In the Aftermath of Islamist Terror…

8 months ago Ricardo Hylton 0

In the aftermath of last week’s terrorist atrocity in Manchester, my mind drifted to September 11, 2001. I was in Jamaica. Specifically, I awoke in Kingston, Jamaica that fateful morning, on Preston Hall on the University of the West Indies. I had a politics 101 lecture. Someone turned on the TV and before long my friends and I were gathered around the ghastly images beaming from CNN.

We were about two weeks into our University life, fresh eyed and unknowing from Trinidad, rural Jamaica and Barbados. In truth, we were naïve. As we stood in front of the falling building and the firemen and the bodies tumbling from on high, none of us could have predicted that world as we knew it would be no more.

In part this was because we were from a part of the world where violence had a few causes:

  • Poverty, hunger
  • Political division
  • Gang warfare motivated by drugs and turf
  • Household domestic skirmishes (this one more prevalent than you’d think)


I had never heard nor understood the word terrorism outside the context of my mum saying our neighbor was ‘terrorizing’ her with her stray chickens. Then 9/11 shook up my consciousness. Afghanistan and Iraq followed. Islamic Terror struck Bali and Madrid. Completing a degree in political science and voracious reading lifted my mindfulness. I learned that terrorism of this ilk was occurring all over the Middle East for a very long time. 9/11 was an exception in one way only. It struck the heart of word’s financial, political and cultural center. Global terrorism had turned west in a most vicious and photogenic way.


File photo dated 7/7/2005 of the scene in Tavistock Square, Central London, after a bomb ripped through a double decker bus following the terrorist attacks on the capital.


When terrorists struck London in the summer of 2005, I was away in Jamaica and was able to intellectualize about it. That is, throw my mind back to my books and pamphlets to understand its genesis and consequences. The work of Islamic terrorists in France over the past 12 months has been particularly cruel.

I was at work in nearby Lewisham when Lee Rigby was callously hacked to death on a subdued afternoon in May 2013 and also close by when the recent attacks in Westminster took place. It is fair to say Islamic terrorism has been exercising my mind.


By Way of Manchester

It was an Ariana Grande concert. She is a Disney star. Little kids are her core audience. The attack stabs at my heart. I too have children. I am now nervous on the underground. On the bus, my eyes dart left and right. I was recently on the DLR, on my way to a job interview when my stomach stiffened with trepidation as a Muslim brother sat opposite with his knapsack. Inside, like ice cream, I melted with shame. This is not who I am, I scolded myself before letting out a long breath and relaxing in my seat.

Maybe this is what terrorism feels like. Finally, I wasn’t intellectualizing. I was feeling and the red-hot breath of fear blowing down the quivering nape of my neck.


The Results of Intellectualizing Terrorism


When you take a grip of history and theology, and start probing, the reasons for terrorism can seem clear:

  1. Social and political injustice: People choose terrorism when they are trying to right what they perceive to be a social or political or historical wrong—when they have been stripped of their land or rights, or denied these.


  1. The belief that violence or its threat will be effective, and usher in change. Another way of saying this is: the belief that violent means justify the ends. Many terrorists in history said sincerely that they chose violence after long deliberation, because they felt they had no choice.

This explanation of the causes of terrorism may be difficult to swallow. It sounds too simple, or too theoretical. However, if you look at any group that is widely understood as a terrorist group, you will find these two elements are basic to their story.

People who choose terrorist tactics are also persuaded that violence, or the threat of violence, is effective. There is some question about who actually ‘chooses’ terrorism, and it may be unfair to think of young recruits, such as some suicide bombers today, who are seduced by cult-like methods of indoctrination as completely culpable for their choices.


Ask A Better Question: What Conditions Are Favourable For Terrorism.


In fact, the question, “what causes terrorism?” is not quite the right question to be asking, because we will never be able to answer it. We cannot say that the presence of one factor provokes terrorism in the same way that we can say with scientific certainty that certain toxins cause diseases.

If you listen closely to the explanations that are usually given as answers to the question, “What is terrorism?” you will find that they actually answer the question: “What are the conditions in which terrorism is most likely to take place?” Sometimes these conditions have to do with the people who become terrorists (they are described as having certain psychological traits, like ‘narcissistic rage’) and some conditions have to do with the circumstances they live in (a poor society; a formerly colonized society, for example).


But What About Religion?


Although many people today believe that that religious fanaticism “causes” terrorism, it isn’t true. It may be true that religious fanaticism creates conditions that are favorable for terrorism. But we know that religious zealotry does not ‘cause’ terrorism because there are many religious fanatics who do not choose terrorism or any form of violence.

So there must also be other conditions that in combination provoke some people to see terrorism as an effective way of creating change in their world.

There are two more reasons why asking, “What conditions create a favorable climate for terrorism?” is better than asking about causes.

The first is, it makes it easy to remember that there are always at least several conditions. Terrorism is a complex phenomenon; it is a specific kind of political violence committed by people who do not have a legitimate army at their disposal.


A second reason that has been useful for me, as I ask questions about terrorism, is that thinking in terms of ‘conditions’ helps me remember that people have a choice about whether to use violence.

There is nothing inside any person nor in their circumstances that sends them—like a monopoly piece headed directly to “Go”—directly to terrorism.

Instead, there are certain conditions, some of which make violence against civilians seem like a reasonable, and even necessary option. Despite this, and some of the deeply unforgivable circumstances that foster terrorism, people always have the free will to seek another course of action.


But the Crusades… and Western Aggression… And This…And that

When I think of the interventions by the West in mostly Muslim countries its not clear to be they have done more to stop terrorism than they have to provoke disgruntlement. No matter how good meaning these are, they seem to end up radicalizing a good chunk of the youth, both home and away.

Was Manchester a consequence of our foreign policy going back to Blair, perhaps even further back? The Iranian revolution. The Israeli settlements. The Crusades. Napoleon seizing Egypt. The constant US, U.K., German and French meddling in the region. And of course, the illegal Iraqi invasion in 2003.

But anyone wanting to blame western aggression for Islamic fundamentalism should consider that Islamic State was founded well before the invasion in Iraq. Islamic State in 2016 said this:


“Some might argue that your foreign policies are what drives our hatred but this particular reason for hating you is secondary. If you were to stop bombing us we would continue to hate you. Our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam.”


So the issue is neither neatly political nor theological. Terrorism is complex. What is simple is its effect. What is straightforward is the hurt it supplies.

But when we pray for Manchester, let’s also spare a thought for those killed this week in Iraq. There were hundreds murdered by the Islamists. And those in Gaza and the West Bank being displaced just this week. The West is indifferent to Afghanistan’s and Iraq’s world of terror. In the Western consciousness, this is where the killing is supposed to happen. A bombing in Baghdad or a Taliban strike in Kabul is like a typhoon in the Pacific or a Sean Spicer gaffe. These things happen.

Terrorism also occurs in the Middle East from without. Was the war in Iraq a terrorist attack, a revenge terrorist premised in political and religious ideology? Or is it only terrorism when “they” do it? We can make language flip and skip and land wherever we like.

What political leaders need to do, however, is to stop grand standing on TV after these despicable attacks. Perhaps what is needed is an acceptance that the causes are multilayered. Consequently, the response needs to be multilayered. It needs a range, from security policies to cultural and emotional commonality. It also, sadly, requires an understanding that the security services cant prevent some of these attacks. Minds will have to be turned and that is neither simple nor swift. I suspect we will have to settle in for the long, hard yards on this one.