I am currently taking a course on suicide terrorism taught by Professor Ami Pedahzur and as the discussion turned towards the events that occurred last week in Boston and the psychological effect that such acts of terrorism have on the American people, Prof. Pedahzur made a cogent comment that, in my opinion, seemed to warrant some further discussion. Arguing that the end goal of modern day terrorism is to inspire political change through the fear generated by random acts of violence against the target nation, the professor argued that the most effective way to deal with terrorism is to clamp down on the media coverage surrounding the attack and to effectively ignore the terrorists.
Prof. Pedahzur is an excellent academic and I certainly know far less about the study of political violence in general and suicide terrorism in particular than he does. And while I do agree with the ascertain he later made that the United States government needs to be honest in the fact that no matter how robust our security apparatus may be it is impossible to completely prevent terrorist attacks, I do not agree with his assertion that the best way to mitigate the horrifying effects of terrorist attacks is too sweep the terrorists under the rug.
It was President Reagan who most succinctly articulated the policy that has guided every US president since him, a policy that states that the United States “does not negotiate with terrorists”. I would argue, however, that this sort of hardline mentality prevents us from realizing and responding to the complexities of the situation occurring in the developing world (or the Global South as it is sometimes called), particularly in the Middle East, where public opinion about Western culture is not even close to uniform.
I would not presume to be able to write a complete explanation of all the complexities of the Islamic religion in one post, put I think it is worth noting that the religion is extremely complex and that the perspectives among Muslims differs as much as within any other social group. It is part of the mythology that the United States has created about the Middle East that Islam is synonymous with terrorism, and that all Muslims willingly follow strict shari’a law and possess an inherent hatred of the United States and all things Western.
The unfortunate fact is that the only interaction the United States seems to have with the Muslim world is in the form of extremists who see themselves as soldiers in a global jihad against modernism, a war they believe they are fighting against the United States (see the map above). The fact of the matter is that even in extremely religious countries such as Saudi Arabia or Iran, there are women who get drunk and dance on a Saturday night and homosexual couples living their lives in secret communities.
Ignoring the problems occurring in the Muslim world and the underlying social tensions which precipitate terrorists attacks against the United States is not going to solve the conflicts between the Western world and the Middle East. Far from blaming the United States for all of the region’s woes, I would advocate for a more conciliatory foreign policy that recognizes the incredible diversity of the region and seeks to improve social conditions in the region in a way that mitigates cultural misunderstanding and fosters a healthier relationship between the two peoples. This is not giving into the terrorists, imposing our own values on the Muslim world, or leaving the Middle East (and Israel for that matter) in the dust. It is about recommitting to the idea of a global order based upon common human values and a recognition of basic human rights and dignities.
Although the bombers in Boston have been identified as Chechans and have no relation to the Middle East, in the days before the identification a rampant wave of Islamophobia swept through the United States in speculation of the motives behind the attack. A Saudi Arabian student was even subject to an intense interrogation and search of his apartment, even though he was a victim of the attack and had no connection to the bombing whatsoever. It is to our detriment in this country that we have for so long ignored what is going on in the Middle East and have chosen instead to gloss a very nuanced situation over in favor of being able to easily comprehend it.