Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Two excellent articles on Boston Bombings

by Salman Hameed

By now you have been saturated about the causes for last week's bombings. And yes - things are more much more complicated than "Islam is the motivation for bombings". I would like to point you to two articles that provide a nuanced analysis of the reasons why some young Muslims living in western Europe or in the US turn to violence. The first article is by Olivier Roy - who I think is one of the most interesting thinkers on the topic of Islam and globalization. If you have a chance, you should definitely read Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. The second article is by Scott Atran. He also has been fantastic work investigating the reasons for radicalization amongst younger Muslims. He was also our speaker for our Science and Religion Lecture Series at Hampshire College and you can see the video of his talk For Friend and Faith: The Paths and Barriers to Political Violence.

Here is first an intro of Olivier Roy's work in The New Republic:
Roy’s view is relevant in understanding the alleged Boston marathon bombers. A decade ago, Roy was pointing out that al Qaeda was drawing many of its recruits from Western Europe rather than from Saudi Arabia or Palestine or Pakistan. He saw al Qaeda as a product of the failure of Arab nationalism and Marxism-Leninism to establish viable popular societies. Its tactics and outlook derived from the Red Army Faction or Red Brigades or the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine rather than from the Koran or from religious factions within Islam. Al Qaeda, Roy wrote in The Illusions of September 11, is “a junction of a radicalized Islam with a shrill anti-imperialism reshaped by globalization.” 
Accordingly, Roy rejected the idea that al Qaeda’s adherents in Europe were simply products of Islam and that their motivation should be seen as religious. Instead, he believed, they sought what he called an “imaginary Ummah,” a radical community of belief that was not strictly speaking part of the ordinary world of Islamic belief. That’s where I thought Roy’s analysis might be relevant to understanding Boston and the Tsarnaev brothers. 
It seemed to me that the suspected brothers could be understood as further extensions of Roy’s thesis. Like the Fort Hood terrorist, Nidal Malik Hasan, they don’t appear to be products of organized religion or organized politics. They represent, in effect, the reductio ad absurdum of al Qaeda’s global politics, which never had a realistic objective to begin with. A new caliphate? With Hasan or the Tsarnaevs, the act itself becomes the objective – an awful theaterical spectacle in which the terrorists are directors and stars.
And here is the direct response from Roy Olivier:
I wanted to ask you about the two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who allegedly set off the two bombs at the Boston Marathon.  In your book, Globalized Islam, you recounted how many terrorists who act in the name of Islam were brought up in Western Europe rather than in the Middle East and who are often provoked by events outside the Middle East. Are these two brothers, who were largely raised in the United States, more evidence for your thesis? 
Yes, my idea from the beginning was that Al Qaeda and the people who used the mark of Al Qaeda were not really concerned with the core—with the Middle East, the Middle East of Palestine. They were more concerned by the periphery of the Middle East than the core of the Middle East. They were usually more concerned with Bosnia and Afghanistan, Chechnya at the end of the ‘90s; it is now Mali, Mauritania and Yemen, which is the only place where they are strong. Most of these guys have a global trajectory, they were born in one place, they go to fight somewhere else. These guys were born in Kyrgyzstan, they went to Dagestan, they speak Russian, they came to the United States very young,  they were educated in the United States, they speak English without an accent and so on. 
And they seemed to have discovered Islam in the United States rather than in Dagestan or Kyrgyzstan? 
Same thing with Mohammed Merah, the killer in Toulouse last year. They are self-radicalizing in a Western environment.
And this is the key point:
In your book, and also in your previous book on political Islam, you describe a transition from the nationalist and Marxist-Leninist movements in the Middle East after World War II to a stateless movement like Al Qaeda. Now we have something beyond that, where the terrorists may not even belong to, or be under orders from a specific group, but may only have been influenced by a radical preacher they heard. I am thinking of the Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan who killed thirteen people at Fort Hood in 2009. 
Yes, globalization and individualization are the two terms. Instead of organization, they connect through the Internet. They connect to a virtual Ummah not to a real society. For instance, most of them didn’t socialize in a Western community. They may have gone to mosques, but they were never an integral part of a congregation, they have no real life, social life. Their social life is through the Internet, all of them.
Read the full article here.

Scott Atran, overall, gives the same reasons. However, he is also concerned about the over-eaction of the media and the US. Here he is writing in Foreign Policy:
Under sponsorship by the Defense Department, my multidisciplinary, multinational research team has been conducting field studies and analyses of the mental and social processes involved in radicalization at home and abroad. Our findings indicate that terrorist plotters against Western civilian populations tend not to be parts of sophisticated, foreign-based command-and-control organizations. Rather, they belong to loose, homegrown networks of family and friends who die not just for a cause, but for each other. Jihadists pretty much span the population's normal distribution: There are very few psychopaths and sociopaths, few brilliant thinkers and strategists. Jihadi wannabes today are mostly emerging adults in transitional stages of their lives -- students, immigrants, in search of jobs or companions -- who are especially prone to movements that promise a meaningful cause, camaraderie, adventure, and glory. Most have a secular education, becoming "born again" into the jihadi cause in their late teens or 20s. The path to radicalization can take years, months, or just days, depending on personal vulnerabilities and the influence of others. 
Occasionally there is a hookup with a relative, or a friend of a friend, who has some overseas connection to someone who can get them a bit of training and motivation to pack a bag of explosives or pull a trigger, but the Internet and social media are usually sufficient for radicalization and even operational preparation. 
The result is not a hierarchic, centrally commanded terrorist movement but a decentralized, self-organizing, and constantly evolving complex of social networks based on contingent adaptations to changing events. These are no real "cells," but only clusters of mostly young men who motivate one another within "brotherhoods" of real and fictive kin. Often, in fact, there is an older brother figure, a dominant personality who mobilizes others in the group. But rarely is there an overriding authority or father figure. (Notably, for these transitional youth, there's often an absence of a real father). 
Some of the most successful plots, such as the Madrid and London bombings, are so anarchic, fluid, and improbable that they succeeded in evading detection despite the fact that intelligence and law enforcement agencies had been following some of the actors for some time. Three key elements characterize the "organized anarchy" that typifies modern violent Islamic activism: Ultimate goals are vague and superficial (often no deeper than revenge against perceived injustice against Muslims around the world); modes of action are decided pragmatically on the basis of trial and error or based on the residue of learning from accidents of past experience; and those who join are not recruited but are locally linked self-seekers -- often from the same family, neighborhood, or Internet chat room -- whose connection to global jihad is more virtual than material. Al Qaeda and associates do not so much recruit as attract disaffected individuals who have already decided to embark on the path to violent extremism with the help of family, friends, or a few fellow travelers. 
And here is the possible reason for their radicalization:
 Like the young men who carried out the Madrid and London attacks, most homegrown jihadi plotters first hook up with the broad protest sentiment against "the global attack on Islam" before moving into a narrower parallel universe. They cut ties with former companions who they believe are too timid to act and cement bonds with those who are willing to strike. They emerge from their cocoon with strong commitment to strike and die if necessary, but without any clear contingency planning for what might happen after the initial attack. 
For the first time in history, a massive, media-driven political awakening has been occurring -- spurred by the advent of the Internet, social media, and cable television -- that can, on the one hand, motivate universal respect for human rights while, on the other, enable, say, Muslims from Borneo to sacrifice themselves for Palestine, Afghanistan, or Chechnya (despite almost no contact or shared history for the last 50,000 years or so). 
When perceived global injustice resonates with frustrated personal aspirations, moral outrage gives universal meaning and provides the push to radicalization and violent action.
But the popular notion of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West is woefully misleading. Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance. This is the dark side of globalization. 
And of course, this also reminded me of Mohsin Hamid's wonderful book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (the film version by Mira Nair is being released in the US next week).

Here is Atran again:
Take Faisal Shahzad, the would-be bomber of Times Square in 2010, or Maj. Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in 2009. Both were apparently inspired by the online rhetoric of Anwar al-Awlaki, a former preacher at a Northern Virginia mosque who was killed by a U.S. drone in Yemen in 2011. Although many commentators leapt to the conclusion that Awlaki and his ilk deviously brainwashed and recruited Shahzad and Hassan, in fact they sought out the popular Internet preacher because they were already radicalized to the point of wanting further guidance to act. As Defense Department terrorism consultant Marc Sageman notes: "Just like you saw Major Hasan send 21 emails to al-Awlaki, who sends him two back, you have people seeking these guys and asking them for advice." More than 80 percent of plots in both Europe and the United States were concocted from the bottom up by mostly young people just hooking up with one another. 
Especially for young men, mortal combat with a "band of brothers" in the service of a great cause is both the ultimate adventure and a road to esteem in the hearts of their peers. For many disaffected souls today, jihad is a heroic cause -- a promise that anyone from anywhere can make a mark against the most powerful country in the history of the world. But because would-be jihadists best thrive and act in small groups and among networks of family and friends -- not in large movements or armies -- their threat can only match their ambitions if fueled way beyond actual strength. And publicity is the oxygen that fires modern terrorism. 
Read the full article here.

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