All right, but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?
The immortal words of Judean terrorists Stan and Reg in Monty Python’s epic film “The Life of Brian” echo down the ages as they plot to kidnap Pilate’s wife, and send back pieces of her body “every hour on the hour.” But apart from “a ten foot mahogany statue of the Emperor Julius Caesar with his cock hanging out,” whatever were the demands and revolutionary aims of the People’s Front of Judea?
Australians might well ask the same question as they confront the hazy spectre of terrorism on our shores once more, following last week’s anti-terrorism raids in Melbourne. A few days later came shocking images of bearded and angry men jostling with Sydney police, framed by children carrying signs exhorting beheadings. They might strike us as Pythonesque were they not so unsettling. But should we be anxious and, if so, how anxious? And are radical demonstrators the same, or close enough, or about to become terrorists?
Revolutionaries, radicals, extremists, and fundamentalists are as old as time. St Simeon was either a fanatical nutter who found respite by sitting for way too long on a column of stone, or a saint, depending on your perspective. But the step from commitment to a cause, however fanatical, to the use of violence to further that cause, is a decisive step that either makes one a terrorist, or a revolutionary, depending on whether you sport a Roman or a Judean perspective.
Not only is defining terrorism problematic, but the international community has great difficulty deciding who should qualify. The UN, for example, maintains a list of organizations defined and proscribed by the world body as promoting and practicing terrorism. But organizations one might expect to feature do not, whilst other groups either argue that they are not terrorists, or that their brand of terror should exclude them from that list. Animal rights and anti-abortion activists are both examples of groups that have used terror to further their causes (but are not yet listed by the UN).
Many accuse states of being terrorists. In the ancient Greek wars, both Sparta and Athens unleashed bands of marauding fighters who methodically sowed terror on defenseless rural civilians, disrupting food production. Noam Chomsky, amongst many others, accuses the U.S. of waging terroristic campaigns in other countries. The U.S. backed the Nicaraguan “Freedom Fighters” against the Sandanista government. Iran is accused of funding, training, arming, and sheltering terrorists.
While states use mass violence to repress a threat, terrorism is a weapon of the weak, sometimes encouraged (and financed) by the mighty. A useful definition might be that terrorism is an act of violence which strikes fear among a broad class of people, and is calculated to encourage a political response. A universal tool for those fighting dominance, the record of terrorism in the Middle East is particularly well recorded, and has given us the word “zealot.”
The Jewish Zealots of Jerusalem provided an early model for the likes of Reg and Stan, assassinating Roman soldiers and functionaries, as well as Jews who collaborated with the Roman state in what the ancient historian Josephus called “a reign of terror.” For hundreds of years, the Iranian Shia Assassin sect fought the Abbasid Caliphate and Seljuk empire, scorning death and using daggers to kill imperial functionaries, knowing that bodyguards in turn would kill them. They were nothing if not committed.
Tinged with Romanticism, the use of terror as a tool of resistance achieved a renewed prominence with the birth struggles of nation states in the 19th and 20th centuries. The rise of democracy and the parallel rise of radical political theories such as Marxism provided the rational and moral grounds for overthrowing existing governments in pursuit of social justice. The English poet Byron’s involvement in Greece’s insurrection against the Ottoman Empire combined the heady roles of poet and revolutionary, and Europe swooned. Revolt was cool.
In lone heroic acts – “propaganda by the deed” – revolutionaries (or terrorists) successfully claimed heads of state, from the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881, through to the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, shot by a Serbian nationalist. The tools of trade were the six-shot revolver, the dagger, and small fizzling comicbook-like bombs that might explode in the hands of the assassin. Terrorism was an elusive civilian strategy, difficult for soldiers and secret policeman to combat, but the most effective weapon available to men and women who had only their courage to sell.
The romantic appeal, and social justice posture of the revolutionary is important. The notion of man alienated from his surroundings by the modern world (represented by the state) bred professional revolutionaries such as Stalin – a poet and priest before he was a revolutionary – who expressed solidarity with ‘the people’ through armed struggle. In the hands of such men, terror and killing were transmuted into acts of love for humanity. Terrorists argued that the justice of their chosen cause legitimized murder. As one Italian Marxist said of killing; “the pain of my adversary does not affect me: proletarian justice has the productive force of self-affirmation and the faculty of logical conviction.” Echoes of Python again.
But the 20th century changed the nature and magnitude of violence, and by extension the effectiveness of terror. While WWI numbed the world to mass industrialized slaughter, the totalitarianism of Nazism and Soviet Communism suggested that a good enough cause – historical, racial, metaphysical – justified any degree of violence. Liberal democracies were forced to respond with mega-terror, and entire societies were drafted into the war effort, exposing all to the logic of total destruction. Bombing raids destroyed dozens of cities with the objective to smash the political will of the population – through terror.
In the post-WWII fight by anti-colonial movements against the very states that had used terrifying proportions of violence to defeat Fascism, the use of terror broadened. Terrorists (or revolutionaries), held honoured posts in newly self-governing states. As a 20 year-old revolutionary, for example, Zohra Drif murdered French youths in the notorious “Milk Bar Bombing,” before she went on to serve for decades in the Algerian senate. Menachem Begin, who plotted the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, became Prime Minister of Israel and a Nobel Peace laureate.
The Tamil Tiger revolutionary group was eventually widely listed as a terrorist group, and were famous for their zealous suicide bombers. However most of their energy went towards conventional military tactics in their fight with the Sri Lankan army, more typical of any guerrilla movement. Fighters like the Australian Tamil writer Niromi de Soyza, were inspired to enlist because of the social justice propaganda of the Tigers, and because she had witnessed widespread discrimination and violence endured by Tamil Sri Lankans. The use of terrorism led in part to the groups military defeat in 2009.
There were lines to be drawn, but it was a rare person who drew them. In his autobiography, former South African revolutionary and president Nelson Mandela, writes that the African National Congress opted to use sabotage instead of terrorism because, “terrorism inevitably reflected poorly on those who used it,” while the limited nature of the violence in acts of sabotage offered “the best chance for reconciliation.” Al Qaeda , on the other hand considers its attack on civilians in perfect measure with what it regards as the violence of the U.S., western, and illiberal Middle Eastern states against Muslims.
Groups like the Australian branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, who held a conference in Sydney last weekend, promote a social justice message that links the existence of Israel with the oppression of the Palestinians. Their website and writings recall the tracts and pamphlets of the anarchists or communists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with simple over-arching narratives to explain grievances. Similarly, the Caliphate they promote offers a simplistic transnational solution for any discontented Australian Muslims, a timeless formula of particular appeal to younger minds.
From around 2004 the threat in Australia discernibly shifted from operatives directed by Al Qaeda or the south-east Asian Jeemah Islamiah network, to “homegrown” terrorists: “Globally-inspired but locally generated” activists according to ASIO, many of who are Australian citizens who, “come from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds… and who might be prepared to engage in violence.” In a speech earlier this year, the Director-General of ASIO, David Irvine, warned that also the threat from terrorism was real, those involved in plotting terrorist attacks in Australia are a dangerous, but tiny fringe group who do not reflect the mass of Muslims in Australia.
For whilst many millions of people around the world adhere to strange and sometimes frightening beliefs, very, very few ever resort to terrorism. For the past decade, governments have spent billions to combat terrorism, and a significant part of that effort has been directed at understanding the transition from radical to terrorist. Shandon Harris-Hogan is a specialist in Islamic radicalisation from Monash University’s Radicalisation Project, which works closely with Australia’s security services. He says Australia’s homegrown Islamists tend to be young, poorly educated, and were often not at all religious in their early years when they were more likely to be experimenting with drugs, girlfriends, nightclubs, or petty crime.
According to Harris-Hogan extremists of all stripes, whether from the radical left or right, also share a number of similarities. One of the most distinctive is the belief that they have discovered a dogma that provides them at once with a kind of personal salvation and a special insight, or enlightenment. Like Reg and Stan, and rest of the People’s Front of Judea, this sense of being special leads them to cut ties with friends and family, and to coalesce around others who share their insight. Typically in Australia, those who have been involved in terrorism-related activities have split away from mainstream, or even other extremist groups.
Maajid Nawaz used to be a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and knows them from the inside. As a bright Bangladeshi Muslim in Britain, he was bashed by white thugs. Isolated, frightened, and angry, he became an important recruiting tool for Hizb ut-Tahrir, traveling to Pakistan to recruit Jihadists. Arrested in Egypt, he spent four years in prison where he endured torture, but where he also encountered a conversion to what he calls “radical democracy.” Seen as a quisling by his former Jihadist mates, he understands the game intimately.
As Maajid Nawaz says, racism, or a sense of being an outsider (which the very real experience of many Lebanese Muslims Australians) is not enough: “Without charismatic recruiters and an ideological narrative, the process remains incomplete.” According to Nawaz, who co-founded the London-based anti-radicalization organization Quilliam, the right-wing and, in this instance, the extremism of Islamism, “work in symbiosis,” each feeding the other’s paranoid narratives.
But Australia’s Islamic terrorist ‘problem’ is small, extremely specific, and very different so far from that of the UK or US experience. It centres around a small number of people – predominantly Lebanese Muslim Australians –who, as Monash University’s Shandon Harris-Hogan explains, emerge from a tightly linked group connected by family, friendship, and violent ideology. That there have been no successful terrorist attacks here by Islamists is a reflection of the size of the challenge, the success of the security services, Australia’s community-centred approach and, most importantly, the simple fact that almost 100 per cent of leads that have led to terrorism arrests have come from within Australia’s Muslim community.
In a forthcoming paper to be published in the journal of Terrorism and Political Violence, Harris-Hogan and his colleague Andrew Zammit (a specialist in right-wing extremism in Australia) explain the specific circumstances that have led to the tiny, but disproportionately large representation of Lebanese Muslim Australians in terrorism activities, as well as the presence of others from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, including Anglo-Celtic (the Lebanese Muslims who arrived in Australia in 1975 as part of the wave of refugees fleeing the Lebanese civil war, faced circumstances that have led to communal isolation, high inter-generational unemployment, ingrained poverty, and low levels of education, relative to other immigrant groups).
Far from being an apologia, or excusing involvement, the Monash findings allow for a rational perspective of the scale of the challenge, and for the vast majority of law-abiding Lebanese Muslim Australians to be carefully distinguished from terrorists or extremists, and for terrorists to be distinguished from others who hold extremist views.
Maajid Nawaz, decried by the left and right in Britain, writes: “Many on the right will forever view Muslims as “outsiders” with an “alien culture.” Many on the left also perceive Muslims as “outsiders.” For this group, Muslims are essentially a communal bloc in need of pandering to and being catered for, in which the individual must be subjected to intra-community cultural hierarchies rather than any established liberal standards. Whereas the former group defines Muslims as illiberal outsiders to be feared, the latter defines Muslims as illiberal outsiders whose “lack of liberalism” should be encouraged in the name of a patronizing search for “authenticity.” “
Meanwhile, don’t hold your breath for those beheadings being promoted by 3 year-olds last week. We’re more likely to get that ten-foot statue of Caesar – if the bastards don’t blow it up first of course.