Why is it difficult to accept foreign policy plays a part in terrorism?

Hannah Bouattia (2017)

In the travel documentary, In America, Stephen Fry visits a tea party in Massachusetts to speak with Harvard Professor Peter Gomes. The conversation discusses the re-imagined history of the United States, describing how American political solutions are sought for global and local problems. Gomes goes on to suggest ‘the many things one can say about this country is that we dislike complexity- so we’ll make simple solutions to everything we can.‘ In one sense, this also speaks to the British people. Explanations of complex problems are frequently reduced to a simple calculus, often at the expense of nuance and sometimes with compromises of difficult truths.

As a response to the tragedy in Manchester, Jeremy Corbyn has criticised the wholesale shortcomings of the ‘War on Terror’ as a flawed counter-terror strategy which, in part, blames military interventions as one contributory factor to violence in the UK. Instead, the Labour leader has promised for a government which is ‘tough on terrorism and tough on the causes of terrorism’, committing to reviewing the controversial PREVENT strategy. Media outlets and politicians are already on the attack, claiming Corbyn misunderstands the nature of the threat. Indeed, yesterday when DJ and journalist Dave Haslam dared to suggest on Sky Papers that military interventions may have some role in fuelling this kind of violence, the other guest, Angela Epstein and Sky News presenter, Anna Botting, were quick to refute the link.

The reticence in accepting that British foreign policy plays some role in catalysing British born-men to do what Salman Abedi and others did, has, in part, to do with the prevalence of what the government understands causes terrorism.

The shifting explanatory discourses of terrorist violence’s prima causa are surmised in a report by Arun Kundnani. One of dominant narratives explaining the causes of terrorism post-9/11 was initially geared around the alleged irreconcilable cultural differences between an ‘enlightened West’ and a ‘regressive (and Islamic) East’. This is known as the clash of civilizations (COC) thesis, and was popularized by the political scientist, Samuel Huntington. The parameters of any counter-terrorism policy therefore, required military interventions in the so-called Orient to defeat terrorism. However, policy circles began to soon identify the shortcomings of this explanation (indeed the COC was been brilliantly refuted by Edward Said)- though it was not entirely expunged from the debate. Indeed, many continue to believe that terrorism occurs because ‘they hate how we live and what we stand for.’

In its place, the radicalization thesis began to emerge as the dominant explanatory paradigm. This stated that extreme ideas were “a conveyor belt” toward terrorist violence- and now occupies the current UK government’s understanding of how terrorism manifests. Extremism can be evidenced, it is claimed, by opposition to fundamental British Values so -defined.

There is a third explanation that world-leading terrorism experts understand as one of the fermenters of terrorist violence. This relates to the role of structural violence (poverty, oppression, racism)- which may include foreign policy. One of the leading security experts, Robert Pape, in what is considered one of the most extensive studies of suicide bombers, concluded that the dominant motivation for these styles of attack was primarily geo-political.

There ought to be an uncontroversial and intuitive appeal to this explanation of what causes terrorism- as opposed to the radicalisation thesis. A young man from Pakistan is hardly likely to wake up one day and think to himself ‘I fundamentally hate the forms of governance, social and economic organisation in that country thousands of miles away from me and therefore I am going to go to the trouble of blowing up their hospitals’- yet this is what the radicalisation thesis, as currently understood, suggests. Yet the same hypothetical young man from Pakistan whose family is victim to US drone strikes, or from US interference in his countries hardened security regime, may be prompted to use violence. It is important to note two things therefore; that this is not a moral assessment, but an explanatory one- and it does not claim to be the exclusive cause of violence.

Donatella della Porta, a leading scholar on political violence, reconfigures the radicalisation process as relational and constructed. In other words ‘it is a process involving not only the beliefs and actions of oppositional groups but also of the states they are in conflict with: violence is the result of the interaction of the two and their constructed perceptions of each other’s actions, not just the product of one side’s ideology.’ Individuals that commit acts of political violence, whether they rightly or wrongly perceive it, interpret military interventions as what rationalises their conduct.

But then how do we explain the role of ideas which individuals sometimes explicitly state as the cause of their violence? Part of this is to do with a language that legitimates the violence to the nascent perpetrator- and perhaps to others who may be receptive to this use of violence. Violence which they rationalise to themselves as divinely ordained for example, provides for subjective legitimation. Rather than being the precursor to violence, extreme ideas are the ‘language that speaks us’, giving the perception of a purpose to the violent act to the individual. This is why a seemingly coherent set of beliefs may have wildly contradictory and different readings. Catholicism for example, meant something very different in Belfast and Latin America to what it meant in Bristol.

Part of the public’s, politicians’ and the commentariat’s rejection of the military intervention link, may be explained as follows. Firstly, it appears to absolve responsibility of the individual that commit acts of political violence. Secondly, such classes of explanations are interpreted as justifications or even exhalations of these types of violence. Thirdly, and related, it offends our yearning for simplicity. And finally, it illustrates the troubling link between the UK’s international policing and its imperial ambitions.

Many demand ‘black and white’ explanations of what causes violence, rejecting the gradations in between. Rather than there being a spectrum from ‘explanation to justification’, we instead interpret any articulations of the causes of violence through a hard binary of ‘either out-right condemnation or justification’. This extinguishes the possibility of nuance. Indeed, even though Corbyn made the link between foreign policy and terrorism, he explicitly stated that it did not ‘reduce the guilt’ of the individuals responsibility.  Also, the beauty of the ‘conveyor belt’ theory of terrorism is in its perceived simplicity. The metaphor embraces the linearity of cause and effect, ideas to action, extremism to terrorism- as opposed to the complexity of how structures of violence can constitute individuals that also exercise their own agency.

Perhaps more illuminating, such links between foreign intervention and terrorism both limit and indict the government and their power. As for the former, limits to executive power are often fiercely resisted- as was demonstrated with the Brexit litigation in which the government tried to protect its generally unbridled prerogative power to initiate Article 50 without Parliamentary intervention. With regards to the latter, it of course critically engages the electorate with the shortcomings of its governments foreign policy. And finally, the tendency toward military interventionism as a counter-terrorism strategy has pangs of colonial adventurism. Marc Houben states that ‘deployment overseas is nothing new for British forces – the evolution from colonial policing to participation in international crisis management operations is not a long stretch’.

When we explain the tragedies of the Third Reich, or the French occupation of Algeria, no one for a second thinks that such attempts are justificatory- and so why should linking the causes of terrorism to foreign policy be? Structural violence, as one of the contributory explanations of terrorism, offends both our predilection for simplicity and holds governments to account to a very high standard- and for those reasons, we often reject them to our peril.

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Tanzil Chowdhury

Tanzil Chowdhury recently completed his PhD. He is currently a teacher at the School of Law, University of Manchester and is also a Development Worker for the soon-to-be Greater Manchester Law Centre. 

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