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April 30, 2002

The Myth and Reality of Arab Terrorism

Hoover fellow Charles Hill on the roots of terrorism.
SIDEBAR: A Herculean Task.


Terrorism thrives on myth. Many deceptive and dangerous delusions have been in the air since September 11. These include the myths that (1) terrorists are really freedom fighters struggling to establish their own state and peaceful relations with their neighbors; (2) Islam, a faith that fostered peace and a great civilization in the past, cannot be held responsible for providing a spawning ground for terror today; (3) terrorism is the last resort of the poor, the dispossessed, and the desperate peoples of the Middle East; (4) Arab states with stable governments and viable economies can control the rising tide of Islamic militancy within their borders; and (5) the nations of the West, especially the United States, are to blame for the authoritarian, corrupt, and backward status of the states of the Middle East.

We need to dispel the myths and look reality in the eye.

Terrorists Don’t Want Peace

The most frequent charge features the American role in negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. Assertions that the United States has fallen short in the past and now must change its ways and that it must become more "evenhanded" are grossly misplaced.

Over the years, whenever Israelis and Palestinians have come close to a peace agreement, the terrorists have stepped up their attacks. They abhor the idea of such a peace.

"Those who think that the United States can defuse Islamic fundamentalist rage and end terrorism by imposing a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians are out of touch with the cruel reality of the Middle East."

Arab terrorism, with its commitment to the eradication of Israel, is the principal cause of the collapse of the peace process. Terrorism’s primary targets are virtually all the Middle Eastern regimes—not just Israel’s but those of the surrounding Arab countries as well. Fear of being overthrown by terrorists leads those regimes, in an effort to divert their people’s attention toward external targets, to inundate them with anti-Israel propaganda. Israel’s willingness in recent years to abandon its formerly nonnegotiable positions—and the withdrawal of Israel Defense Forces from southern Lebanon and the offer to give up the Golan Heights to Syria—has created a conviction among Arabs that terrorism is working and that no accommodation of Israel need be considered.

Thus the terrorists, the regimes that foster yet fear them, and most recently the Palestinian leadership all share one idea: None can tolerate a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

Those who think that the United States can defuse Islamic fundamentalist rage and end terrorism by imposing a peace agreement are out of touch with the cruel reality of the Middle East. To press for such a peace is to invite further terror. Anyone involved in the diplomacy of the Arab-Israeli conflict over the years, as I have been, understands that peace cannot be imposed from the outside. To attempt such a solution would shield one side or the other, or both, from the need to make the concessions necessary for a durable agreement. Under present circumstances, any indication that the United States is considering a dictated peace will be taken by the Arab side as a victory and a way station on the road to eliminating the state of Israel.

After Islamic terrorism is eradicated, and only then, can an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement be achieved. Only after the American war on terrorism is won can peace in the Middle East become possible. The same holds true for many other supposedly intractable conflicts around the world; it is the terrorists who reject the very idea of peace. Suppress terrorism and diplomacy will get a new lease on life.

Frustration . . . Resentment . . . Terrorism?

In the aftermath of September 11, many Americans recommitted themselves to civil liberties and respect for the rights of individuals who share the appearance, ethnicity, or faith of the terrorist enemies of the United States.

"Only after the American war on terrorism is won will peace in the Middle East become possible."

The religious dimension of this terrorism, however, cannot be explained away. This version of Islam involves religious leaders instructing their followers that it is their religious duty to kill those who do not share their religious beliefs. Islam can be considered a faith that has fostered peace and civilization. But, like some other religions, Islam has, during certain periods of history, been part of an environment in which evildoers can burrow and breed. The higher levels of Islam have not yet displayed adequate doctrinal defenses against this, nor have they condemned it. The Friday sermons in mosques across the Middle East, and in Europe and North America as well, have ranged from a pro-Taliban line to a transparent apologia for the terrorists (i.e., what they did was bad but understandable and no worse than the "terrorism" conducted by the United States and Israel).

Much public argumentation since September 11 has sidestepped this reality by stressing the anger and desperation of those peoples of the Middle East who lead lives of poverty, unemployment, and dispossession.

But the terrorists we pursue today are often not the poor and downtrodden. In case after case they come from strong families, are well-off and educated, and have optimistic prospects for their lives and careers. Most notably, Mohammed Atta, who flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center, was the well-educated, well-traveled son of an affluent Cairo attorney.

"The religious dimension of the recent terrorist attacks cannot be explained away. The terrorists struck in the name of Islam."

Something else is at work here: frustration over the region’s failure to succeed economically and resentment at the absence of political avenues toward progress.

Not many years ago, the states of the Arab Middle East seemed well placed to join Asian nations as entrants to the First World. In geographic extent, population size, and wealth, the region was an obvious candidate for world power and influence. Even without substantial oil resources, the Middle East and North Africa should command geopolitical importance by the shape and location of their lands on the globe. But the Arab-Islamic world has not attained full participation in the global economy. In fact, were it not for oil, the Middle East would rank lower than Africa in economic development.

Middle Eastern regimes base their power on a compact with their people that economic and social realities make virtually impossible to fulfill. As discontent grows, the tenets of Islamic fundamentalism provide grounds for an attack on any government in power, whatever its form or philosophy.

The Failure of Statehood

Neither history nor the authentic Islamic faith can account for the Middle East’s lowly world ranking. So what can? The answer lies in the miserable state of politics and governance in that region.

States are the building blocks and fundamental actors of international relations, and diplomacy is the method by which states attempt to solve problems among them. The Islamic political tradition, however, stresses a seamless unity of faith and power, a concept incompatible with the very idea of statehood.

Traditional Islamic governance is based on the umma, the community of believers, which should know no boundaries other than the religion itself. Sharia—law based on a literal reading of the Koran—takes priority over the state; indeed, it does not require the existence of a state. The caliphate emerged from the need, following the Prophet’s death, to establish a politico-religious center of power. In the modern era the Ottoman Empire claimed the caliphate. In 1924, when the Turkish revolution overthrew the Ottomans, the caliphate was abolished.

Since then, Arab-Islamic political elites have failed to find a credible alternative to the traditional system of government. At present, the shadow of illegitimacy falls over all political power in Islam, and the very existence of states may be seen as evidence of non-Islamic practices. This grim reality makes all the more potent the fantastical suggestion that some charismatic figure such as Osama bin Laden could, through terrorist warfare, cleanse the Dar al Islam (the realm of Islam) of all unbelievers and reestablish the caliphate.

The Arab world today consists of 21 countries, all members of the League of Arab States. Few seem comfortable with their own statehood except as a means of casting a veil of international legitimacy over their own version of power politics. Some, such as Morocco, are hereditary paternalistic monarchies whose royal heads are uneasy indeed. Some are secular regimes on the national socialist model, dominated by the Ba’th Party. Still others, such as Egypt and Syria, borrowed Western constitutional forms but have never achieved legitimacy because they have not been accompanied by democratic freedoms. A look at the region as a whole reveals inauthentic "states" attempting to function within the concept of pan-Arabism (one Arab nation) within the wider body of states—members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, where, if anywhere, the unfilled office of the caliphate resides—with a commitment to pan-Islam. All these concepts hamper the full participation of the region in the contemporary international system of states. The absence of credible political systems and the inability to participate in a world of state powers incite protests under the banner of Islam.

"The frustration of the Arab world over its economic failure stokes its hostility toward the West."

Over the past decade, an immense contradiction has become evident between the ideals of pan-Arabism and pan-Islam on the one hand and efforts at state strengthening on the other. State security has been tightened, as has state control over the media. Legitimate opposition elements have been crushed, bought off, or co-opted.

What appear to be a variety of governmental forms in Middle Eastern states are variations of power being held by a strongman, surrounded by a praetorian guard: in Oman, a sultan; in Yemen, a military "president"; in Saudi Arabia, a king and family with special Islamic custodial responsibilities; in Jordan, a king of a simulated constitutional monarchy; in Egypt, a president and a parliament only nominally connected to the Western meaning of those institutions.

A family or personal entourage clusters around the ruler. Those close to power gain; the weak are disregarded. The constant fear is that the repressed opposition will attempt a coup d’état. This pattern represents a fundamental and ancient political order.

"A cultural infection has spread across the Middle East in recent years—the conviction that every social failing can be attributed to a foreign plot."

Saudi Arabia most vividly embodies these contradictions. This fragile, conflict-ridden country is not just the homeland of Osama bin Laden but also the source of his fortune. The only nation-state with a family name and the only state whose legitimacy is based on its protection of Islam, Saudi Arabia is considered by its monarchy to be a complete embodiment of Islam. Indeed, with its vast oil wealth, huge expenditures on infrastructure and private enterprise, and enthusiasm for expanding science and higher education, Saudi Arabia can be viewed as a great experiment to determine whether modern economic and technological life can be compatibly achieved alongside a rigorous interpretation of Islam. Yet Saudi Arabia, for all its application of the Koran to every aspect of society, is denounced as virtually non-Islamic by the new wave of terrorists. In 1996 bin Laden issued a fatwa—a religious decree on a matter of Islamic law—setting as his primary goals the takeover of Mecca and Medina and the overthrow of the Saudi regime. Bin Laden’s pronouncements make clear that, as long as the United States has any presence or influence in the Islamic world, he will be unable to achieve his goals.

Every regime of the Arab-Islamic world has proved a failure. Not one has been able to provide its people with realistic hopes for a free and prosperous future. The regimes have found no way to respond to their people’s frustration other than by a combination of internal oppression and propaganda to generate rage against external enemies. Religiously inflamed terrorists take root in such soil. Their threats extort facilities and subsidies from the regimes that increase their strength and influence. The result is a downward spiral of failure, fear, and hatred.

"What appear to be a variety of governmental forms in Middle Eastern states are all variations of a single approach to the political ordering of society: government by strongman."

Such feelings are deepened by a cultural infection that has spread across the Middle East: the deeply rooted conviction that every societal shortcoming can be attributed to a foreign plot or conspiracy and that every local problem is beyond solution without some action—perniciously withheld—by the United States or some other foreign power.

Over the past few decades, even Americans have begun to fall prey to the idea that virtually every problem in the world can be attributed to some fault of ours.

What Next?

Nevertheless, the situation in the Middle East presents the United States with some opportunities to shape the region and the international scene in a positive way. Many governments in the Arab-Islamic region that have accommodated and provided support for terrorists have felt a shock of recognition at the September 11 attacks. These regimes have been playing a dangerous game, stirring up their people’s hatred of external forces without focusing on the terrorists themselves. The attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., made clear that the terrorism beast may have escaped the control of its keepers.

"Every regime of the Arab-Islamic world has proved a failure—every one."

An immense opportunity now exists to shape the war on terrorism to positive ends in view of the nature and extent of the terrorist threat to virtually every state in the world.

State is the fundamental entity of international relations. The past decade has been marked by a widening belief that the sovereign state is on the way out, that the information revolution, international "civil society," globalization, and other inexorable forces of change are rendering the state obsolete; but the state remains the indispensable core entity of international life, with no replacement in sight.

The United States must help Arab regimes recognize that their commitment to their faith and to their people can best be strengthened through a commitment to the state. Although a more ideal form of government may be imaginable, none is realizable in this era of world history.

Terrorism is the ultimate assault weapon against the state. So the new war on terrorism provides a natural bonding agent for today’s states and the international system of states that goes back to the seventeenth century. This system remains the foundation stone for all that is accomplished in the global arena.

A revitalized, state-centered, and clearly antiterrorist approach could help resolve some of the world’s intractable conflicts, almost all of which involve two communities unwilling to be part of one state. If terrorism can truly be suppressed, the fear that stands in the way of accommodation will be sharply diminished in places such as Northern Ireland and Kashmir. These and other conflicts cannot be closed out quickly or easily, but victory in the war on terrorism could transform the international scene into one more accepting of peace and stability.


Charles Hill, a career minister in the US Foreign Service, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and cochair of the Working Group on Islamism and the International Order. He was executive aide to former US secretary of state George P. Shultz (1983–89) and served as special consultant on policy to the secretary-general of the United Nations (1992–96). He is also the Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy and a senior lecturer in humanities at Yale. His most recent book is Trial of a Thousand Years: World Order and Islamism (Hoover Institution Press, 2011).

Among Hill's awards are the Superior Honor Award from the Department of State in 1973 and 1981; the Presidential Distinguished Service Award in 1987 and 1989; and the Secretary of State's Medal in 1989. He was granted an honorary doctor of laws degree by Rowan University.

His research papers are available at the Hoover Institution Archives.


Adapted from "A Herculean Task: The Myth and Reality of Arab Terrorism," by Charles Hill, which appears in the book The Age of Terror: America and the World after September 11, edited by Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chanda (Basic Books, 2001).

Available from the Hoover Press is Foreign Policy for America in the Twenty-first Century: Alternative Perspectives, edited by Thomas H. Henriksen. Also available is Using Power and Diplomacy to Deal with Rogue States, by Thomas H. Henriksen, part of the Hoover Essays in Public Policy series. To order, call 800-935-2882.