The Fallacy of Grievance-based Terrorism

by Melvin E. Lee
Middle East Quarterly
Winter 2008

The fundamental premise of much scholarly examination and public discourse is that grievances with U.S. policies in the Middle East motivate Islamist terrorism. Such assumptions, though, misunderstand the enemy and its nature. In reality, the conflict is sparked not by grievance but rather by incompatibility between Islamist ideology and the natural rights articulated during the European Enlightenment and incorporated into U.S. political culture. Acquiescing to political grievances will not alter the fundamental incompatibility between Lockean precepts of tolerance and current interpretations of Islam: Only Islam’s fundamental reform will resolve the conflict.

Many scholars mark the post-World War I partition of the Ottoman Empire as the origin of Islamist opposition to the West. The idea that the Middle East would be a tolerant, prosperous contributor to the global environment today if World War I victors had left intact the Ottoman Empire is a premise in the literature accompanying the rise of twentieth-century jihadism. Historian David Fromkin argued in his influential A Peace to End All Peace that present day Muslim unrest is the direct result of Winston Churchill’s early twentieth-century decisions. British journalist Robert Fisk also holds British officials responsible although he prefers to blame Arthur Balfour, foreign secretary between 1916 and 1919. Both authors are wrong, though, to base their theories of grievance on such arbitrary demarcation of eras. The roots of jihadism and its opposition to the United States as part of the non-Muslim West were cast long before World War I erupted. The interaction between the United States and Muslim states and societies dates back to American independence. Contemporary jihadism is not the result of accumulated grievance; rather it has for cultural reasons been an integral factor in Islamic societies’ interaction with the United States.

Full Article: http://www.meforum.org/article/1830

Melvin E. Lee is a sea captain and a nuclear engineer in the United States Navy. He serves as special operations officer for the commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, and commander, U.S. 6th Fleet. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Department of the Navy or U.S. government.

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