Occupation, not Islam, Breeds Terrorism

Occupation, not Islam, Breeds Terrorism

By Abd-Allah H.

As Muslims defensively chant “not all terrorists are Muslims” and “there are terrorists of every faith,” the question that the Islamophobes invariably ask is: “why is it that 99% of terrorists are Muslims?”  Alternatively, they state: “twenty thousand acts of Islamic terrorism have occurred in the last year compared to three acts from every other religion combined.”  (Admittedly, I am unsure of the exact numbers they use, but it doesn’t really matter since these sorts of figures are usually concocted anyways.) Nonetheless, the point appears valid: there seem to be a lot more Muslim terrorists nowadays; so does Islam breed terrorism?  It’s a fair question.

In order to arrive at a scientifically valid answer, we’d have to account for confounding variables. Otherwise, incorrect conclusions could be drawn.  One study showed for example that people with more ashtrays in their houses were more prone to lung cancer.  A faulty conclusion would be that ashtrays cause lung cancer.  The confounding variable in this case is of course smoking.  In other words, a linear correlation between ashtrays and lung cancer does not necessarily establish a causal relationship.  To give a slightly more complex example: a study found that those who drank more coffee were more likely to develop lung cancer; could researchers then claim that coffee consumption causes lung cancer?  No.  It turns out that smokers tend to drink more coffee than non-smokers; it was the smoking, not the coffee, that caused the cancer.

When clinical drug trials are conducted, researchers give the drug to be tested to one population (called the variable population) and the existing drug therapy to another (the control population).  The effect of the drug is then ascertained by comparing the morbidity and mortality in both populations.  However, in order for the comparison to be valid, the two populations have to be similar.  If they are not, the study becomes compromised.  For example, if the city of Berkeley, California is chosen for the variable population, and Miami, Florida is chosen as the control population, there could be heavily skewed results.  Berkeley hosts a college campus, and thus a disproportionately high number of young adults; Miami on the other hand is home to many old people who go there to retire (“It’s the law” according to Seinfeld).  It would not be surprising then if there was less morbidity and mortality in Berkeley than in Miami.  Perhaps such a tactic would be useful for pharmaceutical companies to market their drugs, but it would certainly be bad medicine.  In other words, the raw data must be stratified or normalized before final conclusions can be drawn.

Such empirical studies ought to be done with academic rigor and scholarly honesty, something which we can hardly expect of Islamophobes.  Many of us are familiar with the indefatigable work of John Esposito who has led the charge in using the scientific method to verify (or in this case, reject) the hypotheses of hate-mongers; Gallup poll obtained some much needed data in this regard.  But I’d like to draw the reader’s attention to another less familiar study–one which is closer to our null hypothesis.  In 2002, Professor Daniel Price of Kent State University published a paper in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.  He asked: does Islam repress human rights?

Islamophobes will often compare the developed “Christian world” with the developing Islamic one, and then draw faulty conclusions based on that.  But surely such a comparison is unfair–it’s comparing Berkeley to Miami. Confounding variables include gross domestic product, literacy rates, poverty level, and a host of other factors (not to speak of foreign occupation). If, however, one compares a majority Christian country in Africa, for example, with an Islamic country in the same continent, the results would be far less dramatic–and much more accurate.  Professor Price normalized the data and concluded that there was no causal relationship between Islam and repression of human rights; he wrote:

I test[ed] the relationship between Islam and human rights across a sample of 23 predominantly Muslim countries and a control group of non-Muslim developing nations, while controlling for other factors that have been shown to affect human rights practices.  I found that the influence of Islamic political culture on government has a statistically insignificant relationship with the protection of human rights.

Similarly, we can ask: does Islam cause terrorism?  Although I do not claim to have conducted a scientific study on the matter, I would like to present a case series to hopefully shed some light on this matter.

Case Series

Perhaps the most famous non-Muslim example of terrorism that Westerners are familiar with is the Irish Republican Army (IRA).  According to the Council on Foreign Relations: “For decades, beginning in the late 1960s, [the IRA] was considered one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world.” Was it Islam that bred terrorism in the region?  Or was it the population’s sense of foreign occupation?

The Tamil Tigers are another example–a predominantly Hindu separatist group in Sri Lanka.  They invented the suicide belt and were–according to the New York Times–the “pioneer[s] in the tactic of suicide bombings…[carrying] out scores of attacks over the years, both targeted assassinations and mass terrorist killings.”  They also pioneered the use of women as suicide bombers, with “up to 40 percent” of the Black Tigers suicide squad being women.  Was it Islam that inspired these terrorists, or was it their sense of occupation?

An historical example analogous to the Palestinian people is that of the Native Americans–who were occupied and expelled by the white colonialists.  When we read books of history today, it is generally recognized that the colonists–not the Native Americans–were blameworthy for stealing land that was not theirs.  The struggle of the Native Americans to oust their occupiers (the Native American intifada) is seen in that light–the epic and just struggle of an indigenous population fighting off the far superior foreign occupier.  Do history books today focus on the fact that the Native Americans used terror tactics in their war against the white man?  In fact, the Native Americans would routinely kill women and children in their raids, scalping their heads as per their religious belief.

Indeed, the American pioneers justified their war against the “savages” by pointing to such brutal attacks; of course today we recognize that the occupation took place first, and the Native American reprisals took place as a result.  It’s interesting how some people cannot properly identify the cause and effect in today’s global situation.  The 9/11 attacks are seen as the cause, and the invasion of Afghanistan as a result.  Yet, the reality is that the 9/11 attacks were the result, and the occupation of Muslim lands was the cause.  Unless of course you actually believe the nonsense idea that Al-Qaeda attacked the United States because “they hate our freedoms and liberties.” It would after all be absurd to claim that the Native Americans raided and killed pioneer women and children because “they hated the white man.”  Clearly, the reason was the occupation.

In any case, the struggle of the Native Americans was brutal–there is no way to deny that.  Were such tactics adopted because of their zeal for Islam?  Or was it the occupation that fueled their rage?  The answer is too obvious.  There is an intrinsic desire of every indigenous people to viciously fight off foreign invaders.

We have the example of the resistance groups in the Ukraine following the Nazi invasion in World War II.  The Red Army formed terrorist units that fought off the Nazis.  Ukrainian nationalists formed a third group–the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA)–which used terrorism as a means to fight off both Nazi and Soviet occupiers.  Following the war, the Soviets recognized the group as a “terrorist” outfit; the UPA would even target civilian families who would cooperate with the Soviets by turning in food to collective farms.  Was it UPA’s adherence to the religion of Islam that prompted such terrorism?  Or was it their sense of foreign occupation?

The examples are countless.  Wherever there is a sense of occupation–perceived or real–terrorism follows.  Occupation breeds terrorism.  Terrorism is the weapon of the weak against the occupier.  The occupier is in a position of power and therefore has no need for such petty terrorist tactics.  The occupier has the benefit of tanks, fighter jets, and bombers.

I will here give one last example as a case in point: that of the Israelis themselves.  In the 1930’s and 40’s, it was the Zionist Jews–the predecessors of the modern day state of Israel–who engaged in terrorism on a massive scale.  Jewish terrorist outfits such as the Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi (Stern Gang) were formed.  The Zionist Jews believed that God had granted them the land of Palestine, and as such, the British and the Palestinians were viewed as occupiers.

Jewish terrorist groups blew up various buildings, such as the King David hotel in July of 1946.  The existence of these Jewish terrorist groups cannot be denied.  The Encyclopedia Britannica says, for instance: “The Haganah turned to terrorist activities, bombing bridges, rail lines, and ships.”  The Irgun was condemned as a terrorist organization by the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry and various mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times; even Winston Churchill, who ordinarily was very sympathetic to the Jewish state, declared: “I will never forgive the Irgun terrorists.”  The Lehi (Stern Gang) was–in a resolution passed on September 18th of 1948–condemned by the United Nations Security Council as a “criminal group of terrorists.”

Yet after the creation of the state of Israel, all three terrorist groups moved into what is today considered the mainstream.  Haganah became the core of the Israeli Defense Forces, Irgun became the Herut party which later became the Likud, and the Lehi entered the political arena (being the only one of the three which would eventually die out).  Whether or not these groups adopted state terrorism as opposed to guerrilla terrorism is a topic for another discussion,  but the question to ask here is: what caused the Zionist groups to abandon the classical form of terrorism?  Clearly it was the fact that they were no longer a weak party in need of it.  The Israelis had tanks, fighter jets, and bombers–far more powerful instruments of death than anything in the arsenal of paramilitary terrorist groups.  So what we find quite consistently is that terrorism is a weapon of those who view themselves as occupied; in the case of the Zionist Jews, they viewed the British as occupiers and therefore resorted to terrorism.  Once the British were evicted and Israeli hegemony established, the bread-and-butter type of terrorism was abandoned.

The link between occupation and terrorism is undeniable.  To link Islam to terrorism is as erroneous as linking Judaism to terrorism.  One can easily take certain passages out of context from the Qur’an and claim that it is the cause of “Islamic terrorism.”  Yet, one could also take verses from the Hebrew Bible which clearly indicate that Jews should wipe out the inhabitants of the holy land because God gave it to them:

When you go to make war against a city you are to make [an offer of] peace to it. Then if it accepts peace and surrenders to you, you shall use all the people found in it as forced labour, and they shall be your slaves/serfs. But if it will not make peace with you, and makes war against you, you are to besiege it, and when Yahweh your god gives it to you, you are to kill by the sword every male in it. Only the women and the children and the animals and whatever [else] may be in the city…you are to take as plunder [i.e. slaves]…Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far off from you, which are not of the cities of these peoples [who live in the promised territory]. However, from the cities of these people [the cities] which Yahweh your god is giving you as a possession, you shall not let any human being survive. But you shall utterly destroy them.

(Deut. 20:10-17)

The Root Causes of “Islamic Terror”

Why then are there so many Muslim terrorists nowadays?  The answer is quite simple: the sole super power in the world has focused its wrath on the Islamic world.  After the fall of communism, Islam became the next boogie man.  Specifically, the United States has been not only an ardent supporter of but an active enabler of the state of Israel; quite simply, without the U.S.’s unconditional support of Israel, the continued occupation of Arab lands would have been impossible.  This occupation has radicalized people in the Muslim world; the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq–among other invasions–has fueled a surge in “Islamic terrorism.”  This is not even to speak of the CIA’s role in sustaining puppet regimes in the region, which local populations view as occupation by proxy.  As Robert Fisk put it:

I’ve been thirty-three years in the Middle-East now. By all means we should send the Muslim world our doctors, our teachers, etc. But we’re always going there and offering democracy and freedom, and we’re arriving with our tanks and our Abrams M1A1 tanks, and our Bradley fighting armored vehicles, and our horses and our swords, always promising them freedom.

And I calculated the other day that we now have twenty-two times as many military personnel in the Muslim world than the Crusaders had in the 12th century. And that land does not belong to us; it is not ours and we should leave militarily; we should take all our soldiers out; it doesn’t belong to us.

Chris Hedges, senior fellow at the Nation Institute and the Anschutz Distinguished Fellow at Princeton University, wrote:

Muslim rage is stoked because we station tens of thousands of American troops on Muslim soil, occupy two Muslim nations, make possible the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine, support repressive Arab regimes and torture thousands of Muslims in offshore penal colonies where prisoners are stripped of their rights. We now have 22 times as many military personnel in the Muslim world as were deployed during the crusades in the 12th century. The rage comes because we have constructed massive military bases, some the size of small cities, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kuwait, and established basing rights in the Gulf states of Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The rage comes because we have expanded our military empire into neighboring Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It comes because we station troops and special forces in Egypt, Algeria and Yemen. And this vast network of bases and military outposts looks suspiciously permanent.

The Muslim world fears, correctly, that we intend to dominate Middle East oil supplies and any Caspian Sea oil infrastructure. And it is interested not in our protestations of good will but in the elemental right of justice and freedom from foreign occupation. We would react, should the situation be reversed, no differently.

The brutal reality of expanding foreign occupation and harsher and harsher forms of control are the tinder of Islamic fundamentalism, insurgences and terrorism. We can blame the violence on a clash of civilizations. We can naively tell ourselves we are envied for our freedoms. We can point to the Qur’an. But these are fantasies that divert us from facing the central dispute between us and the Muslim world, from facing our own responsibility for the virus of chaos and violence spreading throughout the Middle East. We can have peace when we shut down our bases, stay the hand of the Israelis to create a Palestinian state, and go home, or we can have long, costly and ultimately futile regional war. We cannot have both.

Prior to the creation of the state of Israel, the Islamic world had coexisted peacefully with the United States for some one hundred and seventy years–without conflict (with the notable exception of the brief Tripolitan war).  Is it some sort of magical coincidence that Islam becomes the big bad boogie man when the United States decides to not only send troops to the Middle East but to send its CIA operatives there?  Let us ask the Islamophobes why is it that not a single Islamic terrorist attack took place on American soil prior to U.S. soldiers being deployed in the Middle East and their bankrolling of Israeli munitions?  How is it that for over one hundred and seventy years not a single Islamic attack took place against the United States? During this time period Islam existed, but the occupation did not.  Does it then take a brain surgeon or rocket scientist to figure out that the correlation is not between terrorism and Islam but between terrorism and occupation? As Ron Paul famously said of 9/11: “They attack us because we’ve been over there [i.e. occupying them].

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz wrote:

UN expert: Palestinian terror ‘inevitable’ result of occupation

A report commissioned by the United Nations suggests that Palestinian terrorism is the inevitable consequence of Israeli occupation…The report by John Dugard, independent investigator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the UN Human Rights Council, will be presented next month, but it has been posted on the body’s Web site…

“While Palestinian terrorist acts are to be deplored, they must be understood as being a painful but inevitable consequence of colonialism, apartheid or occupation,” writes Dugard, whose 25-page report accuses the Israel of acts and policies consistent with all three…

“As long as there is occupation, there will be terrorism,” he argues.

“Acts of terror against military occupation must be seen in historical context,” Dugard says. “This is why every effort should be made to bring the occupation to a speedy end. Until this is done, peace cannot be expected, and violence will continue.”

Back to the question of “why are there so many Muslim terrorists,” the answer is exceedingly simple: the United States made a calculated bet in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s that they would make their bed with Israel–which quickly became an American outpost in the Middle East.  The U.S. needed access to the oil rich fields come hell or high water, even if it meant alienating twenty percent of the world’s population.  It is this fateful decision that has led to the radicalization of the occupied peoples and those who view the occupied as their brothers in faith.

Had China been the world’s primary source of oil–instead of the Middle East–the United States would have sought to dominate it, and not the Muslim world.  A puppet regime would have been established in China, or perhaps the country would have been directly occupied based on the pretext that terrorists reside there.  (The terrorists would undoubtedly come into existence after the invasion, thereby giving a retroactive justification for the war.)  In such a scenario, it would be Chinese terrorists that grace our nightly news feeds, not Muslims.  The link is occupation, not religion.

Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com summarized it best:

What’s most striking about these “warnings” is that they virtually never examine the reasons why this would be happening.  Why, after all this time, would American Muslims suddenly be more willing to engage in violence against the U.S.?  To his credit, Scott Shane devoted several paragraphs of his NYT article to addressing this question, and what he finds is both highly significant and highly unsurprising:

[T]he continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the American operations like drone strikes in Pakistan, are fueling radicalization at home, [terrorism expert Robert Leiken] said. “Just the length of U.S. involvement in these countries is provoking more Muslim Americans to react,” Mr. Leiken said . . . .

Like many other specialists, [Georgetown University terrorism expert Bruce] Hoffman pointed to the United States’ combat in Muslim lands as the only obvious spur to many of the recent cases, especially those with a Pakistani connection. “The longer we’ve been in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said, “the more some susceptible young men are coming to believe that it’s their duty to take up arms to defend their fellow Muslims.”

A few analysts, in fact, argue that Mr. Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan — intended to prevent a terrorist haven there — could backfire.

Robert A. Pape, a University of Chicago political scientist, contends that suicide attacks are almost always prompted by resentment of foreign troops, and that escalation in Afghanistan will fuel more plots. “This new deployment increases the risk of the next 9/11,” he said. “It will not make this country safer.”

The evidence proving this causation is now so overwhelming as to be undeniable.  Waging wars, occupying, and dropping bombs in Muslim countries is the single most counter-productive step that can be taken to combat Islamic extremism (indefinitely imprisoning them without charges is a close second).  It’s akin to advising a lung cancer patient to triple the quantity of cigarettes he smokes each day.  Yet we continue to do it over and over, and then point to the harms we cause as reasons we need to continue doing it.  Our “counter-terrorism” campaign basically consists of three steps repeated endlessly:

(1) Interfere in or otherwise act aggressively in the Muslim world.

(2) Provoke increased anti-American sentiment and fuel terrorism as a result of Step 1.

(3) Point to the increased anti-American sentiment and terrorism as a reason we need to escalate our interference and aggression in the Muslim world.  Return to Step 1.

If one wants to find a correlation between terrorist attacks and some other factor, then let it be the deaths of civilians due to foreign occupation.  The Iraq war has resulted in the death of over 100,000 Muslim civilians; tens of thousands of Muslim civilians were killed by the U.S. military in Afghanistan; 1,441 Palestinian children have been killed by Israel just since September of 2000, not to speak of the thousands upon thousands of Palestinian civilians killed since 1947.  Israel has created millions upon millions of Palestinian refugeesHundreds upon hundreds of Pakistani civilians have been killed by U.S. drone attacks.  I have not included the many other civilians who have been killed in various parts of the Islamic world due to the direct and indirect actions of the United States.

In an article entitled “Why They Hate Us”, Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt wrote:

At a recent conference on U.S. relations with the Islamic world…one of the other participants (a prominent English journalist) put it quite simply. “If the United States wants to improve its image in the Islamic world,” he said, “it should stop killing Muslims.”

Now I don’t think the issue is quite that simple, but the comment got me thinking: How many Muslims has the United States killed in the past thirty years, and how many Americans have been killed by Muslims? Coming up with a precise answer to this question is probably impossible, but it is also not necessary, because the rough numbers are so clearly lopsided.

Here’s my back-of-the-envelope analysis, based on estimates deliberately chosen to favor the United States. Specifically, I have taken the low estimates of Muslim fatalities, along with much more reliable figures for U.S. deaths.

To repeat: I have deliberately selected “low-end” estimates for Muslim fatalities, so these figures present the “best case” for the United States. Even so, the United States has killed nearly 30 Muslims for every American lost. The real ratio is probably much higher, and a reasonable upper bound for Muslim fatalities (based mostly on higher estimates of “excess deaths” in Iraq due to the sanctions regime and the post-2003 occupation) is well over one million, equivalent to over 100 Muslim fatalities for every American lost…

…If you really want to know “why they hate us,” the numbers presented above cannot be ignored…

It is also striking to observe that virtually all of the Muslim deaths were the direct or indirect consequence of official U.S. government policy. By contrast, most of the Americans killed by Muslims were the victims of non-state terrorist groups such as al Qaeda or the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans should also bear in mind that the figures reported above omit the Arabs and Muslims killed by Israel in Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank. Given our generous and unconditional support for Israel’s policy towards the Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular, Muslims rightly hold us partly responsible for those victims too.

Contrary to what Friedman thinks, our real problem isn’t a fictitious Muslim “narrative” about America’s role in the region; it is mostly the actual things we have been doing in recent years. To say that in no way justifies anti-American terrorism or absolves other societies of responsibility for their own mistakes or misdeeds. But the self-righteousness on display in Friedman’s op-ed isn’t just simplistic; it is actively harmful. Why? Because whitewashing our own misconduct makes it harder for Americans to figure out why their country is so unpopular and makes us less likely to consider different (and more effective) approaches.

…When you kill tens of thousands of people in other countries — and sometimes for no good reason — you shouldn’t be surprised when people in those countries are enraged by this behavior and interested in revenge. After all, how did we react after September 11?

About 2,800 Americans died as a result of the atrocious 9/11 attacks.  Yet, over 288,000 Muslims have been killed by American military action.  That means that in Muslim eyes there were over one hundred 9/11’s committed by America against the Islamic world.  Imagine the rage in the eyes of Americans if there was another 9/11 type attack; now imagine if there were one hundred more.  That’s the level of anger in the Muslim world.

So if the Islamophobes ask why there are so many Muslim terrorists today, then let them compare the number of Muslim civilians killed with the number of civilians killed of other religious faiths.  The correlation will then become clear: the higher the number of civilians killed by foreign occupation, the more terrorists that arise.  If Muslims have so many terrorists, it’s because the world’s only super power kills more Muslims than people of any other faith.

Coming back to our ashtray and lung cancer analogy: Islam is the ashtray, terrorism is lung cancer, and the occupation is smoking. Despite what Islamophobes insist, Islam is not the problem; it’s just a confounding variable.  The culprit is the occupation.

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