Sunday, March 27, 2005

Misusing Occam's Razor

Johnny Ryan, an Irish polsci postgraduate at Oxford, has an article in the current issue of Magill with the stated aim of introducing to Dr Rory Miller of Kings College London, author of the recently published Ireland and the Palestine Question, the complexity of Islamist terrorism. In attempting to introduce his wrinkles, I suspect that Ryan is missing a number of essential points that the Miller has absorbed from his longer and more focused exposure to Arab and Israeli sources and proficiency in the original languages.

Ryan considers himself too sophisticated - he is a graduate of UCD, after all - to subscribe to the simple dichotomy of President Bush's challenge to the world after 9/11, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" but his scholarship falls down on a number of points - al-Qaeda, the politics of the Islamic world and the Cold War - which leads him to draw inadequately supported and morally-flawed conclusions. As today's birthday boy said, "Why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own?" Here it is Ryan rather than Miller who is failing to grasp the nuances of his subject matter.

Occam’s Razor – as applied by al-Qaeda

To begin, who does al-Qaeda consider its enemies? Americans, for certain, especially those representing their government overseas, as in 1998's embassy bombings in Africa. Killing a dozen a US diplomats seems, to their mind, to justify the slaughter of a further 200 innocent bystanders. On its own, this far exceeds in scale and ruthlessness anything ever undertaken by any of Europe's terrorists. Alslo in the firing line have been the UN, which was condemned by bin Laden as "...nothing but a tool of crime.", which presumably justifies the mass murder of its humanitarian staff in Iraq. Neither are tthe aid agencies such as MSF, the ICRC spared from bomb attacks, nor innocents such as Margaret Hassan and Ken Bigley, slaughtered like cattle on video. The same pattern of targeting innocents has been repeated in Bali, Madrid and, but for chance, in Mobassa.

Violence of this sort bespeaks an extremism and indifference to human life that is completely new and untasted for us in the west, but is tragically familiar in the Islamic world. bin Laden's talk of the "tragedy of al Andalus", and his rage at the ending of the genocidal Indonesian occupation of East Timor reinforce the conviction that here we have a murderous fantasist. Gerry Adams and his crew had to concede their shining vision of a 32-county Irish Socialist Republic for some cross-border tourism bodies. The distance for al-Qaeda to travel is far greater.

Civil wars and terrorism in Egypt, Algeria, Afghanistan and now Iraq and Saudi Arabia, have bear out the analysis of Gilles Kepel and other scholars (which, strangely, Ryan cites in his other work) that Islamist terrorism is more a sign of weakness than strength. Islamists have failed to take power, either through the ballot box or through violence against their own societies, as al Zawahiri admits in his Knights Under the Prophet's Banner, quoted extensively in Kepel's War for Muslim Minds. Isolated from their home societies and exiled, they can only bid desperately for support through violent spectaculars, or "propaganda of the deed" as it was known to the anarchists of early 20th century Europe.

Rather than moving from violence to build a base of mass support, al-Qaeda is working in the opposite direction, as a splinter from the more broadly-based Islamists such as those in Algeria and Egypt. The better Irish analogy should be with Justin Barrett, not Gery Adams.

Islam is very far from being a monolith, as one would expect from a religious tradition with nearly fifteen centuries of history that straddles many cultures around the globe. The only government Bin Laden has held up as an example of his ideal society was that of Afghanistan under the Taliban and Mullah Omar, to whom he sweared alleigance as "commander of the faithful".

There are many other variants. Towards the other end of the spectrum, there are the Muslim politicians of South East Asia, such as former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid ("Gus Dur"), who head the world's largest Muslim organisation and worked tirelessly in office for decentralisation and religious tolerance in that diverse nation. One of his more interesting recent roles, according to a recent New Yorker article, has been to act as a go-between for two of his friends, Iraqi Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Sistani and Paul Wolfowitz, a one-time US ambassador to Indonesia.

Then, in the murky middle, we have those movements and individuals, who may be abhorent, but are nonetheless represent useful allies, if not friends. One example is the Egyptian-born scholar Yusuf al Qaradawi, who may enjoy the widest reputation among in both popular and clerical opinion. His sanctioning wife-beating, the killing of gays and suicide-bombings against non-combatant Israelis, including women and children, disgust many in the West (although not, predictably, London mayor Ken Livingstone, who lavished praise on him during a recent visit to the city). The Sheik ridicules Osama Bin Laden's scholarship, and signed fatwas supporting the US attack on Afghanistan.

Hamas is in no sense an agent of reform. It's main electoral intervention to date has been in persuading the Israeli public first in 1996 and again in 2001, through a series of no-warning attacks on commuters, night-clubbers and shoppers, that negotiations would not deliver peace, bringing first Netanyahu and then Sharon to to power, followed by the re-occupation of the Palestinian areas after their attack on a Passover function in a hotel killed thirty. Palestinian terrorism may be accorded legitimacy in the wider Middle East, encouraged by the imprimatur of Qaradawi and others, but by now it's hard, after four years of being ground down to ascribe any success to it in furthering the struggle.

The cold war history he presents is bizarre. Bush's rhetoric of good and evil, strategy of democratisation and military intervention is being wielded, in many cases by the same people, as in the late cold war.

He's correct in drawing a contrast between the neo-conservative philosophy and that of Nixon and Kissinger, but this is only continuing Reagan's policies of reversing the growing Soviety military advantage and, just as importantly, abandoning the coldly amoral use of American power that brought such misery to Indonesia, Chile, Cambodia and other countries. In Korea, the Philippines and ultimately in Eastern Europe, this combination of moral clarity and military strength was the essential prerequisite for the overthrow of dictatorships that had seemed permanent. Oh, and thirty and forty-five thousand Americans died in Korea and Vietnam respectively, not "hundreds of thousands".

What will the world look like if non-state actors, ETA, the IRA, AQ, the drug cartels, religious cults like Aum in Japan - overcome the state cartel on holding biological and nuclear weapons. The motivations of its potential users are either so extreme, so obscure or simply so insane that they cannot be bargained with.

In summary, Bagdhad isn't Belfast, in spite of Ryan's impenetrable parochialism. al-Qaeda's terrorists have already killed tens of thousands without scruple in their own countries and 9/11 was just a taste of what may come. Let us hope we don't share the unfortunate fate of the battleground states in the Middle East or even the pale shadow of it that Israel has experienced.