A historical view of terrorism – By Dr. Mubarak Ali

A STUDY of terrorism from a historical perspective would shed light on the origin of this phenomenon and the motivation behind it. It has manifested itself in different hues and colours.

Terrorism has emerged in different circumstances with different aims and objectives. One of its earliest forms was directed against individuals when political or religious groups resorted to violence against people who posed a threat to their existence. Monarchies and dictatorial regimes were especially vulnerable as all power was concentrated in one individual. Those who suffered attempted to assassinate the ruler with the aim of changing the situation in their favour. By their act the terrorists also conveyed a message to those at the helm that they should not adopt a policy of exploitation or hostility.

In Islamic history we find such an example in the case of the followers of Hassan bin Sabah who assassinated their rivals. The order was known as the hashishiya, the root of the word ‘assassins’. The same pattern was followed in Italy and Germany in the 18th century where secret societies were formed by young people to adopt terrorism as a tool to fight foreign occupying powers and those who collaborated with them.

Such societies were formed by youths with deep nationalist sentiments and acted as terrorists for a nationalist cause. Members of these secret societies attempted to kill those who were involved against the nationalist cause or implemented policies perceived to be against the public interest. In Russia before the 1917 revolution members of such societies tried to kill the czar and high officials, thus hoping to change the structure of government.

During the British Raj in India at the time of the partition of Bengal in 1905 Bengali nationalists adopted terrorism when all peaceful and democratic means failed to achieve their objectives. They were well organised and made a number of attempts to assassinate the governor general and high colonial officials. The governor general on the occasion of his daughter’s wedding received a bouquet of flowers which contained a bomb. As a result of the explosion many people were killed, though the governor and his daughter escaped death.

After the First World War, Bhagat Singh and his friends resorted to terrorism because they felt there was no other way to force the colonial government to change its oppressive anti-people policy. He and his friends were hanged in 1931 on the charge of killing a British police officer. Their acts of terrorism served to help people shed the feeling of fear and awe they felt for the colonial authority. That’s why Frantz Fanon approved such violence which was found necessary to embolden people and to create a new spirit of resistance among them to fight the colonisers.

Keeping in view this historical perspective, it is clear that there are two causes for the origin of terrorism: the state and imperialism. Whenever the state blocks all avenues of expression and adopts terror to control its own people the result will be violence and terror as a reaction. Hitler and his fascist government terrorised people by using the Gestapo and the police. The response was that his enemies hatched conspiracies to remove him by an act of terror.

The Shah of Iran escaped assassination attempts a number of times which clearly reflected popular hatred for his rule. Israel practises the worst form of state terrorism against the Palestinians. They respond to it by adopting terrorism as a mode of vendetta as well as to fight for their freedom. Russian state terrorism destroyed Chechnya but its victims also responded by challenging Russian authority by using terrorism.

The American policy of terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan that results in the death of civilians including women and children has provoked reactive terrorism. Thus we know that terrorism begets terror. It becomes a vicious cycle which devours thousands and thousands of innocent people.

In Pakistan we have two types of terrorism: one is sectarian and the other is a reaction to the actions of the American and Pakistani states. The sectarian terrorism is the result of religious extremism when every sect believes in its own absolute truth and regards all others as misguided. Such extremists target religious places and kill the opposite sect’s followers to create in them a sense of insecurity. Sometimes there are targeted killings of professionals who belong to particular sects. The purpose is to weaken the professional base of the victimised sects. However, sectarian terrorism is not a permanent feature. It is used by vested interest groups politically.

The recent wave of global terrorism is the result of the US occupation of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s willingness to take action against the Taliban. In reaction the terrorists have attempted suicide bombings on government buildings, police checkposts and public monuments to demonstrate the government’s inability to protect its buildings or officials. Thus these acts are designed to discredit the government and its agencies in the public eye.

The key question to be asked is whether state terrorism or violence by groups is a solution to the problems? The answer is no. Terrorism or violence is the result of weakness and not of power. States or parties who adopt these methods have no intellectual creativity and instead of convincing their opponents by intellectual arguments they resort to violence to force the other side to cow down and accept defeat. It always causes chaos and disorder. That’s why most of the terrorist organisations in the end give up this method and adopt peaceful and non-violent means for achieving their objects such as the IRA and the ANC of South Africa, which abandoned violence to struggle on moral grounds and ultimately overthrew the apartheid regime.

However, it is important that the state should also refrain from acting violently and provide an opportunity to negotiate and understand the point of view of others. The same holds true of the occupying powers. If they continue their occupation and kill those who are fighting for freedom, terrorism will remain the only weapon available to fight against them. (Dawn)