The Axis of Honour: Honour, Communalism, and Islamist Suicide Terrorism – Introduction

This is a huge topic. I’ve decided to devote a number of posts to it, rather than compose one mega thesis.

It will read as a series – the political analysis equivalent of a Dickens serial, though probably less lucrative.

Unfortunately, the nature of this sort of blog (until I get someone with technical abilities to spruce things up) is that the series will eventually read backwards – as each new post pushes the past one down. I’ll therefore link to the previous parts in each new post and hopefully confusion will be minimal.

So let’s begin:

The “Lexicon of Terrorism” Project: Sir Humphrey is alive and well.

For those of you unfamiliar with “Yes Minister,” the “Lexicon of Terrorism Project ” will give you a fair idea of what that old TV show was about – the toadying, the double-speak, and the massive amounts of energy government will expend in order to avoid actually doing anything tangible.

This project, currently undertaken by the Federal and Victorian governments, Victoria Police, and Monash University academics is designed precisely to look as though there is real action going on while absolutely nothing is being achieved.

Slightly more worrying, is that it actually prevents a deeper understanding of the radicalisation process.

By focusing on the sensitivities of Muslims with regard to the stigma attached to the notion of terrorism, the august group of thinkers (which includes folk who warn of the horrific threat from animal rights groups), achieves two very negative goals:

1) They waste valuable resources that should be going to understanding and prevention radicalisation.

2) These brilliant minds actually reinforce the link between Islam and terrorism. While at the moment, Islamists dominate as perpetrators of such attacks, they certainly did not invent terrorism, nor have they been alone in committing such acts.

It is hard to know who is actually driving this project’s agenda. But the whole enterprise reeks of an academic culture that is rotten to the core. The “publish or perish” mentality that sees scholars dredge the depths of the obvious and the ridiculous, combined with the race to win grants and other funding, produce “fashion scholarship,” which has everything to do with identifying what is hot and nothing to do with actually producing valuable research.

Political Science is a hotbed of such fashion scholarship. Indeed, it is very fashionable to smile sardonically, and tell students, media, policy makers, and whoever else might be interested, that not only is there is no agreed definition of what constitutes a terrorist or a terrorist act, but there’s no possibility of ever achieving one.

Because of this culture, since September 11, 2001, there has been an explosion of theoretical frameworks put forward by political scientists who jumped on the bandwagon and went where the funding was.

It is no surprise, then, that so many of these frameworks have serious flaws.

The most serious is that they present what are supposed to be universal theories which, when applied in the real world, simply do not work. How many other professions are happy to allow their practitioners to generates hundreds of thousands of words, just as long as they’re published? How many of these professions would mind if very few of these theories had any actual application?

Frustrated by the mountains of books and articles that contained very little original thought or research, I racked my brain trying to come up with a universal element that could apply to all terrorist acts. I believed that if such an element existed, it would effectively frame the study of such attacks in a manner which might have a real-world application.

In 2005, the concept of, “honour,” first struck me as a useful lens through which all terrorist acts might best be understood.

When I use the term, “honour,” it is in a very specific, socio-political sense (to be explained in future posts). It does not refer to status or to other ways we might understand the term in the West. It is something that exists in very specific circumstances. It is so powerful that it can impel people to murder and suicide.

Unfortunately, the confines of a blog don’t allow for a comprehensive survey of all terrorist groups. I criticise The Lexicon Folly for focusing on Islam, because its authors are primarily concerned with sensitivities and – perhaps – government grants.

I, however, prefer to use Islamist terrorism as a focus because it is the simplest way to demonstrate the variety of motivations within what appears to be a homogenous group.

So I will concentrate on three examples of honour’s role in Islamist suicide terrorism:

al Jamaa al Islamiyya of Egypt

Palestinian Islamists (focusing later, on Hamas)

radical transnational Islamism (primarily al Qaeda).

While radical Islamism and the tactic of suicide attacks seem to be obviously linked, the three examples I’ll look at present significantly different situations.

Egyptian Jamaa Islamiyya: This group has been dedicated to overthrowing the non-Islamist government of Egypt. It  is national and transnational, and sources its members from the geographically and often economically disaffected.

Beyond Egyptian JI, there are other transnational Islamists, particularly the members of al-Qaeda who orchestrated the destruction of the Twin Towers and who are often well educated and living in the West. They seek a more global agenda. Osama bin Laden, himself, came from an extraordinarily privileged and well-connected background.

So socio-economic disaffection cannot be a binding element. This is quite basic, and you might assume it would have been abandoned by political scientists a long time ago as a universal explanation for radicalisation. All I can say to that is: there are still plenty of people in political science who admit to being Marxists. Seriously.

Palestinian Islamists: They may enjoy support from throughout the Muslim world, but they are first and foremost engaged in what they believe is a struggle of national liberation against an occupying force. The transnational aims of Palestinian Islamist groups are absolutely subordinate to the focus on removing the Jewish presence.

There are those academics, many of whom focus on Israel/Palestine, who believe occupation is the universal factor binding terrorists. Robert Pape is the most famous of “occupationists” and is held in absolute reverence by many political scientists. He’s also shockingly mistaken, and his thesis is very easily pulled apart. As this series continues, I will demonstrate exactly how Pape’s theory fails, and we can all wonder together about an intellectual culture that can elevate such an insubstantial  theory – and its progenitor – to such heights.

Beyond attacking political scientists, the point of this series of posts is to demonstrate that uniting these three groups, far beyond Islamism, transnational domination, poverty, or disaffection, is the radicalised desire to reclaim honour and restore (perhaps imagined) communalist values which radicals believe have been usurped by modernity and the West.

Unfortunately, too many academics seek to impose their own ideological motivations on these actors. Their presumptions might be good for a laugh, they might be good to raise our blood pressure, but they are also quite dangerous, because the government and the police actually listen to them.

That leaves all of us vulnerable.

So, throughout this series, I hope to answer these questions:

. What is the relationship between the role of honour in communalist societies?

. What pressures do modernity places upon these societies?

. Is the suicide terrorist responding to perceived or actual threats to honour and to those structures on which honour is dependent?

These questions go far beyond theory and the sport  to be had in the halls of academe. Their answers might go some distance to providing concrete methods of identifying the ways in which people are radicalised in the first place.

If that is achievable, prevention then becomes a possibility.

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Related posts:

  1. Part Two – The Axis of Honour: Honour, Communalism, and Islamist Suicide Terrorism
  2. Part Six – Axis of Honour Final: Palestinian Suicide Terrorism
  3. Part Four – The Axis of Honour: Honour, Modernity, and al Qaeda
  4. Part Five – Axis of Honour: Dislocation, Family, and Terror
  5. Part Three – The Axis of Honour: Honour and Shame

25 Responses to “The Axis of Honour: Honour, Communalism, and Islamist Suicide Terrorism – Introduction”

  1. enough already says:

    Why dont you call the problem what it is? Islam!

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  2. SJ,

    You’ve hit the nail on the head with this pearl:

    “Unfortunately, too many academics seek to impose their own ideological motivations on these actors.”

    In the main, academics are unwilling/unable to separate their own ideologies from their analysis. And because the majority of academics come from the left side of the political spectrum, most of their theories about the “root cause” of terrorism are tainted by their leftist ideologies about the nature of people.

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  3. I wonder what proportion of academics are genuinely independent thinkers. Given that we (i.e. our taxes) pay them to think, you’d think they’d get this process right! Like with lawyers, the 90% of biased academics give the rest a bad name.

    You are very correct that researchers are afraid to offend Muslims (just ask Theo van Gogh).

    Since 90% (some may dispute this – it may be 99%) of terrorism in the world in recent times is connected to Islam, it does lend some evidence to form a causal relationship between the two.

    The best way to look at terrorism is as a tool used to reach an objective. It’s hard to say which came first, the tool or the theological backing. Certainly, Muslims have been far more “successful” than others in linking the two, and developing the concept of “resistance” in ways Gandhi never dreamed of.

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  4. Ittay says:

    In light of the comments about the lexicon for Muslims, I have compiled a list of words used in the Zionist community here: http://ittay.blogspot.com/
    I don’t mean for it to turn into a guide like the Lexicon, but rather to lead to a discussion about how we talk about Israel.

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  5. almoni says:

    This is a disappointing post.

    I see nothing here but resentful sloganeering against academics with predictable responses. As setting up a series of research questions, it’s a very sloppy start.

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  6. Waleed says:

    Hi ladies and gents,

    I’ve been invited to come along and contribute to this thread, and have just now found myself with a few seconds to do so. Sorry I don’t have more time to spare.

    So, a few quick thoughts:

    - I suspect the “lexicon of terrorism” project has less to do with the sensitivities of Muslims than it has to do with the unwitting legitimating effect much “war on terror” language had for terrorist groups.

    - 90% of contemporary terrorism connected to Islam? Really? What data supports that claim? Seems a very high number to me. Especially when you factor in secular separatist movements across Europe, Asia and South America.

    - If we are looking at terrorism “as a tool used to reach an objective”, then I don’t understand why it’s “hard to say which came first, the tool or the theological backing”. The “tool” is as old as the hills – it pre-dates Islam altogether. And Islamic theology had been in existence a long time before Islamist terrorism emerged. Also, I don’t think Islamists are contributing much innovation to the concept of resistence, except for the way they seem to have globalised the concept. Their methods are actually largely derivative, 9/11 perhaps being the exception. Azzam basically stole suicide bombing off the Tamil Tigers.

    - I’d have to get a clearer idea of what “honour” is meant to mean in this context before I can evaluate it, but at first blush, it doesn’t strike me as a sufficient explanation for terrorism. Even if we accept it does describe Islamist groups (and that’s up for debate), I don’t see how it would describe Russian anarchist terrorists, the wave of New Left terrorism that began in the ’60s, or even more recent right wing terrorist groups in the US. There is a reasonably clear link between humiliation and violence, but that isn’t necessarily the same thing as cultures of honour.

    - The terrorism-is-caused-by-poverty line isn’t really one that is common in academic literature. Not sure why academics are being lumped with it.

    - Not sure if it’s really worth responding to the whole Islam = terrorism slogan, except to say that this sort of analysis fails to account for two facts: 1) an astronomically large majority of adherents to that religion are not engaged in terrorism; and 2) a large number of terrorist groups are not Islamist – either historically or today.

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  7. Almoni says:

    Taimor Hazou has written a very interesting opinion piece in New Matilda on the attraction to terrorism. Before looking for essentialist arguments, it might help to look at local (insensitive) institutional reponses that directly effect people who can be attracted to outrageous acts.

    http://newmatilda.com/2009/08/12/expect-more-homegrown-terrorism

    I also use Foucault and co every day, I eat them for breakfast, so please don’t generalize.

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  8. almoni says:

    I assume then that your critique of essentialism includes a critique of the cult of victimhood on the Jewish side of the separation fence, as well as the essentialism of biblical or koranic inerrancy and irredentism? Removing essentialism from Zionism or the course of Jewish history means that Jewish connection to the Land as a solution has to be justified in a different way.

    And as you know, anti-semites comb traditional texts and the contemporary media to prove the evil essence of Judaism/Jews.

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  9. Lazy guy says:

    I look forward to reading the rest of your posts on terrorism, SJ.

    I have one comment on your existing post, but first I’ll say upfront I am ignorant of exactly what is being said by political scientists in our universities.

    Its true that Osama bin Ladin and many other terrorist leaders come from well off backgrounds, but I don’t think you can rule out the effects of poverty. While I don’t think poverty itself is the cause of terrorism, it does create a pool of potential recruits to go out and do the dirty work.

    To put it another way you often see older men manipulating younger and angry men. While not all angry men are from poor backgrounds (the hijackers of the Sept 11 planes were apparently from ‘middle classes’) surely some of them are and they have less to lose by lashing out.

    Well anyway, I look forward to the following posts.
    Regards,
    Lazy Guy

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  10. [...] The Axis of Honour: Honour, Communalism, and Islamist Suicide Terrorism – Introduction [...]

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  11. [...] The Axis of Honour: Honour, Communalism, and Islamist Suicide Terrorism – Introduction « Part Two – The Axis of Honour: Honour, Communalism, and Islamist Suicide Terrorism [...]

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  12. Rasmuncher says:

    It is refreshing to see a Jewish writer who is not afraid of Islam but is prepared to look at it objectively and less passionately than we have become used to.

    I have always wondered about the mentality of suicide bombers, what is it that drives them to sacrifice their life in pursuit of an objective they will never realize. There was an interesting article some several months ago about the trial of a woman in Iraq who had been a part of a process that shamed young women through rape so that in living in the communities they were part of had become intolerable that the they were easy prey for those that would induce them to sacrifice their lives in the name of Islam. As individuals, they had no interest in the objective. They were pawns. The same way that young British or American soldiers are prepared to die in Iraq or Afghanistan for an objective that they have no part in or even interest in or understanding of. They are doing their, as they see it, noble task of defending the policy of their government and society.

    I shall watch you with great interest.

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  13. Rasmuncher says:

    More to the point, the idea that individuals can be devoted to a social ideal is not just something that is isolated to Islam. Suicide bombers come from all walks of life and all sorts of social structures. It is just that there is a preponderance of Muslims who are guided towards seeing it as a solution that we tend to concentrate on and unfortunately, the more we do the more it is used. It is a weapon that those in charge make capital of. They seek publicity for their actions to drive home their message to the world at large. The emphasis we give them in turn provides them with the fuel those that drive that process to continue producing them whether through shame as it is with the rape victims or frustration with life in general for the others.

    I don’t believe many suicide bombers just decide this morning to go and blow them self up and kill a few enemy at the same time. They are intensively processed, collateral damage in the pursuit of a goal by others with a stronger mind, the same as a General sending waves of men over the hill in WWI to face certain death in line of the enemy fire. We call that bravery yet call suicide bombers cowards not withstanding that if our soldiers didn’t go over the hill they faced execution by our own for cowardice. We delude ourselves in both cases simply to make our cause seem more tangible and correct. They are both victims of an event that is far greater than their individual ability to understand it.

    On my blog, there is a photo I took from my office that I had of the after effects of a suicide bomber ten days ago here in Kabul. He killed nine people and wounded ninety, mostly other Afghans. His purpose was to raise world wide emphasis to their cause. We fail to consider that there is two sides to this dispute and we need to more often put ourselves into their shoes in order to come to some understanding why they feel so aggrieved. We see our side as perfect and wholesome yet objectively, we are as culpable and objectionable as the Taliban are. We invade their homes, we have killed great numbers of innocents, we deny them the rights that comes with an occupation by a foreign power and we wonder why they want to kill us.

    It is only when we achieve the intellectual capacity within our administrations to contemplate that that we will start to find a solution to address it. Until then, this war of terrorism will continue.

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  14. sensiblejew says:

    Hi, Enough Already.

    Please tread carefully. This blog’s policy has always been to delete any racist remarks or hate speech.

    As for Islam’s role in terrorism, I ask for your patience as the series unfolds. I intend to demonstrate that the phenomenon of terrorism is linked to a social transformation that is not tied to any one religion.

    If we are to blame terrorism on religion, how can we explain the phenomenon of the Tamil Tigers’ attacks? We need a more sophisticated framework… not because we are worried about hurt feelings or political correctness, but because the truth actually demands it.

    We mustn’t tar an entire religion or its adherents based on flawed reasoning.

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  15. sensiblejew says:

    Hi David.

    My post does have a go at a certain type of academic, it’s true. And that type of academic is either in thrall to some ill defined Marxist legacy, or is unashamedly post-colonialist (Fanonist/Orientalist) in outlook, to the extent that he/she is unable to analyse any phenomenon beyond that particular framework.

    We need to remember, though, that there are academics out there who are independent thinkers. Perhaps they are not as numerous as we’d like, but in the same way that I’d have a problem with tarring all Muslims, I think it’s counter-productive to diminish all academics.

    That said, what really upsets me in all of this is that I perceive the current Lexicon project as being one that benefits only the participants. The best way to do the right thing by the Muslim community is to do real research, and establish viable frameworks. This is because all such endeavours always wind up demonstrating that no single religion or ethnicity can be a cause of political violence. Real research shows that very specific conditions impel a certain type of human – as opposed to Muslim – to violence.

    But in order to do this, a researcher has to be unafraid: a researcher needs to be able to start at the most obvious source of terrorism at the moment (political Islam) in order to arrive at the truth. And the truth just happens to be that Islam itself is simply not the cause.

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  16. sensiblejew says:

    David, I hope to answer many of the question you raise in the coming posts. The causal link between Islam and terrorism may seem obvious, but it’s deeply problematic.

    As for Gandhi, he was one man. The massive-scale political violence that engulfed the subcontinent at partition and after was as much Hindu communalist as it was Muslim. There has alsobeen significant Sikh political violence.

    There is a danger, when we examine current events, of missing broader historical patterns. Today, there is a preponderance of political violence coming from political Islam. It has not always been thus, and we are unable to know what will be in the future. Our best bet is to abandon what seems obvious, sift through the evidence, and only then attempt a conclusion.

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  17. sensiblejew says:

    Ittay, your blog post asks some really interesting questions, particularly, “what will be more useful to you, having a better argument, or expressing it in the right words?”

    I wish I could say that the better argument is more important, but as we have seen time and again with our leaders’ missteps, the framing of an argument is crucial.

    It doesn’t matter how sound my contention is, if I pepper it with obscenities, I’m going to be taken a lot less seriously than if I keep it clean.

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  18. sensiblejew says:

    Hi Almoni.

    firstly, these are not research questions. I’m writing a series of posts for a blog.

    That said, what you call “resentful sloganeering” is, in my view, more frustration at some of the really troubling developments in political science.

    But never fear! The second post in the series has a go at rightists. As you well know, I am equal-opportunity offensive.

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  19. sensiblejew says:

    Waleed, thank you for your detailed comment.

    I agree with much of what you write and hope to elucidate on the nature of “honour” as an analytical tool in the coming posts.

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  20. sensiblejew says:

    Hi Almoni.

    Firstly, the term, “essentialise” sets my teeth on edge. But that’s OK. Anyway, as the series of posts progresses, you will see that my arguments are about refuting the essentialising of any particular ethnic group. If there’s any essentialism to be had, its in the human condition.

    That brings me to generalisation. We all generalise and we all have to. We can include the odd caveat, here and there, but the inability to generalise would result in anylitical paralyisis. Actually, I’m not a fan of the term, “generalise,” either. It’s loaded, and its inherently negative. What I find fascinating is the patterns that emerge across communities and peoples – broad tendencies that can explain individual behaviours and events.

    And Almoni, the very thought of a Focault-based diet give me an obstructed bowel!

    Hope you have a great Shabbat!

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  21. sensiblejew says:

    Almoni, first and foremost, I left academia in part so that I would never again have to critique essentialism or critique critiques of essentialism or critique critiques of critiques of essentialism.

    Life is too short.

    But surely you know me (or my viewpoints) well enough by now to know that of course I repudiate the cult of Jewish victimhood (read the diatribe I posted today!), just as I’m utterly bored by the intellectual laziness of essentialist justifications for the State of Israel.

    And yes. I, along with most other Jews, know that anti-Semitic nuts get their jollies from proving an evil Jewish essence using our texts as “evidence.”

    I’m not entirely sure what you’re trying to demonstrate. I am not an “essentialist.” But that doesn’t mean I find discussion of essentialism particularly enlightening.

    On the other hand, I’ll admit to enjoying your challenges. Apart from knowing that you always come from a position of good faith, this wee exchange has given me a fit of uni-days nostalgia that’s not entirely unpleasant.

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  22. sensiblejew says:

    Hi Lazy Guy.

    You’re quite right. Poverty is one factor that causes the disengagement necessary for a person to become radicalised.

    But what this series is looking for, is something overarching that explains the radicalisation process. It’s very easy to think Islam is that common factor, and that’s a misconception. I hope to demonstrate that something far deeper than a specific religion is at work.

    In doing that, we can better understand, perhaps, why Islamism has recently dominated as a terrorist ideological tool, while remembering the deadly skill with which the Tamil Tigers waged their campaign. Or the ferocity of the sectarian animus in Northern Ireland. Or the communalist violence that saw Hindus and Muslims massacre each other during partition. Or the Sikh and Jewish methods of “generational change” in their countries’ leadership. Or the Goldstein massacre of Arabs in 1994.

    Thank you for your comment and I hope you’ll write again on the coming installment in the series.

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  23. sensiblejew says:

    Rasmuncher, hello and welcome.

    It’s interesting you mention the Iraqi female and the issues of honour surrounding her involvement in an attack. Two posts from now – the last in the series – will focus on the role of women’s honour/shame in Palestine and their use as suicide attackers. It all links in to the idea of disintegrating structures that produce humiliation and result in extreme attempts at honour reclamation.

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  24. sensiblejew says:

    Hi Rasmuncher.

    Thank you for your thought provoking comment.

    I do address the contention that occupation explains terrorism.

    I do not believe this is a sufficient explanation, particularly because those who actually turn to political violence are so few in any such situation. The Axis of Honour series on this blog addresses just this issue.

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