Monday, May 9, 2011

Truth About Terrorism: The Harsh Reality about This Century’s Harshest Ideology

Muhammad Syarif was admittedly a nasty piece of work. The West Java native used to ransack stores selling liquor. When railing against Ahmadis, he screamed and tore up banners. Once, at a mosque, he kicked people resting on its grounds because a place of worship, to his mind, was no place for idleness.

When Syarif blew himself up in a police compound mosque in Cirebon, West Java, last month, he imported into Indonesia a technique that long has been known in Pakistan. Call it intramural terrorism — sectarian attacks by Muslims on fellow Muslims — at their common place of worship.

In Syarif’s case, the targets of his bomb were “infidel” policemen — deemed so because of their role in combating terror. But give his logic some time, and intramural terrorism expands its targets to include anybody categorized as not sufficiently believing. Indeed, that reductive logic is at work already in the deadly form of book bombs despatched to liberal Muslims such as Ulil Abshar Abdalla.

In the years and even perhaps months to come, Syarif will not seem a spectacularly heinous piece of work. He managed to kill only himself. His place will be taken by nastier people who will kill others, and he will be relegated to a tiny footnote in terrorist history.

Whether common extramural terrorism or its intramural twin, the world faces in both the 21st century’s harshest ideology. It is one that will not vanish on it own. And since fighting demands knowing the enemy, we would do well to restate some harsh truths about terrorism.

First, acts of terrorism are not exonerated by the troubling nature of their so-called root causes: poverty, injustice and human rights abuses. These causes are “so-called” not because they are illusory — they are real enough — but because these evils can be fought by lawful, democratic and secular means. They do not require a terrorist response.

Indonesia has progressed far beyond the human rights abuses of the Suharto years by institutionalizing peaceful ways of fighting economic and social ills. The real root causes of terrorism are the systematic brutalization of the senses brought about by the brainwashing, indoctrination and dehumanization practiced brazenly in the name of religion.

Second, terrorism is the cutting edge of a pathology that is bred, nurtured and cultivated in many classrooms and places of worship. The neurosis of terrorism cannot be treated until these seemingly innocuous institutions are revealed for the cesspools of hatred that they are. Charismatic clerics and firebrand preachers are ultimately responsible for the bombs that their most excitable students and followers set off, setting standards for others to follow. Laws against hate speech, with which the most liberal societies protect genuine freedom of speech, are necessary to address the root of the root causes of terrorism. There can be no sanction for terrorism masquerading as freedom of religion or freedom of speech or both. It is as simple as that.

Third, anywhere in the world, terrorism flourishes in a culture of impunity. This culture is seen in acts of violence — which are directed at beauty parlors or liquor shops today, alleged heretics tomorrow and intellectuals and civil society activists the day after — that gain momentum when they are not punished harshly enough for the state to drive home the message that its secular writ cannot be challenged with impunity.

However, for the state to act decisively, citizens must think clearly. There can be nothing but derision for facetious arguments pointing out that more people die from road accidents or murders in a year than they do from terrorist attacks. Road accidents are accidents, while there is nothing accidental about terrorism. Murders caused by love or property disputes are murders committed at an individual level: They are reprehensible, but they do not detract from the even more contemptible fact that terrorism is directed at the entire body politic and does not care how many victims it has so long as it achieves its purpose.

Terrorism must be unpacked, identified and named for its evil if it is to be fought. What is at stake is the nature of the century that we live in.

The 20th century was defined by a three-corner contest among liberal democracy, communism and fascism. In that ideological struggle, democracy first joined hands with communism to fell fascism in World War II, and then fought the Cold War to contain communism, which imploded eventually. The horrors of the Holocaust and the depredations of the Gulag proved for all time how inhuman humans can be.

Liberal democracy, for all its self-acknowledged faults, emerged as the ideology of choice for those who had had enough of extremist visions.

Democracy’s humble incompleteness — for it has no final destination but only modest signposts along the way — made it attractive. By its very nature, it was a self-correcting mechanism in a world where totalitarian solutions had proved all too catastrophic.

In the very first year of the 21st century, terrorism made a grand entry onto the world historical stage. Closer to fascism than to any other ideology because of its insistent hatred of the Other — in this case, the religious Other — it shared with communism a deep belief in systematic leadership and cellular structures through which to undermine and then overwhelm the existing order. Its chief enemy is liberal democracy.

A decade from 9/11, the question is whether terrorism will be the 21st century’s signature “ism.” If so, the next question will be whether this century survive that arch-reactionary “ism” without civilizational wars being fought with the deadliest weapon known to man: recourse to religion, where questions of right and wrong are decided only in the afterlife.

Secular pacifists would hope that such questions are tackled here and now. To do that is to recognize just how great a challenge terrorism presents to civilization — and how silent a threat it can be until it shows its face. In the case of Syarif, we have one example. Could the people he kicked conceive the possibility that he would one day blow himself up in a mosque in the name of religion?
By John Riady editor at large of the Jakarta Globe and a lecturer at the Pelita Harapan University School of Law.

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