Tentative discussions on terrorism

By Jamie Penston Raja

The attacks in Paris on the 13th of November by Daesh were attacks that shocked the Western world. They have prompted a declaration of “pitiless war” on the part of the French government, and have reinvigorated debates about whether the UK should take part in air strikes in Syria. Yet the reaction to such events and the roots of their occurrence are of utmost importance if we wish to end the cycle of violence which has been revolving between western states and Middle Eastern states for decades. Therefore the discussion on this topic as part of the Castle Lecture series was an incredibly insightful evening. Professor Anoush Ehteshami focused on the impact on the wider Middle Eastern region, and Professor Held focused on the theoretical challenges that are posed by such attacks.

The regional argument around this issue draws on the ‘flying goose theory’ of development and regional unity. Professor Ehteshami placed high importance on the need for a leader within a regional system to provide unity and strength between different nations. The Middle East has three potential leaders for its regional development: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. The issue is that they have been at war with one another for half a century, and as a result, are unlikely to try and foster any meaningful regional unity.

This then brings about the problem of weak, individual states fighting for survival. As an incredibly penetrated region that is susceptible to many outside influences, who shape the operating of the states beyond their control, these states have, on a large part, been required to be ‘fierce’ authoritarian states, who rely primarily on coercion for stability.

When these authoritarian states fall as a response to the increasing influence of globalisation on the region, with people becoming open to alternative ways of life, which in turn causes crises of legitimacy, there come displays of discontent and uprisings. The newly-forming middle classes who have benefitted from development tend to either take part in these uprisings, or flee in great numbers, leading to unstable and unpredictable state behaviour.

syria strikes

Photograph: DVIDSHUB via Flickr


The rise of political Islam in place of these fierce states is something which poses a problem for the region. In a region where the rebellions were inspired by globalising forces, the strongest potential replacement of the failed states tends to be a thoroughly pre-modern style of governance, which furthers the conflict and war amongst the states in the region. It is hard to know how to move on from here. Professor Ehteshami, was clear that the forces of globalisation make it clear that we cannot just stand back and watch, we must instead look to fix this problem which has been exacerbated by our actions in the post 9/11 world.

Professor Held’s argument around the ‘cycle of pitiless violence’ quite successfully attempted to show a way forward, but unfortunately with some scepticism about the possibility that such a path would be taken. Taking examples from the history of conflict, and particularly the fallout over 9/11, he was constantly critical over the predominance of emotional responses guiding reactions to both 9/11 and Paris.

While an emotional response is natural and human, it is also something that should not be used to guide or justify policy. Post 9/11 international policy could have been to tackle the vast social and economic problems the Middle East were facing together, as a united force, pursuing social development which would prove the antithesis of Daesh ideas. As we are all too fully aware, this approach was not taken, and instead a declaration of a War on Terror was the central response, and so continued turning the ‘cycle of pitiless violence’.

Paris has the potential to provide us with hope. Unity and cooperation, social development and support can be used to work wonders in promoting ideas of peace and respect for international law. As shown in India’s response to Pakistan in 2008, war is not a necessary feature of a response to tragedy.

What needs to be acknowledged is the lack of examples of democracies borne out of war. Even in the West, in our beacons of hope and democracy, we did not suddenly decide one day we would now be law-abiding, democratic citizens. Nor were we pitilessly bombed to accept our bright future of a democratic society.

Instead we went through years of subtle social shifts, developing through interactions of new ideas and cultures, before our idea of ‘citizenship’ won out.  This slow trajectory of change is central to the development of democracy. Nevertheless our Western governments still rely on military intervention to solve these crises. Military action can only result in reinforcing the cycle of violence which shapes the international scene to this day.

The talk was a thoroughly informative evening, with new perspectives on the roles that different forces play in the formation of Daesh and the lead up to the Paris attacks. With the future uncertain, and these two academics at odds with one another about what the future should be, about the role of the West within the formation of Daesh, and the difficulties that the Middle East and the wider world faces, we can be certain that there are no easy winners or losers.

Featured photograph: The Central Intelligence Agency via Flickr

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