Terrorism is modern

I’ve been off working on various things, but am resuming blogging. To start, here’s another long overdue, provocative post by the Underground Man.

Islamist terrorism, unfortunately for those who need an uncomplicated enemy to hate, is not a heterogeneous edifice run by similarly intentioned malevolent men wanting to take control of the world.  It is borne out of various ideas and histories and has roots in many parts of the world. Olivier Roy uses two different ways to study terrorism. The first would be the vertical method wherein one can establish the genealogy of all kinds of radicalisation in the Quran and Islamic history and trace it to Islamist radicals today. This method does not take into account definitive roots of terrorism and subjectively distinguishes ‘Muslim’ violence from manifestations of violence. The second approach is horizontal and frames terrorism in the context of contemporary phenomena of violence affecting all modern societies. The second approach is more productive in understanding Al Qaida as a movement unlike many other movements borne out of dissent. I find Roy’s use of the words modern and contemporary while talking about Islamist terrorism particularly intriguing and will dwell a bit more on that below.

The Islamist brand of terrorism is a modern manifestation of violence and dissent. I use the word modern deliberately and cautiously. I say it to contest the opinion that Islam, Islamist terrorism or Muslims are not modern and do not belong in the modern times, which would suggest that there is something barbaric, ancient or other worldly about them. I argue that terrorism is not only a modern phenomenon; it is specifically a product of our globalised, interconnected, ultra-modern zeitgeist.

Firstly, the word modern is technically defined by a particular point in time, in particular after the Age of Enlightenment and Age of Reason in Europe post-fifteenth century. Any idea or event that takes place after that point in time, be it Modern Art or birth of the internet, is necessarily a part of modernity. Because it is associated with the colonial Master’s domain and defined in the Master’s language, it is assumed that Europe has the patent to enlightenment and modernity, and that all others from the third world must only consume modernity defined by Europe. It is the most civilised of civilizations that is the purveyor of modern culture and all Others must adopt and follow suit.  If we, instead, take the definition out of the dictionary than all forms of Islamist terrorism and any evolution of religion post-Enlightenment era has fall under modern times. It cannot be otherwise.

To quote Talal Asad:

In an important sense, tradition and modernity are not really two mutually exclusive states of a culture or society but different aspects of historicity. Many of the things that are thought of as modern belong to traditions which have their roots in Western history. When people talk about liberalism as a tradition, they recognize that it is a tradition in which there are possibilities of argument, reformulation, and encounter with other traditions, that there is a possibility of addressing contemporary problems through the liberal tradition. So one thinks of liberalism as a tradition central to modernity. How is it that one has something that is a tradition but that is also central to modernity? Clearly, liberalism is not a mixture of the traditional and the modern. It is a tradition that defines one central aspect of Western modernity. It is no less modern by virtue of being a tradition than anything else is modern. Such questions need to be worked through before we can decide meaningfully whether there are varieties of modernity and, if there is only one kind of modernity, then whether it is separable from Westernization or not.

Secondly, there are subjective connotations of the word ‘modern’ which may not define it so rigidly. Modern can be used interchangeably with ‘current’, ‘civilised’, ‘fashionable’, or even ‘up to date’.  Even if we do take these terms facetiously, we will find that there is nothing out-dated or old about Islamist terrorism. To argue that Islamist terrorism is not civilised is an incomplete statement without further accepting that all forms of violent dissent are uncivilised and barbaric. It would be difficult to qualify a statement that says anti-imperialist, anti-state movements such as the Baader-Meinhof Group in Germany, the Red Army in Russia, the Maoists in India or even Che Guevara are modern conceptions while Islamist terrorism is not. While there are several distinctions among these, I argue that they are all forms of modern, violent dissent to the global status quo.

Lastly, it is dangerous to even think about Islamist terrorism as a blanket concept that can possibly define Al Qaida, the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah and countless other groups in a singular narrative. At the outset of this essay, I remarked that they are not homogeneous organizations producing one type of a terrorist. For example, there are marked differences between Islamo-nationalist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah that do not have any agenda outside their own political conflicts, and the global jihad of Al Qaeda that is not territorially defined.

To deal with the threat of Islamist terrorism, it would perhaps be more effective to think about it from a political perspective (a struggle for territorial control) instead of an ideological perspective (wide spread imposition of sharia law). I conclude with thoughts from Olivier Roy who says that the process of radicalisation is to be understood by putting it into perspective with the other forms of violence among youth and any process of de-radicalisation should address youth populations, and not an elusive Muslim community, which is more constructed than real”.