Islamic Narratives of Victimhood: Terror not going away soon

In the years surrounding the US 9/11 attacks we became aware of a strange phenomenon; Islamic terrorists were discussing their plans and goals publicly on Internet forums, without any regard for who may be watching. This was a double edged sword. While law enforcement agencies certainly were able to gather intelligence from these postings, the actions of these would-be terrorists underscored how bold they had become.

Let me put it this way: It would be like two would-be bank robbers discussing their plans to rob banks while standing in a police station lobby. They have no expectation of privacy, and they would have to be pretty confident to willfully give up their privacy.

These discussions unfolded right before our eyes, and we were assured by Islamic terrorists that Mr. bin Laden was silently moderating these discussions. Sometime during 2002 al Qaeda published their final position on their website. When would the terror against the US stop? Their answer: When four million Americans, including two million children, were slain for Islam, eight million Americans displaced, and hundreds of thousands of Americans maimed.

Al Qaeda’s official spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, delivered the decision:

According the the numbers, we are still at the beginning by the way: The Americans have not tasted from our hands what we have tasted from theirs. The [number of] killed in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are but a tiny part of the exchange for those killed in Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, the Philippines, Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya, and Afghanistan.

We have not reached parity with them. We have the right to kill four million Americans — two million of them children — and to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands.

He ends his murderous rant by invoking weapons of mass destruction. (For full text, see page 347 of this book).

While Abu Ghaith is in US Federal Prison serving a life sentence, and while his boss, bin Laden, is dead, it’s not my opinion that we should dismiss this as being outdated. I’m going to borrow a phrase and some of the theory from Michael Barnett in his book, Dialogues in Arab Politics: Negotiations in Regional Order. 

That is, Arab states play politics differently than how many in the West understand the game. Arab state leaders use “presentational politics” to construct a narrative. Often the narrative is one of the victim with the right to retribution. If we re-read Abu Ghaith’s statement, we see “presentational politics” at play. First, he points out just how disproportionate Muslim civilian suffering is to Americans who were affected by 9/11. This paints a picture for the reader: Yes, Muslims have suffered untold losses by American soldiers. A narrative of victimhood has been constructed. And then, while the reader feels the sting of sympathy, he makes his argument: Kill four million Americans.

This is not unique merely to al Qaeda. In many, if not all, terrorist attacks against Western interests, presentational politics is at play at both the state level and by non-state actors (terrorists themselves). When we listen to the justification for terror attacks we find victimhood in many, if not most, if not all, attacks. In the Charlie Hebdo attacks the terrorists were explicit; they felt the cartoonists committed the greatest insult against their god that one can make (psht. I’m sure I could come up with something more insulting). On 9/11 the victim was constructed because non-Muslim Americans were in Mecca. The 2005 London bombings occurred because the bombers held the British government responsible for waning existential security in the Arab World. In other words, the entire Muslim world was a victim to British aggression. The 2008 Ahmedabad bombings are rather interesting. The Muslim terrorists were the victims because they had attacked a train in 2002, killing 58, mostly Hindus, which led to Hindu riots against Muslims. That is, I’m going to attack you first, and if you attack me back, I’m the victim, not you!! In the 2012 Toulouse and Montauban shootings, the attackers said, “The Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine.”

Labeling themselves as victims, terrorists justify acts of terror, even if the rest of the world condemns them.

So what?

While sometimes terrorists have legitimate complaints (e.g. killing Muslims indiscriminately), acts of terror are always illegitimate. Being labeled, or labeling oneself, a victim does not justify victimizing others. This is a rather difficult problem, however; a constructed victim always needs a constructed hero to set things right. And constructed heroes (terrorists) are not in short supply. Even in cases when terrorists have illegitimate complaints (e.g. Charlie Hebdo), we see some willing to right a perceived wrong, even if it means using violence. And we see many who understand or condone such behavior. This is the ultimate problem with Islam in regards to this article.

Even in areas where existential security runs high, we see people willing to kill and be killed to preserve the honor of their god. And right now there is no solution to this problem. Short of Islam going through a radical liberalization, I don’t foresee this problem going away any time soon.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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6 Responses to Islamic Narratives of Victimhood: Terror not going away soon

  1. I read a post recently about feminism and Islam. Essentially what I’m thinking is that younger Muslims see what the West has and wants that, but they don’t want all of the secular baggage. Eventually something will have to reach a tipping point.

    Personally, I think advocating feminism in Muslim countries could do wonders for helping these nations realize the benefits of secular public governance. Just think, what if women could vote and have full rights in these countries? They have a vested self interest in opposing any religious sexist laws.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      There’s a giant feminist movement in Lebanon. There’s also a related sexual revolution occurring. You may be right. Perhaps these movements helped fuel secularism. But then again, Lebanon has been highly secular for decades, despite sectarian wars. So it’s difficult to say how much feminism and sexualism have helped Lebanon secularize. I think the UAE might be a good place to test this hypothesis. They have a vested interest in the West, including media. Unfortunately testing it has ethical implications. I guess it’s a wait and see.

  2. Müntzer says:

    There is a different way to look at it:
    Pointing at the wrongs their people suffered freedom fighters rise to free and avenge their people.
    One persons terrorist and so on…

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      I disagree with the ‘one person’s terrorist…’ argument. My field literally defined terrorism, and it’s rather black and white: a non-state actor who attacks civilians with the explicit goal of compelling a state to take a certain action.

      ‘Freedom fighters,’ on the other hand, have an explicit goal of compelling the state….by attacking the state.

      • Müntzer says:

        I am more in line with Peter Ustinov:
        Terror is the War of the Weak, War is the Terror of the Strong.

        And there are also those sticky incidents were state and civilians, were state and those people who form the state, are closely intermingled with one hiding behing the other.

        If the state sends his citizens to settle on your land and slowly crowd you out (the American West during the Indian wars would be an example as would be a row of other ethnical cleansings) how is attacking the citizens, the civilians, not attacking the state?

      • Rayan Zehn says:

        I think it’s a very bad idea to expand on the definition of terrorism. The example you give in your last sentence is covered by war crimes. When the state sanctions the development of occupied lands by its own people through force, this more than meets the criteria of being a war crime, and the state can be held accountable for those acts under universal jurisdiction, either by force or by international tribunes.

        Terrorism, on the other hand, is dealt with by local police departments operating within the state holding jurisdiction. There is no universal jurisdiction for arresting and trying terrorists, partly because the terrorist is a common murderer, not representative of the state.

        If we broaden the definition of terror to include your definition, the line between war and terror become blurry and therefore meaningless. Terrorists should be called terrorists, and war criminals should be called war criminals.

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