“One man’s terrorist,” goes the received wisdom, “Is another’s freedom fighter”. But this is foggy thinking, the kind of value assumption that justifies whichever side one feels sympathetic towards. The assumption that terrorist violence is a component of most liberation movements and revolutions bears examination.
The largest and most significant of liberation struggles, that of our own subcontinent, was driven by the non-violent agitational campaigns of Mahatma Gandhi and the parliamentary constitutionalism of the Quaid. The terrorist tactics of, say, the RSS, were aberrations that played a negligible role in the totality of these freedom movements.
Elsewhere, too, national freedom has been attained through agitation (South Africa, Kenya, Ghana), constitutional negotiation (Sri Lanka, Nigeria), armed struggle (Turkey, Vietnam, Algeria, Bangladesh), even military coups d’état (Egypt, Libya) and a host of other means. Terror against non-combatants was not a major strategic component of these liberation movements. Terror was successfully employed by the Zionists, but that was a done deal anyhow, and by the Palestinians (notably without success).
Beyond freedom movements, is there a relationship between revolutionaries and terrorists? I have previously likened terrorists to storm crows flying before the winds of incipient revolution. There’s an enormous amount of violence that accompanies revolutions, almost axiomatically. As Mao Zedong said, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” But does revolutionary violence deliberately target innocent non-combatants? Is terrorism part of revolutionary strategy?
In the French Revolution, the guillotine was kept busy severing heads. But the French Terror was directed, first, against the functionaries and perceived supporters of the ancien regime and, thereafter, against factions of the revolutionaries themselves.
Pre-revolution Russia witnessed successive bursts of terrorist violence from such groups as the Decembrists, the Nihilists and the Narodnaya Volnya populists. However, both the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions of the Russian Social Democratic Party, which actually conducted the 1917 revolution, were explicit in their denunciation of terrorist methods. The violence of the socialists’ campaigns against the Kulaks, the purges within the Bolsheviks themselves and the Stalinist purges were after, and not part of, the revolution.
The Chinese revolution comprised the campaigns of an armed revolutionary force — the Red Army — during the 1930s and 1940s. Mao was especially careful to target land barons, warlords and the Japanese, and not the ordinary people, who were thought of as the ‘sea’ in which the communists ‘swam like fish’. The campaigns of large-scale mass violence, and the later internecine violence of the Red Guards against the communists themselves during the Cultural Revolution, occurred well after the revolution.
As Lenin said, “A revolution is not a pink tea party.” In each of these cases, there was violence aplenty against the leaders of the pre-revolutionary tyrannies. Successful revolutions used violence to clean up perceived remnants of the old order, and then resolved factional disputes amongst revolutionaries themselves in that strange process where revolutions seem to devour their own children.
Now, many may consider the violence of revolutions unacceptably wasteful of human life. The point is that, barring occasional aberrant behaviour accompanying the breakdown of a state, we have not previously seen terror against non-combatants being systematically used as part of revolutionary strategy. In fact, it was considered counterproductive and cowardly. Both Lenin and Mao categorically rejected terrorist tactics and denounced the perpetrators of such occurrences.
But, come the media age of the 21st century, and things have changed. Beginning with the spectacular attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in September 2001, which many of us saw happening in real time on our TV sets, terrorist tactics have been the principal component of the campaigns of the so-called Islamist militants — whether the TTP and various Lashkars and Jaishes in Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban, IS in the Middle East, Boko Haram in West Africa, etc.
Traditional revolutionaries and liberationists eschewed terror tactics against the non-combatants they hoped to lead. But today’s religious warriors observe no such niceties. They are uninterested in cultivating democratic support or catalysing popular uprisings. Their methodology is to terrorise local populations into submission, in order to enjoy the power gained from running their proto-states. Simultaneous terrorist actions against the West prompted the emergence there of the likes of Trump, le Pen, Wilders, Farrage, etc, thereby promoting hatred, divisions and barriers between nations.
Terrorism, I would suggest, is not the weapon of the weak, but of the vicious. Such an appreciation is especially significant today, when such asinine mantras as ‘negotiating with the Taliban’ are doing the rounds of power corridors here and abroad.
(This article was written by Salman Tarik Kurseshi and originally appeared in the Dawn Newspaper)