Commenting on the recent massacre of 17 Afghan civilians that was allegedly carried out by Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, Glenn Greenwald, a leading pundit on the American political left, wrote the following:
There is, quite obviously, a desperate need to believe that when an American engages in acts of violence of this type, there must be some underlying mental or emotional cause that makes it sensible, something other than an act of pure hatred or evil. When a Muslim engages in acts of violence against Americans, there is an equally desperate need to believe the opposite: that this is yet another manifestation of inscrutable hatred and evil, and any discussion of any other causes must be prohibited and ignored.
This is a typical example of how Greenwald engages in overblown rhetoric. To take just a couple of examples that refute his inaccurate generalizations here, no one attempted to rationalize the Mahmudiyah killings in 2006, which involved the massacre of an Iraqi family — including the gang rape and killing of a 14-year old girl — by some U.S. soldiers from the 502nd Infantry Regiment.
Indeed, the unequivocal condemnation was entirely justified, and the motivation for the massacre was made clear for all observers: namely, a hatred for Iraqis as a people and a desire to engage in a punitive revenge attack. We know this because that is how one of the perpetrators — James P. Barker — explained it. As he said in an interview in 2009, “Because I hated Iraqis. They smile at you, then shoot you in the face.”
As for acts of violence perpetrated against Americans by individual Muslims, one need only look at the cases of Nidal Malik Hasan, who was responsible for the spree shooting at Fort Hood, and Faisal Shahzad — the failed Times Square bomber — to see how many commentators, officials, and media outlets tried to explain their actions in terms beyond “inscrutable hatred and evil.”
For example, on NPR radio in the aftermath of the Fort Hood massacre, Tom Gjelten — covering the story for the outlet — referred to “a phenomenon that you could maybe call a pre-traumatic stress disorder” as an underlying cause behind Hasan’s rampage.
In a similar vein, Muqtedar Khan, writing in the Washington Post’s “On Faith” section, made the following argument: “It is important to understand that Major Hasan is an isolated, alienated and sad individual who was clearly not well adjusted to his life. In a community that values family life, he was single at 39 and still looking desperately for a wife, according to his former Imam.… He was frequently taunted and harassed for being a Muslim by his own colleagues… [H]e did not feel as if he belonged and perhaps that was the key to why he could turn on his own.” It is hardly as though Khan was subject to widespread condemnation for what he wrote.
Likewise, many observers were quick to note that Shahzad “had faced the loss of his family home to bank repossession,” a supposed stepping-stone on his path to radicalization. Others primarily focused on Shahzad’s anger over American drone attacks in Pakistan.
Greenwald’s writings on this matter come in the wider context of attempts to equate the Afghan massacre with the recent spree killing in Toulouse, the work of a French Muslim called Mohammed Merah. A case in point is a blog post by Harvey Morris at the New York Times, in which the author rhetorically asks: “Robert Bales? Mohammed Merah? Maybe they were both mad.”
The issue of massacres and motivations behind them needs to be clarified on several counts. When it comes to incidents of spree-killings, it is always good to start by asking whether the attack is planned in advance and the targets are intentionally chosen.
In the case of Merah, who killed three Muslim paratroopers and then four Jews at a Sephardic school, it is clear that the perpetrator’s attacks were premeditated, and in keeping with al Qaeda’s jihadist ideology that not only deems non-Muslims who do not live under Sharia as legitimate targets for jihad — whether “offensive” or “defensive” — but also Muslims perceived to be apostates for serving in the armed forces of Western countries, inter alia.
The latter concept is known as takfir, and is well illustrated in statements made by Islamist thinkers in the West aligned with al Qaeda. For example, Abu Izzadeen, a former spokesman for the banned Islamist group al-Ghurabaa, was filmed proclaiming that any Muslim who joins the British Army should be beheaded. Further, Merah proclaimed himself to be a “mujahideen,” and Jund al-Khilafah (“Army of the Caliphate”), a group linked to al Qaeda, took responsibility for the attacks. It is therefore evident that Merah’s acts were driven by his ideology.
As for Robert Bales, the problem is that many details of the massacre have still been withheld from public disclosure, hence the wide variety of speculation on causes and motives and whether the attacks were premeditated. What might suggest premeditation is that Bales may have carried out the massacre in “two episodes, returning to his base after the first attack and later slipping away to kill again.”
If this be the case, then it is plausible to suggest that Bales was driven by a desire to carry out what he saw in his mind as a punitive revenge raid on Afghans, not dissimilar to the perpetrators of the Mahmudiyah massacre. What will be crucial to determining Bales’ motivations is his own testimony at his forthcoming trial, where he could be facing the death penalty.
In fact, the Bales affair demonstrates the failure of trying to draw equivalence between his actions and those of Mohammed Merah. The very fact that Bales is being prosecuted shows that the U.S. military does not have a policy of inciting hatred against Afghans, does not encourage soldiers to engage in revenge attacks on civilians, and does not promote any sort of supremacist ideology. On the contrary, the American armed forces pursue a policy of accommodation towards local cultures.
If it turns out that Bales is simply “mad,” it does not follow that the same is true of Merah. It is untrue to claim, as Nicolas Sarkozy recently did, that the “Islamic faith has nothing to do with the insane motivations of this man [Merah],” for the concept of takfir has a precedent in earlier Islamic thought, specifically in the works of Ibn Taymiyyah, while jihad against non-Muslims has much broader elements in traditional theology that justify it.
To round off, it is worth coming back to Greenwald, who regards the likes of Faisal Shahzad as driven solely by political grievances (in Shahzad’s case, U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan) rather than any Islamist ideology. Where Greenwald errs is to assume that these grievances and ideology are mutually exclusive. Of course Shahzad is angry about American drones, but what he himself said in a video released by al-Arabiya illustrates that his motivations go beyond an aim to end drone strikes.
In particular, Shahzad declared, “You’ll see that the Muslim war has just started… until Islam is spread throughout the whole world.” This fits in with traditional ideas about jihad as warfare to expand the realm of Dar al-Islam. It is also notable that Shahzad affirmed his desire to avenge the death of Baitullah Mehsud, who was the leader of the Tehreek-e-Taliban until he was killed by a drone strike in August 2009. Mehsud outlined his goals as follows: Drive out the non-Muslims from Muslim lands, and then attack them in the West until they pay jizya or convert to Islam.
Recognizing that the problem of Islamist terrorism is foremost an issue of ideology with roots in traditional theology does not amount to characterizing the actions of Islamist militants as manifestations of “inscrutable hatred and evil” (to use Greenwald’s words). Rather, it is simply based on examining what the militants themselves say they want to achieve.
I am no fan of Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan (based on the erroneous assumption that the primary cause of the decline in violence in Iraq from 2007 onwards was the increase of U.S. troop numbers and COIN strategy) or the use of drones, but these policies should not be changed merely because Faisal Shahzad is angered by them. It is difficult to think of a counter-terrorism measure against his fellow Islamist militants that would not similarly anger him.
Instead, a policy of containment is needed, and on the understanding that Islamism is ultimately rooted in questions of identity and the role of Sharia in the modern world, it should be acknowledged that the burden of stopping Islamist terrorism lies in the hands of Muslims.
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