[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers’ comments]
The death of bin Laden was comforting news for the billions around the world who saw him as the mastermind of terror. Especially the Americans, some of whom lost their loved ones to the indiscriminate killing of al-Qaeda, were understandably cheerful. But not everybody shared the same feelings and thoughts. News from Pakistan and Afghanistan in fact indicate quite a few people in those countries mourn for the man, which they regarded as a hero who bravely stood up against “the imperialists.”
This amazing gap in perception reminded me of the arrest of Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the separatist terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. In 1999 Öcalan was arrested in Kenya, where he was on the run and the overwhelming majority of the Turkish society, who saw him as evil incarnate, was delighted. This was the man, after all, who ordered the killing of their sons. But a particular segment of Turkey, the Kurds who sympathize with the PKK, probably some 5 percent of our population, felt quite different. They saw the PKK leader as a hero who bravely stood up against “the Turkish imperialists.” A few of Öcalan’s fans even burnt themselves alive to protest his capturing.
For the majority of the Turks, it is still impossible to understand how anybody could feel positive about Öcalan. So, some of these Turks decided not only the man but also his followers are evil incarnate. But others try to understand why the PKK has such popular support. The organization certainly has a fanatic, extremist ideology. But it also has a political context: many Kurds have felt suppressed and humiliated by the policies of the Turkish State, and is the reason why they sympathize with the insurgency against it.
Now, please note such an effort to “understand” terrorism doesn’t mean justifying it. There are certainly some who make that mistake, but it is also possible to both understand and condemn terrorism at the same time.
My take on both the PKK and al-Qaeda, and other organizations, and states, which intentionally shed innocent blood, is based on that latter approach: I univocally condemn their crimes, but also try to figure out what makes them commit them.
As for al-Qaeda, a superficial rhetoric has developed in the West, and especially the United States, which only focuses on the ideology of the organization. In fact, the term “ideology” often becomes a euphemism, and some more blunt voices directly put the whole blame on al-Qaeda’s particular interpretation of Islam, if not directly on Islam itself. In this narrative, there are simply mad or evil people in the Muslim word who hate America “for its freedoms.” The only reason these extremists kill, the narrative goes, is due to a doctrine of jihad in Islam.
But al-Qaeda’s reality is much less theological. It is true they identity themselves as jihadist, but their main driving force is not what is written in a medieval Muslim text, but the political realities of the current age. As Thomas Hegghammer, a specialist in the study of violent Islamism, rightly noted a few years ago:
“Osama bin Laden’s central theme is the suffering and humiliation of the Muslim nation, or “umma,” at the hands of non-Muslims. He conveys a pan-Islamic nationalist worldview according to which, the umma is facing an existential threat from outside forces led by the U.S.. Bin Laden’s principal rhetorical device is the enumeration of symbols of suffering, examples of situations where Muslims have been humiliated or oppressed by non-Muslims, such as in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir. The only way to defend against this onslaught, he argues, is to confront America militarily.”
Islam under attack
In other words, al-Qaeda is a political reaction rather than a religious movement. No wonder people don’t have to be too religious to sympathize with the organization. “Even young Arab girls in tight jeans,” reminds American scholar Henry Munson, “praise bin Laden as an anti-imperialist hero.” And even Carlos the Jackal, the longtime atheist, expressed his support for al-Qaeda, and its war against “the world system,” in his prison cell in France.
This means the best way to render al-Qaeda ineffective would be to reduce the political tensions between “the world system” and the world of Islam. In other words, it would be only a disaster if America decides to broaden its “war on terror,” by bombing or occupying Muslim lands, or by unrestrainedly supporting countries that do so, such as Israel. That will only heighten the feeling, “the umma is under attack,” and thus create new recruits for jihad. If you want to prevent the rise of such militants, then you should make their base safe and respected, not threatened and humiliated.
In Turkey, it took us almost three decades to get that lesson. It was not rocket science, actually, but as Hegghammer notes, “societies touched by terrorism are always the least well placed to understand their enemies.” Recently, America has been not-so-well-placed to understand its jihadist enemies as well. I hope it will become a bit more nuanced after the death of Osama bin Laden.