What Makes A Terrorist Or A Target Killer Tick: Can the Reason Be Found In Complex Socio-Political Analysis?
Of Rage and Guilt
By Nadeem F. Paracha
17 May, 2015
There is a very interesting chapter in Blood and Rage, British author Michael Burleigh’s hefty and comprehensive book on the history of terrorism.
The chapter is about the rise (and fall) of left-wing terrorism in European countries and the United States in the late 1960s and across the 1970s.
Burleigh correctly reminds the reader that the Marxist and anarchist terror outfits operating at the time in Europe and the US were largely groups that had emerged from the collapse of the widespread student uprisings that had erupted in the West in the 1960s.
This meant that the Western terrorist outfits of that time were almost entirely being operated by the well-educated urban middle-class youth.
But while investigating the reasons behind why such young men and women would decide to indulge in terrorism, Burleigh offers a more psychological explanation that (to him) had little to do with things like state oppression, exploitation and class warfare.
What makes a terrorist or a target killer tick? Can the reason be found in complex socio-political analysis ... or is there a simpler explanation?
Taking the example of Germany’s most notorious left-wing terror outfit of the 1970s, the Red Brigade, Burleigh suggests that the violent radicalism of the organisation’s members was largely triggered by their failure to come to terms with a particular kind of guilt.
This guilt, Burleigh explains, had to do with the fact that the parents of thousands of young Germans had remained silent during the rise of Nazism and fascism in Germany (in the 1930s); and, more so, during the Nazi regime’s horrific atrocities against men and women whom the Nazis believed did not have ‘pure German blood.’
Burleigh adds that most European and American left-wing militants in the 1970s — after being introduced to an assortment of Marxian ideas and analysis — found their sedate, well-to-do and comfortable middle-class lifestyles to be an anomaly.
They believed that this anomaly was entirely cut off from the brutalities being faced by so many other (less privileged folk), mainly due to the economics and politics that were providing the Western middle-classes its comforts.
Such thinking manufactured a sense of guilt in many young middle-class men and women at the time. It also drove some to resolve this guilt in a more drastic and violent manner.
Today a wide circle of experts on terrorism (in the West) are trying to figure out what is driving many young, educated and middle-class Muslims to join violent nihilistic terror groups that are using the banner of religion. Is guilt playing a part in this context as well?
If one goes through the typical propaganda material that various so-called Islamic militant organisations use, the material sounds adamant on making possible recruits believe that they have been living idle, meaningless and illusionary lives whereas millions of their less fortunate Muslim brothers are being cut to size by powers that their governments and states are serving.
Professor Sadaf Ahmed in ‘Transforming Faith’ — her excellent study of women’s evangelical outfit, Al-Huda — mentions a young woman who (after joining Huda), started to feel “embarrassed by the lifestyle of her parents”.
The parents were like any other normal urban middle-class folk, but the young woman after she became a member of the said group, could not reconcile to the fact that her mother (in the 1970s), so casually wore sleeveless Kurtas!
Though the young lady did not decide to suddenly start bombing kurta shops, the fact is, a possible personal (and non-religious) existentialist crisis had transformed into becoming a burdensome feeling of guilt (of being part of something that did not appeal to the new-found aesthetic and religious aspects of the young lady).
Subsequently, she attempted to resolve this dilemma by espousing a supposedly nobler and divine cause, but the one that (at least indirectly) blamed her parents’ lifestyle and ‘ignorance’ (in matters that had left the lady feeling conflicted).
But are such episodes of guilt alone behind driving well-to-do and educated bourgeoisie urbanites to turn hostile (for an ideological cause)?
The guilt factor in this respect can be applied to understand men such as Omar Sheikh and Abdul Rashid Ghazi as well.
Sheikh was a highly educated middle-class young man. In the early 1990s, while studying at the prestigious London School of Economics (LSE), he became absorbed by the plight of Muslims in Bosnia (that was in the grip of a civil war at the time).
According to his own admission, he felt guilty at the way the Muslims were being slaughtered by Serbian nationalists in the region.
In an article on Sheikh, UK’s The Guardian newspaper claimed that he came into contact with certain radicals at the LSE.
So, maybe their account of the Bosnian war triggered in him the guilt of living an ideal life of a well-to-do and successful young man — an existence that gradually came into conflict (as a feeling) with what he began to perceive was happening to Muslims around the world.
He tried to resolve his existentialist predicament by joining militant outfits and partaking in violent activities — as if to feel that he had become one with those who were being brutalised.
But the guilt was not resolved. It was only allowed to mutate into becoming a somewhat warped realisation of morality, the self and the world at large.
As a consequence, Sheikh today is in a Pakistani jail for murder.
Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the former cleric of Islamabad’s volatile Red Mosque, had spent most of his youth as a young man who wanted to represent Pakistan at the UN.
Throughout his childhood and youth he was at odds with his cleric father. He had, in fact, been a passionate social-democrat and a member of a progressive student outfit at the Quaid-i-Azam University (in the 1980s).
But he suddenly transformed after his father was gunned down in the 1990s. His elder brother admonished him for abandoning their father. Ghazi went into depression, and took upon himself the guilt of not reconciling with his father before his demise.
Here as well, guilt was not resolved on a more personal level, but allowed to mutate and manifest itself as an angry cry backed by a self-serving ideology. In Ghazi’s case, it was against ‘immorality.’
He was killed by the government in 2007 after his followers kidnapped cops and then some women that (he believed) were running ‘immoral businesses’ in Islamabad.
But what about men like Saulat Mirza, who was recently hanged for a murder that he committed in 1998?
Mirza belonged to a middle-class family of Karachi and had become a worker of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) at college in the late 1980s.
Popular with women, highly social, and decent in his studies, Saulat turned into a violent young militant in the early 1990s. What guilt drove him over the edge?
Professor of Political Science, Dr Mohammad Wasim, in his 1996 paper, ‘Ethnic Conflict in Pakistan: The case of MQM,’ mentions that at least one way of the MQM to bag young recruits (at the time) was to remind young Urdu-speakers (Mohajirs), how their people had continued to be exploited by various governments and political parties.
This was also a way to plant the suggestion that parents of young Mohajirs had allowed this exploitation to take place.
Oskar Verkaaik in his book Migrants and Militants quotes a number of young MQM activists (in the early 1990s), who whinged at their parents’ ‘foolishness’ in this respect.
The largely perceived and indoctrinated memory of one’s parents being (willingly) taken for a ride by insincere politicians, infuriated many Mohajir youth who began to do what they thought their parents should’ve done. To some this also meant picking up a gun.
Verkaaik and Dr Nichola Khan in their respective studies of the MQM militants have also pointed out that becoming a militant also provided the young men an identity which replaced the identity that they were not happy with.
Or maybe, as is the case with their middle-class militant counterparts on the right, they sported a new identity to replace the one that they were guilty about?