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.