Insight into terrorism
By BRENDAN McKENNA Herald Staff | July 07,2005
ALBERT J. MARRO / RUTLAND HERALD
Dr. Saleem H. Ali talks about "The Geopolitics of Terrorism" to a group of people attending a summer program in Killington.
KILLINGTON — Terrorism is neither easily defined nor explained, but it can be confronted with a combination of force and greater openness.
That was the message Saleem Ali, an assistant professor in environmental studies at the University of Vermont and an adjunct professor at Brown University in international studies, brought to a crowd of about 50 at the first Osher Lifelong Learning lecture as part of Summerfest Killington Wednesday.
Ali brought both an academic and personal perspective to the talk. Though a native of New Bedford, Mass., Ali spent much of his early life and education through high school in Pakistan, the country from which his parents emigrated.
"My father was a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. He was a professor of political science, so growing up my family talked, and especially my father talked, about political issues, the clash of cultures," Ali said.
"I really do feel American … but because of my ethnic heritage and because I spent so much time there, I do feel Pakistani as well."
Ali and the audience, many of whom were vacationing from Florida, first set out to define terrorism, noting that while some first think of Islamic fundamentalists, the FBI named an environmental group — the Earth Liberation Front — that burns sport utility vehicles as the nation's biggest domestic terrorist group.
"What is the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? You may have heard this argument," Ali said. "Trying to unravel acts of violence basically boils down to when is violence justified. The civilian casualties' argument is one often used by the United States, but you may not be surprised to know that there is no global definition of terrorism."
He added, "It's kind of a strange dance people do around the definition, but my feeling is that we shouldn't be paralyzed by a lack of definition."
Ali also challenged the assumption that most suicide bombers are uneducated and the phenomenon of terrorism is primarily waged by religious fanatics.
"Suicide bombing in contemporary history originated in Sri Lanka," he said. "It's not really a religious conflict. The Tamils and the Sinhalese share Hinduism and Buddhism as the two major religions. It's primarily a linguistic and ethnic conflict, yet the means employed are often associated with religious conflict."
He said, "Sri Lanka defies many conventional notions of terrorism. It has a 90 percent literacy rate, a highly educated people, so you cannot say this is a phenomenon of the uneducated."
But Ali did offer some advice and hope that the threat of terrorism could be successfully combated.
"There is no doubt that extremism is a real threat. We cannot go through the world feeling, 'Oh, it's all our fault,'" Ali said. "There is definitely irrational anti-Americanism in the world. Some of it is our policies, some of it is envy … but the other part of it is that we also have to recognize the cultural disconnect. We cannot apply the lessons of one conflict to another without understanding the culture."
He said, "Even if we dislike our enemies, we have to be able to engage them if there is going to be any resolution. But that mindset has not yet pervaded the American military culture."
Ali said many in the Pentagon still seem to act in a "might makes right" manner, with an arrogance that only gives fuel to the conspiracy theorists who hate America around the world.
"We need a two-pronged strategy, a law enforcement strategy, but at the same time we need to address what causes these feelings this sense of injustice to exist," he said.
Jack Mishkin, a dentist from Miami Beach, Fla., however, questioned whether it was possible to engage with Islamic terrorists. Mishkin cited the desire of some militants to "annihilate" the state of Israel.
Ali conceded that Muslims in the region have historically had a very racist approach to Israel, but he argued that mainstream opinion has moderated in recent years.
And as for the extremists who still hold that view, Ali said, "You deal with them as any racist. You have to clamp down on them. You can't appease them."
"Some Hamas activists are beyond redemption. If they still think that they should push Israel into the ocean, they need to be institutionalized," he said. "But that is not the majority, although the government often tries to paint the silent majority that way."
He said, "We really need to be transparent in our communication if we don't want to give the conspiracy theories a chance to take root."
Ali cited the example of the Newsweek magazine report of abuses of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay, in which the government first denied reports that Korans had been flushed down the toilet, then Newsweek retracted and then it came out that there was some basis for the article.
"Nowadays, conspiracy theories are even more prevalent because of the Internet," Ali said. "Those kinds of things fuel the conspiracy theories (and) the terrorist mindset."
Contact Brendan McKenna at email@example.com.