Texts Reviewed

Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).
Joseba Zulaika and William A. Douglass, Terror and Taboo: The Follies, Fables and Faces of Terrorism (New York: Routledge, 1996).
Meredith Turshen and Clotilde Twagiramariya, eds., What Women Do in Wartime: Gender and Conflict in Africa (London: Zed Books, 1998).
Suha Sabbagh, ed., Palestinian Women of Gaza and the West Bank (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998).
Yahya Yakhlif, A Lake Beyond the Wind, M. Jayyusi and C. Tingley, trans. (Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 1999).
Yusuf al-Qaid, War in the Land of Egypt, O. Kenney, L. Kenney, and C. Tingley, trans. (Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 1998).
Esther Raizen, ed. and trans., No Rattling of Sabers: An Anthology of Israeli War Poetry (Austin, TX: Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Texas, 1995).

Guerrilla warfare. Revolution. Resistance. Terrorism, counter-terrorism, peacekeeping. Like contemporary wars themselves, the multiple and contradictory descriptions of violent political conflict elide conventional warfare’s clear designation of combatants and innocent victims. Whereas national armies once marched off to a marked battlefield, combatants on today’s battlefields pack the tools of their trade with them, turning everyone into a potential target. Organized political violence now engages civilians to an unprecedented extent, raising vexing questions about how to distinguish combatants from victims, and who has the right to make the distinction.

Activists, academics, novelists and poets have all appraised the consequences of this decentralized warfare. Motivated by the need to remedy the harm inflicted in wars with multiple protagonists and civilian victims, the works examined here ask how the existing international political order should respond to violence instigated by non-state actors. Should the system of nation-states modeled on Western democracies be strengthened, and warfare regulated by international conventions? Or are Western nation-states, which foster decentralized warfare by perpetrating inequalities among nations, the real problem?

The answers, like the conflicts they address, are not simple. Bruce Hoffman’s Inside Terrorism and Joseba Zulaika and William Douglass’ Terror and Taboo express polemical views on the form of political violence they label terrorism. Hoffman, former director of terrorism research at the RAND Corporation, offers a cogent history of the development of terrorist tactics since the French Revolution. Relying largely on the texts of terrorists, who he calls “violent intellectuals,” Hoffman clarifies how those who resort to violence to effect political change are motivated by reason and idealism. But Hoffman’s outline of the challenges facing counter-terrorism aims to do more than prevent civilian harm. Terrorism, he tacitly claims, threatens an ideal political order in which war is only fought according to internationally agreed-upon rules. No matter how legitimate the claims of terrorists, as non-state actors they always operate outside the rule of law; their crimes are therefore difficult to prosecute. Hoffman calls for a qualitative distinction between war fought between state armies and terrorism, since only the former — at least in theory — is bound by rules protecting civilians from attack, and by other restraints. This otherwise reasoned logic exempts Western democracies from critical examination, as if, because they originated the system that produced international rules of war, they could not sponsor or perpetrate illegitimate violence themselves.

Anthropologists Zulaika and Douglass begin their critique of “terrorism discourse” with Hoffman’s easy acceptance of the Western prerogative to define terrorism. In their view, political violence exists, but “terrorism” is foremost a contemporary way of representing political violence. Above all, television shapes violent events into narrative fictions called “terrorism.” Further, policy careers devoted to the study of terrorism, such as Hoffman’s, serve to reify certain violent political activism as terrorism. The greatest danger of “terrorism discourse” and its consequent influence upon policy, the authors contend, is that it masks the larger problem of state-sponsored violence and the daily militarism of Western society. The authors use anthropological concepts such as “taboo” and “play” to explain the degree to which the efficacy of terrorism is symbolic. In their view, once we recognize that the danger of terrorism is a function of our perception of its existence as a category of violence, we can redirect our resources away from counter-terrorist measures to combating threats like nuclear destruction.

So, Hoffman argues that we should combat the effects of violent political terror to protect the evolving international order. Zulaika and Douglass would rather attack the militarism inherent in that same order. Unfortunately, Zulaika and Douglass veil their most pointed arguments in layers of analogy and metaphor — such as in an extended rumination on innocence, randomness and guilt with reference to Blake, or the story of Abraham and Isaac and Kierkegaard’s reading thereof.

Two books addressing civil war and resistance movements in the Third World present more nuanced debates over the role of Western democracies, and the United States in particular, in combating political violence in other parts of the world. Palestine and African nations have complicated relationships to Western states that have fostered internecine violence in the guise of universalist values. Turshen’s introduction to What Women Do in Wartime pinpoints both the military-minded West and weak state structures in Africa as the primary contributors to African civil wars. Her critique of Western militarism includes the imperative to unmask the indirect forms of warfare waged by Western states and international corporations on the underdeveloped world. At the same time, she reminds that an augmented state structure and the preservation of a basic framework of universal human rights in African nations are crucial if victims of political violence are to be protected. Turshen points out the near impossibility of enforcing humanitarian and human rights laws when abuses are perpetrated by non-state actors, or when the state does not function (or has not subscribed to the Geneva Conventions).

Enforcing human rights is especially crucial for women, who are subject to unique forms of violence, primarily rape, that have only recently been recognized as political crimes during war. What Turshen calls “privatized” violence — war carried out in villages and homes — draws women into conflict in new ways. The use of light weaponry like assault rifles often enables the penetration of homes, making the threat to women considerable. Since these patriarchal societies enforce collective control of women’s sexuality, rape can be an instrument of war against society as a whole. For this reason, women in societies with strict visions of women’s responsibility for “sexual” activity suffer long after the initial trauma of rape. In Turshen’s book, women’s repeated reports of rape — as a political instrument, as a reward expected by soldiers, as an incoherent act that accompanies war — are a repulsive testament to the failure of the international community to provide for women’s basic rights.

The excellent collection of essays in Palestinian Women of the West Bank and Gaza, edited by Suha Sabbagh, repeatedly calls attention to the victimhood of Palestinian women subjected to both sexual violence by Israeli soldiers and patriarchal backlash in their own communities. It also testifies, however, to the transformation of sexual violation from shameful to heroic during the intifada. As the essays consistently show, the decentralized nature of the Palestinian uprising contributed to raising women’s political consciousness. When their private space became a battleground, and their children soldiers in an unofficial war waged on their local streets, women themselves began to enter previously male-dominated public space. While at first they went into the streets of Gaza and the West Bank to protect their children, many eventually joined them in throwing stones. Galvanized and politicized, they demonstrated for women’s rights and formed women’s work committees in which they connected feminist goals and national aims in new and creative ways.

The works above consistently attack the desire of the globalized media to simplify complex conflict into an easily digestible story. As an antidote to facile journalism, one might turn to literary treatments of political violence that embrace the complexities and ironies of conflict. Sabbagh’s collection contains a section about culture during the intifada, including a comprehensive essay by Ilham Abu Ghazaleh about gender in intifada poetry. A recent translation of Palestinian author Yahya Yakhlif’s novel, A Lake Beyond the Wind, details the making of an army in the absence of a state. It tells the story of men who voluntarily join the Arab Liberation Army on the eve of the 1948 war, and of the emotions — from national pride to masculine bravura — that sustain them. Also worthy of mention is the recently translated novel, War in the Land of Egypt, a bitter comedy of errors which recounts what happens when the son of an Egyptian ‘umda’s watchman is sent to the front in the 1973 war in place of the ‘umda’s conscripted son. Although its subject is a conventional war, it pithily reminds us that even war fought by the rules is frequently rife with the very inequalities it claims to combat. Finally, No Rattling of Sabers: An Anthology of Israeli War Poetry recounts the Israeli Jewish experience of battle through the eyes of poets, civilians and soldiers. Natan Zach’s 1982 poem about the urge to quantify the victims of war reminds us how the language of political conflict is intertwined with our understanding of war’s most tragic consequences:

…the desire to be precise
Is no less human than the desire to kill, to rape, to crush, and to exterminate
Your enemy, your opponent, your next door neighbor, the suspicious stranger, or just
Every man, woman and child in the world.

How to cite this article:

Amy Zalman "Ruminations on Political Violence," Middle East Report 216 (Fall 2000).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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