How to Talk About Terrorism

Eqbal Ahmad’s “Comprehending Terror” (MER 140) provides a much needed corrective to the flagrant, ideologically motivated abuse of terrorism as a political concept by Reagan and Company. I fully concur with Eqbal’s basic argument that historical and causal logic must be employed if we are to make any sense at all of the phenomenon of terrorism. Moreover, there is simply no comparison between the level of terrorism deployed by the American empire and its allies, primarily against movements for national liberation, and the often ineffectual use of terrorism by those who feel that they have no other weapon. Eqbal is correct to have pointed out the disproportionate use of terror by states, as opposed to movements of popular resistance.

However, parts of Eqbal’s argument display a tendency to throw up an ideological defense by simply reversing the terms of the Reagan formula: “our guys” are freedom fighters; “their guys” are terrorists. This is understandable and perhaps even inevitable in the age of Reaganesque newspeak, which has turned contemporary political discourse into a bizarre and often meaningless tragicomedy. But Eqbal himself has in the past been more clear about the problems that the use of terror pose for popular movements of opposition, and it would be a mistake to leave important questions unanswered and create the false impression that the left is willing to ignore incidents of terrorism when committed by those whose causes we support.

I can’t offer a comprehensive explanation for the phenomenon of terrorism over “the last four centuries,” but it seems clear that the phenomenon does not sort itself out neatly across the political divide, as Eqbal tended to argue. For example, Eqbal classed the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) with the movements that did not employ terror, or at least not airplane hijackings. But anyone who has seen the graphic and historically accurate movie Battle of Algiers will know that the FLN leadership adopted a conscious decision to employ urban terror — placing bombs in public places — against the civilian settler population.

This decision was, moreover, theorized, defended and popularized by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon argued that the use of violence was both psychologically liberating for the oppressed and just retribution against the oppressor. These arguments figured prominently in American and European political currents which may be collectively called “third worldist” and which romanticized the armed struggle of national liberation movements and hoped it would stimulate socialist revolution in the West. This often led to ignoring or defending the use of terror by some such movements. It was a difficult battle for the French left to defend the Algerian revolution despite its use of terror.

The Algerian experience has often been held up as an example by the Palestinian national liberation movement and for that reason is of more than passing historical interest. The Palestinians have argued that the Algerian armed struggle has demonstrated a successful model that can be applied in their situation. It is therefore worth noting that the urban terror campaign was militarily a failure. It was defeated by the French army and the leaders were imprisoned or executed. The guerrilla war in the mountains was also largely contained by the French. Independence was achieved several years after the defeat of the FLN in the “battle of Algiers.” Obviously the armed struggle, including the use of terror, made possible the negotiations which led to independence. But without negotiations, the armed struggle itself would have been useless. The tragic experience of internecine warfare in Algeria among the armed groups after independence should underscore the dangers of considering any form of armed struggle as something other than a means which must be subordinated to ends and of ignoring unacceptable uses of violence directed against non-combatants. Mao Tsetung put it succinctly: “The party must command the gun.”

Similarly, Eqbal seems a bit overzealous in his criticism of Israel, which does, of course, employ state terror on a large scale. Nonetheless, the claim that “nowhere in modern times has sacred terror been consistently sponsored by the state as in Israel,” is a highly misleading characterization of the Zionist movement. Until relatively recently, the mainstream of the Zionist movement was forthrightly secularist. It is very doubtful if Ariel Sharon is a believer in God. Many of the worst acts of Zionist terror have been planned and executed by secularists (and even by self-proclaimed socialists). It is mainly non-official, non-governmental terrorist acts that have been carried out by religious zealots (although often they ultimately win some degree of official tolerance, such as the case of the convicted members of the Jewish terror network which operated in the West Bank who are now in the process of receiving lightened sentences and pardons).

So, if Eqbal employed the term “sacred” in the narrow religious sense, this is incorrect. On the other hand, if he used the term broadly, in the sense of being motivated by ideological zealotry, as it is used in the title of Livia Rokach’s book, then Eqbal is also wrong. Reprehensible as Israel’s actions are, there are several states which can claim precedence in the ideologically motivated use of terror and extermination of innocent civilian populations within the 400-year time frame Eqbal suggests. We could begin with the United States and the extermination of the native Americans and the genocidal effects of the black slave trade, and mention Nazi Germany and a few other states before arriving at Israel’s well-deserved place on the list of major users of state-sanctioned terror.

The point of this comment is not to defend Israel’s use of terror; it is quite bad enough without being religiously motivated. But exaggerated and inaccurate descriptions of Israel serve no one’s interest, least of all the Palestinian national movement.

Joel Beinin
Stanford, CA

How to cite this article:

"Letters," Middle East Report Online, March 06, 2013.
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