Why we need to talk to terrorists.


by Gracchi    
4:51 pm - March 27th 2008

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Robin Simcox has typically blasted the idea of negotiating with terrorists over at the Henry Jackson Society- according to him, negotiating with terrorists is betraying our values and ceding ground to a universal caliphate. He defines terrorists as including everyone from Hamas to the Taliban to Osama Bin Laden to a kid on a council estate with some stupid ideas. There are two things wrong with Mr Simcox’s analysis and two reasons why I think we should definitely negotiate with terrorists- lets think about two kinds of terrorist threat and then we might dig into them both to see if we can solve them through going and talking to people who are involved in terrorist activity.

The first type of obvious terrorist activity is that going on in Iraq, in Palestine, in Afghanistan and in Chechnya. In all those conflicts there is an occupying force and there are people who oppose that occupation. The kinds of opposition differ in all those cases and there are oppositions that you would want to negotiate with and oppositions that you would want to isolate. But say in Afghanistan, which is an example Mr Simcox picks out, it would be daft not to negotiate with those who oppose us. Afghanistan is made up of lots of different clan groups and tribes- some of them came together under the Taliban in the 90s and some are fighting us now under the Taliban moniker with ideological groups now. Just as in the Sunni areas in Iraq, it might be that we just have to negotiate with those tribal groups if we are going to establish stability in Afghanistan. Many of their objectives are perfectly consistent with our policies for the region: for example I’d suggest that lots of the unrest in Afghanistan has to do with patronage from Kabul, with policies to do with the destruction of opium and with corruption. I’m not entirely sure that those are not problems that can’t be in principle negotiated about without abandoning western civilisation or accepting an Islamic Caliphate in Witshire. Negotiations with certain people make life easier when you are occupying, they even might make it possible for us to withdraw- and talking about the whole Iraqi, Afghan or Chechnyan opposition as though they were the military wing of Al Qaeda is quite simply to have adopted the mental attitude of President Putin.

The second type of terrorism is what we might call the existential threat. Ok Osama Bin Laden wants the end to Christianity, Atheism etc and to execute all homosexuals and wrap women up in carpets and preferably abolish the whole female sex. That’s probably all true- and there isn’t much help of negotiating with him. But lets get this straight- the Henry Jackson society like loads of blowhards on the right talk endlessly about the ideological war with Osama- and they are right, we are fighting an ideological war with Osama and then they write an article for retired colonels to read and harrumph over in the Sunday Telegraph. In order to win that ideological war, you have to work out what is going on inside the heads of the 15 year olds in Bradford who believe this stuff, who idealise the bombers. And its important for us to try and work out why they think this stuff, because if we don’t work that out, then we’ll never win the ideological war- all we’ll do is pontificate at each other about how well we are pontificating. The reasons that someone becomes a terrorist are complicated- all sorts of things go into the creation of a terrorist- there are ideological things like what Olivier Roy calls a globalised Islam. Roy argues that one of the consequences of mass movement of populations is for religiously devout people to want to find a pure form of religion: and fundamentalism is an offer on that marketplace. There are psychological reasons for people becoming attracted to terror and there is a growing literature about that (summarised in part in this Congressional research document here).

I’d suggest that one way forward is to look at these people who join terrorist organisations and ask the question, how did you get involved. So for instance we should start looking at their careers- where did it go wrong and what could we do in order to make the next person on the conveyer belt go a different way. We need therefore to talk to them. Since 2001 we’ve seen all kinds of efforts to communicate better with people likely to become terrorists- for example in Turkey in 2005 you saw programs to retrain Imams in delivering less incendiary sermons. Similar ideas have recently been adopted in Saudi Arabia. I am not suggesting that these are the answers but rather that you are not going to get to any answers if you stop talking and listening to those who are becoming terrorists: we need to work out why people become terrorists in order to win an ideological conflict against them. It may be that one of the answers is that some of the people who become terrorists are just murderers and psychopaths- in which case they will always be here and there isn’t much that we can do and there isn’t any point in talking about a war on an ideology. But if you think like I do that there are some other reasons which may go from sociological to cultural to religious why some people want to blow up other people, then you ought to listen to the people doing the blowing up and try and talk them out of it. Ultimately doing that, doesn’t mean you compromise on votes for women or marriage for homosexuals, but it does mean that you try and work out why these people are doing these things and then try and work out how to solve the problem. The thing is that if you are fighting an ideological war against terror, you have to listen to the terrorists because that is the data by which you can assess how that war is going. You know that you’ve won when someone who might have committed a terrorist action decides not to- and you won’t find that out by sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting ‘Go away’ whenever someone mentions Allah.

The one area of his article I do agree with is that we should not say that there is a true Islam represented by the MCB and we should pay attention to the more moderate groups and promote them as representing a different vision of Islam. But that misses a trick as well. Because one of the real problems that we have is with a promotion of the image of Islam as a political entity- and that is a problem with people like the Guardian employing prats like Inayat Bunglawala and he is right about that. But that’s a different issue to talking to the actual people on the ground who commit terrorist acts or might commit terrorist acts- if you really want to win this ideological war that Simcox thinks we are in, we need to go down and find out why we aren’t winning it now. Why some individuals like this ideology and how we stop them liking it- one way may well be to stop saying that the MCB represents Islam in the UK- but I don’t think that is the end of the problem of how we deal with this. Going deeper into the theology may help: and just as a suggestion can we stop praising people as moderate Muslims- something that implies that they believe less than the fundamentalists. I’d use a different form of words which might provoke a different image- for example you could say that Muslim fundamentalists are not extremists, but takfiris who arrogate to themselves a right of excommunicating other believers which is only God’s. The language of this is important because we are fighting a battle for hearts and minds.

The problem with the Henry Jackson society approach is twofold. Its really good if you want to feel good denouncing some Arab terrorists- its fantastic as a way of masaging the ego. But if you want to actually deal with the problem and minimise terroris, so that its only the unavoidable acts of terror which proceed from psychopathy which take place, then you have to listen and you have to talk to terrorists. You have to work out why they do what they do and what to do to diminish the allure of radical Islam. Furthermore if you want to deal with a situation like Afghanistan you have to talk to the Taliban- anyone who doesn’t think that is living in Dailymailland.

Basically the only way to win the war against Al Qaeda is to talk: if you don’t, you don’t stand much chance of success.

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About the author
'Gracchi' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He started a blog last year which deals with culture and politics and history, where his interest lies. He is fascinated by all sorts of things including good films and books and undogmatic discussion of ideas. This seems like a good place to do the latter... Also at: Westminister Wisdom
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Reader comments


I especially enjoyed the bit where he berates us for not speaking to ‘the moderates’, when 3 lines above he’s swooning over Mark Steyn.

You couldn’t make it up etc. etc.

There are two things wrong with Mr Simcox’s analysis and two reasons why I think we should definitely negotiate with terrorists- lets think about two kinds of terrorist threat and then we might dig into them both to see if we can solve them through going and talking to people who are involved in terrorist activity.

There is a very large difference between negotiating with a terrorist organisation, trying to persuade some of its members to defect, and researching its recruitment techniques.

All may involve “talking to terrorists”, but they are not the same thing.

agreed and agreed, Gracchi.

Especially this bit:
Because one of the real problems that we have is with a promotion of the image of Islam as a political entity- and that is a problem with people like the Guardian employing prats like Inayat Bunglawala and he is right about that. But that’s a different issue to talking to the actual people on the ground who commit terrorist acts or might commit terrorist acts- if you really want to win this ideological war that Simcox thinks we are in, we need to go down and find out why we aren’t winning it now


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