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Civil Society and the Challenge of Terrorism

  3/24/2017 3:50:36 PM

In today’s world perhaps the most intractable of all problems is the challenge thrown up by  terrorism. No matter how countries respond, they just seem to end up making the problem worse. What then is the solution, and how ought societies to respond to it.


To go back into the past,  the very nature and type of terrorism has changed. From extreme leftist fringe groups of the 70’s such as the Badr Meinhoff gang and the Red Brigades, terrorism has a far more menacing and sinister presence in today’s world,  in the form of religious terrorism. The Red Brigade and the Badr Meinhoff gangs had an  ideological basis whereas the others such as the the IRA and the Spanish Basque separatist groups such as Etta had a more regional, cultural basis as the core of their struggles. All these organizations are virtually non existent today. The IRA has given up its armed struggle and Etta only has a marginal presence in Spain’s Basque region.  It is said that it takes an idea to fight an idea. Fringe radical organizations, and terrorist groups with their narrow convoluted ideologies, just cannot stand up to the onslaught of  a  free society which eventually result in these radical organizations  wilting and dying out under their own inherent contradictions. Religious terrorism however belongs to an altogether different genre , and seems quiet immune to the susceptibilities and weaknesses which other radical ideologies exhibit  when facing up to the winds of freedom and change in a civil society. In fact there is every reason to believe that the religious or Islamic terrorism the world is facing today is a manifestation of clash of ideologies which do not seem to have any meeting ground between themselves.


Western democracies  today in particular  are a confused and baffled lot. No matter how governments and societies  react, they have had precious little impact on the rise of religious fundamentalism. In fact  there is a school of thought  that the  very “raison de etre” of the rise of militant Islam, is the clash between the two radically different and conflicting ideologies.  The pride of civil society as we know it today has been its claim to be a great melting pot where different cultures, religions and peoples, merge and coalesce into a whole, absorbing some and being essentially sympathetic to democratic western mores and values. Militant Islam by its very nature however shows none of the flexibility exhibited by the other peoples of different races, religions and cultures.    Any attempt to assimilate or question religious ideologies or identities only results in further isolationism and radicalization. 


Terrorism by its very nature tends to polarize and desensitize societies.  The provocations and incitements that result due to senseless  acts of terrorism impose tremendous strains and stresses on the social structure of a society. While those who carry out acts of terrorism are not amenable to reason, but the same cannot be said about the society  from which the terrorist draws his support.  The society and the state which is a victim are under constant trial and scrutiny to be fair, impartial and even handed.  As the level of violence rises, the level of  tolerance level  diminishes. While the terrorist is at apparent freedom to hit at anybody, civil society and the state do not have such freedom and have to operate within the ambit of law no matter how dastardly the act or how grave the provocation. Not every society is able to take such stresses and strains, and more often than not there is a propensity to hit out at the terrorists and those who espouse their cause, or are seen as sympathetic. An entire community may be vilified and maligned. Eventually an entire people may end up being further alienated, with a still greater sense of antagonism and persecution, - the seeds of further violence and bloodshed.


While dealing with religious terrorism the actual perpetrators of terrorist crimes and their ideologues are too far gone to be expected to respond to reason and logic. They perceive their victims for the most part, not as living breathing humans like themselves, but inhuman objects, and killing or maiming them for the purpose of achieving their ends is inconsequential. Bin Laden meant precisely this when he said that women and children were legitimate targets in the fight against “the great Satan”. However while a small minority may be too committed to deviate from the apparent course that they have chosen for themselves, but in the long run it is the fence sitters, the sympathizers, and the people whose cause the terrorist purports to represent , who hold the key to whether terrorism will have a lasting presence in a society.


While the radicals may think nothing about killing thousands of people or the reaction that it may induce in a society, they do believe themselves to be the standard bearers of their own religion,  they do care as to how their co religionists in the rest of the muslim world perceive them. Doubt, criticism and active opposition to acts of terrorism by co religionists at large can have a profound effect on the future of a terrorist movement. The last thing that a committed zealot wants is that his own people should doubt the propriety of his actions. While the likes of Bin Laden thought nothing about the killings of thousands in the twin world trade centre attacks, he did express concern about the killing of Shias in Iraq and responded to the killings of muslims in hotel blasts in Jordan. If a terrorist cares about anything,   it is only his own ilk. He believes in a perceived figment of his imagination that his own society looks up to him as a hero and that his sacrifice will not be in vain. The terrorist believes that he has the support of a large but silent majority. If we can demolish this myth, then more than half the battle is won.


Terrorism in all cases is a reaction to injustices, perceived or real. But how a society and  state reacts to wanton acts of violence assumes very great significance, as the reaction decides whether the fence sitters , the apparent sympathizers, and ordinary people will eventually fall under the sway of a radical ideology and from being silent spectators and aqcuiescers will become active supporters or active opponents of the terrorist ideology. It is the silent majority, and if I may say the ordinary muslim who determines how long the movement lasts. The acid test which determines this is fairness, justice and equality.


When societies react to terrorist outrages over periods of time, there is great public pressure to hit back. An eye for an eye seems to be the byword. However the mechanisms by which a society reacts are perceived as being too weak, cumbersome and slow. In such situations, the threat of communal conflagrations and the persecution of an entire people become very real possibilities. However to paint an entire community or religion as terrorists or communal would only end up making a bad situation worse, and would only end up proving the terrorist’s point of view.  The state and the society are constantly being judged, but if the state is seen to be fair under the gravest of provocation, and not indulging in a witch hunt or ham handed tactics, the support base of the terrorist will eventually get  eroded and obliterated.  The diehard terrorist, will find it increasingly hard to get support, to get new recruits and conceal themselves within the very people whose cause they purport to espouse.   To illustrate the point, in the 1970’s a former prime minister of Italy Aldo Moro was kidnapped by the Red Brigade terrorists. The police caught a Red Brigade member who knew about the whereabouts of the former prime minister, but wouldn’t reveal the location. The police made a formal request to the judiciary to use 3rd degree methods on the suspect, to extract the information to save Aldo Moro. The Italian judiciary declined the request to use 3rd degree methods. Aldo Moro was killed by the terrorists in captivity a few days later.  The point is not that the former prime minister died , but the point of principle upheld by the judicialry, where a state refused to deviate from its principles of rule of law , justice and fairness even under the gravest of provocation.


The choices that a civil society  has to make to combat terrorism are  harder still than those for a terrorist.  While the terrorist himself does not value life, the society and the state are expected to value the life of the terrorist. While the terrorist has no respect for democracy or freedom , he expects to be governed and tried by the democratic principles that govern a free society. The state and society may itself be under threat, but those who espouse the terrorist cause expect to have  the freedom to express their feelings against the state.   Hard as these choices are they are a fact of life.  To wean away the vast silent indecisive majority away from the terrorists cause and make them join the mainstream, the society and the state have to be seen to be manifestly fair and just. Needless to say the role of the police and the judiciary assumes great significance. 

The police and the judiciary is the representative face of a society when it comes to examining fair, right and wrong.  If the terrorists and their sympathizers who do not believe in fairness, righteousness or the rule of law, are tried by the rules of law in a fair upright and principled manner  it would go a long way in solving intractable problems relating to terrorist movements around the world.


Democracies and free societies are better geared to take on the threat of terrorism and it is small wonder that it is only in democracies that we have seen the demise of old terrorist movements that have plagued the world in the last 50 years.   How long terrorism as we know it survives, how long radical movements will last and how profound their impact will be,  will in large measure be determined by how our own societies react to such challenges, and whether we will prove steadfast to the ideals and principles that govern our us, and which we espouse to live by.



Ajit Singh Sodhi, Advocate

This paper was submitted in a national level seminar by the author.









Abstract of the paper Civil Society and the Challenge of Terrorism



The paper deals examines the concept  of ;  “How the reaction of a society to terrorism itself determines the success or failure of a terrorist movement”. While the impact of terrorism on a society is well documented, but  society too determines by its response as to how long or enduring a terrorist movement will be.


Terrorist organizations have their own characteristics, which in large measure determine how potent and long lasting they will be. How a society which is a victim, reacts to terrorist outrages, may eventually determine the outcome of a radical terrorist movements.  Persistent adherence to the rule of law by democracies is perhaps the most important factor that may end up weakening terrorist movements.


The provocations and incitements that result due to senseless acts of terrorism impose tremendous strains and stresses on the social fabric of  society. While those who carry out acts of terrorism are not amenable to reason, but the same cannot be said about the society which is a victim. It is the silent spectators and indecisive majority  whom the terrorists look to  for support in their community ,which holds the key to peace.  The state and civil society are under constant trial and scrutiny to be fair, impartial and even handed, even with those who don’t espouse these values.  While terrorists can hit out at anybody, civil society and the state do not have such freedoms and have to operate within the ambit of law .  It is only with scrupulous, adherence to the rule of law, respect for human rights , fariness, and impartiality of a victim society that eventually results in the withdrawal of the support base of a terrorist movement. Terrorism thrives on victimhood to counter which the rule of law, Judicial impartiality and fairness is paramount. The loss of sympathy amongst the terrorists own community  will result in the  gradual weakening and eventual demise of a terrorist movement. If the state and the society is seen to be fair under the gravest of provocation, and not indulging in a witch hunt or ham handed tactics, the support base of the terrorists their ideological grounding, will eventually get  weakened ,eroded and obliterated.

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