Why do they do these things? Don’t they have any shred of humanity or reason? Don’t they realise that these barbaric atrocities are futile? Do they not realise that not only does the whole world get disgusted with these things, but also these incidents invite furious reaction both from all-powerful states and fearful societies?
Don’t they realise that ever worsening reactions from fearful societies will only put into great danger their very own brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends? Every time a large incident like the Paris attack or regular ISIS atrocities in and around the Middle East takes place, moderate Muslims around the world incredulously and anxiously ask these questions.
Most often, the only answer that makes sense to them and also enables them to still retain their inherited, comforting worldview is that the perpetrators of these acts must be crazy; absolutely stark raving mad, crazy, lunatic barbarians.
Since September 2001, our world has been dominated by all things related to terrorism, and few subjects have been as thoroughly studied as terrorism. And most experts now agree that with some exceptions, Islamist terrorists -- similarly to most other terrorist organisations -- are rational and calculating, both in their objectives and choice of tactics. They may operate with a set of preferences that is very outlandish to many of us, but within that set of preferences they act very rationally. So what are the objectives for which they act so shockingly?
Robert Pape of the University of Chicago is one of the leading academics studying terrorism, and his 2005 book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, is arguably the most cited book on terrorism. Looking at every known suicide terror attack from1980 to 2003 (315 incidents), Pape concluded that the main objective of such attacks was “to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.” Thus, foreign occupation is the principal motivator and they particularly target democracies because they think democracies can be coerced to change policy by changing public opinion through intimidation or indignation.
Although Pape’s theory remains influential till today, it has also met with a lot of criticism. According to a terrorism database, the number of worldwide suicide attacks jumped to 1,457 from 2003 to 2010, far outweighing Pape’s original 315 incidents. Analysis of these new incidents show that, while nationalism-independence remains an important factor in causes of terrorism, Pape failed to account for the domestic social and political dynamics. Most importantly, although Pape famously dismissed religion (like Islam) as a significant factor, new analyses of data show that the link between Islam and suicide attacks is robust.
I do not propose to delve into why there is a robust link between Islam and extremism at this point in world history and the subject is very complex as well as understudied anyway. Generally, scholars agree that radical Islamists adopt suicide terrorism as a tactic for the same purposes that other groups use it: As effective weapons of brute coercion and for solidifying public opinion for a cause.
But even terrorist groups know that terror seldom succeeds in coercing states; it is the swaying of public opinion that motivates most terrorist organisations. In particular, terrorists hope that furious reactions from state powers will hurt the people too and a traumatised people will embrace the cause of terrorists more and more out of fear and rage. Many studies have shown that heavy government responses in places like Chechnya and Palestine correlate with rapid increase in support in the people for terrorist groups and their causes.
This expectation of change in people’s opinion is very important. We keep hearing that only a small minority supports extremism and a still smaller group engages in terrorist activity while the majority do not condone such acts. This is largely true, but we do not realise that it is this minority-majority dynamic that itself is the biggest motivator for extremism. We can understand the social-psychological mechanism of terrorist motivation only if we understand the impact of the terrible juggernaut called modernisation.
Most people in Muslim societies, like in all other societies, are pretty oblivious to the inexorable process of modernisation. They do not realise how every aspect of their society, culture, beliefs, norms are being gradually changed through modernisation. But one minority has.
They know that to surrender to history is to lose the thing they hold most dear: Their religious identity. As they watch their fellow society sleepwalk into modernity, they want to jolt the majority awake. They want to stop the breakdown of the society they have known and idealised. They see their brothers, sisters, friends, parents, most people they know, succumb to modernity one by one. They become ready and committed to taking extreme steps to shake the apathetic masses into sense.
We have to understand that the radical Muslims care almost nothing for the people of the decadent West. They are not agitated by the loosening of morals, mixing of sexes, secularisation of discourse etc in the people of the West.
They regard those people to be hell-bound anyway. It matters little what they do in this temporary world.
But the radicals are absolutely anxious about the state of the Ummah. They have been taught right from when they developed awareness that the Ummah is one body, literally. The Ummah is part of self and all the rest is other. As they see the Ummah succumb to modernity, they see their very self and body melting away. This is viscerally painful. This social context of the Ummah in modernisation gives rise to the radical atrocities of terrorism.
They know that the danger in internal surrender is far more insidious than outside aggression. That is why they want to create a political environment made so toxic by extremism that no compromise is possible. You have to stick with your people or leave the fold completely. This is the rationale that motivates extremists from Osama Bin Laden to ISIS lieutenants. They deliberately commit spectacular outrage so that the reaction can drive their people back home into a single body again. And they are in a hurry, for they know that time is not on their side.
This is how a small radical minority tries to take over a large majority and, in history, they have often been successful. Many US historians have discussed that, even in the early 19th century, attitude towards slavery in the slave-owning south was gradually shifting. People were recognising the evils of slavery. Thomas Jefferson, that slave-owning, liberal icon, repeatedly expressed hope that all slaves would soon be free by emancipation.
Condemned by most of Europe and the more prosperous North, people in the south were feeling besieged; their way of life was facing extinction. An active, slave-owning minority in the south saw the danger of their majority compatriots succumbing to the humanism of modernity and they acted.
Through political maneuovering and social activism, they made slavery the identity issue for the American South and poisoned the political atmosphere in such a way that no compromise became possible. Then they got their wish: Declaration of secession from the Union in 1861. What happened in the ensuing Civil War is another matter.
Today, another very active minority is trying to commandeer the majority through extreme tactics. They want a world where there is no compromise. Whether their vision of a pure, unified community living according to the ideals of the seventh century will succeed or meet the fate of antebellum South, that is the big question.