Part one: Critique of Sloppy Thinking
It is fortunate that habit protects us from seeing the utter weirdness of the world around us. If we were not inured to the oddity of our world, the horns of the Persian proverb (shakh) would grow on our heads at the sight of ragtag militant Islamists (whose history goes back only to the 1960s) claiming that their nihilistic rage, blood stained record, and pedantic literalism incarnates the diverse spirit of a global 1400 year old world religion. Our horns would then twist into elaborate antlers at the spectacle of every rabid, anti-immigrant fascist and every illiterate, “Tehrangeles” chauvinist applauding in agreement: “They’ve got it. Yes, by George they have got it: terrorism IS the essence of true Islam, the overwhelming majority of Muslims who disagree be damned.”
When I wrote “From Cordoba to Mumbai” [parts (1) (2) (3)] criticizing Islamic terrorism and urging moderate Muslims to rise up in protest against shameful spectacles of Islamic terrorism, I fully expected to take flack from both the Islamist and anti-Islamic fringes. And, like clockwork, first the Keyhan gang of Tehran and then the anti-Islamic peanut gallery of the exile neverland have chimed in with the identical refrain, best summed up by one of my loyal detractors at the Iranian.com site: “Islam = Quran = Mohammad = Terrorism.” Usama Bin Laden could have produced that formula – indeed, his lieutenant, Ayman Al-Zawahiri occasionally does say things very close to that. But you could hear this very sentiment echoed in the studios of every neo-con-inspired shock jock and from the ringmasters of right wing radio from Rush Limbaugh to Michael Savage. And of course, you find this sort of cliché among Persian ultra nationalists loitering in the comment space below my articles at Iranian.com. This is an amusing little community whose leaders lecture the world on moral courage but hide behind pseudonyms like “Fred” and profess to love Persia but are unable to write one paragraph in Persian (or good English for that matter) to vent their puny, impotent rage.
What explains the Islamist and anti-Islamic fringes’ defense of the authenticity of the concept of “Islamic terrorism?” What is their stake in fusing a diverse, 14 century old world religion (Islam) and the ghastly creature of the last century and a half (terrorism?) Why are they against parsimonious definitions of words such as terrorism and historical insights that explore the modern historical background of Islamic terrorism? Why do they appeal to ad hominem attacks rather than parsing the concepts? Keyhan has castigated me as a heretic fixing to justify Zionist atrocities and disarm Palestinian brothers in arms. The anti-Islamic fringe is now accusing me of apologizing for Islamofascists, IRI, Hamas and Hizbollah. Both attack me for the same reason: decoupling Islam and terrorism. The fringe crucible (both Islamist and anti-Islamic) where Islam and terrorism are fused together is heated by the same parochial agenda: Islamists favor Islamic terrorism as a club to bash their regional foes and the anti-Islamic front finds it useful to bash Islam.
But the two have more than an ideological interest in common. Conceptually, both groups harbor an outdated essentialism, an anachronistic belief in a trans-historical “essence” for Islam. Both express the outlandish belief that the essence of Islam is best expressed in blowing up pizza joints and slamming airplanes into buildings. Indeed, Western Islamophobia betrays a wacky reverence for the violent, muscular Islam of the fundamentalists. Somehow, they find it more authentic than the suspect moderation of the overwhelming majorities of Muslims. Dennis Miller, the right wing comedian could not hide his grudging admiration for Al-Qaedah when he said that after all, “there is no “al-kinda!” Christian fundamentalists do recognize their mirror image in their Islamist counterparts and secretly long to emulate them – as witnessed in the superb documentary entitled “Jesus Camp.”
To defend their indefensible merging of Islam and terrorism both Islamophobic and Islamist camps have taken refuge in obscurantism. They attack scientific definitions of terrorism, because they are given to oratory and rant intermixed with bouts of self pity and narcissistic self congratulation. But this is a dangerous game given the threat terrorism poses to our world and the necessity of an international coalition to eradicate it. As long as impartial and universal definitions for terrorism are not adopted, no amount of boots on the ground and drones in the air can succeed in uprooting terrorism.
Part Two: What is a “Terrorist Regime?
The first step in an international campaign to end terrorism is adopting narrow, lean and trans-nationally applicable definition for terrorism. But all we have is the sloppy thinking of the Islamist and Islamophobic fringes. Take for instance the concept of “terrorist regime” exclusively applied by my venerable critic, Dr. Kazemzadeh to the Islamic Republic of Iran. He calls Iran a “terrorist regime” because it has sent munitions to its none-state proxies and because it has engaged in internal and extra-territorial assassination of its opponents . With that definition, one might wonder, what other countries are also “terrorist regimes?” Is it “logically consistent” to underline Iran’s reprehensible assassination of its opponents (which I have condemned in my editorials at the Daily Star of Lebanon, reprinted at this site (e.g. "Kazemigate") but conveniently forget about the culturally celebrated “licensed to kill” agents of superpowers or the targeted killings conducted by Israel? Wouldn’t the assassination of Palestinian leaders that followed the Munich terrorist attacks (portrayed in Steven Spielberg’s eponymous movie) and the ones in the last two months of the now broken Hamas ceasefire also register Israel as a “terrorist regime?”
What sense does it make to mention, as my critics do, the indiscriminate missile attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad (whose condemnation was the very point of my essays) but conveniently forget about the far more lethal, repeated and indiscriminate cluster-bombings of Lebanon and the ongoing bombardments of Gaza? Dr. Kazemzadeh continues to harp on the Palestinian terrorism even as Israeli disproportionate attacks on Gaza have killed nearly 400 people and injured three times as many. Why do these keen critics, following the lead of the right wing chatterboxes of Fox News and Neo Con websites, only repeat the Muslim on Muslim atrocities in Darfur to the exclusion of Srebrenica, Sabra and Shatila? Ideologues like Dr. Kazemzadeh use this selective approach to cobble together a case for denouncing Islam that is fit for a closing argument in a court of law. But such rhetorical forays only generate parallel, selective diatribes on the other side where US and Israel appear as pathological mass murderers. Haven’t we all had enough of this bloody and boring dialogue of the deaf?
The truth is that ALL religions (including Islam, and “including Islam” was the very point of my articles on terrorism) share violent passages in their Scriptures and a history of violent interpretations of those passages. To use the language of religion, all religions must repent from aspects of their past. Terrorism is just one of the incarnations of this unfortunate abuse of religion. The way to combat this is to call on the believers to hark to the better angels of their nature not to demonize one religion to the exclusion of others. All manners of violence against non combatants are being perpetrated in the name of religion. What Muslim Janjawid have wrought in Darfur is just is despicable as the legacy of the Christian Army of the Lord in Uganda. In such a world, it is intellectually dishonest to make a partisan argument against one religion where there is enough blame to go around for all of them. Besides, castigating one religion as a terrorist creed is politically foolish as no conceivable policy can ensue identifying hundreds of millions of followers with terrorism. Unless, of course, the suggestion of one of the anti Muslim bigots (the radio host Michael Savage) to murder 100 million Muslims counts as policy.
As I have already stated, for analytical as well as practical reasons the questions of war crimes, targeted killings and assassinations, massacres and varieties of ethnic cleansing ought not to be mixed up with the scourge of international terrorism. My not mentioning these is not the result of wishing to hide something or engage in cherry picking. I believe each of these problems must be separately studied and confronted. Professors (such as my venerable critic Dr. Kazemzadeh) must be in the business of bringing clarity not confusion and clutter to the subject of their discussion. Professors like Dr. Kazemzadeh would not be setting a good example for their students when they mix phenomena as diverse as the Safavid forced conversion of Iranians to Shiite religion in the sixteenth century and the religious persecution of Bahais after the Islamic Revolution, with “terrorism.” State sponsored violence leading to forced conversions and religious persecution are disturbing enough in their own right. It serves no purpose, indeed it is counterproductive, to widen the definition of terrorism to cover everything and everyone that we dislike.
It is true that terrorism is a powerful epithet but we must forego the adolescent relish and emotional discharge of hurling it at our enemies – especially while turning a blind eye to the same practice by the other side. It is fortunate that Dr. Kazemzadeh also seems to appreciate the merits of consistency: “Only condemning Sunni terrorist groups opposed to the regime but justifying other terrorist groups is one main problem.” Anyone who has read my articles with a modicum of care will see that I explicitly and repeatedly denounce favoritism in opposing independent or state sponsored terrorism. So, if this is a problem, it isn’t mine. As a Muslim I have published articles both in Persian and English, in Iran as well as abroad, condemning all kinds of terrorism, especially that which is done in the name of Islam. As such I don’t need a lecture on fairness and consistency, especially by those who have not shown impartiality in their own accounts of the state sponsored violence against civilians.
Part Three: Missing the Point on Anarchism and Iranian Terrorist Organizations
Legacy of Anarchism: Dr. Kazemzadeh engages in substantive criticism of my essays in two areas: the legacy of Anarchism and the history of terrorism in Iran. First, he casts doubt on the provenance of Islamic Terrorism: “Sadri then states that it was the anarchists who invented the use of violence for political purpose. But in all the cases that he mentioned the anarchists used violence against political leaders.” Here I would have to respectfully request that Dr. Kazemzadeh spend more time in the library. Anarchists perpetrated many assassinations. But they also engaged in blind acts of terrorism as a form of mass communication.
For instance on February 12th, 1894 an anarchist by the name of Emile Henry blew up a café in Paris, killing one and injuring twenty people with the kind of claim that we hear today from suicide and homicide bombers operating in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Spain, and, the United States: "There is no innocent bourgeois." What links all of these acts is the disregard for civilians whose lives are treated as props in grisly acts of terrorist performance art. So, “propaganda of the deed” had already extended to killing innocent bystanders in the anarchist discourse of the 19th century. Another famous example of anarchist terrorism is the ineptly executed attempt to blow up the London Observatory by an anarchist named Bourdin. This act was the inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s novel “Secret Agent.”
Those interested in sociology of literature might find the character of Souvarine in Emile Zola’s novel, Germinal (there is an eponymous movie based on this novel as well) useful in a contemporary treatment of the anarchist scorn for human lives: “He was bound for the unknown, over yonder, calmly going to deal violent destruction wherever dynamite could be found to blow up cities and men. Doubtless, on that day when the last expiring bourgeois hear the very last stones of the streets exploding under their feet, he will be there.”
Of course the anarchist disregard for the lives of ordinary citizens has grown exponentially in successive mutations. But it is noteworthy (especially for those critics who have expressed surprise at my recounting of the secular genealogy of religious terrorism) that pure, Western anarchist terrorism has not disappeared. In the1960s it emerged in the United States in the shape of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Black Panthers Party and the Weathermen Underground. Later, the lone anarchist terrorist, Theodore John Kaczynski known as the “Unabomber” unleashed a bombing spree throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
On Iranian Terrorism: The second substantive area of Kazemzadeh’s critique covers the history of terrorism in Iran. But his grasp of the modern history of Iranian political activism is not much better than his knowledge of anarchism. Our friend must familiarize himself with the history of Fadaeean-e Eslam, Mujahedeen-e Khalgh, Fadaeean-e Khalgh and Hojjatieh Society before venturing off hand theories on the subject. He says: “It is logically inconsistent to call the violence used against heads of governments by anarchist "terrorism" but not call the use of violence against non-combatants committed by Islamic groups such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and Lebanese Hezbollah "legitimate resistance." First, condemning the violence perpetrated by Muslim extremists against civilian targets was the very point of my articles.
Second, what connects the anarchists and Islamic terrorism is not the use of violence or assassination attempts aimed at political and ideological enemies – because these practices predate both anarchism and modern terrorism. Rather, the common denominator is the disregard for the lives of ordinary citizens. Dr. Kazemzadeh implies that I tend to coddle Fadaeean-e Eslam by not mentioning them as the forerunners of terrorism in Iran. I have no used for the bloody, medieval ax wielders of this band of assassins. But the fact remains that they were not the forerunners of modern terrorism in Iran.
Assassination of enemies by secret brotherhoods of professional killers is not a new phenomenon. Not even the disciples of Hassan Sabbah could claim to be the first in the use of assassinations to further their political goals. But there is something radically new in the urban guerilla warfare of “Fadaeean-e Khalgh” and “Mujahedeen-e Khalgh:” the anarchist idea of “propaganda of the deed.” Fadaeean-e Eslam’s liquidated their ideological (e.g., Kasravi) and political (e.g., Razmara) enemies. But they never blew up a bus; it would not cross their mind to plant a bomb in the bathroom of the Kourosh Department Store.
Dr. Kazemzadeh’s grasp of the “Hojjatieh Society” is also based on urban legends rather than historical evidence. Hojjatieh was a lay, quietist Shiite organization that, like Alavi High School, emphasized apolitical and strictly non- violent cultural activities. This was why both organizations were anathema to the terrorist activists (such as Mujahedeen-e Khalgh) as well as to those less active “revolutionaries” who advocated a violent overthrow of the Shah and took the center stage at the onset of the revolution. This explains why Alavi was taken over by the government appointed management shortly the revolution. Hojjatieh also found itself at the mercy of its old foes in post revolutionary Iran and was summarily disbanded by a decree from Ayatollah Khomeini. So, despite Kazemzadeh’s contentions, as a disbanded and highly undesirable group that had long opposed the revolution, the Hojjatieh, did not have the inclination or the power to take part in the persecution of Bahais. I would be eager to see Dr. Kazemzadeh’s evidence to the contrary on these issues, as he has already graced us with his unsupported opinions.
Finally, I must thank Dr. Kazemzadeh for his civil tone (a refreshing change from the comments I usually receive at the Iranian.com site) and for applauding my courage to stand up to Islamic terrorism. But I would be honored if he would carefully reread these three short articles with attention to detail, nuance and the strictures of the venue where they were published. I hope that he would revise his view that I only condemn the Sunni terrorism while going easy on various forms of state sponsored violence or apologize for the Safavid or IR religious persecutions.
Regarding his advice that I stop publishing in opposition newspapers in Iran I would like to keep my own council. I will continue to publish in Iran and in Persian as long as I am allowed to do so. I am sure this will not implicate me in anything untoward for I disagree with the view that Iran is a monolith ruled by the extreme right wing – and with hysterical analogies that equate Iran to KKK.
Ahmad Sadri is Professor of Sociology and Anthropology as well as Gorter Chair of Islamic World Studies at Lake Forest College, Chicago.
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