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The so-called
The so-called "war on terror"
Current approaches to the "war on terror" raise many questions on a number of fronts. Most importantly, there has been a tendency to see terrorism as essentially a military or security threat requiring, primarily,
Tuesday, November 20,2007 02:20

Current approaches to the "war on terror" raise many questions on a number of fronts. Most importantly, there has been a tendency to see terrorism as essentially a military or security threat requiring, primarily, a military and security response. Where a military intervention has been tried and there has been an effort to effect democracy by military means, as in the case of Iraq, it has not succeeded. In Afghanistan, where the rationale for intervention was to remove a regime that posed a threat to international peace and security through its extensive support of terrorism, efforts to establish a new democratic constitution - which would have been challenging enough in any circumstances - have been undermined by the diversion of resources to Iraq.

World public opinion has taken a dim view of this approach and has raised many questions, not least whether the war on terror itself is helping to sustain feelings of grievance and therefore contributing to the possibility of future attacks, as well as to a higher level of violence in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

There have been many unintended consequences of adopting the strategy of a "war on terror", not least that aspects of the strategy seem to have further inflamed sentiment across the world. Not surprisingly, there has been a loss of hope and a growing cynicism about a felt loss of the common international values and standards that all nations in principle adhere to.

The misuse of religion This is an extract of "Civil Paths to Peace", a report of the Commonwealth Commission on Respect and Understanding.

The Commission was chaired by Amartya Sen, with John Alderdice, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and others.
The full report can be purchased here.

In Britain and America, attempts at engaging against terrorism through the medium of faith and religion have had, at times, a perverse effect of magnifying the voice of extremist Islamists at a time when the political and civil roles of Muslims in civil society, including in the practice of democracy, need emphasis and much greater support.

Faith-based approaches make it more difficult for politically secular Muslims (who do not have any standing, or any great urge, to speak in a faith-based discussion) to speak out against terrorism and violence. Like everyone else, they feel "voiceless" in the middle of faith-based discussions. Religious extremism has made citizens, whatever their religious affiliation, less capable of taking responsible political action and speaking out against violence. And this tendency has often been strengthened rather than weakened by attempts to combat terrorism through recruiting the religious establishments of various communities to "the right side", with young people being dismissive of the older religious establishment spokesmen when they line up with western governments.

Civil society is currently in need of strengthening with all the positive resources at our disposal. Whilst religious identities can be used in a very positive way, stressing religious identities over and above other political and social identities can undermine efforts to strengthen civil society and community cohesion. The culturally-rich, more nuanced non-religious aspects of pluralism have been downplayed at precisely the wrong moment. This makes it easier for belligerent extremists to gather support and gain a stronger foothold in many countries.

A difficult balancing act

There have been other casualties of the strategy of the "War on Terror". In countries that have themselves experienced terrorist attacks, greatly enhanced additional surveillance operations and a raft of new counter-terrorism laws have raised questions about the state"s ability to uphold the rule of law and individual rights. The difficulty is the balance these new measures and laws must achieve to allow policing and security agencies to find and prosecute suspects for criminal offences, whilst maintaining legal safeguards in the criminal justice system that protect individual freedoms and uphold the rule of law.

A major concern is that the strategy of a "war on terror" may be helping to increase support for the messages of oppression, humiliation and disrespect that groups involved in terror attacks are putting forward. Where state responses have included extra-judicial measures that allow the government to circumvent national or international law, or if the military response is seen as disproportionate and is interpreted as vengeance, almost perversely, this can increase public support for the message, if not methods, of the insurgents.

People may abhor the use of terror tactics but nonetheless can be antagonised by the adverse impact of official reactive security measures, especially if they are not proportionate. On the one hand, the Commission accepts and endorses the importance of effective security measures for the prevention of violent crime, no matter how generated. The strength of security which we firmly support must not, however, be confused with an image of indiscriminate toughness that gives people a false sense of security.

Terror attacks carried out in the name of a particular identity inevitably have the potential to polarise societies. Sadly, counter-terrorism strategies can themselves exacerbate this polarisation. The threat of terrorism following 9/11 fostered particular resentment of perceived migrants in many countries, particularly migrants of Muslim origin. The response of many Muslims was to retreat from public discourse at exactly the moment that more Muslim voices were needed. When new security measures are imposed quickly following a terror attack, without due debate, discussion and sensitivity, this can further divide people at a time when more engagement is what is required.

Those communities perceived to share an aspect of their identity with the perpetrators are then particularly vulnerable. Increases in hate-related violent attacks against minorities are extensively documented for all countries that have experienced terrorism. The problem could be better mitigated by a response which simultaneously consults with minorities, community groups and civil society about the short and long-term consequences of all aspects of counter-terrorism action at the same time as taking reasonable, well-conceived and well-communicated security measures, both internal and external.

Real and realer targets

Terrorism is not simply like other forms of political violence. The Commission sees terrorism as a tactic - as well as a crime. It may be used by the left or the right, or by populist or nationalist extremists. It involves the premeditated use of violence to create a climate of fear, but is aimed at a wider target than the immediate victims of the violence. The victims may have symbolic significance but the real target is not the victim. The target is the "responsible authority", for example a government or a dominant group. The aim of many terrorist groups is to force a reaction - or overreaction - by the responsible authority toward terrorist acts and those who perpetrate them. It is this (over)reaction that makes it possible to cast the government or responsible authority as the greater villain.

The "responsible authority" (or its historic predecessors) is seen as having perpetrated an injustice. Terrorists and their supporters see themselves as righting some terrible wrong, some humiliation, some deep disrespect that has been done to them, their community or their nation by an authoritarian government or state. Terrorists and their supporters believe that they are "freedom fighters", embarking with great courage on a heroic task, namely of righting that perceived wrong.

Yet the nature of this injustice, the "terrible wrong" that they aspire to right, is under-explored. There is disinclination to understand - never mind talk to - those involved because of the means through which the grievances are expressed. The tendency at national level to exclude groups classified as terrorists from the political process through listing them in Terrorist Acts and Criminal Codes, is the antithesis of a process based on dialogue.

A process of dialogue

Where dialogue is possible, and where the stated aim of terrorists is ending repression and humiliation and having a greater level of inclusion in society and its political processes, then dialogue is essential. Where it may not be possible is where there is a militant goal to destroy a democratic society or way of life based on the rule of law. In that case, it is essential to create the conditions where there is less capacity for extremists to win the hearts and minds of others to their cause: that can only be done through creating the perception that it is possible for members of minorities to feel included in society and to have a shared sense of destiny in a common future.

Dialogue with groups at the far ends of the political spectrum, or with those that hold views that most people feel are repugnant, is a probing and uncomfortable test for countries that have experienced terrorism. Yet it must be done, or tried, where the objectives of the terrorists do not include the complete destruction of a democratic state governed by the rule of law.

Whilst not underestimating the difficulties of the Commonwealth experience, the fundamental truth is that the willingness to listen and engage in dialogue not only helps but is the only way to bring any form of political violence to a sustainable end. It also addresses the criticism that peace is unlikely without addressing justice.

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