Counterproductive antiterrorism


Buried deep in the U.S. Pentagon somewhere is an official in charge of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. As he goes about his daily chores — organizing the floor shackles, bully guards, illegal confinements, arbitrary trials and occasional torture sessions — he no doubt thinks he is doing his bit in the “war on terror.”

In fact, al-Qaida and other Islamic militant groups owe him a medal for helping their recruitment efforts. His activities have encouraged even more Middle Eastern and other Islamists to want to take even more violent action against the United States and its allies.

The British are said to puzzle over why middle-class, educated Muslims in their midst end up bombing subways, buses and airports. Someone should point out that they do this precisely because they are middle class and educated. These are the people most likely to feel keenly the wrongs and injustices in Guantanamo, Iraq and elsewhere. They see so-called terror as the only answer.

Australia is upset over its tourists being bombed in Bali (2002) by Islamic extremists. But is seeking revenge in Afghanistan, yet another link in the counterproductive Western “war on terror,” the best answer?

Originally the Taliban in Afghanistan had only marginal involvement with al-Qaida, and what they had could easily have been abandoned. But, as with Iraq in 2003, the U.S. desire for 9/11 revenge plus the never-ending military hankering to test new weapons, expand budgets and try troops in action against live targets guaranteed intervention. And like most U.S. military interventions it was handled clumsily and cruelly. Now we see the unintended results — powerful Islamic forces determined to drive the foreigners out of Afghanistan, as they did the Soviets just two decades earlier.

Iraq is supposed to be an example of impending Western victory over Islamic extremists. But all that has happened is that the U.S. and its friends are finally beginning to stop making mistakes. Before the U.S. military arrived, there was no al-Qaida in Iraq. They needlessly created a Sunni resistance. They have helped to wreck a society that once had one of the highest levels of education, literacy and female emancipation in the Middle East. And they call that victory?

The West needs to understand that Islam is attractive both as a religion and as a coherent way of life. That is why as a religion it is gaining ground in so many societies — Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey to name just a few. That is why its activists have such political appeal when no other coherent and uncorrupt form of government seems possible, as in Gaza, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and much of central Africa.

Somalia is a good example. Racked into chaos and destitution by U.S.-supported warlords, eventually a strict Islamist movement promising court justice, social order and discipline emerged two years ago and began to take over from an impotent, Western-backed government. Finally the long-suffering people could have some hope for the future.

But for the U.S., Islamist spells al-Qaida. A notoriously gun-happy Ethiopian army was invited in to support the impotent government. Tens of thousands have been killed, with U.S. submarines off the Somali coast lobbing their Tomahawk missiles into crowded urban areas. Somalia has reverted to chaos and destitution, and neighboring countries are flooded with refugees. Is that really the answer to Islamist appeal?

In Lebanon and Palestine we have seen similar distortions. What no one seems to want to admit is that, rightly or wrongly, the strict Islamists — Hezbollah and Hamas — have genuine popular support. They have been able to bring some kind of order, social welfare and discipline to large areas of these societies. For their pains they are branded as ‘terrorist’ organizations, mainly because their discipline and support allows them to organize effective resistance to Israeli and other incursions.

The recent Israeli move to trash well-organized schools and welfare groups in the West Bank simply because they are popular and run by Hamas is barely noticed by Western media, which can think only in “terrorist” cliches. But is this, too, the answer to Islamic activist appeal?

In most Middle East conflicts the Western media seem unable even to realize that another side exists and that it has genuine ideals. But it not only exists; it can see the true picture from its own media — the wrecked houses, broken bodies, weeping widows.

What are these people supposed to do? Go home and forget about it all? Bombing Arab-language news network Al Jazeera’s Qatar headquarters was one of the more ingenious suggestions from U.S. President George W. Bush.

Nor is it just in the Middle East. In Colombia it is fashionable to denounce the FARC — the antigovernment guerrillas — as terrorists. And, as in the Middle East, the U.S. is busily using its enormous resources and advanced technologies, satellite and communications intercept technologies especially, to win various one-sided victories.

But does anyone stop to think why these people have fought so well and bravely under almost impossible jungle conditions for so long? These are mainly people who have fled the massacres of hundreds of thousands of progressives, human rights advocates, farmers and trade union leaders going back to the 1960s. In many cases they are better people than their oppressors. What were they supposed to do — wait around till it was their turn to be tortured and killed?

Similarly in a host of other conflicts, both past and present — pre-1949 China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Kashmir and so on. People fleeing torture, death squads, arbitrary disappearance and execution, harsh discrimination and other forms of state brutality usually have no choice but to fight back.

In the same way, if some Islamists oppose foreign interventions, should they automatically be labeled terrorists to be wiped out? Surely the West with its centuries of advanced civilization can do better than that. Or maybe it was not civilization after all.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and now vice president of Akita International University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on The views in this article are his own and not those of his university.