Colombo Telegraph

Understanding Islamic Terrorism

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

Understanding Islamic Terrorism – II

Emmanuel Todd is a French political scientist of Jewish origin. He had his original training as a demographer and historian and turned later to political science. A fascinating book by him on the influence of family systems on European politics established him, in my view, as an original thinker in the field of political science. He shot to international fame after a book published in 1976 in which he predicted the forthcoming demise of Soviet communism. The only other writer to make a like prediction was Daniel Moynihan, one-time US Permanent Representative to the UN. I am basing my material for this part of my article on Todd’s 2002 book, the title of which in literal translation reads After Empire, in which he predicted the forthcoming demise of American imperialism. For some years after 2002 his prediction seemed premature but not now. The recent triumphal visit of the Chinese Prime Minister to Britain is seen as inaugurating a new era in international relations. It is an era in which the US is no longer the top dog of the world.

As far as my knowledge goes, Todd is the only political scientist to provide a convincing explanation of Islamic terrorism. The usual explanation is that violence is integral to Islam as it is a religion of the sword. That leads to Samuel Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilisations, which seems to be the paradigm within which most people understand Islamic terrorism today. The world of Islam is seen as challenging the West. A little reflection on the part of the reader – I mean the unprejudiced reader – and a consideration of just a few facts will convince him that the notion of the world of Islam challenging the West is an utterly bizarre one. The world of Islam in the Middle East has been tearing itself to pieces and parts of it have been whacked to pieces by the West. The terrorist bombings in Paris were in retaliation for French bombings of the IS, not part of a project to conquer the West. Terrorism remains what it has always been: the resort of the weak, not of the strong. The notion that we are witnessing a clash of civilisations is the product of Islamophobic idiocy.

I will now expound Todd’s thesis on Islamic terrorism rather broadly without going into much detail. The first chapter of his book After Empire is entitled The Myth of universal terrorism. His argument is that American power has been in steep decline and the American Empire is on the way to its demise. The US therefore cannot take on any big power, any power with significant military strength in military conflict. In this situation it needs to show that it is still a super power. Therefore it pounces on a militarily insignificant country such as Iraq. And it has created the myth of universal terrorism to show that the US has a role as the world’s top cop. Todd’s argument is certainly supported by the facts. If you look at the wide wide world there are just a few spots in it where terrorism is a serious problem. In an article published recently in the Island Gwynne Dyer points out that during the last fourteen years only sixteen have been killed in the US by Islamic terrorists, in no more than two incidents, averaging just two per year. Therefore it is absurd to talk of universal terrorism, and it is also absurd to talk of Islamic terrorism as an expression of Islam’s challenge to the West.

Todd’s basic argument is as follows. The transition to modernity usually, though not invariably, involves violence. The transition process has two stages, one cultural and the other demographic. The cultural process means the spread of literacy. The most important factor is the spread of literacy among females which usually takes place sometime after the spread of literacy among males. It is the most important factor because female literacy inaugurates the demographic stage with a lowering of the birth rate. The transition process is complete when the population stabilizes with a low birth rate. According to Todd it is during the transition period that there is a turning to fundamentalism and violence. Once the process is complete the appeal of fundamentalism decreases and the violence stops. It is a world-wide process, about which Todd provides very convincing evidence from the Islamic world. I must add parenthetically at this point that the transition process is complete among the Sri Lankan Muslims as they have a very high degree of literacy and an average of two children per family – contrary to what is alleged by Islamophobic propagandists. According to Todd’s thesis therefore the prospect of Islamic fundamentalism turning violent here is very remote or non-existent.

I will now quote Todd on what he calls “the crisis of transition”. – “Progress is not, as the thinkers of the Enlightenment believed, a linear ascent, happy and easy in every way. The tearing away from traditional life, from the equilibrium provided by routine in preliterate societies, with their high fertility and high mortality, produces in the early stage, paradoxically, almost as much disorientation and suffering as hope and enrichment, Very often, perhaps even in a majority of cases, a mental and cultural wrenching away accompanies a crisis of transition. The destabilization of people results in violent social and political behavior. The ascent to modernity of the mind is frequently accompanied by ideological violence”. The explanation of the transition to modernity is more or less the same as the one given by Karen Armstrong, and is probably the standard explanation today, except that Todd places a much stronger emphasis on violence as part of the process.

Todd continues that the crisis of transition did not take place for the first time in the third world but in Europe. Most of the nations that today are so peaceful went through a phase of ideological fervor and brutal and bloody politics. There were violent transitions through the revolutions in France and Russia and the coming to power of the Nazis in Germany. The English who seem so reasonable and pragmatic had the first national revolution in Europe through a civil war which led to the decapitation of the King in 1649. Significantly the English had precociously a high level of literacy, and religion played a big part in the Puritan Revolution. “The jihad in the name of Allah of recent years is not, in all its dimensions, of a different nature. If it is far from being liberal, it nevertheless represents, fundamentally, not a regression but a crisis of transition. The violence and the religious frenzy are only temporary”.

Todd gives an exemplary importance to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. A religious revolution chased the King away. There followed two decades of ideological excess and bloody struggle. But it was a high degree of literacy that propelled the Iranian masses and modernized their minds. The lowering of the birth rate took place shortly after Khomeini came to power. “The ideological struggles expressed in the language of Shiite Islam are inaccessible to Europeans bred in the Christian tradition; nevertheless they make no less sense than the struggles between Protestant sects in the époque of Cromwell. The denunciation of injustice in the world in Shiite theology implies a revolutionary potential, just as much as the original Protestant metaphysic perceived man and the world as corrupt. Luther, and even more Calvin, those ayatollahs of the sixteenth century, have contributed to the birth of a regenerated and pure society – America, the child of religious exaltation just as much as modern Iran”.

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