By Laksiri Fernando –
It is a wrong proposition to say that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Terrorism should be defined or understood not in a subjective manner, but objectively. There can be grey areas when some incidents or historical facts are analysed, but that should not preclude us from achieving a common understanding of this horrible phenomenon and rejecting it as abhorrent to human civilization. The ‘fight for freedom,’ if at all, should not involve violence, let alone terrorism. Therefore, no terrorist should be any man’s (or woman’s) freedom fighter.
There cannot be any difficulty in identifying the suicide bomb attack in Manchester at the Ariana Grande Concert on the 23rd May as terrorism and the person who inflicted the attack killing himself, Salman Abedi, as a terrorist. In this single incident, 22 people have been killed and 59 injured. Many hundreds or even thousands are terrorised. I usually don’t like to quote Lenin on these matters but he once said, ‘the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize.’ It is an objective pronouncement.
The Islamic State (IS) group has claimed the responsibility for the suicide bomb attack. Therefore, there is a clear identification of the terrorist act with a terrorist organization. However, there are still speculation whether the suicide bomber was directly connected to the IS or acted alone, perhaps with a smaller group, of course inspired by the IS or similar ideology. The latter is the pattern that we have seen in many such attacks in Europe in recent time.
If such is the case, there is more reason to worry about the evolving pattern of ‘lone wolves’ as they may have ‘grievances,’ perceived or real. However, no grievance is a justification for violence, in my opinion, let alone terrorism.
Clash of Cultures?
The attack on Ariana Concert undoubtedly has a cultural angle. It was an event of Western pop music patronized by young women and men. It is also common to many other countries. It may be distasteful to certain ‘ethical,’ religious or cultural traditions, but in that case those people should not migrate or live in Western countries. Even if you don’t agree, you should be able to tolerate and respect the other.
It is because of this cultural angle, that many Western leaders and observers rightly consider these attacks as threats to their ‘way of life.’ This is an undeniable feeling. In many of their statements they also consider these attacks as ‘appalling, sickening and cowardice,’ expressing anger. Even in the most carefully worded statement of the British PM Theresa May on this event, these sentiments are clearly expressed. The US President, Donald Trump has called the attackers ‘evil losers.’ One cannot expect a different reaction. All civilized people should denounce this henious crime. However, the question is whether such statements would aggravate or alleviate the situation. I am here not referring to the IS, but to the ‘lone wolves,’ as many of them are citizens or even born in these countries. This is the situation even in the case of Salman Abedi.
Here there is a question whether too much of ‘social globalization’ has created this unnecessary ‘clash of civilization.’ Terrorists are terrorists, but no one is a born terrorist. Terrorists are created under the circumstances. If globalization was limited to economic, trade or technological aspects, without leading to exodus of ‘social globalization,’ things could have been more manageable. The worst has been the attempted ‘political globalization.’ The world is too complex to globalize within a short span of time.
The religious, cultural and political diversities are too vast in this world at present. There are countries which are reluctant to globalize for various reasons. Therefore, those countries should be left relatively alone to manage their own affairs. The attempt at effecting uniformity or ‘universality’ do more harm than good, as the recent history has shown since the war against Iraq and attempted regime changes in the Middle East.
Definition and Roots
Terrorism of course is not a new phenomenon. It has been there since ancient times particularly in Rome and in the Middle East. Asia, India and Sri Lanka have been quite free from this scourge in ancient times, although extreme violence prevailed at various degrees in war, rebellion or in suppressing opposition to rulers.
Although terrorism is considered mainly as a method of achieving objectives (Alex Schmid), in my opinion, it can also be identified as an ideology itself, ‘with intense hatred, urge for destruction and will to sacrifice.’ These are common to many terrorist organizations or individuals. These traits emerge in the psychological sphere whether prompted by ‘grievances’ or influenced by ideology itself. It has an element of anarchism, which might not appear at the initial stages of a movement (if we refer to a movement), but at the losing end. That is why the terrorists don’t usually compromise.
Of course, there is a pattern of attributing the label of ‘terrorism’ to political opponents as a way of denouncing them. However, that cannot be done unless such ‘opponents’ indulge in some form of violence. For example, the brand name ‘terrorism’ first came to be used in Sri Lanka during the 1971 JVP insurrection. It was argued that the term was insulting. It was further argued that ‘the insurrection’ was a justified rebellion against state suppression. This may be true subjectively for some of those who participated in that rebellion. They never would have thought of indulging in mass violence or crime.
But broadly or objectively speaking, there was ‘terror’ even in a small scale at that event in 1971. It was that potential that became enlarged and unleashed during 1987-89 period. Same goes for the LTTE or any such organizations in the North, whatever the justification one may want to attribute to their objectives. Perhaps the LTTE had more of this terrorist character from the beginning, also as a ‘demonstration effect’ of the JVP. ‘Why did the JVP failed in 1971? Because it was not forceful enough for the task.’ That is how the lessons of violence went around from the South to the North; coming back again to the South. The spiralling effect of violence most often is the harbinger of terrorism.
Terrorism is the highest form of (political or religious) violence. That is why the scourge of terrorism cannot be eliminated without combating violence of all forms. People do have arguments and theories in justifying various forms of violence. Even Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber, must have had his justification or theories. This is also not the first or the only type of terrorism that Britain has experienced.
In June 1996, the IRA unleashed a bomb attack in Manchester, targeting mainly the infrastructure and the economy. Over 200 people were injured, but luckily there were no fatalities. Does that make the IRA attack any better? No. The absence of fatalities must have been an accident. Of course, they announced the attack 90 minutes before. Even that does not make that bomb attack ‘ethical.’ The IRA terrorism was primarily home grown. But the purpose and the ideology of the present attack apparently come from abroad. There are various varieties and types in terrorism. But the fundamental ideology is the same or similar: hatred, destruction and sacrifice.
It is high time that all forms of violence are denounced and renounced, although under certain circumstances this may still appear difficult and politically defeatist. Nelson Mandela and South Africa have proved that patience and ‘non-violent resistance’ can bring better results than open ‘struggles’ or ‘confrontation’ most often bordering on violence. Mahatma Gandhi said this before more philosophically, although his followers failed to practice it thereafter. Otherwise, South Asia could have been a better place to live than today.
Questions about Marxism?
There are various theories that condone violence in some form, directly or indirectly. Marxism is one. While the Marxist theories are pertinent in analysing capitalist injustices (economic exploitation and repressions under the state) and the way forward through socialism, the theories of ‘violent revolutions’ or ‘armed struggles’ have not reaped much results, in countries where those were experimented. The worst case has been Cambodia. Even in the case of China, reforms have brought much progress than the revolution. North Korea has gone to the extreme of some ‘Marxist’ theories. The Soviet Union and the Eastern European communist enclaves have collapsed and the present Russia appears a caricature of the debacle. Even Cuba is not free from the repercussions. It has been violent revolutions that have given rise to violent or authoritarian regimes thereafter.
The theories of imperialism of Lenin and others had given rise to colonial struggles, rightly so, both in violent and non-violent forms. The degree of violence or non-violence has been the factor which has determined the nature of the post-independence or post-colonial societies. Mostly non-violent struggles have established forms of democracies (South and South East Asia), and mostly violent struggles have given rise to dictatorial or less democratic societies (Latin America, Africa and parts of the Middle East). It is the same type of theories of self-determination that have given rise to many kinds of violent and terrorist movements of ethnic or nationalist nature.
There are neo-Marxist theories to consider the present international order as neo-colonialism. There can be much truth in it, in economic sense. Several aspects of neo-liberalism are examples. However, if violent struggles are justified on that basis, all possibilities for democratic development and peaceful change in many parts of the world would be in jeopardy. The need to renounce violence in all forms should take these theoretical matters into consideration.
The repressive nature of the state is most often taken as the justification for violence and terrorism. The IS terrorism emerged as ‘liberation’ for some groups repressed by the Syrian and the Iraqi states. The ideological justification comes from the present ‘international order’ dominated by the West, which is considered ‘evil’ by these and several other groups, for religious, cultural or ideological reasons.
The Western meddling in the Middle East is largely responsible for creating conditions and spaces that are being occupied by terrorism. The motives can be oil, money or power. The unjustified invasion of Iraq and attempted and effected regime changes in several other countries have created an immense anarchy in the region. The most glaring has been the support given to one terrorist group against the other. This has been the modus operandi not only of the West but also of countries like Russia. The results have been most devastating for both the Western and other countries.
There is no turning back, whatever the past mistakes, for the civilized world other than completely defeating terrorism at present. What must be avoided is the recurrence of past mistakes and infighting between the major powers who have the capacity to defeat terrorism. The UN should not be neglected, acting unilaterally. It is in the same vein that all forms of violence should be denounced and renounced by the states, non-state organizations and individuals. It is also important to follow the ‘laws of war’ (humanitarian rules and conventions) in combating terrorism within countries or internationally.