campuses for the victims of their efforts.

A different perspective on extremism holds that it is worrisome only when it engenders violence. This prompts two reflections. First, that those holding extreme views rarely resort to mass violence in their individual capacity. Individuals act in politically motivated ways more when they are part of groups espousing violent aims — no surprise that violent actions are immediately claimed by groups like ISIS or TTP. Putting an end to such violence requires proscribing the groups and not pursuing individual extremists which is an impossible task with a huge margin for error. When a State leaves such groups alone allowing them to morph under various guises while claiming to ferret out individuals, it loses the claim to credibility.    

Second, one must confront another conundrum obscured by the blanket castigation of violent extremism. Recall the phrase that characterized the 1964 US presidential campaign of Senator Goldwater: “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice.” Clearly, Goldwater did not consider extremism to be an unambiguously negative phenomenon nor was he averse to violence if warranted by the situation. Many others would recall that both Begin and Mandela started as individuals with “extremist” views, joined groups with “violent” aims, and propagated “terrorism.” Yet, both went on to lead their countries and were honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize.

One can reconcile with such extremism only if the focus on groups with violent aims includes States that use violence to oppress their own or foreign citizens. It is hard to justify passivity against the depredations of such states — “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue” was the second half of Goldwater’s pronouncement. The glaring case at present is the ethnic cleansing in Burma. Unless there are global mechanisms to prevent such state-sanctioned atrocities, non-state groups will cite the precedence of Begin and Mandela to resist and the world will be in no moral position to criticise their violent extremism.

The bottom line of this reflection is that intolerance not extremism is the major threat to  society; that intolerance is the inevitable outcome of State-sponsored indoctrination in education; that this indoctrination can only be countered by a tradition of self-reflection that includes within its ambit one’s most cherished beliefs; that effectively restoring social harmony requires proscribing groups that espouse violent aims and these can include States themselves. The surveillance of individuals by the State, here or elsewhere, is the wrong prescription.

The writer is the former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. This opinion was published in Dawn on September 29, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Locating the Enemy

March 9, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

I speak as a layperson not as an expert on the subject and so may be missing a lot but I have a strong feeling something is very wrong with the way terrorism is being combated in the country. If I am mistaken, and I fervently wish I am, I would really appreciate someone explaining what might be going on.

Ever since the recent spate of suicide bombings a feverish campaign has been launched against terrorists and if reports are to be believed over a hundred have been eliminated just in a couple of days. What puzzles me is how the terrorists who have been eliminated have been identified and located so quickly. Did we always know where they were but were letting them be for some reason? If we were letting them be was it because we did not have enough evidence they were involved in terrorism? If that is indeed the case, how could we just go ahead and eliminate them without conclusive evidence? And, if we did have the evidence and knew where they were, why did we not arrest them and establish their involvement in some sort of a normal civilized manner?

These questions, as I have said, are very confusing and I cannot help but think that we are not being told the truth. Either that or our rulers have attained such a unique state of incompetence that they too do not know what they are doing. Both alternatives are frightening and frankly unacceptable. Once again we are faced with what we might call our enduring condition, the bin Laden phenomenon – did we know or didn’t we? Neither answer does us any honor.

It seems to me that the frenzy of maniacal activity is just intended to convey an impression of steely determination and purposeful action in order to placate the public and buy time. Who knows how many innocent people are being sacrificed to keep up this charade. In the meanwhile we are subjected to inane statements that the opening of the new Islamabad airport would promote the soft image of Pakistan and holding a cricket match would convince the world that the country is safe from terrorism and bring superstars flocking back to the country.

I fail to understand how spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to bribe a handful of foreigners to play a game in a nuclear bunker can be convincing proof that the country is back to normal. Or how announcing that a permanent force of 15,000 military personnel needs to be deployed to protect a trade corridor would reassure investors that the country is safe for business. This is self-delusion carried to absurdity.

And what should one make of the resolve that terrorists would now be pursued into other countries? How would one respond if some other country takes that as a license to pursue terrorists into our country? This is jumping from the frying pan into the fire potentially pushing the entire region towards a conflagration. Is there someone thinking before shooting off at the mouth?

Add to that the spate of accusations that our enemies are exacerbating our problems because they do not wish us to succeed or even to hold a cricket match. Much as one would like to swallow this line it is really hard to believe that it was our enemies who convinced us to create these monsters in the first place. Or that it is our enemies who are forcing us to discriminate between good terrorists and bad, between real terrorists and mere sectarian killers, and between terrorists and philanthropists who rush to help the poor and needy in times of floods and earthquakes when the state fails to do what it is supposed to do. Is it all that difficult to comprehend that people can be philanthropists and terrorists at the same time if some all-encompassing ideology can make both compatible with a greater glory?

It is hard to understand why we can’t approach these matters with the normal process of state-to-state collaboration to eliminate terrorism from the region which would be a win-win outcome for all. Or maybe it would not. Otherwise why do we seem to be in this game of ranking terrorists along some scale of goodness or usefulness? If that is indeed the case, could someone have the courtesy of taking the nation into confidence, explaining how some terrorists are better than others and what is that we are aiming to do with the good ones?

And while we are being made wise to that could we also be told if we are succeeding or not and how far are we from the grand objective we have set for ourselves, whatever it is?

A failure to provide convincing answers can only lead to one conclusion: We have met the enemy and he is us.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on March 7, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

Note: There are 170 comments on this opinion on the Dawn website. The wide agreement amongst readers and the absence of the usual trolling is an extremely encouraging sign.

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World War III?

November 15, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

America declared a War on Terror in 2001; France did so formally in 2015; Britain, Germany and a number of other countries had become partners sometime in the interim. Are we then in the midst of a third world war without quite realizing it simply because this war is so different from its predecessors in so many ways? All the familiar markers are absent – the war is not between nations, it is not fought with heavy artillery, it doesn’t have adversaries who sign or adhere to treaties, it doesn’t distinguish between soldiers and civilians.

What kind of a war is it? One must characterize its nature in order to fashion an effective battle plan. What we hear often is that it involves non-state actors that are fanatics motivated by evil ideologies. These are plausible components but as yet insufficiently imagined as to how and why they come together. As a result, responses remain mired in old paradigms – fighting yesterday’s wars except that they are against some evil non-state enemies who possess mysterious powers to draw resources and adherents to murderous causes.

As an alternative, consider a characterization that relies on melding two phenomena with which we are separately quite familiar – cults and guerilla warfare. Cults need little by way of introduction. Many examples come to mind – that of Jim Jones in the 1970s was a major story of the time. Their main characteristics are the ability to draw adherents to esoteric causes willing to follow a leader even to their deaths. However, cults did not engage in wars with states, domestic or foreign, at any serious level.

Guerilla warfare gained significant recognition during the Vietnam War as a strategy that avoided the deployment of heavy equipment or the commitment of large numbers of troops. Rather, it relied on hit-and-run tactics, ambushes, and exhaustion by attrition, both physical and psychological. It is said that the mighty British army was defeated through guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan in the 19th century as was the powerful American military in the 20th century in Vietnam. True or not, guerrilla armies did wage battles against the state but only in geographically confined areas.

Imagine now a combination of these elements – a cult that wages guerilla war against a state or states – and we have a fairly good description of Al-Qaeda or ISIS. Such a combination has become super-charged and potent beyond limited terrains by revolutions in technology. A cult located in the caves of Afghanistan or the badlands of Syria can now mount guerilla attacks in New York, London, Madrid, and Paris and can bring down planes in Egypt. The cult can draw adherents from all over the world willing to give their lives for a cause. And the cult can have members that do not need to be physically together to participate in its activities. They can be distributed all over the world, including deep inside territories that the cult has marked out as targets.

How does one fight a cult whose members are geographically dispersed but globally connected, one that has decided to employ guerilla warfare without concern for civilian lives? How does one neutralize a cult that now has the ability to cripple life by waging a War of Terror in locations that were never before within reach of a traditional guerrilla army?

Every strike draws a greater flow of adherents to its cause. Every loss of a volunteer in the field inspires a score of fresh would-be martyrs. Every provocation limits the freedoms of those it wants to hurts. Every assault increases the probability of drawing its opponents into a fight on its home territory to its advantage.

It is improbable that such combined, globally-linked, cult-cum-guerilla armies can be defeated by a War on Terror reliant on old military strategies like sending troops into Afghanistan or Iraq. Modern societies, cities, and systems are too open to be fully secured against random acts of terror without losing the very openness that is their strength and attraction. Closing the borders is not an answer when cult members can be anywhere and citizens of any country. Relying on ‘hearts and minds’ stratagems doesn’t work in buying off people who are ready, willing, and wanting to die. Technologically sophisticated precision strikes create more enemies than they eliminate.

A start might be made by unbundling the phenomenon into its two components, assessing their relative importance, and addressing each with methods best suited to the task. The capacity of a guerrilla army can definitely be weakened by military means, perhaps at great cost, but even then the payoff would remain limited if all it aims for is one major incident every five years or so while sustaining a climate of fear throughout the period. Drying up the flow of adherents to the cult might perhaps be the more cost-effective way to diminish its strength but military means offer no support in that regard.

A renewed focus is needed to understand who are the individuals being drawn to these cults and why. It is not sufficient to label them brainwashed or to apprehend a few and punish them severely given that they start off prepared to die. There is need to figure out what predisposes them to be susceptible to such brainwashing that they leave families and friends for unknown quests with very high probabilities of death.

Only the reallocation of resources to a concerted effort that yields a more attractive alternative for such individuals might abort the slide into the global war that was triggered by the game-changing strike on the twin towers in 2001.

Anjum Altaf is Provost of Habib University in Karachi, Pakistan. He would like to thank Kabir Altaf for suggesting the cult as a central element in the characterization presented above.

Related Posts:

September Eleven
9/11: Socrates, Machiavelli, Christ and Gandhi

9/11: The Burden of the Past and the Promise of the Future

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Questions for Amos Oz

August 4, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

Here are two disappointing questions with which Amos Oz, the grandfather of Israeli peaceniks, began a recent interview:

QUESTION 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap, and starts shooting machine-gun fire into your nursery?

QUESTION 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?

The way this comes across is as if everything was going along swimmingly, we were the greatest of friends, and suddenly I discover you are sitting in your balcony pointing a machine-gun or digging a tunnel into my nursery.

Clearly that’s not the way it is.

Leave aside the contentious history stretching back decades about who’s sitting in whose balcony at the end of the tunnel. A few weeks ago three Israeli boys were kidnapped and murdered. In a law-abiding society one would expect a search for the kidnappers and murderers. One would not expect an exhaustive retaliation against all those in any way related or connected to those suspected of the crime.

Try and imagine this in any other country that aspires to be judged as civilized. This kind of response would be inconceivable and unacceptable. It would be a throwback to at least a hundred years in the past.

Therefore, might one conclude that the motivation was not to bring murderers to justice but something else? What that might be we could leave to the analysts. It could be a political calculus aimed to alter the trajectory of some dynamic in favor of another. But it could also reflect the belief that fine distinctions are no longer relevant, that all Palestinians are murderers and that all unborn Palestinians are potential murderers.

I hope you would agree that such a belief is to be resisted, that its encouragement is to be resisted, that its spread contains the seeds of the kind of madness we have witnessed and suffered from in the past.

In Pakistan, we have seen some factions of the Taliban training children as suicide bombers. Some groups in Hamas might be doing the same in Gaza. But can that justify eliminating all the children who might possibly become suicide-bombers in the future?

We had asked this question earlier in the context of the Taliban in Pakistan:

The Americans and the Pakistanis are at war with Baitullah Mehsud. Assume that Baitullah Mehsud is guilty of war crimes. Does that justify the killing of Baitullah Mehsud’s wife as the Americans have done with a missile strike?

One central question is clearly that of collateral damage and the extent of it that can be plausibly justified. Is it justifiable in the present conflict in Gaza to consider all Palestinians, or all Arabs as some have done, as terrorists and thereby acceptable as collateral damage? If not, should there be sanctions on those propagating and encouraging such a view?

This is not to say that such a situation may be inconceivable. John Gray, in his review of Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice, presents the following moral dilemma:

On any reasonable view, Allied saturation bombing of German cities in the Second World War inflicted severe injustice on civilian populations. A Nazi victory, on the other hand, would have spelt the complete death of justice in Europe. Leaving to one side the case that Allied bombing made that dreadful outcome less likely – despite clever-silly arguments to the contrary, I believe it may have helped – there is here an intractable moral dilemma. However one describes this dilemma – as a quasi-utilitarian trade-off between injustices of differing degrees of severity, or a tragic choice in which the injustices involved were of such different kinds as to be incomparable – one thing is clear: a readiness on the part of the Allies to sanction grave injustice was a precondition of any kind of justice surviving in Europe, and perhaps the world.

The question is whether the intentions and actions of Hamas can be considered equivalent to those of Hitler with the same potentially catastrophic outcomes for the region and the world to justify recourse to the kind of saturation bombing the Allies rained on German cities? Once again, an honest answer would have to make fine distinctions of scale and balance of power.

In Pakistan, we have seen how cynical and calculated manipulation of the tribal areas and its people over decades has evolved into the problems we face today. I was at a meeting once when a representative of the state was asked why the areas had remained so undeveloped and underserved half a century after the creation of the country. A lack of financial resources was the proffered answer. Could any semi-intelligent person take that answer seriously? No resources for a population of no more than three million people in a country where billions of dollars in assistance have disappeared and billions of Rupees in taxpayer money have been consumed by little-used motorways?

Is that really the way towards inclusive development or even, to be cynical, to buy peace? Isn’t Gaza like the tribal areas in Pakistan, just even more bottled up because of inability of the residents to escape their misery? Is there a real argument that reasonable, serious people were not able to think of a better way to buy peace in Israel?

It would be difficult to make such an argument honestly and therefore one has to ask what has been driving the decisions of the leaders who wish the best for Israel. Here, for consideration, is the answer offered by Ron Rosenbaum for what might have motivated Hitler:

Hitler didn’t lose the war. Not the war Evans argues was most important to him: the racial war. Hitler won that war. Six million to one. Yes, he committed suicide at the end. (And yes, 50 million others lost their lives so he could win the part of the war he cared about most. Collateral damage.)

Thinking about that suicide now, in the light of 9/11 and the subsequent exaltations of suicide bombing on messianic, theological grounds, does in fact offer a radical new way of characterizing Hitler. In retrospect at least, it’s tempting to argue that Hitler was, if not the first, then by far history’s greatest single suicide bomber. He blew up Europe to kill the Jews in it, even if it meant killing himself and tens of millions of others in the end.

In looking at two sets of suicide-bombers, is it conceivable we might be looking for the next-greatest ones in the wrong enclave? And could that enclave be a mental and not a physical one?

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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