Terror and Truth

Alastair Crooke

Article featured in The Guardian, June 1, 2008

Sir Hugh Orde speaks rarely heard truth when he says that he has never heard of a terrorist campaign that was “policed out”, adding that he could not think of one that had not ended through negotiation.

There has been an unshakeable faith in Europe that western law-enforcement officers could pad around the bazaars of Rawalpindi and in the refugee camps of the Middle East hunting-down “bad actors”. It has been a fantasy fuelled by the conviction in the west that “secular” Muslim societies must at heart be pro-western – surely they must share the antipathy many in the west feel toward movements motivated by Islam? The flawed assumption has been that these seculars loathe movements such as Hizbullah, and would become the west’s ready collaborators in undermining them.

But as Sir Hugh evidently is aware from his own Irish experience of resistance movements, it was never this simple. In one family around the dinner table would sit one brother in one wing of the IRA; another would belong to Sinn Fein, and yet another would be in the employ of the British – and yet, all saw themselves as Irish nationalists.

Sir Hugh’s “truth” however is likely to draw only the anger and contempt of the counter-terrorist “community”, who have yet to internalise that mainstream Islamism, in its various manifestations, is an alternative political, social vision founded on rehabilitated human values. But for Sir Hugh’s “realist” critics, all this will be imaginary: Islamist movements are “hollow” – mere products of sinister manipulation, deceit and brainwashing.

Yet, as the complex Irish political landscape never was easy for English officials, looking for simple answers, to read – so, too, not everything in the Middle East is as black and white as it might appear.

“Secular” Arab states – at the popular level – may appear “secular”. There may be low attendance at Mosques and the hijab largely absent, but political Islam and support for resistance still can and does dominate popular culture. Political Islam takes many shapes. And it is no contradiction to be secular in conduct; but still to draw one’s identity from the project of political Islam. In short, the west misreads “secularism” in the Muslim world as synonymous with hostility to religiously-inspired movements. This is a mistake. For this reason, and because Islamism is far from being “hollow”, Sir Hugh is right to conclude it can never be “policed out”.

It is of course the suggestion to talk to al-Qaida that has been seized upon; but again Sir Hugh will be aware that the tipping-point in Northern Ireland – after descending to the absurdity of actors having to speak for them – was the acknowledgment that the republican movement had something political to say; and that hearing it offered the insights that would eventually lead to a solution.

In respect to Islamism we are still far from reaching Sir Hugh’s insight that political problems require political solutions. It is not so much a question of whether or not to start with al-Qaida. Why start with al-Qaida, of all groups, when the west will not speak to Hizbullah or Hamas? The western response has been to bomb, assassinate or to starve Islamists in what President Carter rightly has described as a heinous crime. Not only has this shown the west to be morally crippled, it is irreparably flawed: Irish Republicans believed in the justice of their cause – as do the Islamists. The greater the injustice rained upon them, the greater their conviction that it was the very justice of their case that had provoked such a violent response. They emerge stronger-willed.


  1. Niqab wrote:

    The popular Islamist agenda is built on a well-designed propaganda machine, which demonises the imperialist West and advocates low jihad with the ultimate aim of re-establishing the Islamic caliphate.

    This is hardly equivalent to the limited objectives and spatial influence of Irish militancy.

    Please explain where “dialogue” with the “West” fits into this agenda. I believe that any concession will be relentlessly sold to Muslim footsoldiers as a step towards victory.
    Although hard to swallow, decapitation of militant organisations, alongside credible theological criticism (which can ONLY come from within core Islamic nations, not the UK) is the only way to defeat this threat.

    Applying soft logic – talking through solutions and offering therapy to hard-line militants – is the sort of policy that is easy to ridicule on the frontline. It only feeds the AQ publicity machine.

  2. Margret Johannsen wrote:

    To my knowledge, Sir Hugh Orde argued that a terrorist campaign inspired by an alternative political and social vision, cannot be “policed out” in the sense of “simply” arresting or killing acitivists fighting for their cause and establish the state’s “legitimate monopoly of force” no matter where this “legitimacy” stems from. I find the analysis, and also the conclusion drawn by Alastair Crooke, very convincing. And I would like to add that recent developments in the Gaza Strip only underline these conclusions. If the alternative political and social vision degenerates into a business, with “entrepreneurs” offering “all-in-one, production-to-launch service on rockets” as the alarming ICG-Report of December 2007 puts it, a reasonable counter-strategy seems the acknowledgement of the ruling power, i.e. Hamas as the only legitimate force able to impose order, and ending the external siege and financial boycott which is the root cause of the degeneration of a vision into crime.

  3. Lyle Sykora wrote:

    I agree with Mr. Crooke’s political approach to the problem of terrorism. Gaining acceptance for that approach is the problem. It is always easier to attack militarily than it is to try to understand the grievances of the terrorist. Moreover, a political solution requires a willingness to compromise sometimes on very sensitive issues that many people on both sides may have deep feelings about from both an emotional and principled position.

    This fact requires that the ground work for a political solution must be laid with the populations concerned. Often the time required to gain popular acceptance works against a political solution as violence may be continuing during the negotiating period with the result that military force is constantly being called for by intransigent groups.

    Unfortunately, it is easier to kill and destroy one’s enemies than it is to embrace negotiation with them. Negotiation also requires political courage in the face of criticism by those wishing to use force, which is often lacking since it may mean the end of a political career.

  4. Garps Twin wrote:

    It can be done, even against Islamists: Syria’s cmapaign against the Muslin Brotherhood 1976-82, is a case in point.

  5. […] the West refuses to understand or engage political Islam at its […]

Leave a Reply