The Myths About Terrorists – Luncheon at AICGS

The American Center for Contemporary German Studies – Johns Hopkins University Washington, D.C., July 26th.

On July 26, 2007, AICGS hosted a luncheon with former DAAD/AICGS Fellow Alexander Ritzmann of the European Foundation for Democracy, who elaborated on and criticized some of the most common misperceptions governments – as well as the public – hold with regard to terrorism. The event was supported by the AICGS Public Policy Program.

Hear the podcast.

In his introductory remarks, Mr. Ritzmann referred to and dispelled the myth that terrorists are generally less educated and come from poor immigrant backgrounds. He then explained that, in fact, the majority of terrorists are born in well-off families, are citizens of Western countries, and appear to be well integrated in the Western world. Mr. Ritzmann advocated abandoning the myth of the low-income, poorly integrated terrorist and called on Western governments to analyze what truly motivates individuals to become terrorists. The discussion that followed revolved around a variety of possible explanations for the phenomenon of terrorism, including resentment over the Muslim world’s loss of power vis-à-vis the West, the alienation faced by culturally uprooted second-generation immigrants, and insufficient or failing integration efforts. The debate concluded with the insight that there is relatively little the West can do to end terrorist violence beyond protecting its own citizens. Luncheon participants agreed that Islamic terrorism is a problem that eventually must be solved within Muslim society itself.

Prior to beginning his talk, Mr. Ritzmann found, in a quick survey among the participants, that most were surprised when it was discovered that the recent terrorist bombing plot in London was perpetrated by a group of medical doctors. Mr. Ritzmann used this result to underscore his thesis that most Westerners believe terrorism is perpetrated by people of poverty-related backgrounds who lack advanced education. Ritzmann clearly disagreed with Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff’s recent statement that the United States had less to fear from its Muslim population than Europe because Muslims in the United States have higher degrees of education and are better integrated. He pointed out that studies have not found any connection between a troubled social background and an involvement in terrorist activities. Rather, he said, terrorists are often found to come from well-off, fully integrated families, such as the engineering students who planned attacks on the German railway system in August 2006. While Mr. Ritzmann conceded that poorly integrated and educated Muslims sometimes engage in violent behavior, mentioning the recent riots in parts of France, he said that they tend not to plan sophisticated attacks on Western infrastructure. Mr. Ritzmann listed feelings of sympathy with the suffering of fellow Muslims as well as hatred towards the United States and Israel, or the desire to return to the roots of Islam and establish a caliphate as possible triggers for radical behavior among small parts of the Muslim population. He concluded his remarks by asking the U.S. political elite as well as the public to be aware of the fact that the prevalence of middle class Muslims in the U.S. does not mean increased safety from terrorist acts; he also called on the United States government to investigate the real root causes of terrorism, rather than just tightening immigration restrictions.

The question and answer portion of the discussion began with the question of whether the German government and public hold similar misconceptions concerning the demographics of terrorists and the root causes of terrorism. While Mr. Ritzmann said that Germans also believe in the myth of the low-income terrorist, he mentioned that many tend to blame the rise in terrorist activity on U.S. foreign policy. He pointed out that there have been terrorist activities in Germany long before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and named the Danish cartoon controversy, which had no connection with U.S. policy, as a trigger causing tension among Muslims.

The debate then moved on to a discussion of the recent immigrant riots in France. Mr. Ritzmann said that while some had described the riots as a Muslim uprising, the rioters had protested not merely religious discrimination, but all kinds of discrimination. He pointed out that the proceedings had been spontaneous rather than planned.

The next issue addressed was the objective of terrorist attacks. Participants agreed that terrorists do not expect to change the West itself by bombing pre-selected targets in its cities, but, rather, attempt to influence Western countries‘ governments in order to make them change their policies towards Israel and pro-Western governments in other Middle Eastern countries. If the West would withdraw its support, radical Islamists would be better able to fight those regimes they dislike and replace them with an Islamic state. Generally, Mr. Ritzmann said, it is terrorists‘ main objective to cause an overreaction in the targeted government and thus bring about an erosion of public support. He saw examples of such overreactions present throughout the United States and Europe, citing calls for the unlimited detention of terrorist suspects in Great Britain, as well as the recent German debate on the tightening of counterterrorism law, as examples. Altogether, Mr. Ritzmann considered it crucially important that western governments keep in mind their liberal democratic identities and avoid resorting to measures which might betray democratic values.

Another possible motivation for resorting to terrorist acts was seen in the self-identification that some young people, such as the infamous Bader-Meinhoff gang, seek in political violence. Other likely root causes discussed included both resentment about the loss of the great power once wielded by the Middle East, as well as the alienation experienced by second-generation immigrants who are cut off from their native identity by their parents and seek refuge in radical Islamist ideas. The latter motivation, however, was contested by some participants who argued that even though the Turkish minority in Germany is poorly integrated, there is no organized Muslim violence in the country. Participants agreed that motivations for committing terrorist acts will vary from individual to individual.

The debate then moved on to the question of the special relationship between Islam as a whole and Islamist terrorism. According to Mr. Ritzmann, the immediate objective of Islamist terrorism is to bring the Middle East back to the roots of Islam as well as to the lost power and influence the Muslim world had held during the times of Muhammad. Islamist terrorism therefore claims most of its victims in Middle Eastern rather than in Western countries. Thus, the issue of terrorism is a problem with historical origins that is compounded by the present situation in the Middle East – and whose solution must come from the Middle East itself. While Mr. Ritzmann said that a powerful reformist movement of Islam has yet to emerge, he was convinced that the Muslim population at large will eventually find the means to curb radical Islamism. Finally, he pointed out that counterterrorism strategies employed to combat home-grown terrorist groups, such as camera surveillance designed to detect IRA members in Great Britain, are ill-suited for fighting Islamist terrorism, which depends on the attention of the public and the media.

This program is sponsored by the AICGS Public Policy Program.


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