Stephen Hicks on Islamic Terrorism: A Response

Stephen Hicks (Philosophy, Rockford University) has an article up at his website, also published elsewhere, on “How to Tame Religious Terrorists,” meaning, essentially how to tame Islamic terrorists. Below I’ve posted a long comment I wrote in response. I’ve added hyperlinks in the version below, and added a clause to one sentence to clarify its meaning (“as is typically done in the United States”).

It should go without saying that my point is not that all Islamic terrorism can be justified as a legitimate response to real grievances (it can’t), but simply that some Islamic terrorists (and would-be terrorists, or sympathizers with those terrorists) have real grievances. One way (though not the only way) of “taming” terrorism would be to reduce the number of real grievances they have, especially when we ourselves are the direct or indirect source of the grievance–as in the Israeli case, we are.

Your post misses what seems to me one obvious way of taming religious terrorists–stop giving them reasonable pretexts for attacking us. One obvious and long-standing pretext is the Israeli occupation of Palestine, now in its fifth decade. You can’t occupy, expropriate, and disenfranchise people for fifty years and expect magnanimity from them. Military occupations beget resistance–violent resistance. If you want less violent resistance, it helps to stop giving people something to resist.

We teach American children to valorize the “Sons of Liberty.” But the Sons of Liberty were terrorists who started a war over a British occupation that was much shorter in duration and much weaker in severity than the Israeli one. They called themselves the “Sons of Liberty,” but despite that name, they had no problem with slavery, xenophobia, the disenfranchisement of women, or the mass killing or expropriation of Native Americans. And yet we valorize them still, and induce children to do so. It’s amazing to me that people capable of valorizing the Sons of Liberty could find themselves scratching their heads at the ideology and behavior of Hamas, but apparently they do. The truth is, whatever its flaws, Hamas is more enlightened than the Sons of Liberty. Either both should be valorized or neither should be. But it is hypocrisy to valorize the one and demonize the other, as is typically done in the United States. We might consider the possibility that the terrorism that needs taming is not just theirs, but our own.

One essential part of putting oneself in the head of a terrorist (or would-be terrorist, or terrorist-sympathizer) is to recognize that some of them have legitimate grievances, and that one’s own country is the source of those grievances. There is no justifiable way to write about the subject by abstracting from these grievances and focusing on abstract principles that bracket them as non-existent or unimportant. Nor is it enough to say that fights are triggered by local or short-term conflicts. The Arab-Israeli conflict is now at least a century in the making, as are almost all post-colonial conflicts involving Islam, which date back to the dissolution of the British, French, German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To describe our conflict with political Islam by abstracting from the details of this history is to place the conflict in an abstract ghost world rather than in the real world we actually inhabit.

I spend my summers in the West Bank teaching Palestinian students political philosophy under Israeli occupation–including, no doubt, students who sympathize with Hamas. Much of what they say about their political situation is nonsense, but some of it is more cogent than anything one hears about the Arab-Israeli conflict here in the United States (and certainly more cogent than anything one hears from Objectivists). One can’t dismiss their claims a priori by abstracting away from claims about merely “local” conflicts. Here as elsewhere, the disagreements about principle are shaped by the local conflicts that give rise to those disagreements. There is no such thing as a purely abstract political disagreement, any more than there is such a thing as a political principle untethered to real-world history and experience.

No Western thinker will make headway in the Arab Near East by “supporting” Arab liberals while abstracting from the justifiability of the Israeli occupation. The hypocrisy of that gesture is too obvious, and too opportunistic, to command anyone’s respect: it says, in effect, “We demand that you support liberalism while we support illiberalism; we demand that you take a stand while we ourselves remain neutral about whether our support for your dispossession is right or wrong.” Who could take such a posture seriously?

Whatever American liberals may think or tell themselves, the truth is that they are not respected in the Arab or Muslim Near East, chiefly because they’ve done little or nothing to deserve respect. And a large part of the problem is that they are as eager to attack political Islam as they are eager to support political Judaism. Why any self-respecting Arab or nominal/secular Muslim would want to make common cause with such transparently unprincipled people is a mystery. But until such attitudes change in the direction of consistency and integrity, all bets are off. Sadly, there are no visible prospects for positive change on the horizon.

4 thoughts on “Stephen Hicks on Islamic Terrorism: A Response

  1. I’m surprised that nobody’s taken the bait on this one, here or at Hicks’ blog. It’s so inflammatory! Hamas and the Sons of Liberty!? How dare you?!? It makes me fear for the readership of this blog that there have been no angry responses.

    Really, though, I like this blog because there are rarely angry responses. But surely there should be some response? So here’s one.

    Your main thesis here seems depressingly true to me. It’s what many of us were saying already on 9/11, and it’s sad to see that it hasn’t reached the status of conventional wisdom. It’s not surprising that it hasn’t, though, because there’s a straightforward confusion lying ready to hand: if we acknowledge that terrorists have legitimate grievances, or even that it’s understandable why they think they have legitimate grievances, then we justify the terrorism. You’re right that it should go without saying that not all terrorism can be justified as a response to such grievances. But the more important point is that acknowledging legitimate grievances is consistent with regarding all terrorism as unjustified. Complications about the extension of ‘terrorism’ aside, that is my view. I do not know what grievances could justify flying planes into the World Trade Center or blowing yourself up in a crowded shopping mall (or just blowing up the crowded shopping mall without adding yourself into the mix, for that matter). That doesn’t mean that such acts are not responses to legitimate grievances, or at least intelligible responses to actual injustices. Nor, by the same token, does the existence of legitimate grievances obviously justify any terrorist acts. We need not think that any terrorism is ever justified in order to think that it is a response to legitimate grievances of which ‘we’ (the United States government, at any rate) are the source.

    I’ve occasionally gotten push-back on this point, along the following lines: if the terrorism isn’t justified by the grievance of which we are supposedly the source, then to think that we should stop doing whatever gives rise to the grievance because it leads people to commit terrorist acts is either to accept the legitimacy of terrorism in the first place or, at best, to capitulate to terrorism out of fear. It’s like saying, ‘look, it’s unjust for a poor guy who needs to feed his children to rob people at gunpoint to get the money, but I understand the motive behind it, so we should give poor people money so that they won’t rob us at gunpoint’; in other words, we’d better make sure poor people have money because they’ll rob us if we don’t — that’s either an admission that robbing people at gunpoint when you don’t have enough money is justified, or it’s sheer capitulation to fear.

    My usual response to this objection has been that it isn’t sufficient that the motive be an intelligible one, or even one that I can sympathize with to some extent (I’m an awfully sympathetic kind of guy, after all), but that it be a response to a genuine injustice. But I wonder whether that’s a very good response, because it makes the terrorism (or the armed robbery, or whatever example we like) irrelevant: whatever reasons we have to avoid or rectify injustice, surely the possibility that someone will respond to it in an unjustified way is not among them (or at least, it is a reason of the wrong kind). It also seems to fail in other sorts of cases. It is an injustice for me to steal $5 from you, and so you have a legitimate grievance against me when I steal your $5; but if you respond by torturing and killing me, it seems wildly out of place to say that I shouldn’t have stolen your $5 because I could have easily predicted that you would torture and kill me in response, even if it’s true that I know you’re likely to overreact — or, if that is true, it is a rather different kind of reason, one that really is just capitulation to fear.

    So if I’m not going to endorse capitulation to fear, do I need to regard terrorism as justified by legitimate grievances, then? I don’t think so. The relevant point seems to be not so much that the grievances are far more serious than your grievance against me for stealing your $5, but that conditions are such that people understandably feel as though they have no other more or equally acceptable alternative. What I’ve read from you and others about conditions for Palestinians in the occupied territories certainly makes joining Hamas and carrying out terrorist acts seem more understandable than your torturing and killing me because I stole your $5, or even the poor man’s robbing me at gunpoint in order to feed his children. There are other options here, and it is easy to see what they are. It is harder to see what other options the Palestinians have, and easier to see why some of them think that they need to resort to killing civilians and the like.

    Still, I wonder whether you and I see things more differently than I initially supposed. I don’t think that even the legitimate grievances justify any acts of terrorism, whether by Palestinians or anyone else, and ultimately the most important reason I’m going to give for why Israel, the U.S., and other parties should stop doing the things that give rise to legitimate grievances is that they’re injustices that give rise to legitimate grievances, not that the aggrieved parties might understandably be motivated to respond by killing innocent civilians. Your post leaves it unclear whether you think that the “reasonable pretexts” that arise from these grievances render terrorist attacks justified in some cases.

    And this brings me back to the Sons of Liberty. I don’t know what people are being taught in public schools, but I was never asked to believe that the American Revolution did not include some injustices on the part of the revolutionaries. Though I don’t recall it being explicitly discussed, I came away from my early education with at least an intuitive grasp of the notion that the justification of the revolution was not contingent on the justification of all the things the revolutionaries did. One could argue that nothing the Sons of Liberty or the American revolutionaries did rises to the level of what Hamas has done, but that’s not the point I want to make (though their xenophobia, racism, and sexism do not seem to be quite so relevant as you suggest). Rather, it’s the simpler point that the justice of the end does not entail the justice of the means. In the language of classical just war theory, ius ad bellum does not entail ius in bello. That doesn’t impugn your comparison between Hamas and the Sons of Liberty. Rather, it’s a reminder that when considering that comparison or any other, we cannot justify the acts undertaken in the service of the aim simply by justifying the aim. Though I’m no longer surprised by anybody’s ability to be completely unsympathetic to the Palestinians, I think what most of us who are no friends of Hamas are focused on is not the justice of their cause, but the injustice of their means.

    I also seem to remember you arguing somewhere that the American Revolution wasn’t justified, so perhaps even you don’t quite accept the comparison!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wrote two posts on the American Revolution, one for the old IOS blog back in 2013, and one for this blog in 2015. I didn’t quite argue for the claim that the American Revolution was unjustified so much as make some scattered comments in that direction.

      Here’s the 2013 post:

      And here’s the 2015 one:

      I will respond to your comment when I get a chance…

      Liked by 1 person

    • You describe your view by adopting this principle:

      Complications about the extension of ‘terrorism’ aside, all terrorism is unjustified.

      The problem is that the proviso in the first clause defeats the apparent stringency of the principle in the second. Suppose Muhammad, a member of Hamas, joins the conversation and says: “I fully agree with that principle.” And then Moshe, a member of the pricetag settler group, says the same. And then a white separatist, Greg, joins in and agrees as well. If you bracket “complications regarding the extension of ‘terrorism’,” anyone–Muhammad, Moshe, Greg, etc.–could affirm that all terrorism is unjustified. But the complications are where the action is.

      Terrorists are always careful not to refer to their own activity as “terrorism.” The Arabic word for terrorism is irhab. When I was in Palestine, I heard many proposals for “violent resistance,” but never (ever) described as a case of irhab. Jihad, maybe, but not irhab. Israelis refer indiscriminately to any act of Palestinian resistance as “terrorism”–no matter how trivial or defensive in character. Twelve year old kids throwing rocks at armored vehicles are “terrorists” regardless of what the vehicles are doing (even when they’re engaged in blatant acts of aggression), and despite the fact that no conceivable harm could arise from the act apart from the sound of a rock hitting armor.

      So forget Muhammad, Moshe, and Greg. Suppose now that I affirm the quoted principle above (as I would). If we abstract from the complications regarding its extension, I could agree that all terrorism is unjustified, and you’d have no idea whether I was agreeing or disagreeing with you.

      I don’t want to write a long-winded (and given the context, necessarily half-assed) conceptual analysis of “terrorism.” This post was a comment on Hicks’s original post, so I want to focus attention back on what I take to be the defects of Hicks’s analysis. His topic is how to defeat “terrorism,” in abstraction from any account of what it is. But this ignores the fact that the term is used indiscriminately.

      (1) Sometimes it refers to acts that are both unjustified and unrelated to any justified grievance.
      (2) Sometimes it refers to acts that are justified as a response to some justified grievance.
      (3a) Sometimes there is a justified grievance there, but the putatively terrorist act is unjustified and inexcusable.
      (3b) Sometimes there is a justified grievance, but the putatively terrorist attack is unjustified, yet somewhat excusable. Etc.

      There are many complicated variants besides those.

      Now, back to Hicks’s piece. The generic topic is terrorism, but the specific topic is Islamic terrorism. As with so many discussions of this topic, Hicks proceeds as though cases (2) and (3) could be assimilated to (1). The simplest way of putting my point is to deny that move. You can’t justifiably assimilate cases (2) and (3) to (1). Plus, I would add, in the Israeli case, cases (2) and (3) arise. Indeed, case (2) arises. If we adopt the usual way of talking about terrorism (which abstracts from the complications regarding its extension and collapses cases 1-3 and all others), we’re forced into saying that some terrorism is justified.

      I don’t particularly want to be forced into saying that. I want to say that all terrorism is unjustified. But I also want to insist that case (2) obtains in the Israeli case. If I’m dealing with an interlocutor who insists that we not discuss “complications regarding the extension” of the term, then my insistence on case (2) will sound a lot like an apology for terrorism. If the insistence that we not discuss “complications regarding the extension” of “terrorism” is a given of the conversation (and it often is, by stipulation), then I will reluctantly have to accept that stipulation and say, “All right, fine–I’ll defend terrorism, then.” The relevant issue, however, is preservation of the sheer reality of cases (2) and (3), distinguished as sharply as possible from (1). (Let me just stipulate that I think 9/11 was basically a case like [1], and set it aside.)

      What applies to “terrorism” applies to “civilian” as well. It’s now a staple of the literature on just war that “civilian” does not equal “non-combatant.” Terrorists, after all, are strictly speaking civilians, but combatants. A military organization can have a civilian leadership that dictates every move it makes. So I don’t see why civilians should always be regarded as innocent, or always be immune from targeting.

      If we change the principle from civilian immunity to non-combatant immunity, we face two issues.

      (a) The extension of “non-combatant” is controversial and debatable.
      (b) Even when it’s clear, non-combatants can be regarded as collateral damage of attacks focused on combatants–particularly when the combatants are cavalier about their own proximity to these non-combatants, and tend to treat them as innocent shields.

      Once you admit the reality of cases (2) and (3) above, distinguish them from (1), and integrate them with the complications regarding (a) and (b), the picture regarding “Islamic terrorism” changes drastically. A comment on a comment isn’t the place to work all of that out, so I’ll just rely on the intuition that what I’m saying has some plausibility to anyone inclined to view the Israeli occupation with skepticism (or anyone who knows what the Israelis actually do as distinguished from what their press releases say that they do).

      Finally, I would insist that under genuinely desperate situations, the principle of immunity can be loosened or admit of exceptions. Nat Turner’s slave rebellion sought explicitly to terrorize southerners over slavery. The rebels killed slaveowners and their families in ways that suggested that they may well have been killing non-combatants, not just as collateral damage of attacks on slaveowners (“combatants”), but to frighten people into dealing with an issue which they’d otherwise have no incentive to confront.

      Is that justifiable? I don’t know. Is it justifiable even if it violates a just war principle of non-combatant immunity? Again, I don’t know. From what I’ve read, the arguments for just war principles are not strong enough to yield clear entailments in cases like this. It seems to me dogmatism to assert a facile denunciation or apology for violence of that nature. NB: I’m not asserting that life in the West Bank is just like life was for a slave in Southampton County, Virginia ca. 1831, though maybe life in Gaza is (I don’t know, not having been there). My real point is, the topic can’t properly be discussed by bracketing Nat Turner-cases, bracketing what life is like Gaza, bracketing complications regarding the extension of “terrorism” and “civilian,” collapsing cases (1)-(3) above, and then asking: “Well, how do we tame terrorism?” That procedure just affirms the prejudices that everyone in this country already has. The time has come, sixteen years after 9/11, and decades into our various wars over it, to start attacking those prejudices.

      It is certainly true that we should not refrain from creating grievances principally because creating the grievances creates terrorism. I didn’t mean to imply that. I simply meant: there is an obvious causal relationship between creating grievances and creating resistance to them. One can’t discuss the resistance while bracketing the grievances. But Hicks’s approach to the topic–like so many–does just that. The topic is just set up in such a way as to lead readers to focus on “terrorism” (whatever it is) and treat its causes (whatever they are) as non-existent.

      As for the Sons of Liberty, I’m sure the American Revolution is taught with more nuance in some schools than others. My point is that to the extent that the Sons of Liberty have a place in our cultural life, they are reflexively and uncritically valorized. Try to imagine a Fourth of July speech that invokes the Sons of Liberty, and then says, “Arguably they were terrorists. But…” Or try to imagine a public school teacher likening them to terrorists, and then–as a classroom exercise–proceeding to ask students how they’re different from the terrorists who populate our headlines. It wouldn’t fly. As a cultural phenomenon, I’m afraid depictions like this are closer to the mark:

      Liked by 1 person

      • Your enumeration of distinctions here is helpful. To make sure I’m understanding it correctly, I take ‘justified’ to be used consistently throughout to mean that the grievance or act really is justified, not that it is merely taken to be justified by those who suffer it or carry it out.

        If that’s right, then certainly we should be distinguishing between these three in principle and we should acknowledge that there are cases of (3a) and (3b). I am not sure that there are any cases of (2). But if we’re thinking simply about things that the word ‘terrorism’ is in fact used to refer to, whether rightly or not, then there are very probably cases of (2).

        This is not, however, because I want to use the word ‘terrorism’ in a way that simply means ‘an unjustified act of such-and-such a sort.’ As far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason in principle why we couldn’t dispense with the word ‘terrorism’ and just talk about certain kinds of acts in certain kinds of circumstances and consider whether they are justified. I’m ultimately skeptical that ‘terrorism’ can be turned into an illuminating analytic category. But we do use the word to talk about things, and it’s the things that we standardly use it to refer to that I’m interested in.

        My qualification about complications that arise about the extension of ‘terrorism’ wasn’t meant to be a bracketing strategy to prevent any substantive argument. Quite the contrary. We might or might not want to consider the acts of the Sons of Liberty, for instance, terrorist acts. My point in setting aside questions like that is just that it doesn’t matter much to me whether they are or aren’t terrorism, whether or not they were justified. If it turned out that burning down a stamp distributor’s office building was both an act of terrorism and justified, I wouldn’t be particularly worried about that. If it turns out that throwing a rock at a shop window is an act of terrorism and justified, I wouldn’t be particularly worried. We may need, for various reasons, to debate the extension of ‘terrorism.’ But I take it that we don’t need to debate it for our purposes because there are clear paradigm cases of terrorism, and those are the sorts I’m asking about.

        The clear paradigms I have in mind are those that target innocent non-combatants or are deliberately indiscriminate in who they attack. 9/11 is a paradigm instance. The 2005 London bombings are a paradigm instance. The hotel bombing in Islamabad in 2008 is a paradigm instance. Palestinian suicide bombers who blow themselves up in supermarkets are a paradigm instance. There might be any number of things wrong with these acts, but the main thing that is wrong with them, as I see it, and the feature that leads me and, so far as I know, most people, to consider them terrorist acts is that they set out to kill and injure innocent non-combatants, or are at the very least wholly indiscriminate between non-combatants and combatants (you’re right that we should distinguish between non-combatants and civilians; I was lazily using ‘civilian’ more or less to mean ‘non-combatant’; we probably need a broader notion of ‘combatant’ than just ‘person with a weapon who has a standing intention to harm you,’ but the existence of unclear cases does not undermine the existence of clear cases). These are the sorts of acts that I am inclined to say are never justified.

        If somebody refuses to call an act of this sort a ‘terrorist’ act, then I don’t care; even if there are good reasons to think that some acts of this sort should not be considered terrorist acts (and maybe there are; the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki might plausibly be taken not to be a terrorist act, but it was unjustified for the same reason), I don’t care about whether they’re terrorist acts, I care about whether they’re justified. No doubt the perpetrators of such acts tend not to call them terrorist acts. But all that means is either that they regard them as justified, which is pretty obvious and trivial, or that they’re operating with some other conception of ‘terrorism,’ and I’m not interested in semantics here, I’m interested in justice.

        That the extension of ‘non-combatant’ is controversial is, I think, largely a result of clever people with a vested interest in justifying the intentional or indiscriminate slaughter of innocent people; that some of these people work for the U.S. government instead of Hamas, Hezbollah, or ISIS is only to be expected. Lots of things are controversial and debatable, but that doesn’t stop you from taking a firm position on them (the justice of the Israeli occupation is controversial and debatable, but you have a pretty firm view on that). Of course, you may think that there’s a genuine problem drawing the distinction, but if so you should defend that instead of just gesturing toward the fact that different people draw the distinction different ways. If controversy and debate were sufficient to lead you to suspend judgment, then you should suspend judgment about whether the killing of non-combatants can be justified as collateral damage, since that claim is itself a controversial and debated one.

        Most importantly, though, the paradigm cases of terrorism that I have in mind are not cases in which non-combatants are killed simply as collateral damage. They are blatantly targeted. In fact, the groups that carry these attacks out tend to deny that any relevant distinction between combatants and non-combatants can be made. It’s pretty clear that they do not actually care about avoiding violence against innocent people, that they standardly intend to harm those people. Familiar debates about whether such people, or anyone, can really be ‘innocent’ often arise; my own view is that the relevant sense of ‘innocence’ has nothing to do with moral guilt or complicity and is simply a matter of whether the people in question have a standing intention to do harm. We can puzzle about what is required for such an intention and just who does and doesn’t have it, but no plausible solution to such puzzles will yield the conclusion that two-year old children are not innocent, and the paradigmatic terrorist acts indiscriminately attack children when they do not self-consciously intend to kill children.

        Of course, you might think rather differently, and it’s not clear that everything that, say, Hamas does violates these principles. I have no doubt that there are complicated cases, particularly in the Palestinian / Israeli conflict. I’m vastly less familiar with the details than you are, but I have never heard of a case that I would regard as complicated and a paradigmatic instance of terrorism. Again, that’s not because I use the word ‘terrorism’ to mean ‘unjustified attacks.’ It’s because I associate that word with deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on innocent people, and I don’t think deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on innocent people are justified. What ultimately interests me is whether you agree or disagree with the latter judgment, not what exactly the extension of ‘terrorism’ is.

        Your comments on the Nat Turner case suggest that you disagree, at least insofar as you want to remain agnostic about it. I don’t see good reason to be agnostic about whether killing children because their parents enslaved you is unjust. Perhaps Turner and his companions had no good reason to be just. Perhaps the Israeli occupation puts Palestinians in such a desperately degraded state that they have no reason to be just. My goal here isn’t to dogmatize you into agreement with me (I know well enough that that would never work even if I tried it!), but just to understand what exactly it is you’re maintaining and why.

        That’s an inadequate reply to your reply, but I haven’t had any caffeine yet somehow, so I need to get on that.

        I completely agree with you re: Hicks, for what it’s worth.


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