Not All Terrorists Are Alike

  • Share
  • Read Later
At the heart of the dispute over Kashmir is a conflict of definitions. The Kashmir problem has its roots in a botched decolonization that took place more than 50 years ago, when the British partitioned India so as to create a majority Muslim state, Pakistan. Kashmir had a Muslim majority but a Hindu prince, who chose to join India; its status has been in dispute ever since. For Pakistan, Kashmir has always been seen in terms of a national liberation struggle, and those fighting there are viewed as soldiers in an honorable cause. India, for its part, sees the guerrillas who cross the Line of Control as murderous bandits. Especially since Sept. 11, India has portrayed itself as being in the front line of the war on terror. Delhi asks, If Afghanistan and the West Bank deserve the application of military force because they shelter terrorist groups, why not Pakistan?

It is a good question, and one that deserves a careful answer. It's never easy — and is often presumptuous — to give advice to those who live in the shadow of the terrorist's bomb. Yet before policymakers in the West decide that India deserves unstinting support, it is important to understand that there are different kinds of terrorism and that combatting them requires distinct strategies.

Mind & Body Happiness
Jan. 17, 2004

 Coolest Video Games 2004
 Coolest Inventions
 Wireless Society
 Cool Tech 2004

 At The Epicenter
 Paths to Pleasure
 Quotes of the Week
 This Week's Gadget
 Cartoons of the Week

Advisor: Rove Warrior
The Bushes: Family Dynasty
Klein: Benneton Ad Presidency Latest News

Experts generally define terrorism as the indiscriminate use of violence against civilians by actors who aren't part of a nation's formal machinery of state. Within that field, it's possible to identify two subcategories. "Political" terrorists have an identifiable goal, which may be precisely that of mainstream politicians. "Millenarian" terrorists are different. They have no political agenda and owe their allegiance not to any institutions or geographical expressions on earth but to a higher authority in heaven. The classic examples of the first are the armed wings of national liberation movements, like the Irish Republican Army, Israel's Stern Gang and Umkhonto We Sizwe, the military arm of the African National Congress. It is quite possible to support the aims of such groups while deploring their means. The classic example of the second category, of course, is Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, for in conventional terms bin Laden has no political agenda, unless your definition of the conventional extends to the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate. In an authoritative new study of al-Qaeda, Rohan Gunaratna of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrew's in Scotland makes the point nicely: bin Laden, he says, "never interpreted Islam to assist a given political goal. Islam is his political goal."

One can debate endlessly whether the violence committed by one kind of terrorist is morally less objectionable than that by another (to say nothing of violence committed by men in uniform — the Japanese soldiers who killed for fun on the Bataan death march, the Allied commanders who firebombed Dresden). What is indisputable is that the two types of terrorism lead to very different outcomes. Because the first form exists in a political framework, it is always possible — given time, patience and compromise — to absorb it into a conventional political dialogue. This is precisely what happened in both Ireland and South Africa. With millenarian terrorism, however, a political approach is a waste of time. Groups such as al-Qaeda do not engage in peacemaking.

That is why wise nations try to keep the first form of terrorism from transmuting into the second. Arguably, Israel has allowed that evolution to occur. In the 1970s, the Palestine Liberation Organization, murderous though it was, was rigorously secular and advanced a conventional agenda for national liberation. For years Israel ignored it. The newer Palestinian terrorist groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, see their cause in much more religious, millenarian terms; from Israel's standpoint, dealing with them is far more difficult.

Bin Laden, whose al-Qaeda has aided Kashmiri armed militias, would love India to make the same mistake, for Kashmir to become one more entry in the grim litany of places where Muslims are supposedly oppressed by unbelievers. Then India really will be in trouble (not least with its 130 million strong Muslim minority). To avoid that fate, Delhi needs to do what it has never really done: recognize that Kashmir is a political question that needs a political solution, think hard about what such a solution might be and welcome outside help in finding and implementing it. India is indeed a victim of terrorism and deserves sympathy from all who aspire to be civilized. But for India's friends, that should be the start of a conversation with Delhi, not its end.