The November 13 killings in Paris and the recent explosions in Brussels are shocking. We are not used to drive-by random shootings or suicide bombings in public places in the heart of Europe. Searching for the root causes of these terrorist acts, psychologists seem unable to come up with a simple explanation of why certain people turn to political violence. One possible explanation, the link between poverty and terrorism, has not proven a definitive key to radicalization.
One thought about a possible correlation between the recent violent political acts and history focuses on the word jihadist. According to the dictionary, “jihadism (also jihadist movement, jihadi movement and variants) is a 21st-century neologism found in the Western languages to describe Islamist militant movements perceived as a military movement ‘rooted in Islam’ and ‘existentially threatening’ to the West.” Within this definition is both the notion of Islam and a threat to the West.
Where does this animosity by Islam towards the West come from? Are jihadists 21st century reverse Crusaders? An obvious answer would they are responses to the recent interventions by the West in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. A more historical perspective would include centuries-old Western colonialism, starting with the Crusades in the 11th to 15th centuries.
In the name of spreading Christianity as well as increased access to raw materials and markets, the countries of the North intervened in the South. These interventions have also been under the banner of humanitarianism and its current incarnation, the Responsibility to Protect.
It may seem that this analysis is too one-sided. It places all forms of Northern interventions in the South, starting with the Crusades, under the rubric of domination in one form or another. Is this justified? Someone from the South once asked me: “Can you name any time in history when a Southern country intervened in the North?” The interventions have always been one way.
The recent explosions in Paris and Brussels could thus be interpreted as reverse Crusades. They are attempts by individuals and groups from the South to punish the North for centuries of dominating interventions. While the current manifestations are certainly not Crusades or attempts at colonization, they do represent a most violent reaction to what is seen as northern interference in southern, internal affairs. According to this interpretation, the attacks in Paris and Brussels are limited but spectacular outpourings of centuries of frustration.
This analysis, if correct, is not obviously helpful. How can we begin to overcome centuries of collective frustration? All the development aid available, all Millennial Goals achieved, all reparations for slavery will not compensate for hundreds of years of one-sided power asymmetry and exploitation. The belief that we had all the answers - whether in religious terms by promulgating God, glory and gospel or in strictly political terms with democracy and capitalism and the end of history - has not been universally accepted. There are perspectives that we have obviously not respected. By trying to dominate by proselytizing our values we have created resentment.
One simple example: In 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sent a team to the Middle East to ask about how the people of the region saw their future organization. Hearings were held in the name of true self-determination. The King-Crane Commission Report was never implemented; it was deemed too radical. Instead of self-determination, imperialists drew lines on maps, artificial boundaries were created, ethnic groups were separated. The very idea of self-determination was subsumed under colonial interests.
We are shocked by the events in Paris and Brussels. Hundreds of innocent lives have been lost. When we look back at history, however, maybe we shouldn’t be all that surprised or shocked. How much did we think about innocent lines when we established artificial borders? How much did we think about innocent lives when we imported slaves or exploited the natural resources of the South? How much did we think about innocent lives when we forced people to worship according to our beliefs?
The November 13 killings in Paris and the recent explosions in Brussels are shocking, but from this perspective, they are not surprising. And there may be no end in sight to this venting of frustration.