A picture gifted to me just under ten years ago, for my 40th birthday, hangs in my home study. It is a lovely still-life of a fruit bowl masterfully drawn in colored pencil. ‘Amarah’ (not her real name), a 19-year-old intern, drew it for me during the time I worked for the UN in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Amarah had a tough life to that point. Economically she was not well-off and struggled to stay at University. She was an only child brought up by a single parent. What was more difficult was the fact she had been brought up by a single father. In her culture this made for a very bleak future for a female child, with poor prospects for a whole host of reasons.
Amarah was volunteering to in my office’s coordination of the massive two-and-a-half-year-long relief and reconstruction campaign following the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. Over the time we worked together our conversations had covered many subjects, from religion (she is a devout Muslim and I an avowed atheist), to politics (Pakistan was still a dictatorship), to general life.
By the time I turned 40 we had become close friends – perhaps too close for our age, religious and cultural differences – hence why the picture has such meaning. I liked her and hoped that she would have a good life.
“What will you do after you graduate”, I once asked her.
“I want to be a suicide bomber”, she said in a matter of fact way.
“How would you feel if I died in your attack?” I asked.
“I would be upset,” she said, “not because you would die, but because as a non-believer you would go to hell. I like you and would miss you in Paradise. I would like to see you for eternity but can’t. That makes me sad.”
In a strange way it was a lovely thing to say – how much she would want to spend eternity with me even though she would have taken me from ‘this life’ on earth.
Suicide bombing is evil, as is all terrorism. There is no justification for it and it must be defeated. But how? Many people like to say that terrorists are insane. They would read the above story and think Amarah was mad and perhaps I was nuts to listen to her.
However there is another view. To defeat terror we must understand the motivations and dynamics behind it. Listening to Amarah’s thinking process and justification is critical to finding a path to defeat terrorism.
Most Muslims, like Amarah, Jews and Christians believe in the same Abrahamic God. Gaining access to God’s afterlife is the key reward for following the ‘codes of conduct’ set out by their religious traditions.
The Torah, New Testament and Qur’an give Jews, Christians and Muslims guidance on how to reach eternity with their common God through righteousness and piety.
However, all three texts also have episodes of violence and butchery between their pages that, when taken out of context or manipulated by evil, have been and are used to motivate and encourage acts of evil violence.
So are the perpetrators of this evil ‘crazy,’ and how do we defeat them?
Imagine if you were a believer in God and heaven. Imagine if your life was pretty bleak and you had to endure 60 years of miserable existence before gaining entrance to heaven. Imagine then if someone showed you a ‘short-cut’ to escape this difficult life and gain access to heaven early?
Would following the ‘short-cut’ be crazy, or would it be logical?
If you were told that dying while trying to rescue a drowning child at sea would gain you access to heaven, would a believer attempt it? Such altruism surely would be rewarded? What about trying to kill an infidel who is intent on corrupting the ‘lifestyle’ that God wants humanity to follow?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls this thought process ‘altruistic evil’ because of the flawed belief that such evil is what ‘God wants’.
Today, nearly a decade on, ‘Amarah’ no longer wants to explode. Instead she works in the Pakistan arm of a major international bank. Creating a career and a sense of hope for Amarah removed from her the desire to take the short cut to heaven.
Amarah’s story provides guidance on how to defeat terror with four avenues of attack.
Firstly, the content of the ‘code of conduct’ needs to be tackled. Long-term positive education programs countering the evil narrative of all religious extremism – Christian extremism included – for susceptible communities, foreign and domestic, need to be followed. Killing people does not gain one access to heaven.
Secondly, organizations like IS that provide the logistics and planning for terrorist attacks must be defeated. Strong foreign and domestic security responses by armed and security forces must take place – including judicious use of drones and military action where necessary. At the same time a ruthless crack-down on fundamentalist social media recruiting, like with anti-pedophilia programs, must occur.
Thirdly, the motivation to ‘short-cut’ the way to heaven must be tackled. Long-term economic growth in foreign and domestic susceptible communities is key to defeating the allure of the short cut to heaven. In short, we must make life worth living for all. Economic disadvantage, including leaving people to fester in refugee camps, does not help this aim.
Fourthly, Western responses to the first three points must not inadvertently add to the motivation and recruitment tools of extremists.
Killing innocents as ‘collateral damage’ is also a powerful motivator of people – hence military action, whilst needed, has consequences and needs to be very carefully balanced.
Islamic State understands well the propaganda machine that is social media. It has used the medium effectively to inspire people to join their cause. Calling people terrorists who may not be, or banning the (Australian-invented) “burkini” from French beaches, or calling out Muslims to be monitored or prevented from entering a country, adds to the narrative of dividing us versus them that Islamic State and other extremists desperately want. Such propaganda is a gift that Islamic State must love.
Let us look at one controversial aspect – the politicians’ and media’s quick response to attacks by throwing around the label ‘terrorist’ too often.
While there is no doubt that some of the recent killings, such as the Charlie Hebdo murders, have been conducted by organized fanatics who follow a twisted and flawed interpretation of Islam, other isolated loners have been given an elevated status they do not warrant.
Not all murderers who claim that they kill in the name of God are terrorists. The media and politicians are naming terrorists even before Islamic State proclaims them as terrorists.
By rapidly naming these loners as Islamic terrorists and incorrectly giving them status, are the media inspiring copy-cats to follow in their footsteps? Are we doing Islamic State’s propaganda work for them? Should we stop doing so even if it impinges on free press?
For example, were the Orlando murderer, the Sydney siege murderer, or the Nice murderer terrorists? These three were not part of organized groups. None of them had a deep religious history. All three rarely prayed in mosques. They drank, had sex out of marriage, did not fast during Ramadan. None was a ‘devout Muslim’.
What the three men did have in common was broken relationships with their wives and partners. They were all estranged loners who didn’t ‘belong’. They all had a history of family violence. In the case of the Orlando murderer, he had a long history of steroid use, which increases aggression.
No formal link with an Islamic terrorist group has been found. There were no pre-attack suicide videos, no suicide notes. The Sydney siege murderer didn’t even have an IS flag! It took days for Islamic State to claim each of these murders precisely because Islamic State knew nothing about them.
We should not gift Islamic State warriors to worship, nor should we pander to their dead egos by giving them names or false status as global warriors in a twisted cause.
But, one might ask, if they were not terrorists, what were they?
In the 1990s in the US we saw the rise of what became known as ‘suicide by cop’. Deranged loners decided to end their lives in a burst of publicity and misery, killing others and forcing others to kill them.
In death, sick loners like these look for a sense of belonging. They look to die in publicity being labeled a hero of a group. These people don’t murder because they are Muslim, they murder because they want to be on the front page. And they know if they yell ‘Allah-u-Akhbar’ they will get publicity.
Why give these people what they are looking for in death? Why give them what we want, and risk encouraging more deranged fools like them to follow?
These men were sick, murderous killers, but they weren’t terrorists and do not deserve to be given the right to terrorize us. We should follow the French lead and no longer publish these murderers’ names, and we should not falsely give them a cause.
We must stop playing into Islamic State’s hands. Islamic State has said that it wants to create an ‘Us v Them’ conflict between Islam and the West. When media commentators or politicians call for bans on Islamic migrants, or ban the burkini on beaches, they feed Islamic State’s narrative of a war against Islam, inspiring more people to join their twisted cause.
We must have a long-term education strategy, a security crackdown where necessary, and a long-term economic development strategy in underprivileged areas.
But above all we must stop gifting Islamic State free hits in the propaganda war. Above all we must stop giving these people status they don’t deserve and stop encouraging copycats. When these butchers murder people, let the security services determine if they are terrorists. Everyone else should just call them for what they are. Murderers.
Andrew MacLeod is a Non-Executive Director of Cornerstone Capital, a visiting Professor at Kings College London and a former UN and Red Cross official who served in countries like Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and others. He has negotiated with warlords and terrorists. He can be followed on Twitter @AndrewMMacleod.