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Confronting the Terrorist Within
Posted on Dec 1, 2008
By Chris Hedges
The tactic of suicide bombing, equated by many in the United States with Islam, did not arise from the Muslim world. It had its roots in radical Western ideologies, especially Leninism, not religion. And it was the Tamil Tigers, a Marxist group that draws its support from the Hindu families of the Tamil regions of Sri Lanka, who invented the suicide vest for their May 1991 suicide assassination of Rajiv Ghandi.
Suicide bombing is what you do when you do not have artillery or planes or missiles and you want to create maximum terror for an occupying power. It was used by secular anarchists in the 19th and early 20th centuries, who bequeathed to us the first version of the car bomb—a horse-drawn wagon laden with explosives that was ignited on Sept. 16, 1920, on Wall Street. The attack was carried out by an Italian immigrant named Mario Buda in protest over the arrest of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. It left 40 people dead and wounded more than 200.
Suicide bombing was adopted later by Hezbollah, al-Qaida and Hamas. But even in the Middle East, suicide bombing is not restricted to Muslims. In Lebanon, during the attacks in the 1980s against French, American and Israeli targets, only eight suicide bombings were carried out by Islamic fundamentalists. Twenty-seven were the work of communists and socialists. Christians were responsible for three.
The dehumanization of Muslims and the willful ignorance of the traditions and culture of the Islamic world reflect our nation’s disdain for self-reflection and self-examination. It allows us to exalt in the illusion of our own moral and cultural superiority. The world is far more complex than our childish vision of good and evil. We as a nation and a culture have no monopoly on virtue. We carry within us the same propensities for terror as those we oppose.
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The Muslim Indian Emperor Akbar at the end of the 16th century filled his court with philosophers, mystics and religious scholars, including Sunni, Sufi and Shiite Muslims, Hindu followers of Shiva and Vishnu, as well as atheists, Christians, Jains, Jews, Buddhists and Zoroastrians. They debated ethics and belief. Akbar was one of the great champions of religious dialogue and tolerance. He forbade any person to be discriminated against on the basis of belief. He declared that everyone was free to follow any religion. His enlightened rule took place as the Inquisition was at its height in Spain and Portugal, and in Rome the philosopher Giordano Bruno was being burnt at the stake in Campo de’ Fiori for heresy.
Tolerance, as well as religious and political plurality, is not exclusive to Western culture. The Judeo-Christian tradition was born and came to life in the Middle East. Its intellectual and religious beliefs were cultivated and formed in cities such as Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople. Many of the greatest tenets of Western civilization, as is true with Islam and Buddhism, are Eastern in origin. Our concept of the rule of law and freedom of expression, the invention of printing, paper, the book, as well as the translation and dissemination of the classical Greek philosophers, algebra, geometry and universities were given to us by the Islamic world. The first law code was invented by the ancient Iraqi ruler Hammurabi. One of the first known legal protections of basic freedoms and equality was promulgated in the third century B.C. by the Buddhist Indian Emperor Ashoka. And, unlike Aristotle, he insisted on equal rights for women and slaves.
The East and the West do not have separate, competing value systems. We do not treat life with greater sanctity than those we belittle. There are aged survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki who can tell us something about our high moral values and passionate concern for innocent human life, about our own acts of terrorism. Eastern and Western traditions have within them varied ethical systems, some of which are repugnant and some of which are worth emulating. To hold up the highest ideals of our own culture and to deny that these great ideals exist in other cultures, especially Eastern cultures, is made possible only by historical and cultural illiteracy.
The civilization we champion and promote as superior is, in fact, a product of the fusion of traditions and beliefs of the Orient and the Occident. We advance morally and intellectually when we cross these cultural lines, when we use the lens of other cultures to examine our own. The remains of villages destroyed by our bombs, the dead killed from our munitions, leave us too with bloody hands. We can build a new ethic only when we face our complicity in the cycle of violence and terror.
The fantasy of an enlightened West that spreads civilization to a savage world of religious fanatics is not supported by history. The worst genocides and slaughters of the last century were perpetrated by highly industrialized nations. Muslims, including Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, have a long way to go before they reach the body count of the secular regimes of the Nazis, the Soviet Union or the Chinese communists. It was, in fact, the Muslim-led government in Bosnia that protected minorities during the war while the Serbian Orthodox Christians carried out mass executions, campaigns of genocide and ethnic cleansing that left 250,000 dead.
Those who externalize evil and seek to eradicate that evil through violence lose touch with their own humanity and the humanity of others. They cannot make moral distinctions. They are blind to their own moral corruption. In the name of civilization and high ideals, in the name of reason and science, they become monsters. We will never free ourselves from the self-delusion of the “war on terror” until we first vanquish the terrorist within.
Chris Hedges’ Truthdig column appears on Mondays. Hedges was Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times.
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