Political Radicals or Maladjusted Kids?

Oliver Roy, guest opiner in today’s Times treats us to a fuller exposition of a fallacy riddled argument that we have been discussing lately in his “Why do they Hate Us? Not Because of Iraq” (Source: NYT 7/22/05). This provides some occasion to look a little more carefully at some of the questions of historical causality that underlie these arguments.

These arguments have the following form:

1. Either terrorism is caused by specific events and policies, or it is caused by Islamist ideology.
2. Terrorism is not caused by specific events and policies.
3. Therefore, terrorism is caused by Islamist ideology.

There is almost certainly a false dichotomy in the first premise–though this seems to be generally implicit in all of these arguments–since the causal relations underlying terrorism are probably more complex than this dichotomy allows. Nevertheless, most of Roy’s argument is devoted to justifying #2 through a series of arguments.

First, we have the argument from chronology. This argument is based on the seemingly incontrovertible causal principle that a cause must precede its effect. This seems to imply something like the following.

A. If Y exists at a time prior to X, then X cannot be the cause of Y.


B. If Islamic terrorism (militant Islamism, etc.) exists at a time prior to the invasion of Iraq, or Afghanistan, etc., then those conflicts cannot be the cause of Islamic terrorism (militant Islamism, etc.).

>First, let’s consider the chronology. The Americans went to Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, not before. Mohamed Atta and the other pilots were not driven by Iraq or Afghanistan. Were they then driven by the plight of the Palestinians? It seems unlikely. After all, the attack was plotted well before the second intifada began in September 2000, at a time of relative optimism in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

This argument is, of course, a straw man here. No one, I think, would argue that the cause of 9/11 was our retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan, or the subsequent invasion of Iraq. But, what Roy is going to do in order to make his argument seem more convincing than it should, is switch between general and specific instances of Y in our principle above (9/11, terrorism in general, Islamist mujahdeen in Afghanistan in the 80’s, London bombings). This becomes a fallacy of equivocation and allows him to set up these straw men arguments in order to knock them down.

He shows us that the presence of troops in Saudi Arabia can not be the cause of bin Laden’s radical islamism, since the latter preceded the former.

>Another motivating factor, we are told, was the presence of “infidel” troops in Islam’s holy lands. Yes, Osama Bin Laden was reported to be upset when the Saudi royal family allowed Western troops into the kingdom before the Persian Gulf war. But Mr. bin Laden was by that time a veteran fighter committed to global jihad.

Once again, no one would argue this, I think. Instead, the argument would be that a terrorist movement gains adherents and militants to the degree that populations feel violated, oppressed, and otherwise powerless. So although these events did not cause the existence of the movement, they feed, strengthen, and radicalize these movements.

Roy’s second argument is more interesting. Here he argues that the militants and terrorists are not really concerned about what happens to Afghanis or Iraqis.

>Second, if the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine are at the core of the radicalization, why are there virtually no Afghans, Iraqis or Palestinians among the terrorists? Rather, the bombers are mostly from the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, Egypt and Pakistan – or they are Western-born converts to Islam. Why would a Pakistani or a Spaniard be more angry than an Afghan about American troops in Afghanistan? It is precisely because they do not care about Afghanistan as such, but see the United States involvement there as part of a global phenomenon of cultural domination.

If it is the case that there are virtually no Iraqis, Afghans, or Palestinians, one wonders what the denotation of “terrorists” includes. The decade and more of suicide bombings in Israel and the occupied territories, the insurgency in Iraq and Afghan, all seem to be excluded now from Roy’s argument. Now it suits his purpose to focus not on the broadest phenomena of Islamic militancy, but rather on a much narrower problem which excludes anyone who would cause trouble for Roy’s argument.

>It is also interesting to note that none of the Islamic terrorists captured so far had been active in any legitimate antiwar movements or even in organized political support for the people they claim to be fighting for. They don’t distribute leaflets or collect money for hospitals and schools. They do not have a rational strategy to push for the interests of the Iraqi or Palestinian people.

So there are two reasons for his second argument: (a) the militants and terrorists are foreigners; (b) the militants and terrorists do not have political programs in mind for the populations that they are supposedly fighting for.

>Even their calls for the withdrawal of the European troops from Iraq ring false. After all, the Spanish police have foiled terrorist attempts in Madrid even since the government withdrew its forces. Western-based radicals strike where they are living, not where they are instructed to or where it will have the greatest political effect on behalf of their nominal causes.

Switching back now to the Western militants, Roy claims, quite incredibly and without argument, that the real motivation is a form of “culture shock” rather than politics.

>The Western-based Islamic terrorists are not the militant vanguard of the Muslim community; they are a lost generation, unmoored from traditional societies and cultures, frustrated by a Western society that does not meet their expectations.

The terrorists seem, on Roy’s view, to be maladjusted kids rather than political radicals. Perhaps there is some truth here, but the inadequate arguments presented above does nothing to support this view. Roy would need to spend more time presenting evidence for this curious view, and less time knocking down straw men, if we were to be obligated to take his conclusion seriously.

The motivations for terrorism are sometimes deeply perplexing, and the causes of both the multi-national Islamist movement and individual participation in terrorism for its sake are far more complicated than Roy and these argument’s recent proponents on the right can allow. Although a strong case can be made for the uncontroversial claim that Iraq and Afghanistan are not the sole cause of all acts of Islamist terrorism, the desire of these pundits seems to be exonerating the Bush administration of any causal contribution to the terrorism it is supposedly trying to combat. That argument has certainly not been made by Roy here and the growing body of argument and evidence seems to support the contrary.

One thought on “Political Radicals or Maladjusted Kids?”

  1. This is a well done analysis of how many so-called “Journalists” produce words to support their emotional gut-feelings about terrorism and war. They start with the conclusion: “They hate freedom.” and then they proceed to provide opinions regarding headlines they have read to “justify” their conclusion. Whereas, logically, what one needs to do is to look at the facts — current and historical — and then draw conclusions.

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