After Brussels, putting terrorism in perspective

Easter Sunday terrorist attack. Lahore, Pakistan.

A series of suicide bombings in Brussels on March 22 killed 35 people, including 3 suicide bombers. Less than a week later, on March 27, a similar attack in Lahore, Pakistan, killed more than twice as many people — at least 75.

The response from media and politicians amply illustrated the truism that Western lives matter more to them than those of people in Third World countries. The amount of reporting and expressions of condolences was, as is the norm, in inverse proportion to the numbers killed.

The perpetrators of the Easter Sunday attack in Lahore, which targeted a park popular with weekend picnickers, said it was targeted at Christians. However, a large majority — at least 60 — of the victims were Muslims.

On the same day, thousands of right-wing Islamist protesters descended on the capital, Islamabad, and other cities.

Connected

The two events were connected. The protesters were demanding more rigorous application of Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws. In particular, they called for the immediate hanging of Asia Bibi, a Christian sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010.

Most of Pakistan's Christian minority are, like Bibi, low caste rural workers, poor even by the standards of their impoverished communities. Many are debt slaves, particularly in the brick kiln industry.

Accusations of blasphemy are a cover for caste hatred. While there have been several unpunished lynchings over blasphemy allegations, no one has yet been judicially executed for it. Bibi's case drew international attention, prompting criticism from a small number of representatives of the liberal wing of Pakistan's political elite.

One politician who spoke in her defence was Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer. As a result, he was assassinated by his police bodyguard Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri in January 2011.

Qadri was hanged for Taseer's assassination on January 29 this year. The Islamabad protests and the Lahore terrorist attack were timed to mark 40 days since his “martyrdom”.

US-backed Islamist terror

Pakistan's terrorism problem originated during the 1997-1988 CIA-imposed military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq. This regime was responsible for an “Islamification” process.

This process partially remodelled Pakistan's British-derived legal system in the image of the Saudi version of Islamic Sharia law. It made Pakistan the base of the internationally recruited Islamist force created by the CIA and Saudi Arabia to fight for Western interests against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. This force became al-Qaeda.

Since then, the connections between the Pakistani political elite, in particular the military and military intelligence, and Islamist terror groups have remained. Pakistani politicians and generals have used terrorist outfits against regional rivals such as India.

In 2001, Pakistan joined the US-led “War on Terror”. Since then, the Pakistani army has launched military operations against remote rural areas and repressed ethnic Pashtuns and Balochis in the name of fighting terror. But it has continuing sponsoring terrorist groups.

Pakistani politicians routinely denounce both US drone strikes and terrorist attacks, while secretly collaborating in both.

Meanwhile, both liberal and Islamist politicians use anti-terror laws to jail trade unionists, peasant activists, environmentalists, community activists, oppressed nations' rights activists and socialists.

It would be wrong to see the division between hard-line Islamists and liberals as the main division within Pakistan's dysfunctional military-dominated elite. Rather, there are many cliques and factions fighting over the division of the proceeds of a breathtaking level of corruption.

Terrorist outrages are a manifestation of these intrigues. Ordinary people, and sometimes rank-and-file members of the security forces, become victims of violence that for the most part appears random and purposeless.

The March 22 Brussels attacks, like November's larger scale attacks in Paris that were apparently carried out by the same gang, show that Europeans can also become victims of such seemingly random violence.

In explaining the attacks, Western opinion leaders rely on one of two overlapping narratives. For the hard right, the attacks are the result of non-European, particularly Muslim, immigration. Terrorism is used to justify closing borders to refugees fleeing Western-created wars.

Ironically, much of the violence the refugees are fleeing, when not directly perpetrated by Western forces, is perpetrated by the same terrorist networks responsible for attacks such as that in Brussels.

'Clash of civilisations'

Using the “clash of civilisations” narrative that was created to justify imperial wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, right-wingers argue that Muslims commit terrorist outrages against the West because their religion is inherently violent. “Their” values allegedly include hating “ours”.

Politicians claim that terrorism occurs because “the terrorists hate our freedoms” — a claim usually made while taking more freedoms away in the name of security.

More liberal voices in the Western political elite and mainstream media focus on the sociological factors involved in terrorist attacks. The El Bakraoui brothers who carried out the suicide bombings in Brussels are typical of those who perpetrate such acts.

Belgian-born to immigrant parents, from suburbs with high unemployment, victims of racism and economic marginalisation, they were involved in economically motivated criminal activity before becoming attracted to Islamist terrorism.

The right-wing narrative calls for a fight against Islam and immigrants, but the liberal narrative calls for social harmony and unity in response to “divisive” terrorism.

On March 27 the two narratives clashed, when right-wing thugs attempted to hijack a memorial vigil in Brussels, chanting anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant slogans. Some of those at the vigil responded with anti-racist chants and police herded the racists away from the vigil.

While the liberal narrative has more truth than the overtly racist right-wing narrative, it is also based on a narcissistic premise that Islamist terrorism is an attack on superior Western values.

The role of racism and structural inequality, while acknowledged, is downplayed. As in the right-wing narrative, the onus is put on immigrant communities to ensure that their members become happily integrated members of Western society.

Furthermore, both Western politicians and media, both liberal and hard right, disguise the extent to which, as in Pakistan, terrorism in the West is directly fostered by the political, military and security establishment.

Direct Western sponsorship of Islamist terrorism did not end when the Pakistan-based CIA-run terror groups succeeded in ending the Soviet presence in Afghanistan in 1989.

As with the relationship between the Pakistani state and terror gangs, the relationship between Western states (the US in particular) and terrorist groups is murky and contradictory. Official enemies are sometimes covertly supported.

Furthermore, Western links to terrorism usually involves Western allies, such as Pakistan, acting as intermediaries. In the Middle East, the main states playing this role are Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

Despite being economically, politically and militarily dependent on the West, and willingly advancing Western interests, the elites of these states also have their own ambitions and agendas.

That said, the ideology of the terrorists is fiercely anti-Western, albeit crudely so. Essentially it is the same “clash of civilisations” narrative of the European right, only on the opposite team.

It is unlikely that the typical suicide bomber is aware of the extent of ties between their organisations and their declared enemy. How much the terrorist masterminds are aware that their cause is being used by their stated enemy, or whether they believe that they are manipulating their manipulators is a matter of speculation.

ISIS

The attacks in Brussels and Paris were claimed by ISIS. This group originated in the resistance to the US occupation of Iraq and expanded into Syria after civil war broke out there following a mass civil uprising against its dictatorial regime in 2011.

Western military support to anti-regime forces — funnelled through well-established terrorist networks linked to Western intelligence and the security establishments of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — was a major factor in turning the Syrian uprising into a religious-sectarian civil war.

The sudden rise of ISIS in 2014 — to become a major occupier of territory in Syria and Iraq and to eclipse al-Qaeda as the major sponsor of Islamist terrorism worldwide — was the direct result of logistical, financial and military support from Turkey.

The reason for this was Turkey's opposition to the feminist, democratic ecosocialist revolution in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), led by forces allied to the Kurdish freedom movement and left-wing opposition in Turkey. In Syria, ISIS has directed most of its firepower against the Rojava-based forces.

Moreover, ISIS attacks in Turkey have been almost entirely directed against the government's opponents.

The largest-scale ISIS attack in Turkey was the October 10 bombing of a left-wing, Kurdish-led People's Democratic Party (HDP) rally. This took place three weeks before an election at a time when the HDP was the victim of brutal election related violence from security forces and ruling party thugs.

This does not mean that Turkey, or Western intelligence agencies, were necessarily behind the Brussels bombing, although the possibility cannot be ruled out.

The West, and its client regimes in the Third World, aid terrorist groups for specific aims. This can lead to “blowback”, whereby the West itself can be the target of terrorist attacks. Such unintended blowback can be exploited by the West.

Europe is almost a decade into an economic crisis that has led to the deepest political crisis in half a century and a resurgence in class struggle that directly threatens elite interests. The threat of terrorism fuels nationalism, scapegoating of refugees and minorities, and fear that can lead to acquiescence in states taking away civil rights.

Poverty and ecological crises

Beyond the West, where 80% of humanity lives, the threat of terrorism is much greater. But it is relatively small compared to other threats to human life.

Violence by governments and imperial wars kill many more people than terrorism. However even this pales into insignificance compared to deaths caused by poverty and environmental negligence.

A March 16 World Health Organisation report estimated that in 2012, 12.6 million people (a quarter of total global deaths) were caused by “environmental risk factors, such as air, water and soil pollution, chemical exposures, climate change, and ultraviolet radiation”.

When deaths caused by malnutrition and inadequate access to healthcare and medicine are added to these, the threat of terrorism is put in perspective.

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