AMU Middle East Original Terrorism

Understanding Middle Eastern Culture and Terrorist Groups

By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies

Earlier in my teaching career, I was a visiting professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. I taught a class on the Arab-Israeli conflict and had many ROTC students enrolled in the class.

In the beginning of the course, I spent considerable time explaining U.S. interests in the region and how diverse Middle Eastern cultures were. The main point I tried to make to my students was that Americans tend to interpret other political systems by using their own political terminology and framework.

This way of thinking, I told my students, is a critical mistake. The American experience is unique and evolves from a specific cultural heritage; it cannot be superimposed on other cultures.

One of my former students contacted me last year. After 10 years, he had finished his service after doing a tour in Iraq. He said that this point about how Americans cannot expect to understand other cultures by using their own criteria stuck with him.

Think about Afghanistan and the Taliban. What does the average American know about them? If you do not speak Pashto, Dari, or Arabic, for instance, what can you do to understand Middle Eastern cultures, other than search Wikipedia and read about what Middle Eastern cultures think rather than actually what they think as expressed in their own words?

Books That Bridge the Knowledge Gap about Middle Eastern Culture and the Taliban

The knowledge gap about Middle Eastern culture is big, but there have been some noteworthy attempts to bridge the gap. One example is a book called “The Taliban Reader: War, Islam and Politics in Their Own Words” by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn.

Now, there is another contribution toward understanding Middle Eastern culture and terrorist groups in the form of Erik Skare’s book about the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), “Palestinian Islamic Jihad: Islamist Writings on Resistance and Religion.” This book – like a few others from recent years about ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah – gives a reader who is not proficient in Arabic a glimpse into the discourse of these groups, as well as their motivations and justifications for the use of violence.

Skare’s book focuses on the PIJ and translates various texts from the past four decades. Many of these texts come from one of the founders of the PIJ and its chief ideologue, Fathi al-Shaqaqi. Al-Shaqaqi was assassinated in Malta in 1995, presumably by Mossad agents.

The book also contains snippets that give an overarching view of the PIJ and its focus of interest. One part of the book touches on the rationalization of violence and the targeting of civilians by the PIJ. It also explains why the PIJ believes, although it sees the U.S. as criminal and imperialist, that it should not have been attacked by Al-Qaeda.

Another part in Skare’s book aptly describes how the PIJ sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of a larger geopolitical attempt by the West to take over Islamic civilization. According to this line of thinking, Israel is simply the first outpost of the West in a larger plot to stop the spread of Islam.

Another article from the 1980s shows how the PIJ explained the war in Afghanistan as waged by the Soviets. It also criticizes the U.S. for not providing enough help to the mujahideen.

A very interesting point in Skare’s book is the connection between the PIJ and Iran. Palestinians are Sunni, but the PIJ and mainly al-Shaqaqi were enamored with the Islamic revolution in Iran. This infatuation was critiqued by many people in the Muslim brotherhood, who viewed the Twelver Shi’ah religion as a misguided sect with heretical leaders that attacked Sunni Islam.

Al-Shaqaqi’s texts defended Iran and minimized the critique of Shi’ah leadership of Sunni Islam. His writing uses sometimes Shi’ah imagery (for example, evoking the memory of Muslim leader Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, as the prime example of martyrdom), but goes beyond simply justifying the financial and military support that Iran gives the PIJ.

Al-Shaqaqi was also influenced by the visions of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and his theology. His narrative for the Islamic society is very similar to that of Khomeini. For example, al-Shaqaqi states that he supports democracy and free elections.

But after further reading of Skare’s book, it becomes clear that this political vision is of a democracy without human rights. Secularists are not part of the political system, and the religious law supersedes the state. This is exactly how democracy is viewed by the current regime in Tehran.

Why Skare’s Book Is Useful for Readers from Many Disciplines

Skare’s book is useful to readers from many disciplines. It serves as a great example of the way terrorist groups interpret political processes, how they interpret history and how they judge history through the lens of religion and messianic processes. For readers interested in the self-justification of violence and the rationalization behind targeting civilians, this book provides a firsthand glimpse into that psychological process.

This book by Erik Skare is important not just for readers interested in the Middle East, but to anyone interested in terrorism. For those who are interested in the evolution of Islamic terrorism, I recommend beginning with the texts of 11th-century scholar Ibn-Taymiyyah, whose work gave rise to salafism, modernism and jihadism.

After the fall of Kabul and the current events in Afghanistan, books such as Skare’s are even more important. In time, we will hopefully see more translations from the sphere of the Muslim Brotherhood that will enable us to better understand its philosophical roots.

Dr. llan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., LL.M.  and Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the University, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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