Why jihadists target the West
Experts differ over whether recent terror is driven by 'who we are' or 'what we do.'
A recent global upsurge in Islamist terrorism is rekindling a debate over the extremists' motivations that first spiked after the 9/11 attacks: Is the violence aimed at who we (the West) are - or at what we do?Skip to next paragraph
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For some experts, the attacks - whether in London or Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt - are aimed at the West for what it is doing: in other words for its policies, like the war in Iraq. Others insist that the perpetrators are more at odds with the ideals of the West and "who we are."
For the latter group, this is a war of civilizations or ideologies that the West has no choice but to fight aggressively, because anything else would entail appeasement and imply a retreat from identity and principles.
Yet for those who believe the violence is a result of what the West - primarily the United States - is doing in Muslim lands, one answer is to avoid actions that alienate and evoke the fears of peaceful Muslims while providing a windfall for the violent few. To some observers, the appeal of that argument is one reason talk is growing among policymakers in Washington of a drawdown of US troops in Iraq.
In Baghdad Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seconded the desire expressed by Iraqi officials to see Iraqi forces take over more security responsibilities and allow US forces to begin leaving over the coming months. Mr. Rumsfeld said in a press conference that he "confirmed" the wishes expressed by Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, and added that while there is no timetable, "we desire speed in that regard."
Of course, some experts maintain that the truth of the terrorists' motivation carries elements of both arguments, and that prolonging an academic debate risks putting off the best response. "It's not a question of either/or. There are certain elements of either strand of thought that have merit, and it can hinder finding the right response to dwell on the differences," says Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
But others say the debate is important because it can determine whether actions are taken that help stem the violence - or make matters worse. "The question is how you reduce the number of bases [the terrorists have] and the size of the sea in which they swim," says Juan Cole, professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. "What something like the Iraq war does is increase the number of bases you have to deal with and the sea they have to swim in."
The recent bombings in London could seem to fit neatly in this line of thinking: Britain was targeted because of its close association with the US effort in Iraq and because of its participation in the American occupation there. At the same time, however, the bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, appear to bolster the civilizational argument - that this Mecca for Westernized Egyptian and European tourists was targeted for the sin of being a beachhead of a globalized, tolerant culture in Arab Muslim territory.