How to make sense of radical Islamic terrorism? This violence is barbaric – but it is not senseless. When you understand the society from which savagery has sprung, the cold logic behind these attacks becomes all too apparent. Part I in a series; Part II is here.
|Smoke rises from the Westgate Mall
Source: Jerome Delay/AP. 23 September 2013.
Brendon O’Niell says it is time to recognize the sheer barbarity of 21st century Islamic terror attacks:
“In Western news-making and opinion-forming circles, there’s a palpable reluctance to talk about the most noteworthy thing about modern Islamist violence: its barbarism, its graphic lack of moral restraint. This goes beyond the BBC’s yellow reluctance to deploy the T-word – terrorism – in relation to the bloody assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya at the weekend. Across the commentating board, people are sheepish about pointing out the historically unique lunacy of Islamist violence and its utter detachment from any recognisable moral universe or human values. We have to talk about this barbarism; we have to appreciate how new and unusual it is, how different it is even from the terrorism of the 1970s or of the early twentieth century. We owe it to the victims of these assaults, and to the principle of honest and frank political debate, to face up to the unhinged, morally unanchored nature of Islamist violence in the 21st century.” 
I applaud Mr. O’Niell’s frankness. Islamic terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab are savage, barbaric, and evil. Period. They should be seen by all and denounced by all as the monstrous brutes that they have become. Civilization has a pale; this lies beyond it.
But stating this is not enough. We cannot simply name a man a monster — we must try to understand why so many men want to be monsters in the first place. O’Niell is less helpful here:
“Time and again, one reads about Islamist attacks that seem to defy not only the most basic of humanity’s moral strictures but also political and even guerrilla logic…. consider the attack on Westgate in Kenya, where both the old and the young, black and white, male and female were targeted. With no clear stated aims from the people who carried the attack out, and no logic to their strange and brutal behaviour, Westgate had more in common with those mass mall and school shootings that are occasionally carried out by disturbed people in the West than it did with the political violence of yesteryear.” 
There are problems with this line of thought. In his zeal to denounce Islamic terrorism O’Niell makes two errors: 1) He assumes that indiscriminate slaughter of ‘the young and old, black and white, male and female’ is a ‘new and unusual’ development in human history and 2) that the sheer barbarity of these acts ‘defy logic.’
Perhaps the Khwarazmians also thought the slaughter they witnessed was something new under the sun:
“The Mongols now entered the town and drove all the inhabitants, nobles and commoners, out on to the plain. For four days and nights the people continued to come out of the town; the Mongols detained them all, separating the women ﬁom the men. Alas! How many peri-like ones did they drag from the bosom: of their husbands! How many sisters did they separate from their brothers! How many parents were distraught at the ravishment of their virgin daughters!
The Mongols ordered that, apart from four hundred artisans whom they speciﬁed and selected from amongst the men and some children, girls and boys, whom they bore into captivity, the whole population, including the women and children, should be killed, and no one, whether woman or man, be spared. The people of Merv were then distributed among the soldiers and levies, and, in short, to each man was allotted the execution of three or four hundred persons.” 
The indiscriminate massacre of 700,000 men and women and children outside the walls of Merv was barbarous. It was savage. It was evil. But it was not illogical. The horror and slaughter of Mongol conquests often seemed senseless – even ludicrous – to the historians who recorded them. But to the Mongols it had a very real and useful purpose. When these massacres are seen in the context of the strategic dilemmas faced by the Mongol forces, the imperial system Chinggis Khan created out of whole cloth, and the basic dynamics that defined the encounters between Eurasian steppe peoples and their sedentary neighbors for centuries, the unrestrained butchering of men and women begins to make more sense. 
To understand something is not to justify it. The Mongol hordes wrought inexcusable evils. But these evils were deliberately chosen and should be understood and described as such.
|All that remains of Merv
Source: Mark and Delewan. Wikimedia. 7 March 2006. o
The Mongols of the twelfth century are not the the terrorists of the twenty first. No radical Muslim slaughters for the same reason hardened Mongols once did. But neither slaughtered simply for the sake of it. While Islamic terrorists attacks can seem the acts of “lunatics” who have “no logic,” nothing could be further from the truth. There is a cold and frightening logic that defines these terrorist attacks. As with medieval historian bewailing the Mongol advance, latter day observers struggle to understand the use of barbaric terror because they are unfamiliar with the social and political context from which the barbarians come.
There is a temptation to look at radical terrorist attacks across the globe and boil them down to their most obvious common element: Islam. This is a step in the right direction but ultimately an insufficient explanation. This theory can be dismantled with a simple question: what of the Islamic communities who have produced no terrorists?
|Kingdom of Champa, c. 1300 AD
Source: Wikimedia user clioherodotus. 26 July 2010.
Consider the Cham. (Pronounced jam, as the type spread on toast). Today the Cham are a minority ethnic group whose communities are scattered across the lower Mekong delta in Vietnam and Cambodia. They were once a more powerful people whose kingdom–Champa—stretched across the southern half of modern Vietnam. Theirs was a maritime polity; when not sacking Angkor or fighting off Viet attacks on the land, the Cham traded far and wide by sea. It is through their contacts with Malay, Indian, and Arabic seafarers that the Cham were introduced to Islam. By the 1600s the Cham ruling class and literati had converted.
The Cham’s subsequent history is not happy. The Vietnamese continued their grand Nam tiến and whittled away at the Cham polities century by century until their last capital fell into Vietnamese hands in 1832. Many of the Cham fled to Cambodia, and there they lived as an exile race on the fringes of Khmer society. In retrospect, their treatment by traditional Khmer society does seems not too bad. In those days they were targets of discrimination; when the Red Khmer came to power they were targets of extermination.
The Cham were everything the Khmer Rouge despised: many of Cambodia’s most successful livestock merchants were Cham, all Cham spoke an alien language, refused to eat or dress in a standardized way, and most damningly of all, were fiercely loyal to their God. They paid a staggering price for their faith:
“the Moslem Cham, were sought out and killed as part of a “centrally organized genocidal campaign.” Whole Cham villages were leveled. For example, in the district of Kompong Xiem five Cham hamlets were demolished and their population of 20,000 reportedly massacred; in the district of Koong Neas only four Cham apparently survived out of a population of 20,000 inhabitants.121 The Chain Grand Mufti was thrown into boiling water and then hit on the head with an iron bar; the First Mufti was beaten to death and thrown into a ditch; the Second Mufti was tortured and disemboweled; and the chairman of the Islamic Association of Kampuchea died of starvation in prison.” 
One of every three Cham died during the three years of Khmer Rouge rule. 
To this day the Cham live on the margins of Cambodian society. They are poor, have no power, and are often taken advantage of by the powers that be. They are also Muslim. Islam is as the core of their identity. One Cham in Vietnam succinctly summed his people’s common view in an interview with anthropologist Philip Taylor: “To be Muslim is to be Cham.” The Khmer agree. In common speech Cambodians rarely use the word Cham at all– when talking about the Cham they usually just call them “the Muslims” (buak Islaam — ពួកឣិស្លាម) and call spoken Cham “Muslim language” (phiasaa Islaam — ភាសាឣិស្លាម).  Their ethnicity and their faith cannot be divorced in the minds of the Cham or the society in which they live.
|A Cham women from Vietnam
Source: photo by Adam Jones
This existence of the Cham and peoples like them are stumbling block to those who blame Islam alone for barbaric acts of terror. The Cham’s identity is defined by their adherence to Islam. They are a people stripped of a kingdom, scattered and despised by cultures around them for centuries, and the target of a genocide which aimed to eradicate them and their faith. Within living memory one of every three Cham died because of their religion. Alienated by their customs, language, and beliefs from the community in which they live, the Cham who survived the killing fields have known little but poverty. They have not benefited substantially from Cambodia’s recent economic growth and have no strong voice in the Cambodian political system.
If there was ever a group of Muslims whose history is bitter enough to justify radicalism or whose present condition is desperate enough to encourage terrorism, it would be the Cham.
Yet not one of the Earth’s 400,000 Cham has ever participated in terrorist attack. Never has a barbarian arose from their ranks.
If barbarity is not an inherit part of Islam, then from what source does it spring? Lynn Rees offers a perceptive answer to our query:
The problem is less the software architecture of Islam and more the Arab firmware its embedded in. The Arabs reintroduced tribalism to parts of the Near East and Africa where it had been extinct for centuries along with Islam. The pernicious thing about our enabling of the House of Saud through our petrodollars is that the particular Islam they export comes with the most primeval of Arab tribalism. 
Lets talk a bit about the social system Mr. Rees names “Arab tribalism.”
The historian Jack Goldstone has suggested that the great civilizations of Eurasia — “Latin and Greek Christendom, the Islamic Caliphate, Hindu India, and Confucian China” – can be understood best when seen as complex systems.”Despite wars and conquests, epidemics and famines, dynastic struggles and heterodox religious movements,” he notes, “they remained basically true to their founding visions” responding to each disturbance with an eventual return to “equilibrium.” 
Mr. Goldstone focuses on the imams and the qadis of medieval times, but the traditional Islamic order was much broader than the Caliphate or the Islamic theology that supported it. The chattering classes and the religious ideas they passed between themselves was just the top layer of Islamic civilization. More relevant for our search is its foundations – the basic structures of the Islamic order that shaped the daily lives of every man and child that lived within it. Though dynasties fell and economies collapsed, this bedrock survived the arrival of the Turks, the ravages of the Mongols, and the empires of the Europeans and molded both the dazzling cities of the Levant and the nomads of the Mahgreb.
|The tribes of per-Mohaddeian Arabia
Source: The human journey
This foundation was the traditional Arab endogamous community family, usually embedded in larger tribes, and marked by the lack of independence and education afforded to its women and the number of children they bore. The substructure spread with the original Arab conquests but long survived survived the demise of the the Caliphs. The Federal Research Division explains what a society built upon this structure looks like in modern times:
“Syrian life centers on the extended family. The individual’s loyalty to his family is nearly absolute and usually overrides all other obligations. Except in the more sophisticated urban circles, the individual’s social standing depends on his family background. Although status is changing within the emerging middle class, ascribed rather than achieved status still regulates the average Syrian’s life. His honor and dignity are tied to the good repute of his kin group and, especially, to that of its women….
“Because of the cohesiveness of religious and ethnic groups, they universally encourage endogamy, or the marriage of members within the group. Lineages, or groups of families tracing descent to a common ancestor, also strive for endogamy, although this is in fact less common, despite its theoretical desirability. Viewed as a practical bond between families, marriage often has political and economic overtones even among the poor….
Being a good family member includes automatic loyalty to kinsmen as well. Syrians employed in modern bureaucratic positions, such as government officials, therefore find impersonal impartiality difficult because its conflicts with the deeply held value of family solidarity…
Syrians have no similar ingrained feelings of loyalty toward a job, an employer, a coworker, or even a friend.
Women are viewed as weaker than men in mind, body, and spirit and therefore in need of male protection, particularly protection from nonrelated men. The honor of men depends largely on that of their women, and especially on that of their sisters; consequently, the conduct of women is expected to be circumspect, modest, and decorous, with their virtue above reproach. Veiling is rarely practiced in villages or tribes, but in towns and cities keeping one’s women secluded and veiled was traditionally considered a sign of elevated status. In the mid-1980s, the practice of wearing the veil was quite rare among young women in cities; however, the wearing of the hijab (a scarf covering the hair) was much more common. Wearing the hijab was sometimes more a symbol of Islamic affiliation than a token of modesty, and the garment underwent a revival in the 1980s as a subtle protest against the secular Baath regime. For this reason, the government discouraged the wearing of such Islamic apparel.
“The traditional code invests men as members of family groups with a highly valuable but easily damaged honor (ird). The slightest implication of unavenged impropriety on the part of the women in his family or of male infractions of the code of honesty and hospitality could irreparably destroy the honor of a family. In particular, female virginity before marriage and sexual fidelity afterward are essential to the maintenance of honor. In the case of a discovered transgression, the men of a family were traditionally bound to kill the offending woman, although in modern times she is more likely to be banished to a town or city where she is not known.” (emphasis added). 
This is the traditional Arab social order.  This tribal familialism formed the bedrock of Islamic civilization since its genesis; when combined with Islamic religious authority it created an Ummah that could thrive in cosmopolitan fleshpots and rugged pastoral lands. Its fifteen thousand year history is a testament to how resilient and well structured a system it turned out to be.
But now the whole thing is falling apart. The repercussions of its fall will be heard for years – and they will be barbaric.
Part II is here.
 Brendon O’Niell. “I’m sorry, but we have to talk about the barbarism of modern Islamic terrorism.” The Telegraph. 24 September 2013.
 Juvayni. Genghis Khan: A History of the World Conqueror. trans. John Andrew Boyle. (Manchester: Manchester University Press). 1959. pp. 161-162
 Though dated, J.J. Saunders, The History of the Mongol Conquests. (Philadelphia: Univrsity of Pennsylvania Press). 1969. p. 63; David Morgan. The Mongols. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing). 2nd ed. 2007. p. 81-82 provide a fair example of this approach.
 Rudoplh J Rummel. Death by Government. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers). 1994. p. 188
 Ben Keirnan. Genocide and Resistance in Southeast Asia: Documentation, Denial, and Justice in Cambodia and East Timor. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: transaction Publishers). 2007. p. 72. Mr. Keirnan notes that this 36% death rate almost doubled the percentage of ethnic Khmers who died during the same period.
 Phillip Taylor. Cham Muslims of the Mekong Delta: Place and Mobility in the Cosmopolitan Periphery. (Singapore: University of Singapore). p. 74
 This probably reflects the general tendency of Khmer to see religion through an ethnic lens. An encyclopedia will tell you that Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists; the Khmer will tell you they follow saasna Khmer – the Khmer religion.
 Jack Goldstone. “The Origins of Western Superiority: A comment on Modes of Meta-History and Duchesne’s Indo-Europeans Article“ Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, Vol 4, Issue I
 Lynn Rees comment (24 September 2013) on Trent Telenko. “Al Shabaab Sarajevo in Nairobi.” Chicago Boyz. 23 September 2013.
 Federal Research Division. Syria: A Country Study. ed. Thomas Collelo. (Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress). 1996.
 Anthropologist Philip Salzman’s analysis of how the tribal system and its values fit into the Middle Eastern political order are worth reading. See “Why the Middle East is the Way it Is.” The Hedgehog Review. Vol. 13 (3). Fall 2011. and “The Middle East’s tribal DNA“. The Middle East Quarterly. Vol. 15 (1). Winter 2008. p. 23-33.