Friday, October 22, 2010

No, it's not (only) occupation

by Peter Henne

In 2003, Robert Pape published an article in The American Political Science Review that claimed suicide terrorism has nothing to do with Islam. Instead, it is caused by military occupations, like those undertaken by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. The article made a big splash in both the policy and academic worlds. Seven years later, Pape continues to influence policy debates, most recently with a piece in Foreign Policy.

Pape's argument goes as follows: suicide terror is not caused by Islam, or any other religion. The greatest supporting example for this is use of suicide terrorism by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a nationalist Hindu group in Sri Lanka. Pape argues suicide terror is a rational tactic in the face of a stronger foe that is occupying a group's homeland. Said occupation makes people very angry, and suicide terrorist attacks are the best means through which to remove the occupying forces as it is an effective tactic. Pape's argument has everything an academic could hope for: it is straightforward, relevant, and was picked up by policymakers and pundits. The one problem, however, is that it isn't completely accurate.

Pape's theory has drawn many critics. Mia Bloom argued that the primary driver of suicide terrorism is groups' competition for public support, not occupation. Max Abrahms questioned whether terrorism is as effective as Pape says. Assaf Moghadam put together a fair--but withering--critique of Pape's analysis, and presented an alternative analysis that points to globalization and radical Islamist ideology. And an excellent methodological critique by several scholars pointed to issues in Pape's argument with selecting on the dependent variable.

So what are the problems with Pape's argument? He is right that Islam doesn't cause suicide terrorism. But there are a few issues with ascribing it to a rational response to occupation. First, the definition of occupation is a bit broad. The US in Iraq would count, but should cases of separatist tension--such as Chechnya, and Kurdish regions of Turkey--count as occupation? Or is it actually ethnic divisions combined with other factors, a less parsimonious but more accurate explanation.

Second, Pape's explanation would struggle to explain transnational attacks, like 9/11 or the flood of foreign fighters to Iraq after the US invasion. One could say that this is a case of anger over occupation leading to attacks outside the occupied territory. But what motivates someone to take an interest in the occupation of other countries, to the extent of killing themselves to stop it? Maybe a transnational ideology like the radical religious one adopted by al-Qaida (AQ)?

The usual concern with policymakers picking up on inaccurate academic theories is that it will prompt them to implement dangerous policies. In the case of Pape, though, his policy suggestions involve ceasing occupation of other countries and focusing only on the United States' vital interests. While I am a bit more of an internationalist than Pape, I have a hard time finding anything horribly wrong with these policies.

There are two areas of concern, though. First, AQ--and similar groups that could emerge in the future--may continue to try and attack the United States in the absence of an occupation. Second, viewing domestic terrorist activities--like the LTTE or Turkey's PKK--as cases of occupation may be counterproductive. These conflicts were not always caused by military invasion of a territory, but the neglect or repression of a minority group by the central government. Pointing to occupation may preclude institutional changes that can resolve the conflict short of dismembering a country.

So Pape has done us a great service by dispelling myths about Islam causing suicide terrorism, and provoking great debate and analysis of this phenomenon. But the foreign policy community should follow academia's lead and subject this grand claim to the sort of scrutiny any such argument requires.

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  • Calling LTTE a Nationalist Hindu group is wrong. They are self declared marxists. They are least bothered about any religion. Just as Left wing guerillas have no allegiance to any religion.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 1:42 AM  

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