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Swarthmore Political Scientist: 'War on Terror' Mindset Misses Local Nature of Most Terrorism, Detracting from Effective Strategy

For Immediate Release:  August 3, 2006
Contact:  Alisa Giardinelli    

Swarthmore Political Scientist: 'War on Terror' Mindset Misses Local Nature of Most Terrorism, Detracting from Effective Strategy

Bin Laden Movement More Political than Religious, Jeffrey Murer Contends

In linking the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush this week repeated the message he has used to justify American involvement in Iraq: the "war on terror" presupposes the existence of a single enemy united around one principal cause—namely, a religiously motivated hostility to freedom and the American way of life.  But is militant Islam indeed so cohesive and unitary in purpose, and is it truly religious in nature?

No on both counts, says Swarthmore College political scientist Jeffrey Murer, the editor of a forthcoming book on terrorism. And to conceive of it as such, Murer says, can only hamstring international efforts to ameliorate terrorism around the world.

"There is no single motivation shared by those we lump together as 'the terrorists,'" says Murer, co-editor of and contributor to Flashpoints in the War on Terrorism, scheduled for publication this month by Routledge. "We found that the insurgents who are using Islam around the world are doing so to mark their differences from the states they are opposing. These groups are primarily fighting local wars, asymmetrical wars of independence. Other than that, they have very little connection with one another."

The book, co-edited by Murer and Derek S. Reveron, Associate Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College, comprises case studies of 14 conflicts around the world considered part of a "global jihad" and associated with terrorists for the tactics they employ. The authors are from institutions including the Air War College, Naval War College, National Defense University, Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and several other colleges and universities including Yale and MIT. Murer is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College and Visiting Associate Professor at Haverford College.

U.S. policymakers, Murer contends, "must move beyond a one-dimensional world view centering on Osama bin Laden and the tendency to treat the interface of religion and politics as seamless. We have to recognize the local concerns that inform many of these conflicts. I agree with the administration that we're facing a terrorism threat. But I'm afraid the 'war on terror' can exacerbate many of the conflicts around the world by ignoring the local quality of these struggles. To treat them as all the same is to deny the specificity of the solutions that each requires."

 A prime case in point, Murer says, is the movement in Indonesia known as "Free Aceh," led by an Islamic group in Java that has been fighting for independence for decades—first against the Dutch, most recently against the Suharto government. The movement, Murer notes, is primarily interested in fighting colonization, not bringing down the West.  "The danger," he says, "is that those pursuing the war on terror are treating the Free Aceh movement as internationally connected with bin Laden and ignoring its local orientation. This attitude, unfortunately, seems then to drive the creation of these international connections."

Murer and his co-authors also address whether terrorism is fueled primarily by religion or politics. Murer contends it's the latter, with religion invoked to stir passions and rally followers after leaders make the political decision to fight.

"The pan-Islamic movement represented by bin Laden is largely a political movement, a movement out of the Third World that is against First World and Second World domination," Murer says. "Many of the people who follow Osama cut their teeth in the conflict in Afghanistan against the Soviets back in the 1980s and saw they could beat back a super power. They see themselves as opposing an authoritarian regime. Their message and goals are political, but their idiom is Islam, i.e., 'Islam is the solution.'

"The 'war on terror' is largely based on a flawed understanding of the dynamics that fuel terrorism," Murer adds. "Much of it stems from a failure to recognize that Islam is as varied as Christianity. No one expects Christianity to be homogenous. Yet that's precisely what many political leaders presume about Islam. A change in that misunderstanding, and the policy changes that would follow, would go a long way to undercut terrorist motivations." Further Murer contends, "there is a tendency to equate bin Laden with Islam with jihad, greatly ignoring the political and economic alienation that drives a very small minority to commit terrorist acts."

In addition to his post at Swarthmore, Murer was named as one of this year's 17 Fellows of the American Psychoanalytic Association.  Murer has been an Academic Fellow at the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia since 2004.


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