Just denouncing “terrorism” is simplistic

Denouncing terrorist acts like the recent attack on the office of a French satirical journal in Paris is easy. Understanding what motivates such actions, and thus beginning to find ways to make them fewer, is more complicated. Putting quotes around the word “terrorism” is a start, since one man (or woman’s) terrorist is another’s freedom fighter – though a strict definition of the word is terrorizing a population by whatever means in order to influence behavior. By this definition, American drone strikes against Muslim populations in places like northwest Pakistan and Israeli violence in Gaza and the West Bank are terrorist attacks. In fact, I would say the use of the US and Israeli “defense” forces are in general terroristic, though other motives are also involved.

Note that most of this overbearing and preponderant Western force is used to kill civilian Muslim populations. Some members of these populations may have committed crimes against, say, the US or Israel, but they haven’t been convicted of any crimes in a court of law, and there is always “collateral damage”: death and destruction of innocent civilians and their homes and livelihoods.

In fact, if not in theory, the predominantly Christian (and Jewish) “West” is committed to a war, a latter-day Crusade, against Muslims – or at least peoples who all happen to be Muslim…a “clash of civilizations,” as Samuel Huntingdon famously and erroneously described it.

What’s the struggle really about? Most of the targeted populations are simple tribal peoples only a few of whom have recently been recruited by jihadists. And what they mostly want is just to be left alone, free to determine their own destiny.

What motivates the jihadists? I wouldn’t begin to know, but I would guess a complicated mixture of thoughts and motives, despite the apparent simplicity of their message. The men who commandeered four US airliners on September 11, 2001, for example, were mostly Saudis with no connection to Afghanistan or Iraq (largely secular at the time), and many of them habitually violated tenets of Islam involving drinking alcohol and engaging in other secular, “Western” activities.

Could their motivation – and that of Osama bin Laden, the most famous Muslim executed without trial, along with members of his family, by American commandos – have been at least partly resentment of US superpower imperialism and domination of their home territory for oil?

Could it be that all people just want to be left alone, in peace, to determine their own destiny, including the disposition of their country’s resources? Is it possible that if we respect and stop “othering” each other, if we agree to share resources equitably, all this violence would stop? I believe it would.

If I’m right, cartoons like those in Charlie Hebdo mocking others’ religion in a consciously incendiary way would be curtailed voluntarily. We would all self-censor, respecting each other, and doing unto others as we would wish they would do unto us.

In favor of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, weren’t they really attacking other peoples’ religious beliefs because they thought those beliefs motivated mistreatment of others, including violating their freedom to act and believe according to their own consciences? Using humor for these reasons can motivate positive change, but it has to be constructed carefully in order not to constitute just more fuel for the judgmental and antagonistic fire. It’s possible to puncture someone’s bombastic self-importance in a way that makes the reality obvious to almost everyone, perhaps even the person him- or herself. Gentle shaming, in other words, in the overarching context of group – human – solidarity. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were just guilty of not thinking it through and knowing their deepest motivations. Freedom of speech is important to a degree, but it isn’t the highest value.

Do we need an attack from outer space to get it straight? No. We just need to stop falling for the propaganda of our respective power-mongers. In our case – in the West, it’s state governments and leaders, who only fulfill the needs of small elites. In their case – groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State, it’s individual leaders using legitimate needs and grievances, to advance jihadist Islamic fundamentalism. Or Zionism in the case of the increasingly unreasonable Israeli government (a “Jewish state” amid a multiethnic population can never be free and democratic). In both cases, it’s easy, simplistic mob-think, appealing to our worst tendencies.

Think for yourself. Recognize the legitimate rights of others. Beware states, borders, and patriarchal religious movements. No one belief or idea is right for everyone.


About (They Got the Guns, but) We Got the Numbers

I'm an artist and student of history, living in Eugene, OR. On the upside of 70 and retired from a jack-of-all-trades "career," I walk, do yoga, and hang out with my teenage grandkids. I believe we can make this world better for them and the young and innocent everywhere, if we connect with each other and create peaceful, cooperative communities as independent of big corporations and corporate-dominated governments as possible.

Posted on January 12, 2015, in 9-11, Israel as a threat to peace and democracy, Relationship, US foreign policy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. So, what were the cartoonists’ “deepest motivations”?

  2. As I said, I’m guessing that the reason the cartoonists wanted to satirize certain religious groups or leaders is that they dislike their tendency to want to curtail independent thought and thus wanted to bring them down a peg. I regret that the way they did it was, in my opinion, also discouraging of complex, independent thought and merely inflammatory in turn. You were in my thoughts as I wrote this post, as I admire your ability as a cartoonist to be more subtle.

  3. akismet-423988338c7640f334816bc19c36cbca

    I agree that outrageous cartoons are not likely to have a positive effect, especially on the people you want the most to reach– moderate muslims. On the other hand, I fiercely believe that people have the right to say (or draw) whatever they want without being killed, regardless of this or that country’s acts of oppression.

    • Yes, of course, people have a right to express themselves freely without being subjected to any form of violence. I’m just wishing for as much conscious thought as possible in the expression of ideas and thoughts on sensitive topics. And saying as well that there are other values besides freedom that need to be upheld. The example of “shouting fire in a crowded theater” comes to mind. As noted in Wikipedia, this is “a popular metaphor for speech or actions made for the principal purpose of creating unnecessary panic…a paraphrasing of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s opinion in the United States Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States in 1919, which held that the defendant’s speech in opposition to the draft during World War I was not protected free speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The paraphrasing does not generally include the word “falsely”, i.e., “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater”, which was the original wording used in Holmes’s opinion and highlights that speech which is dangerous and false is not protected, as opposed to speech which is truthful but also dangerous.”

      I don’t know what Schenck said, and I’m guessing I would have been on his side. But there are cases, and some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons may be examples of them, where free expressions may create unnecessary uproar, whether crafted for that purpose or not. Again, I’m not saying this should be illegal — in general I’m against laws and for self-regulation — and I’m definitely not saying it’s grounds for violent reprisal — just regrettable. I wonder if the CH cartoonists had looked into underlying causes of Muslim terrorism, and, if not, if that would have changed their approach. They, or anyone, is under no obligation to be as well informed as possible and/or to practice empathy; I’m just saying that these things might promote the greater good and that simplistic denouncing of any kind makes me uncomfortable.

  4. Wow, Maggie,
    Well written and right on! Thank you!

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