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Last Updated: 10/05/2011Terrorism and Moral Response
Hye Young Kim
This week marks the 10 year anniversary of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in retribution for the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In this essay, Hye Young Kim considers alternative responses to the moral outrage of terrorism, and proposes an intercultural dialogue rejecting violence and focusing on justice, humanity, and diversity.
On the 11th of September 2001 (9/11) the World was shocked and horrified by the Al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center, the symbolic headquarters of global power and globalization. 9/11 was followed by a series of terrorist outrages and attempts in Bali in 2002, Istanbul in 2003, Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, Islamabad in 2008, and many more. At this critical juncture, where the Global Community is commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, there are hundreds of stories are reproduced, reinterpreted, and redistributed throughout the world, which in turn consciously or unconsciously shape “our” collective memory. Indeed, 9/11 is one of the significant events of the early 21st century in that the attack has changed not only the United States, but also shaken every corner of the world by putting the “terrorism” and “war on terrorism” rhetoric into the heart of international agenda. Terrorism, by definition, “employs horrific violence against unsuspecting civilians, as well as combatants, in order to inspire fear and create panic, which in turn will advance the terrorists’ political or religious agenda”; therefore poses a great threat on world peace and security through the systematic targeting of innocent civilians.
What is more significant with regard to 9/11 and the Al-Qaeda led attacks against the United States and the rest of the West, however, lies in the fear that it seems the Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilization become a truism. As Barber argues, on the one side, there are “the forces of disintegral tribalism and reactionary fundamentalism,” which he calls jihad and on the other side, there are the “forces of integrative modernization and aggressive economic and cultural globalization” which he calls McWorld. As simplistic and reductionist as this view might be, the dichotomy encapsulates how world is divided – haves vs. have-nots, modern vs. traditional, city vs. rural, center vs. marginalized, North vs. South…etc. In this essay, I would like to examine why and how the global terrorism since 9/11 and the unilateral response of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq in the name of “War on Terror” set the agenda, challenging global order. Then, I will present some of possible ways to overcome current challenges.
Terrorism in a New Era
Terrorism is not new: in the 1980s 5,431 international terrorist incidents occurred which killed 4,684 people, in the 1990s there were 3,824 incidents with 2,468 deaths.  Of course, state-sponsored terrorism is not included in this figure. Yet, the 9/11 Al-Qaeda attack is different from the old terrorism in two key respects. First, unlike the conventional belief that the cause of terrorism lies in despair or a sense of hopelessness rooted in oppression, ignorance, poverty, and perceived injustice, though these elements are not un-founded; this conflict is hegemonial and ideological, about power and the norms around which society should ordered. To fight this war, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have intelligently manipulated the fear of losing the identity in the wave of globalization among Muslim communities in the Middle East. This narrative is well-blended with historical wrong-doings of colonialism, the sense of marginalization and grievances, and religious fervor propagating the “pure Islam”, whereby provoking disproportionate retaliation and creating extremism. For example, Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda often placed themselves and their enemies in a theological context calling the US is the ‘Hubal of this age’ and uses such terminologies as Crusaders, Zionist, the imperialists. According to Fukuyama, this kind of radical Islamism can be called Islamo-fascism, which is to say, the radically intolerant and anti-modern doctrine.
Secondly, like the old terrorism, the war on terror since 9/11 is an asymmetric war between a State well-equipped with hard military power and a non-State actor without any uniformed solider to fight; however the difference is that now we are living in global information era. As Joseph Nye argues, Al-Qaeda has benefited from the globalization, especially in information, communication and technology through which they have been able to establish and maintain contact base among different groups scattered in different areas, also they could easily disseminate their propaganda to get support from Arab Muslim communities. Publicity is the oxygen of terrorism. The American counteraction has been no less than that. Think about this: who defines what is terrorism and who are the terrorist. Obviously, the terminology applies only to terrorism against us, not the terrorism we carry out against them. Therefore the US can name others as terrorist and can declare war on terror; but none of the rest can name the US as terrorist. This is also related to the selectivity of history – what to remember and what to not. Chomsky furiously argues that along with the 9/11 of 2011, the world also has to commemorate the 1973’s 9/11 when the US succeeded in its intensive efforts to overthrow the democratic government of Salvador Allende in Chile with a military coup that placed General Pinochet’s brutal regime in office. The moral truism – the principles we expected to be applied to others must apply to us as well – is difficult to be satisfied in any case.
How to respond to terrorism
The acts of terrorism cannot be, for any reason, justified since, in Kantian language, terrorists treats use ordinary people as means to an end. Terrorism aims not only at the direct target, but at the same time at sending a message to the indirect target through the terrorizing action. The challenge we face then, is how to respond effectively to terrorism without doing further evil. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks a decade ago, the Bush administration declared “war on terror” and responded unilaterally in the name of justice. Without any clear target of military defeat, the US first chose Afghanistan where it believed the Taliban government harbored and supported Al-Qaeda. The rationale behind this behavior was the frame which viewed terrorism as attacks on the US as a state and its people. The legitimacy of the state-to-state coercive military intervention, however, has been challenged and US tried to justify its war on Taliban by shifting the focus on the humanitarian defense of freeing the Afghan people, especially its women, from oppression. Then the Invasion of Iraq was followed in 2003.
In the discourse of legitimate force in defense of national security and public safety, again the US has failed to reflect on its lesser evil which actually resembled with the perpetrators of terrorism. As a matter of fact, the struggle against terrorism took place at the expense of the fundamental freedoms and the basic dignity of individuals. It is no longer a secret that the US government has committed regular abuses, tantamount to torture, against the detainees at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp which was set up in 2002 in order to hold the “enemy combatants” from war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush administration deliberately asserted that detainees in the war on terror do not fall into the Geneva Conventions, thereby denying the prisoners their basic human rights. More importantly, the war on terror provided an all-pass justification for the kinds of military adventures, invasions, bombings, interventions, and atrocities, while at the same time placing restrictions of civil liberty and political freedom in the same way as was done during the Cold War period. The rhetoric of war on terrorism constantly heightens the fear in people’s mind and reinforces dehumanization processes depicting the enemy as an evil monster, which in turn leads to the cycle of revenge.
Let us follow Rosenberg’s thought experiment of an alternative road: What if the US has responded to the 9/11 attacks through multilateral, international cooperation and global governance? What if the response was more to seek redistributive justice rather than retributive justice, by dealing more with the driving forces behind fanatic hatred – perceived collective humiliation? The rationale behind this logic is that we could have framed the 9/11 attacks and consequences differently. The day after 9/11, both the UN Security Council and the General Assembly adopted resolutions strongly condemning the acts of terrorism and urging all states to cooperate to bring the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of the terrorism to justice. Acting along with the United Nations, it was possible to interpret the situation as “crimes against humanity” as Mary Robinson, the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, asserted. In this way, the whole discourse could be conceptualized in people-to-people, rather than state-to-state terms, which was a correct response given that the attackers were not representatives of a state, but members of private organizations. Another worth mentioning fact is that there was a deep feeling of shame, humiliation, and revulsion in the Muslim world against the terrorist acts which dishonored and disgraced Islam. Through collective action and global solidarity, the US could have had the chance to unite with Islam world. The irony is that by responding to the attack with military option, the US has “validated his [bin Laden’s] fantasy of being a holy warrior, rather than a fanatic mass murderer,” and lost its moral credibility.
Rule of Law and Global Justice
September 11 has resulted in a global alliance against terrorism. What we now need is not just an alliance against evil, but an alliance for something positive – a global alliance for reducing poverty and for creating a better environment, an alliance for creating a global society with more social justice.
Terrorism is not done by evil ghost; but by human beings. While terrorist acts cannot be morally justified and deserve to be punished and pre-empted; it is equally important to look into the underlying causes and the specific contexts where hatred and radicalization flourish. Although it is not quite appropriate to say the root causes of the terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda and other Islamo-fascists lie in so-called structural violence like poverty, unequal distribution of wealth, or other perceived injustice since the extremism has been largely successful through ideological indoctrination perpetuated by some of the radical groups, it is also true that there is underlying grievances originated from a sense of collective injustice among Muslim World. There must be reasons why otherwise decent ordinary men and women build up enormous rage and hatred. At the deepest bottom of the hatred, I argue, is a history of global injustice: colonialism, Cold War polarization, unilateral acts of superpower upon their interest, Imperialism, aggressively imposed liberal values such as democracy (most of time not genuine) and market economy, selective application of rule of law, ‘American exceptionism,’ and so on.
In light of this situation, I will suggest the following three recommendations as a way of moving forward. First, narrow down global inequalities – the growing disparities in wealth and subsequence indifference amidst affluence certainly fosters resentment in many corners of the world and provides a good reason for the perpetrators’ propaganda. Second, spread the message of a universal morality with universal human rights – focusing on our common humanity rather than sticking to identity politics through the lens of specific racial, nationalistic, religious, ethnic or other factors would ultimately lead to establishment of world governance structures, and institutional Cosmopolitanism. Understanding that we are all intertwined in an interdependent global web would confirm this view. Thirdly, initiate intercultural dialogues between Western and Muslim (and other) societies to “deepen mutual understanding, to expand sympathy and imagination, to exchange not only arguments but also sensibilities, to take a critical look at oneself, to build up mutual trust, and to arrive at a more just and balanced view of both the contentious issues and the world in general.” However, significant change must come from inside each society. Like any other identities, so-called Islamic culture or society is not homogeneous nor fixed; rather, it is diverse, multi-faceted and transformative. Knowing this, it is time for Muslim community to decide whether to make its peace with development and modernity, in particular with the principle of a secular state and religious tolerance. As the recent Arab Spring indicates, there is a wind of change blowing from inside.
Global terrorism poses enormous challenges on the international community. The right response to this challenge is collaborative international action through the rule of law in the short term; at the same time in the long term, we should put more emphasis on global justice, common humanity, and cultural diversity.
Abdalla, A. and Hassanzadeh, A. (2011). Al-Qaida and Terrorism in the Arab East: Rise, Decline, and the Effects of Doctrine Revisions and the Arab Revolutions. Arab Mashreq Chapter Draft. In the PSC-6000 Course reading materials.
Abdalla, A. (2011). Arab Revolutions of 2011: Roots and Prospects. Brief note for Africa Peace and Conflict Journal, to be published in the Fall 2011. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Barber, B. R. (2002). Democracy and Terror in the Era of Jihad vs. McWorld. In Booth K. and Dunne T. (Eds.), Worlds in Collision: Terror and the Future of Global Order (pp.245-262). Palgrave Macmillan, NY.
Chomsky, N. (2002). Who Are the Global Terrorists? In Booth K. and Dunne T. (Eds.), Worlds in Collision: Terror and the Future of Global Order (pp.128-140). Palgrave Macmillan, NY.
Chomsky, N. (2003). Terror and Just Response. In Sterba J. P. (Eds.), Terrorism and International Justice (pp.69-87). Oxford University Press, NY.
Fukuyama, F. (2002). History and September 11. In Booth K. and Dunne T. (Eds.), Worlds in Collision: Terror and the Future of Global Order (pp.27-36). Palgrave Macmillan, NY.
Kapitan T. (2003). The Terrorism of “Terrorism”. In Sterba J. P. (Eds.), Terrorism and International Justice (pp.47-68). Oxford University Press, NY.
Kassam, Z. (2003). Can a Muslim Be a Terrorist? In Sterba J. P. (Eds.), Terrorism and International Justice (pp. 114-131). Oxford University Press, NY.
Parekh, B. (2002). Terrorism or Intercultural Dialogue. In Booth K. and Dunne T. (Eds.), Worlds in Collision: Terror and the Future of Global Order (pp.270-283). Palgrave Macmillan, NY.
Phillips, R. L. (2003). The War Against Pluralism. In Sterba J. P. (Eds.), Terrorism and International Justice (pp.101-113). Oxford University Press, NY.
Pojman, L. P. (2003). The Moral Response to Terrorism and Cosmopolitanism, In Sterba J. P. (Eds.), Terrorism and International Justice (pp. 135-157). Oxford University Press, NY.
Thakur, R. (2006). Part III Hard Security Issues: 8. International Terrorism. In the United Nations, Peace and Security (pp.181-202). Cambridge, UK.
 Photo Slides: Terror attacks, attempts since 9/11, CBS News access on 11th September 2011 http://www.cbsnews.com/2300-202_162-10009282.html?tag=page
 Almost all major media outlets including CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters, BBC News, Guardian and Al Jazeera, created a dedicated page for 9/11 posting articles, photos and films.
 Louis P. Pojman, The Moral Response to Terrorism and Cosmopolitanism, p.140
 Benjamin R. Barber, Democracy and Terror in the Era of Jihad vs. McWorld, p.245
 Quoted in Magnus Ranstorp, “Terrorism in the Name of Religion,” Journal of International Affairs, 1996
 Ramesh Thakur, International Terrorism in The United Nations, Peace and Security, p. 182
 Hubal is one of the main idols, that was worshipped by Arabs before the advent of Islam. When Bin Laden calls America "the Hubal of the age", he suggests that it is the primary focus of idol worship and that it is polluting the Kaaba, a symbol of Islamic purity.
 Francis Fukuyama, History and September 11, p.32
 Joseph S. Nye, Ten years after the mouse roared, project-Syndicate, access on 3rd September 2011 http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/nye98/English
 Noam Chomsky, Who Are the Global Terrorists? In Worlds in Collision, p.131
 Edward Said who tried to challenge through the lens of Orientalism, “who are ‘We’ who perceive and judge ‘the Other’ with a sense of absolutism?”
 Noam Chomsky, Was There an Alternative? The Huffington post, access on 6th September 2011 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/noam-chomsky/was-there-an-alternative-_b_950216.html
 Daniele Archibugi and Iris Marion Young, Envisioning a Global Rule of Law, p.159
 Last access on 11 September http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guantanamo_Bay_detention_camp
 Paul Rosenberg, 9/11's self-inflicted wounds are the worst, Al Jazeera, access on 11 September 2011 http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/09/2011910115157366771.html
 Security Council Resolution 1368 on 12 September 2011 http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2001/SC7143.doc.htm
 According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, “crimes against humanity” is defined as are particularly odious offenses in that they constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings.
 Mary Robinson, High Commissioner for Human Rights, meets the press on 25 September 2001
 Joseph E. Stiglitz, Globalism’s Discontents, The American Prospect, Winter 2002, Special Supplement, p.A21
 See the Muslim voices in Bhikhu Parekh, Terrorism or Intercultural Dialogue, p.276-9
 Bhikhu Parekh, Terrorism or Intercultural Dialogue, p.272
Hye Young Kim is an MA candidate in the Department of International Law at the University for Peace.