Scholars and various analysts have been trying to explain the sources of terrorism and the processes that lead to radicalization, starting (at least in the modern era) perhaps with the time in which Yasser Arafat led the Palestine Liberation Organization to engage in various acts of terrorism (not unlike the terrorism committed by some of the early backers of the creation of the modern state of Israel).
No answer has proved exhaustive of the subject or fully satisfying. The matter is so complicated, in fact, and the conditions on the ground change so quickly and so often that whatever explanation seems to work in this or that case later appears to be unrelated to a new round of terrorist acts.
The latest worthy effort to track terrorism's trajectory to today can be found in this piece in The Guardian. It is an edited extract from Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State, by Olivier Roy. And though the excerpt to which I've linked you is not short and not an easy read, it offers what I found to be fresh insights into the phenomenon of terrorism and radicalization.
Roy writes: "What is unprecedented is the way that terrorists now deliberately pursue their own deaths."
It is worth noting, however, that deliberately pursuing one's own death is different from martyrdom, no matter what followers of ISIS, al-Qaida or other terrorist groups proclaim.
Martyrdom is when you stand by an ideal that finally results in you dying by the hands of others. In suicide bombing and similar self-destructive behaviors, the one who dies is also the one who caused his or her death. That, simply, is suicide, not martyrdom.
And yet suicide is what Roy says is often the goal of today's brand of terrorists: "The systematic association with death is one of the keys to understanding today’s radicalisation: the nihilist dimension is central. What seduces and fascinates is the idea of pure revolt. Violence is not a means. It is an end in itself. . .(L)iving in an Islamic society does not interest jihadis: they do not go to the Middle East to live, but to die. That is the paradox: these young radicals are not utopians, they are nihilists."
In other words, Roy writes, these young (they are almost exclusively young) terrorists have not radicalized Islam but have done quite the opposite -- they have Islamisized radicalism, meaning they have spread disparate (if not desperate) bits of Islam over the idea of violence as an appealing way of death. It's an approach that seems to have an appeal that much of the world simply cannot grasp.
"This systematic choice of death is a recent development," Roy writes. "The perpetrators of terrorist attacks in France in the 1970s and 1980s, whether or not they had any connection with the Middle East, carefully planned their escapes. Muslim tradition, while it recognises the merits of the martyr who dies in combat, does not prize those who strike out in pursuit of their own deaths, because doing so interferes with God’s will. So, why, for the past 20 years, have terrorists regularly chosen to die?"
One answer is that "contemporary jihadism, at least in the west – as well as in the Maghreb and in Turkey – is a youth movement that is not only constructed independently of parental religion and culture, but is also rooted in wider youth culture."
As I say, a lot of what lies behind terrorism is shifting and it's never easy to grasp. But what we do know is that it stands against every uplifting value the great world religions, including the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (to name them chronologically) stand for.
So even if there are non-religious motivations for the radical acts of violence that terrorists produce, adherents of religion worldwide must continue to speak out against those acts and to comfort those affected by them. To do anything less would be to accept that evil can triumph in the end.
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NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT (OR NOT)
Now the Los Angeles Times reports that there's talk of schism in the Catholic Church because some more traditionalist leaders don't like some of the things Pope Francis has been doing and saying. I know, I know. It's hard to imagine disagreements within a religious body -- except for probably all of them.