Legitimising the killings in the name of ‘just war’

War on terror has not only ‘legitimised’ the killing of millions, but has also silenced a fair discussion about them.

Irfan Ahmad asks: "If terrorism is always by non-state actors, how can it be countered through war which has been historically declared against a state?" [GALLO/GETTY]

This is the conclusion of the two-part series “How the war on terror is a war of terror”. You can read part one here. Drawing on intellectual and political history of different regions of the world, Irfan Ahmad discusses the fallacy of and politics behind the current consensus on what constitutes terrorism. He shows how the dominant definition of terrorism as acts of violence by non-state actors to induce political change is conceptually flawed and demonstrates how terror has historically been important to most ruling elites and states across time. Based on diverse examples from India, the US, Israel, Indonesia and elsewhere, to this end, the author also shows how the watertight distinction between state and non-state actors is fragile and unsustainable. He concluded part one with an alternative definition of terrorism given by Oxford English Dictionary, a definition which he argues, is more appropriate and less contentious because it is historically informed and focuses on terror itself, no matter whether it is enacted by state or non-state actors.    

Terrorism – counter-terrorists’ style

In light of the discussion in part one, what does the “War on Terror” (WOT) mean? By its own definition, it is contradictory. If terrorism is always by non-state actors, how can it be countered through war which has been historically declared against a state – which terrorists obviously are not? Might it be, then, that it is less a “War on Terror” and more a “War of/for Terror”? 

With WOT, war was no longer a “dirty word”. It became at once respectable and profitable; respectable because votaries of war and empire like George Bush and Niall Ferguson presented it as a war against barbarism and in defence of civilization, “our way of life, our very freedom“; profitable because transnational corporations and the military-industrial complex enriched their factories of fear, weapons, surveillance, privatised security and myths of “heroic-us” vs “evil-them” (eg, Hollywood). Needless to add, under the flag of WOT, civil liberties across the continents were severely compromised, ironically in the name of liberty. By excluding its own gruesome violence in the name of “just war” (was it not “just a war”?) WOT not only legitimised the killings of millions world over – Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere – it also silenced a fair discussion about these killings (for who would dare oppose “freedom”?).  

 Listening Post – The dangers of reporting
the ‘war on terror’

Since its invasion and occupation by the West, in Iraq alone over one million civilians have perished. Additional hundreds of thousands, to reasonably guess, must have died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. I am not as such interested in statistics which can be (in)accurate. In a conservative estimate by Iraqbodycount.org, since 2003 the documented death toll in Iraq is 162,000 – of which 79 per cent were civilians. Were these civilians – including children, women and the elderly – all terrorists? Were the over 400 Iraqi academics killed – most with PhDs – terrorists? If terrorists kill innocent civilians, how are counter-terrorists different from terrorists? I am aware that many civilian deaths were also caused by those not in uniform; however, were not these killings consequences of the first act, WOT? And what about the “efficient” drones that almost routinely kill civilians in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen?  

Seldom do mainstream media and terrorism experts discuss these heinous crimes of killings. Rather there is an eerie silence about the loss of this humanity and its bare sufferings. It is almost a policy for media in Australia whose troops are on a “mission” in Afghanistan to rarely report about killings of civilians by Western military. In contrast, news of an Australian soldier injured or killed is notably telecast with a change in newsreader’s voice to solemnity. Importantly, opposition and ruling parties become one to grieve the loss of the “nation” and praise dead soldier’s “mission” that remains as vague as unbelievable. 

Is a definite hierarchy of human lives at work here? There is. WOT has created two kinds of lives – lives worth preserving and lives which can be readily dispensed with. Judith Butler puts it differently: lives which necessitate grieving and those which are perceived as less than living and hence unworthy of any memorialisation and grief in death. In Frames of War, Butler writes:

“This… point takes on specific meanings under contemporary conditions of war: the shared conditions of precariousness leads not to reciprocal recognition, but to a specific exploitation of targeted population, of lives that are not quite lives, cast as ‘destructible’ and ‘ungrievable’… Consequently, when such lives are lost they are not grievable, since, in the twisted logic that rationalises their death, the loss of such population is deemed necessary to protect the lives of the ‘living’.” (p. 31) 

The ultimate terror WOT and counter-terrorism machinery stages is the production of destructible and ungrievable lives. And the state apparatuses participate in it with their own terror. The terrifying tale of Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen of Egyptian origin, illustrates this. Just before the US attack on Afghanistan in 2001, Habib was arrested in Pakistan by its authorities – then in the business of arresting “terrorists”, especially foreigners, to “sell” to the US in lieu of rupees. He was tortured to confess that he, in 1995, blew up Egypt’s embassy in Islamabad. He refused. 

Habib was flown to Egypt where he was further tortured. One interrogator said, “If you tell us this [you knew and were involved in 9/11], we can sell this information to the Americans for 10 million dollars. We’ll give you 4 million, and we’ll keep the rest” (p. 111). Omar Suleiman, an architect of Mubarak’s “police state”, made a similar offer on the refusal of which he slapped Habib. Meanwhile, Australia’s Federal Police and Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) had raided Habib’s residence in Sydney to collect information, which they supplied to the Egyptian authorities. From Egypt Habib was flown to Kandahar, because Australia had refused to take him back (p. 139).  

From Kandahar he was taken to Guantanamo Bay where he was listed as an Egyptian, not an Australian. Stripped naked and left in freezing cold, threatened with rape, given electric shocks, menstrual blood thrown in his face by a female officer, deprived of sleep, drugged heavily, dragged on floor and beaten severely (pp. 155-56), he was asked to confess, in the presence of an Australian official from Washington, that he was “associated with al-Qaeda” and knew of 9/11 attacks “prior to their occurrence”. The Australian official told Habib that he came to “help” him and that he should “co-operate” (pp. 212-14). In 2005, Habib was released due to his wife’s determination, humane help from Joseph Margulies, an American lawyer who fought his case, Stephen Hopper, an Australian lawyer, and others. 

Back to Australia, terror against Habib continued. ASIO and the government harassed him. His phones were tapped; residence broken into twice and documents stolen, including those about his detention in Guantanamo. ASIO did not want Habib to speak to the media; they stopped him from doing so. He received death threats and intimidations; when he reported them, the police looked disinterested and one officer even called him a “terrorist”. Habib and his family felt “threatened and terrified by the police” (p. 245, 247).

Is there a better term than terror to describe the condition of Habib and his family (all quotes from Habib’s book My Story: The Tale of a Terrorist Who was Not, 2008)?       

Symbolic terror against Islam

In the wake of the WOT, the term “new terrorism” (NT) has been redeployed with a wider currency. Peter Neumann, in his book Old & New Terrorism contends that NT is different from old terrorism (OT) on three counts. While OT was 1) hierarchical, 2) secular, nationalist, and 3) aimed at “legitimate targets”, NT is a) “networked, transnational”, b) “religiously inspired” and c) aims at “mass-casualty attacks against civilians” (p. 29). 

 Empire – 9/12 and the ‘war on terror’

My focus is on NT’s second element whose onset Neumann dates loosely, “in recent decades” (p. 4). For this claim to be true one has to show that earlier terrorism everywhere was secular. Was it so? To take one example, the terror Irgun and LEHI practiced in Palestine before/for Israel’s creation was vitally religious, which Neumann doesn’t discuss. Nor does he discuss how the US nurtured “fundamentalist” Afghans against the Soviet occupation. Afghan fighters, to recall, were of many shades, including secular-nationalist. However, the CIA financed the Hekmatyar group, which threw acid on the face of unveiled women. This group got 50 per cent of the US aid. When asked why the US backed Hekmatyar, a CIA official said: “fanatics fight better“. My point is that religiously inspired terrorism is not “given”; it is complex as it is also produced by imperial power, which would later go on to call similar Afghan fighters “terrorist”. Importantly, Neumann’s flat distinction between secular and religious and their conceptualisation is callous to new scholarly works which critique them. Escaping these works, Neumann goes on to say that though religiously inspired terrorism “can be found in all faiths and culture” (p. 105), Islam serves as its master signifier:  

More than, say, Christian or Jewish fundamentalism, the rise of political Islam and the emergence of Islamist terrorism have defined the current age. Those who claim to act in the name of Islam have killed more people in the last two decades than any other branch of religiously inspired terrorism (p. 105; italics added). 

Let us examine this quote. Analogous words for “Islamist terrorism” (Neumann also uses “Jihadist terrorism”, p. 44) is not Christian or Jewish fundamentalism which he uses, but Christian or Jewish terrorism which he doesn’t. Second, the claim Islamist terrorism has “killed more people in the last two decades than any other branch of religiously inspired terrorism” is blatantly inaccurate. Between 1986 and 2007, Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) killed no less than 100,000 people. (If worried about killings of humans, to say parenthetically, one could have also mentioned that in 1999, in the US more than 15,500 people were murdered, or in 2000 around 42,000 people were killed in road accidents, p. 9). 

Returning to LRA, it is vitally religious. Its leader, Joseph Kony, to cite Walter Laqueur (The New Terrorism, 1999, p. 197), is a “former Catholic choirboy” who “claimed to directly talk to God” and “Kony has declared himself a Christian fundamentalist who wants to… establish a state based on the Ten Commandments”. 

Chapter 4, which Neumann devotes to show his thesis of religiously inspired terrorism, is titled “From Marx to Mohammed? Religion and Terrorism”. The crisp juxtaposition of Muhammad and Terrorism in the title is revealing. Does not Neumann’s text establish a chain of equivalence between Islam, Muhammad, terrorism, jihad, jihadists (the latter two inundate his text)? Contrast this with his description of Timothy McVeigh: “an American right-wing extremist” (p. 2). No mention of his religion. Likewise, when he discusses Army of God and its attacks on abortion clinics in the US there is no mention of Christian terrorism (pp. 103-05, 116). To render religiously inspired terrorism synonymous with Islamist terrorism – Neumann’s case studies and examples are all derived from “jihadist terrorism” – he offers the following justification: 

“It is not prejudice, therefore, that has determined the choice of the subject [Islamist terrorism] but, rather, a careful reflection of how the phenomenon of religiously inspired terrorism is currently being expressed.” (p. 106)

At times, denial inadvertently may confirm what is being denied. For instance, how does one read the clarification that the war on terror is not against Islam? Why was this clarification needed, in the first place? As for Neumann’s “careful reflection”, one may be excused to perhaps read it as “beautiful deflection” from other forms of religiously inspired terrorism such as LRA’s and the million it killed. In Jihad vs. McWorld, Benjamin Barber used jihad as shorthand for “atavistic politics” in general, yet “its evocative power ultimately rests in Islam” – the locus of the “essential jihad” (Roxanne Euben “Killing (For) Politics“, p. 6). 

Likewise, for Neumann, Islamist terrorism, rather than being an example of religiously inspired terrorism, becomes the phenomenon itself: specificity of Islamist terrorism is presented in such a way that it becomes generality writ large whereby both get indistinguishable. This move to assign to Islam all that is religious, rather religion itself, is remarkable. From Christian discourses which regarded that “Islam was not a religion” and called Prophet Muhammad Arab Lucifer and charlatan, Islam has now been rendered as shorthand for all that is religious and hence the signifier of religiously inspired new terrorism. Such is the context that unveils contemporary debate on secularism and religion, including perhaps Neumann’s, to cite Gil Anidjar, as “fundamentally related to anti-Islam“.  

 Frost Over the World – The ‘war on terror’ 
10 years on  

The subtle, effective equation of Islam with religiously inspired terrorism, in my view and following Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic violence, perhaps qualifies as symbolic terror. Once in the hegemonic discourse, a chain of equivalence is established amongst Islam, Muhammad, jihad, jihadist, terrorism and new terrorism, descriptions like “radical/terrorist” Muslims appear “natural” (ergo also “neutral”) as does its binary, “moderate” Islam. It is due to this classificatory, conceptual assemblage that Muslims are asked: “do you condemn terrorism”. And this seems “natural”. In contrast, questions like “do you condemn the Norway shooting or the attack on Wisconsin’s Gurudwara” may appear strange. It is also due to this symbolic terror that Indian journalist Shahina KK, when investigating a case of “terrorism”, was herself branded terrorist by a Circle Inspector leading her to say “I am a Muslim, not a terrorist“. 

A more illustrative example of what I call symbolic terror was the crisp characterisation of Islam – as “radical true Islam”, as an enemy of free people everywhere and the specification of how to deal with “this barbaric ideology” – taught to the US military officers in Virginia (later withdrawn). Parts of course materials taught there included sentences like: “Islam must change or we will facilitate its self-destruction” and that the example of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may apply to “Mecca and Medina’s destruction”. 

The symbolic terror of counter-terrorists, like terrorists’ terror, is political. It has almost all the elements of sensation, excitement, fear, politics and threat associated with terrorism, but equally shared by terrorism experts like Rohan Gunaratna (see my essay here). Thus Robert Goodin is right when he says that issuing of warnings by politicians about terror can also be terroristic if its aim is to generate fear to reap political harvest. An apt example is the propaganda and warnings by Western politicians – aimed as they were at securing political goals by creating fear and threats – that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. To the warnings by politicians, I submit, should be added the writings by terrorism experts if and when they too engage in symbolic terror in such an effective manner that in the current age nearly every discussion on Islam is made to navigate through terrorism.     

Future of terror, terror of future

What is the future of terrorism? This depends on how we shape our connected but violently asymmetrical planetary future. If we look at the past of our future, nationalism has been the dominant framework to envision human lives from 19th century on. This national framework, fully and religiously consolidated after WW II, continues to shape our present and future. National became so pervasive and ingrained that it appeared as rational to the extent that both became substitutes for each other. In this vicious game of naked substitution, ethics was the greatest casualty. Integral to the “natural” pursuit and maximisation of “national interests” was the logic of othering. With the transformation of population into nationals such as “Dutch”, “French”, “British” and “American”, to name only a few, war, terror and violence were verily and mainly seen through the dehumanising lenses of national interests.  

Clinging to “national interests”, terrorism experts suggest tightening “homeland security” as an antidote to terrorism. This suggestion is less likely to succeed because that from which emanates terror can’t be its antidote. We need to shape a humane world that abolishes the dehumanising logic of ruthless pursuits of “national interests”. In shaping this world, we ought to shun the dualism of nationalised reality – as presented by theorists of Realism and Neo-realism – and embrace the imagination and poetry like that of Sahir Ludhyanavi (d. 1980): 

Blood, whether others’ or ours is the blood of Adam’s race, ultimately;
            War, whether in East or West, is the murder of world peace, ultimately. 

After 9/11, Salman Rushdie issued a priestly call for the Reformation of Islam to counter terrorism. Perhaps it is time to also initiate a Reformation of the West, which, as Judith Butler correctly points out, splits humanity into “destructible”, “ungrievable” lives on one hand and “preserving”, “grievable” lives on the other and fashions symbolic terror of multiple kinds. 

Irfan Ahmad is a political anthropologist and a lecturer at Monash University, Australia and author of Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami (Princeton University Press, 2009) which was short-listed for the 2011 International Convention of Asian Scholars Book Prize for the best study in the field of Social Sciences. Currently, he is finishing a book manuscript on theory and practice of critique in modernity and Islamic tradition.