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Sunday, Dec. 28, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Fear of modern terrorism


THE NEW TERRORISM: Anatomy, Trends and Counterstrategies, edited by Andrew Tan and Kumar Ramakrishna. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, Regional Security Studies, 2002, 254 pp. (paper).

If the contributors to this excellent survey of "the new terrorism" are correct, then the world needs to be prepared for a long and frustrating fight. The forces behind the new terrorism are structural in nature, the product of modernization and globalization, and terrorists are using the instruments of modernization and globalization to wage their war. Worse, they are tapping religious fervor to gather and rally their troops. Winning this fight will require patience and confidence; governments must wield the iron fist against terrorists yet balance their security efforts with a sensitivity to the longer-term forces that breed terrorism. Good luck.

"The New Terrorism" begins with a discussion of the global dimensions of the problem. The first half tries to define and assess terrorism. The authors conclude that globalization has permanently altered the political landscape, rendering vulnerable even "unipolar hegemons" like the United States. Global communications have empowered terrorist organizations, linking like-minded groups, and making it easier to set up essential support structures among diaspora and migrant communities around the world. These networks disseminate propaganda, raise funds, recruit and train terrorists and procure weapons.

The privatization and liberalization that are the foundations of the Western reform agenda have not only alienated countless individuals worldwide -- because they impoverish many, break up traditional hierarchies and represent the imposition of foreign ideals -- but they have also made it easier for opponents of the system to fight. They diminish the state at the expense of the individual, giving the terrorist a new advantage.

The most disturbing conclusion is that terrorism reflects the struggle between secular and religious communities. Bluntly, "the new terrorism is the product of the failed accommodation between secular modernity and religious tradition." The failure of governments to bridge that divide means the armed struggle will go on. As long as "sizable pockets of disgruntled, anti-American young Muslims remain in countries from Nigeria to the Philippines, there will always be a radical Islamic movement posing an existential threat to Western and especially U.S. interests." Forget the image of al-Qaeda as a dispersed guerrilla army; see it instead a self-regenerating hydra.

While the contributors to this section are renowned experts, there is little here that is new. The real value is in the second half of the book, which focuses on terrorism in Southeast Asia. And rightly so: Terrorism's center of gravity shifted from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region in the 1990s, a move that mirrored the transfer of international terrorist training camps from Lebanon to Afghanistan. The Asia-Pacific region hosts several foreign and indigenous groups, ranging from Islamist Sunni organizations such as al-Qaeda, and Shiite movements like Hezbollah, to other ideological and ethno-nationalist groups.

Asia's vast and extensive Muslim communities have provided fertile soil for breeding terrorists. That doesn't mean that there is any unique connection between Islam and terrorism. Rather, as the authors point out, the strains introduced by modernization in Asia have pushed political Islam in the region toward radicalism.

The process unfolds like this: Moderates enter political discourse and frequently succeed, which pushes them toward the mainstream. When newcomers emerge, they challenge coreligionists to find their own place in politics; that attack usually comes from the margins or fringe of the political spectrum. Religious discourse is the best way to gain leverage over the political competition, and "radical Islam is appealing because it offers a framework for a moral/ethical critique of power."

Of course, external factors have an influence. Film footage of fellow Muslims suffering under Western attack in Iraq and Afghanistan inflames passions. The belief that the U.S. turns a blind eye to Palestinian tragedies and Israeli injustices has a profound impact on Muslim attitudes.

The most intriguing part of this collection is the discussion of strategies to counter terrorism. As might be expected, the emphasis is on softer, long-term solutions. Military force is to be "carefully circumscribed." The editors call for the war against terrorism to be conceptualized as "the ideological and political war for the hearts and minds of the borderless, transnational Muslim nation." Governments must "improve the delivery of social welfare and economic opportunities to prevent growing young male populations from falling prey to radical Islamic propaganda excoriating decrepit governmental performance."

They call for "ideological counter-programming." In other words, the best vaccination against the terrorist contagion is a liberal arts education that encourages critical, analytical, multidimensional thinking. "Muslims the world over must be persuaded that Islam can coexist with modernity, and it is possible and desirable to be both a good Muslim and still be fairly engaged with the modern capitalist world system."

If only it were so simple. The contest for power will always generate extremists. "Draining the swamp" will take lifetimes since it must eliminate not only a mind-set, but the physical, economic and political conditions that encourage people to think in certain ways and resort to violence. In short, the terrorists will always be among us: Worse, there will always be criminals who wrap themselves in a cause, no matter how irrelevant it is to their real motivations.

The question is how much support they will enjoy, how often the terrorist will be indulged with the label "freedom fighter." If the past is any indication, the answer is far too often.



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