Pipes and “provocation”
Daniel Pipes is one of the West’s most prominent experts on radical Islam and the various organizations promoting an Islamist agenda in the West. In addition to his columns in FrontPageMag.com, The New York Sun, and The Jerusalem Post, he produces his own blog; he offers a weekly email version of the blog for those of us too lazy to take the initiative and go read it ourselves. (He also offers email distribution of his columns; sadly, he doesn’t deliver pizza, so I can’t survive on Pipes alone.)
Mr. Pipes has a lot of interesting things to say, a lot of good information to convey, and some strongly-held opinions and values – some of which I even agree with. However, one of his recent blog pieces raises some serious questions about his adherence to his own professed principles. His initial remarks, along with his reaction when I questioned them, lead me to conclude that Daniel Pipes, while a genuine expert on his own subject matter, is too much a partisan to be taken seriously as a commentator on terrorism.
Mr. Pipes’ blog post refers to reports that a small group of British rightists have threatened to attack Moslems – even going so far as to brandish large knives and threaten to behead British Moslems who don’t “go home”. After a short introduction and a long quote from the original report (from an Australian newspaper rather than a British one, oddly enough), Pipes adds his own brief commentary:
“It is nearly inevitable that Islamist barbarism provoke anti-Muslim barbarism... One can only hope the Islamists will call off their hordes before things get out of hand.”
Pipes’ comment set off alarm bells in my mind (which, as you’ll know if you’ve experienced it, is a very annoying phenomenon – those things are loud!); so I sent the following comment to his blog:
I was rather taken aback by the comment you made at the end of your “Behead Islamists?” post.
Aren’t you making the same mistake you accuse Islamic organizations of making? In “Islamists Threaten Civil War in Great Britain – A Good Idea?” and in many other places as well, you specifically (and correctly) castigate Moslem groups for threatening that Islamist terrorism will increase if Britain’s or America’s foreign policy isn’t changed, Moslems don’t get special privileges, or whatever. The point you make regarding Moslems – that terrorism is wrong and reprehensible regardless of its “root causes” – applies equally to anti-Moslem attacks, doesn't it?
By calling for Islamists to “call off their hordes before things get out of hand,” you appear to be blaming the victims (potential or actual) of anti-Moslem terrorism in a way you don’t do when the terrorism is perpetrated by Moslems against the West.
I’m sure that you didn’t mean to make this distinction; but the fact that even someone as careful and conscientious as you are can make this kind of mistake is an indication of how careful we all have to be to avoid hypocrisy and inconsistent standards. If terrorism is wrong, it’s wrong – period. That means that terrorism is just as wrong when it’s directed at people we don’t like as when it’s directed at our friends; and it means that our enemies are no more required to change their political beliefs and strategies as a response to threatened or actual terrorism than our friends are.
To his credit, Mr. Pipes (who vets all user comments before they’re published on his blog) allowed my comment to appear. But he published it with the following reply:
“It is wrong and I called it ‘anti-Muslim barbarism.’ Further, I am an analyst of this subject, not a spokesman for the British far-rightists, so I think your comparison between my analysis and the Islamist threats is a bit far-fetched.”
Perhaps I didn’t make my point clearly enough when I commented on Mr. Pipes’ blog; but I hadn’t thought that someone as sophisticated as Daniel Pipes would need to be spoon-fed what is, after all, a fairly basic and standard bit of counter-terrorist reasoning. The point I was making was not that Mr. Pipes approves of anti-Moslem terrorism; his use of the term “barbarism” is clear enough even to a reader as obtuse as I. What is objectionable, though, is his call for British Moslems to soften their political rhetoric (assuming that this is what he means by “calling off their hordes before things get out of hand”) in response to terrorist threats against them, despite the fact that he consistently advises Western governments not to modify their policies and rhetoric in response to Moslem terrorist threats against the West. This kind of ideology-based inconsistency is terribly damaging to the fight against terrorism, and if Mr. Pipes has any aspirations to speak with authority on the subject, he needs to understand why.
Terrorism is politically-motivated violence against civilian targets. What is most important about this definition is that it does not distinguish between worthy and unworthy political goals: targeting civilians to further a political cause is terrorism (and is wrong) no matter how just the cause in which it is carried out. As soon as we begin to justify terrorism “in a good cause” (or relabel terror attacks as something more palatable like “resistance to occupation”) we’ve lost the battle against terror – since every cause is a good one in someone’s eyes. Instead of working to prevent civilians from being targeted by political violence, we’re stuck debating which political causes are worth killing for – and dying for.
If we intend to fight terrorism effectively, we need to banish from our thinking the notion of “provocation”. By writing that Islamist barbarism inevitably provokes anti-Moslem barbarism, Daniel Pipes in effect blames British Moslems (or at least their leaders) for any attacks carried out by British rightist “barbarians” against innocent British Moslems – and thus gives the rightists a license to kill. They aren’t committing acts of racist terrorism, after all – they’re simply responding to provocation.
The problem, of course, is that every terrorist on the planet justifies his actions this way. Nobody goes around killing noncombatant civilians just to relieve the boredom of modern life; terrorist movements are founded upon a sense of grievance, and responding to provocation sounds much more sympathetic than murdering the innocent or attacking people you don’t like just for the hell of it.
I don’t sympathize with the goals or tactics of Islamists, British or otherwise. But even if British Moslems are themselves sympathetic to Islamist terrorism, attacks against them are terror attacks, and should be condemned unreservedly. No discussion of “provocation” or “root causes” should be allowed to absolve terrorists of full responsibility for their deeds; terrorism is never “inevitable”, because there are always other ways of achieving political goals. No matter what the provocation, no matter what his grievance, the would-be terrorist must at some point decide that his political agenda is more important than the lives of his victims. It is precisely this dehumanization of the victim that enables terrorism to exist, and it is precisely this dehumanization of the victim that makes terrorism evil.
It’s very easy to condemn terrorism when the perpetrators are our enemies and the victims are our friends. But the true fight against terrorism requires us to oppose political violence against civilians even when the attacks are carried out by our dear friends against our sworn enemies; it requires us to defend our opponents’ right safely to hold and express opinions we find indefensible. This fight requires not only expertise, but also moral clarity and backbone. By falling into the trap of “provocation”, Daniel Pipes has shown that he’s not quite ready to be a true counter-terrorist.
(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)
Categories: Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Daniel Pipes.