Beheaded hostages, slaughtered children, and the misguided 'war on global terror'

When there are violent attacks, we need to understand why they are happening. If we don't, we can't prevent them

Johann Hari

The Independent

23 September 2004

As Iraqi jihadists threaten to behead the British captive Kenneth Bigley, the word 'terrorist' is everywhere. If I could ban any word in the English language, it would be this. Here's one example of its lop-sided use. A fortnight ago, Chechen jihadists murdered more than 300 children in Beslan. They are "terrorists". Since 1991, Russian troops have murdered more than 40,000 Chechen. They are not "terrorists"; they are "our allies".

The term "terrorism" simply means "violence we don't support". In the adult world, each individual act of violence needs to be discussed on its own merits and in its own context. Some of the people who howl "terrorist" most loudly admit that they use the term as an attempt to shut down debate. Richard Perle, the neoconservative guru, says we need to "decontextualise terror". "Any attempt to discuss the roots of terrorism is an attempt to justify it," he says. "It simply needs to be fought and destroyed."

It's necessary to look at some recent history to understand how foolish this is. When the Soviet Union fell, the Chechen people sought independence from Russia, the country that had battered them for over a century. They have a separate language and culture; it was a perfectly reasonable demand - but the exit door was quickly bolted shut. Chechnya is an important source of access to the region's oil and gas reserves. No Russian government was going to let its people go.

So the Chechens launched a campaign of limited violence. In response, Russia levelled Chechnya. A quarter of the population has "disappeared" in the attacks. In 1996, the Russian government finally grew tired of bombing rubble and being bombed in return. They granted Chechnya de facto sovereignty. The violence stopped. For three years, peace prevailed.

But when two bombs exploded in a pair of Moscow apartment blocks in 1999 - killing 200 innocent people - Vladimir Putin was quick to claim this as proof that no compromise will appease the Chechens. There's a snag: several respected journalists, including my colleague Patrick Cockburn, discovered that an identical third bomb was planted in a nearby apartment block. The perpetrators were captured - and then released by police when they discovered that they were Russian secret service agents.

There is considerable evidence that Putin relaunched the Chechen war - and destroyed the region's fragile peace - for his own political and strategic ends. Who are the "terrorists" in this scenario? How does that label help us to understand this conflict?

Pearle would say that even to offer this context is to apologise for it. Imagine saying this about any other historical event. There is a consensus among historians that the injustices contained in the Versailles Treaty contributed to the rise of Nazism. Are all these historians pro-Nazi?

The term "terrorism" - as used by the press and politicians today - invites us all to participate in a strange, wilful ignorance of cause and effect. How can this ever be a serious response to our problems?

When there are violent attacks, we need to understand why they are happening. If we do not, we are left flailing about in a historical void - and powerless to prevent further attacks. If Putin really wanted to stop the attacks on Russian civilians, he would withdraw his murderous troops from the region and grant it independence. He does not do it because he clearly values oil and gas reserves - and a reputation for "toughness" - rather more than human life.

It is nonsense to describe the battle we have been engaged in since 11 September 2001 as a "War on Terror". This misnomer has allowed any tin-pot dictatorship to target its own unhelpful minorities as "terrorists".

The battle we really are engaged in - and we are too squeamish to describe - is against a particular brand of Wahabi Islamic fundamentalism. Why doesn't Tony Blair call it by its proper name, rather than talking airily about "defeating global terrorism forever" - a meaningless and absurd sentence?

Wherever jihadism has been allowed to seize power - as in Afghanistan - jihadists have committed human rights abuses on a par with the worst of communism and fascism. (The victims have mostly been innocent Muslims.) They believe in exterminating minority groups like homosexuals, Jews and even other Muslim sects. They believe that death is in many circumstances preferable to life - and they are prepared to take plenty of people with them who don't agree.

It is precisely because this philosophy is so dangerous that we cannot afford a no-context-please approach. We need to understand the factors that makes jihadism so appealing to so many young men or we will never be able to prevent it. It is not inherent to the Islamic faith. There are few jihadists in stable, prosperous Muslim countries like Turkey, or among the Muslim populations of Europe and America. No; jihadism is a virus that spreads in conditions of poverty, humiliation and butchery.

Where there are legitimate grievances being exploited by jihadists, they must be dealt with urgently. There needs to be an independent Chechnya, a free Kashmir, a Palestinian state and an end to the revolting House of Saud.

Of course granting all of these will not send every last jihadist back to his cave; but it will whittle down their support and make it harder for them to recruit a new generation of supporters.

Yet our governments have scarcely begun the long process of reorienting our foreign policy so it undermines these causes of jihadism. They are still supporting Putin's butchery in Chechnya. They are still supporting and arming Ariel Sharon as he consolidates settlements on the West Bank. In Central Asia they are creating a new Middle East, filled with corrupt pro-Western tyrants and chafing populations who turn to Islamofascism.

If we are all settling down into a long, dangerous fight against jihadism then we need to start extinguishing these fires of rage. It is only once these proper grievances have been dealt with - once it is clear that there is no justice on the jihadist side - that our leaders can build a consensus to fight the remaining shards of Islamic fundamentalism.

There should be no illusions. Most jihadists will carry on fighting long after we have mopped up concerns Western liberals can share. Many of their grievances simply could not be accommodated without surrendering our own values.

Look at the jihadists earlier this month who took French civilians hostage in Iraq. They were trying to force the elected French government to lift its ban on Muslim veils in state schools. Their grievance is against both secularism and democracy. Does anybody think we should appease that?

Or look at the jihadists who have taken Kenneth Bigley hostage in Iraq this week. They are demanding the release of Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons expert, amongst others. How can this grievance - a desire for the return of Saddam Hussein's regime - be dealt with, other than with bullets? Call them Saddam-supporters; call them monsters. But please - don't reinforce one of the stupidities of our age and call them "terrorists".