July 16, 2006

The Crucial (Unanswered) Question Regarding Islamic Terrorism

The conflicts in the Middle East routinely frustrate even the most attentive experts, while completely baffling casual observers. The region seems to permanently feed on a combination of the most volatile emotions: resentment, envy, and fear, amid competing fantasies of religious exceptionalism that have persisted for millennia. And as the violence in Iraq continues unabated and the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah intensifies, the voices of reason in the Middle East are yet again drowned out by the sounds of bombs and the proclamations of extremists.

It is extremely difficult for members of the voting public to wade through the events in the Middle East in order to attempt to assess the proper role for U.S. foreign policy. Democracy sounds grand until one realizes that majorities in many Middle Eastern countries currently favor forms of radical Islam, and yet the current disarray in the Middle East is partly due to our decades-long support of despots and dictators who have oppressed their people and fomented hatred. And even if one wants to support the state of Israel, Israel’s actions are so often morally and legally questionable that it becomes difficult to know when such support may actually worsen an already fragile situation.

None of this is made easier by the fact that almost five years into the “war on terror” the most important question still remains unanswered: Are Islamic terrorists largely isolated groups acting on their own accord or are they actively sponsored by states?

Ironically, while the Bush Administration has consistently argued that the “war on terror” is an altogether new kind of struggle because of the stateless nature of our enemy, there has been a recent surge of commentary primarily on the right suggesting that Islamic radicals are directly supported by state actors (in addition, the Indian prime minister has accused Pakistan of supporting the terrorists who recently killed more than 200 commuters in Mumbai). Some have gone as far as to claim that Iran and Syria are directly responsible for the recent escalation by Hezbollah against Israel, while others have countered that there is no evidence to support such a claim.

It is a sad testament to how the war on terror has been prosecuted that there is still so much confusion over the true nature of Islamic terrorism. It is obvious that without a profound understanding of the enemy it is next to impossible to craft an effective foreign policy, let alone for the general public to evaluate it. Hopefully, in the coming weeks we will witness of flurry of activity in think tanks, policy circles, and the general media to help shed light on this crucial question.


P.S. There is a fascinating op-ed in the NYT today that presents an alternative to the neocon foreign policy, which the author calls “progressive realism”. I don’t agree with all of what he lays out but it’s worth a read.

Jason Scorse