Forty years ago in a moving commentary that metaphorically identified American policy and conduct during the Vietnam War with a medicine man practicing exorcism, anthropologists Eric R. Wolf and Marshall Sahlins observed: “As we draw out the evil spirits by letting the blood of the victim we emerge covered with that blood. We shall have attempted to rid the land of demons only to become demons ourselves”(The Tragedy of American Unreason, The Michigan Daily (76(39): 6, October 13, 1965 [University of Michigan student paper]). These observations accurately capture the tragedy not only of the Vietnam War, but also the current ill-fated American “war on terror”. 


Theories and speculations about terrorism and terrorists in general and, their anti-American versions in particular, are produced at a dizzying rate without a meaningful pause for proper integration. One of the most popular of these theories is found in slogans  President George W. Bush regularly expatiates: Freedom is God’s gift to America and by extension to mankind….terrorists hate America because America is free….when Afghans and Iraqis become free, they will become like America and consequently will not hate America. A recent popular alternative to this supernaturally inspired orientation is provided by Robert A. Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. Pape’s numbers-based views on terrorism and American militarism have received extensive coverage and support among media pundits, politicians and policy makers. A recent op-ed article by Professor Pape (Al Qaeda’s Smart Bombs, New York Times, July 9, 2005, p. A29) summarizes his theory.


Robert Pape’s argument is built upon demographic numbers about terrorist acts that are stripped from their cultural, historical, and ideological contexts and a purported internet document about al-Qaeda’s strategy for weakening international support for the United States military intervention in the Middle East and Central Asia. He argues that al-Qaeda’s strategy is designed “to compel the United States and its Western allies to withdraw combat forces from the Arabian Peninsula and other Muslim countries”. Thus, Pape implicitly offers a straight forward solution: if the United States withdraws its military forces from Muslim countries, al Qaeda attacks will diminish or even totally cease. This kind of mechanical outlook is consistent with the unproductive American obsession with simple, one-factor solutions for complex challenges—never asking, in the words of Wolf and Sahlins, “what is the matter, only who is the matter”.  However, as attractive as Pape’s panacea might be to politicians and policy makers, we need analyses that expose the reciprocal organic complexity that exists between US government policies and the cultural and ideological responses to them through forms we label terrorism and terrorists.


I define terrorism as acts that inflict indiscriminate violence or impose the threat of violence and fear on non-combatant by-standers and unarmed citizens by state and non-state actors. Non-state actors of terrorism reject the monopoly on legitimate use of violence by and the policies and conduct of the state on political and moral grounds. In the framework of this definition there is no difference between Tim McVeigh of the Oklahoma City fame and the people who flew the planes into the NY towers and Pentagon, between those who blew up the trains in Madrid and London and the violence inflicted by Israel on Palestinians, and the carnage perpetrated by the United States armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, nor between all these and the behavior of Afghan, Iraqi and Palestinian so called “suicide bombers”. In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine state-produced terrorism is engaged by terrorism crafted by non-state actors.


Specifically, the attacks on the WTC and the regular attacks on the United States armed forces and their local collaborators in Iraq are the payback for more than fifty years of the US government’s intervention in the affairs of other states, this government’s arrogant and un-evenhanded and contradictory policies conditioned by unqualified support for the brutal occupation of Palestine, cozy relations with several racist, corrupt, and undemocratic regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere. Obviously the removal of American forces from Afghanistan and Iraq will alter the degree and intensity of exposure of these forces to their attackers. It will change the timing, location, and perhaps targets of terrorist incidents. But it will not affect the motivations resting in ideological foundations for these acts, primarily opposition to globalization, the consequences of modernization, and secularism, often seen by some Muslims as a central Western value.


A further flaw in Pape’s analysis is that when the attack on New York towers took place there were no American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Palestine was under brutal occupation with the support and blessing of the United States which had helped arm the occupier not only with massive amounts of up to date conventional weapons but with hundreds of nuclear weapons. In fact, under current conditions for practical, strategic, and symbolic reasons, anti-American armed resistance would prefer the US military presence on its home turf in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, for anti-American terrorism to recede and hopefully disappear, radical changes must take place in the foreign policies and conduct of the US government. Using or removing military force in one locale as the first and only solution to a profoundly complex challenge amounts to, borrowing again from Wolf and Sahlins,  a “gimmick….no more, no less; what is required of us is a much greater exercise of the imagination”. 


The mere withdrawal of American forces from Muslim countries does not eliminate the causes of anti-American terrorism. This militarism is simply a reflex of state policies that are violently opposed by the Iraqi resistance, Al-Qaeda and the like. Ethnographic realities of the Middle East and Central Asia confirm that the cultural logic of this opposition and resistance enjoys virtually universal support in these regions. American policies and behavior unchanged, will continue to produce generations of terrorists and a bottomless well of hatred, contempt, and disrespect for the United States. The economic and political domination of their daily lives by the United States (and the West in general) coupled with the massive humiliating violence inflicted by the American armed forces on the people of Afghanistan and Iraq simply exacerbates this understandable human response. Any culture, independent of religion, at the receiving end of current American policies and behavior, will respond in this manner. As such Islam (or any other religion) per se is not the defining element in the shaping of this response.


The American narcissistic rage in the heat of which the “war on terror” is constructed will do very little about this reservoir of anti-American energy just as the American “war on poverty”, “war on drugs”, and the “war on crime” have done little to curb poverty, drugs, and crime. As with terrorism, the causes of poverty, drug use, and crime have not been properly addressed and understood by American rulers. Success in the war on terror depends on the acceptance by the U. S. government of the glaring reality that anti-American terrorism is largely spawned by its own policies and conduct.


Most conceptions—in the academia, popular culture, and the media—are uninformed by terrorism’s cultural and ideological foundations. There is a wide-spread uncritical and interchangeable use of “suicide attacks”, and “suicide terrorism”. “Suicide Bombers”, a derivation of these labels, is perhaps the most widely used distortion of what is really found on the ethnographic ground.


It could be argued that Islam prohibits suicide (intehar in Arabic [and other Middle Eastern, Central and South Asian languages], and khod koshi in Farsi). The Qur’an contains no specific and clear-cut prohibition of suicide. The injunction is largely based on several hadiths, traditions derived in part from the renditions and interpretations of the sayings and behavior of Prophet Muhammad. A Muslim who resists the occupation of his country, the massive violence and the resulting humiliation inflicted on his culture and society by risking his life (e. g. by using his body as a delivery system for inflicting harm on the enemy and its local collaborators) is viewed as fedayee (Arabic, from the noun fida, sacrifice, redemption) or fedakar (Farsi), one who sacrifices himself or offers his life for or in the name of something higher than self. A fedayee or fedakar does not take his life, he gives or surrenders his life; he does not commit suicide in the Western sense, he commits sacrifice—he is a sacrifice bomber not a suicide bomber. If the situation was reversed, including the American political and economic domination and superiority in highly sophisticated destructive technology, Americans will likely produce their own versions of sacrifice bombers. When humiliated, every human community has the capacity for producing sacrifice bombers.


The fedayee or fedakar, and the community that produces and support him, believe that by sacrificing his life, he serves something larger and more important than himself—his culture and community—and becomes a shaheed (Arabic, martyr), a position of honor and heroism in local culture and a status that in the next life guarantees a place in paradise that engenders special privileges, including access to virtuous women. In Afghanistan the grave of every known Taleb and al-Qaeda fighter who died in battle, especially against the American invaders, has become the object of pilgrimage by the local population. The sacrifice bombers of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine leave behind similar cultural inheritance.




M. Jamil Hanifi (hanifi@msu.edu) is an independent scholar of anthropology and the history of Afghanistan. He is the author of

“Editing the Past: Colonial Production of Hegemony Through the ‘Loya

Jerga’ in Afghanistan”, Iranian Studies 37(2): 295-222, 2004 and

“Anthropology and the Representations of Recent Migrations from Afghanistan” in Rethinking Refuge and Displacement, 291-321, 2000.