Center vs periphery: The roots of terror

It is necessary to give both Israelis and Palestinians a sense of hope about the prospect for peaceful and stable relations in the future.

May 25, 2013 23:26
US unmanned aerial vehicle

Drone 370. (photo credit: reuters)

On April 30, Haytham al-Mishal, implicated in recent rocket attacks on Eilat, was driving down the road in Gaza City on a motorcycle. Without warning, he was engulfed in an explosion from an Israeli air strike. The air strike was the first since the previous outbreak of violence in Gaza in November 2012. This continued back-and-forth is a dangerous, and often fatal, reminder of the long-standing conflict between the Israeli government and the Palestinian people on its periphery.

This has costs too many lives on both sides over the previous decades, from rocket attacks, suicide bombings, Israeli military strikes, and now by Israeli drones.

It is this tension between center and periphery that is the landscape of the war on terror and the driving force behind much of the violence. After so many decades of trying to find peace and security for both Israel and Palestine, the turmoil between the people of the periphery and the government continues unabated, and the drones are merely pouring gasoline on an already volatile situation.

It is clear that if Israel continues to work within the current paradigm, the violence will only continue.

Yet few people are discussing the broader impact the violence is having on the battered societies on the periphery. Even fewer are concerned with why these people are being targeted and the social and historical catalysts for certain members of the community resorting to violence. In large part, they have been merely labeled as “Islamic terrorists,” “Islamists,” or “jihadists.”

My latest study, The Thistle and the Drone, provides the missing part of the debate, revealing an important correlation; the drone, and indeed the military operations of central governments as part of the war on terror, is focused almost exclusively on tribes who possess strong codes of honor and revenge, that inhabit the periphery of nations across the Muslim world and have been locked in conflict with their own governments – the tribes on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Yemen, Somalia, the southern Philippines, Turkey, Mali and even the Palestinian clans in Gaza.

For these communities, the deadly drone is a symbol for the war on terror. It is sleek, hi-tech, and global in reach. The technology, originally developed in Israel, represents the power and reach of the modern state in the age of globalization. In contrast, the prickly thistle is a metaphor for those fierce and ancient tribes on the periphery, invoking Tolstoy’s novel Hadji Murad in which he compares the Caucasian tribes battling the advancing Imperial Russian army in the 19th century with the thistle.

These tribes are some of the most impoverished and isolated communities and have become the targets of one of the 21st century’s most advanced killing technologies.

After the horrors of 9/11, the United States focused on these peripheral tribal societies and their “ungoverned spaces” in its pursuit of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations.

Many of these communities had already been fighting for decades to defend their culture and independence against their central governments. After 9/11, many of these governments allied themselves with the United States, becoming better integrated into the globalized financial, military, information and communication networks in the hunt for “terrorists.”

The United States, influenced by notions of a “clash of civilizations,” and its allied central governments were quick to ascribe the retaliatory actions of the tribes to al- Qaida and other affiliated groups as part of a “global jihad.” Once al-Qaida was invoked, American support knew no bounds. US involvement, especially the use of the drone, in these conflicts with their own social and historical contexts proved to only exacerbate and expand them. The war on terror thus became a global war on tribal Islam.

It is, however, the innocent men, women and children who suffer the most – families at market, children in school, or worshipers in houses of prayer. The societies on the periphery, long neglected by their central governments, many are facing a massive humanitarian crisis yet their plight goes unrecognized in the fog of war that has settled on their areas. Pounded by drone strikes and military campaigns one day, a suicide bomber the next, they say, “Every day is like 9/11 for us.”

Using 40 case studies of tribal societies across the Muslim world, from Morocco to Israel to the Philippines, The Thistle and the Drone demonstrates that the roots of terror are found in the structural breakdown and resulting conflict between central government and tribal periphery rather than any compulsion within Islam, as many commentators argue. It is this inability to move beyond this breakdown which has resulted in the festering problem, not only in Israel but in many nations around the world.

The study takes the reader into the heart of the war on terror – Waziristan – one of the regions of the world most battered by drones and where I served as a political agent in the late 1970s. Using my own experiences with the tribes of Waziristan, I analyze how the fiercely independent tribes on the border operate in relation to the central government, and then how the historical tension between the two spiraled out of control after 9/11, leading to its deadliest manifestation, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, based in the prickliest tribe of the Tribal Areas, the Mahsud. Only by recognizing and understanding the source of the violence can we begin to provide solutions and create a more stable and secure state.

The protracted conflict between the Israeli center and Palestinian periphery is causing suffering for both Jews and Muslims. It is to move beyond this impasse, which contributes to the insecurity of the nation, that I have dedicated the past two decades of my life to building bridges between faith communities. A lasting peace is in everybody’s best interests, and it is for this cause that I have written my latest study.

The Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, wrote of my efforts, “You have done more than any single individual I know building bridges between Muslims, Jews and Christians here in the United States and elsewhere, and for establishing bridges between Israel and its Middle Eastern neighbors, and we and the state of Israel are deeply appreciative of your efforts.”

It is necessary to give both Israelis and Palestinians a sense of hope about the prospect for peaceful and stable relations in the future. To this end, my team and I have been guided not by politics or ideology, but the shibboleth tikkun olam – to go out and “heal a fractured world.”

Akbar Ahmed holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC, and is the former Pakistani high commissioner to the UK, and non-resident senior fellow of the Brookings Institution. Ahmed is the author of The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (Brookings 2013).

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