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.