It’s happened again.
France is reeling after yet another terrorist attack. This time in the port city of Nice. A single Islamist terrorist, wielding nothing more than a driver’s licence and a small truck, managed to murder just under 90 people and injure many others.
And so the urgent question we need to ask – and answer – is what causes Islamist terrorism?
I propose an answer, but it begins with a public confession.
(And it’s a little embarrassing.)
But here goes:
When I was 10 years old, I wanted to start a revolution against the dictatorship ruling my homeland.
There. I’ve said it.
I wanted to start a revolution against the government of communist Hungary (as it was at the time).
As crazy as my desire was, I think it can help us understand (of all things) Islamist terrorism and radicalisation.
Feeling Grieved Over The Soviet Occupation
I was born in communist Hungary. and escaped to the West (Australia) as a 4-year-old child, with my family.
When I was 10 years old, Hungary was still under Soviet occupation.
Now I grew up in the West with other Hungarian refugees. Many of whom had pretty awful tales to tell about living in communist Hungary – the secret police, the deportations and executions. The Hungarian Diaspora was a very political environment.
And so, I was politicised from a young age.
I felt deeply grieved over what the Soviets were doing. And I was determined to make it right.
(However, my life as a budding revolutionary was very short lived: the Iron Curtain fell soon after.)
Now, as I reflect back on that politicised period of my life, here are some lessons that we can learn about radicalisation and terrorism.
1) The ‘Grievance’ Narrative
Does [Grievance] Lead Inevitably to [Violent Terrorism]?
[A]ll causative factors [of terrorism] such as…duplicitous foreign policies, and military intervention must be comprehensively addressed’ (emphasis added).
In other words, western foreign policies were the key cause of the terrorist attacks. Presumably, because such interventions made some (Muslim) people so upset…that they had no other choice but to turn to terrorism.
This can be summarised by the following principle:
[Feeling grieved] leads (some people) inevitably to [violent terrorism].
According to this view, if you want to blame someone, don’t blame the terrorists: blame the people that caused the terrorists to be upset in the first place. Namely, western governments.
But is having a grievance (alone) enough to make one a terrorist?
2) Having a Grievance Doesn’t Automatically A Terrorist Make
The ‘[Grievance] Leads to [Violent Terrorism]’ Principle Doesn’t Fit Reality.
If you think it’s hard to swallow having Western armies intervening in your country, try a Soviet occupation.
(Warning: the following video contains 80’s rock music.)
And yet, Eastern Europeans who were occupied by the Soviets didn’t resort to terrorising innocent Soviet civilians.
My heavily politicised 10-year-old brain never dreamt of massacring Soviet civilians.
Nor did anyone in the Hungarian Diaspora suggest such a thing.
(And during the 1956 uprising against the hated Soviet-backed communist authorities, the Hungarian revolutionaries didn’t massacre the Soviet civilians who resided in Hungary. Their fight was simply with the Soviet authorities.)
[Grievance] alone does not inevitably lead to [violent terrorism].
There’s more to violent terrorism than merely feeling grieved.
3) A More Accurate Understanding Of Terrorism
[Grievance] + [A Certain Worldview] Leads to [Violent Terrorism].
Many Eastern European migrants felt grieved over the Soviet Occupation of their home countries.
But they didn’t plot to capture or kill innocent Soviet citizens.
It was unthinkable.
But massacring innocent civilians at an ‘Eagles of Death’ concert in Paris – or running over innocent children in Nice – is part of ISIS’s view of moral reality.
So here’s the point: Terrorism can only happen with the necessary worldview: A worldview that sees innocent civilians as fair game.
Defeating Terrorism Starts With Understanding The Terrorist Worldview
We’re unlikely to defeat terrorists by misunderstanding their motives, or their worldview.
Yes, there’s value in understanding how western interventions affect the Islamic world’s perception of us. But providing simplistic ‘western interventions cause terrorism‘ tropes will only do more harm than good (not least, because it shifts the blame away from the terrorists).
What about You? What do you think causes Islamist terrorism?