I have been watching the French Canal+ film series, Carlos, about Carlos the Jackal, and was thinking about how the golden age of terrorist hijacking that took place in the late 60s and throughout the 70s really had nothing to do with Islam. As a matter of fact – regardless of what Misters Williams and O’Reilly may believe – those terrorist pioneers were led by Arab Christians and a motley crew of international Marxists, all of whom were dressed more like Starsky and Hutch than like Garbed Muslims.
A simple googling of the two leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinians, George Habash and Wadie Haddad, and I was surprised to find that Time – a publication targeting the eight year old audience – had actually written an obituary of George Habash that recognized the Christian and non-Muslim origins of Middle Eastern terrorism. Entitled “Terrorism’s Christian Godfather”, the article reads,
You could call George Habash, a Palestinian leader who died in Amman on Saturday at the age of 82, the godfather of Middle East terrorism. If you assumed that Palestinian or Arab extremism somehow sprung entirely from Islam — from the puritanical Wahabbi intolerance and so forth — take a close look at Habash’s first name. He was a Greek Orthodox Christian, who sang in his church choir as a boy back in the Palestinian town of Lydda. Habash’s life tells us a lot about the long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which seems as intractable as ever, and prompts reflection on the Middle East’s seemingly unstoppable whirlwind of violence.
Habash’s group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), pioneered the hijacking of airplanes as a Middle East terror tactic — one eventually employed by the al-Qaeda hijackers on 9/11 — way back in 1968 when three PFLP armed operatives commandeered an Israeli El Al airliner enroute from Rome to Tel Aviv. Checking in for a flight has never been the same since.
This isn’t to say that there is something inherently Christian at the root of Middle Eastern terrorism. These terrorists, including their international brothers in arms, were part of the post-World War II fall out – either political ideologues caught up in what they perceived to be oppressive capitalist imperialism or those Pan Arabists who fought against the occupation of Palestine. As history would prove, neither caught any traction, and just as the Marxists in Latin America lost their steam towards the end of the 80s, so did Pan Arabism, the latter to be replaced by religious –rather than ethnic – identity. In other words, it wasn’t until the Habashs and Jackals of the era failed that the Jihadists arose to fill the void.
In the very recommendable “It’s the Occupation, Stupid” in Foreign Policy, Robert A. Pape describes how occupation, rather than religion, is at the root of suicide terrorism.
In the decade since 9/11, the United States has conquered and occupied two large Muslim countries (Afghanistan and Iraq), compelled a huge Muslim army to root out a terrorist sanctuary (Pakistan), deployed thousands of Special Forces troops to numerous Muslim countries (Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, etc.), imprisoned hundreds of Muslims without recourse, and waged a massive war of ideas involving Muslim clerics to denounce violence and new institutions to bring Western norms to Muslim countries. Yet Americans still seem strangely mystified as to why some Muslims might be angry about this situation.. . . New research provides strong evidence that suicide terrorism such as that of 9/11 is particularly sensitive to foreign military occupation, and not Islamic fundamentalism or any ideology independent of this crucial circumstance. Although this pattern began to emerge in the 1980s and 1990s, a wealth of new data presents a powerful picture.
More than 95 percent of all suicide attacks are in response to foreign occupation, according to extensive research that we conducted at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Terrorism, where we examined every one of the over 2,200 suicide attacks across the world from 1980 to the present day. As the United States has occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, which have a combined population of about 60 million, total suicide attacks worldwide have risen dramatically — from about 300 from 1980 to 2003, to 1,800 from 2004 to 2009. Further, over 90 percent of suicide attacks worldwide are now anti-American. The vast majority of suicide terrorists hail from the local region threatened by foreign troops, which is why 90 percent of suicide attackers in Afghanistan are Afghans.
Israelis have their own narrative about terrorism, which holds that Arab fanatics seek to destroy the Jewish state because of what it is, not what it does. But since Israel withdrew its army from Lebanon in May 2000, there has not been a single Lebanese suicide attack. Similarly, since Israel withdrew from Gaza and large parts of the West Bank, Palestinian suicide attacks are down over 90 percent.
. . . Religious difference matters not because some religions are predisposed to suicide attacks. Indeed, there are religious differences even in purely secular suicide attack campaigns, such as the LTTE (Hindu) against the Sinhalese (Buddhists).
Rather, religious difference matters because it enables terrorist leaders to claim that the occupier is motivated by a religious agenda that can scare both secular and religious members of a local community — this is why Osama bin Laden never misses an opportunity to describe U.S. occupiers as “crusaders” motivated by a Christian agenda to convert Muslims, steal their resources, and change the local population’s way of life.
Yet as history has shown us, neither terrorism nor occupation have proven very successful. After decades of useless human sacrifice, the martyrs would be rightfully ashamed were someone to show them just how effective peaceful resistance can be.
In the meantime, we can rely on the non-investigating journalists to keep us always afraid.