Breaking the Cycle of Terror: Democratic Alternative

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This article was originally published by the Harvard International Review (HIR) on 25 August 2016.

In June of 1981, after serving for 16 months as the first president of Iran, I was in hiding. There had been a coup against me; a fatwa had been issued for my execution seven times over. I published an open letter to the Iranian people, quoting Madame Roland’s last words under the guillotine during the French Revolution:

“One day, a condemned woman under the guillotine said – ‘Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!’ Today, and more so tomorrow, it will be said – ‘Oh Islam, such crimes are committed in your name!’ Islam will be so discredited that for a century no one will speak of rights in the name of religion.”

This prediction is truer today than it was then. The dynamics of power remain constant. Power needs an enemy, and violence is the sole means of its interaction. But power cannot exercise itself without legitimacy; it requires ideology, in which ideas are manipulated to serve the needs of power. Gradually, the ideas are divorced from their origins and the process of their alienation in power becomes complete. What is left of the ideas is nothing but an ideological shell filled with violence and power.

Politics based on false knowledge

Yet the science of politics is based on the false belief that ideology uses power in order to assert itself. This is why politics is often understood as a method of achieving and managing power. This definition assumes that by gaining power, a person can maintain whichever ideology the powerful embody. In other words, political science is based on a topsy-turvy understanding of the relationship between power and ideology. It does not recognize that power takes control of ideology and imposes its dynamic on it.

The main reason for this inverse definition of power and ideology is that most ideologies are discourses of power. For example, a classic liberal definition of freedom is that ‘one person’s freedom ends where another’s begins.’ This definition assumes two limited areas (my space of freedom, and yours). Here freedom is thus defined by its limitation – but as what limits freedom is power, this is in fact a definition of power: ‘one person’s power being where another’s ends.’ What if we were to instead understand freedom as arbitrariness? One’s free will does not limit another’s (for instance, one’s free will in pursuit of knowledge not only does not limit the free will of another seeker of knowledge, but instead enhances it). However, if one decides to use force against the other, this can only happen if such a person is to become neglectful of his free will. The use of force is only possible in a struggle between parties in limited spaces, and in such a case, there would be only one space. Resorting to force therefore leads to the alienation and removal of free will, and will close free will into limited spaces between which confrontations occur.

There are illustrations of how power confiscates ideology, owns it, and, through a process of alienation, uses it in order to justify itself equally in right-wing, left-wing, and religious ideologies.

On the right, for example, we can see how classical liberalism became alienated into neo-liberalism, which was transformed into Thatcherism, Reaganism, and eventually wild liberalism. This process of alienation was a complete colonization of ideology by power which left it with nothing but violence and power. On the left, Marxism became alienated in ‘state Marxism’, in the form of Marxism–Leninism, and later Marxist–Leninist–Stalinism. This process of alienation continued to such an extent that the ideology of sheer power totally colonized Marxist ideology. On the non-Marxist left, classical socialism became alienated in social democracy and then in social liberalism, which is the complete alienation of what it once was.

With regard to religion, the fact is that a religious state can never exist, because in such a case religion would become owned by state power and such a relation can lead only to the emergence of state religion in which religion is recruited by power to fulfill its ever-increasing needs. To achieve this, religion has to become totally alienated from its foundation and equated with force and violence.

Take Islam, which made its leap into the political domain through the 1979 Iranian Revolution. It is hard to remember now, but the early discourses of Islam in Iran were based on principles of democracy and human rights. Ayatollah Khomeini became Iran’s voice in Paris to such an extent that some in France called him ‘Ayatollah liberté’. However, as he sought power, despotism gradually replaced the principles and goals which made the revolution possible. The alienation of Islam into the despotic state continued to such an extent that a religion whose defining characteristics were love, compassion, and forgiveness; whose holy book equates the murder of a single innocent person to the murder of all humanity; and which suggests extensive methods for removing all forms of violence from human relations to the self, others, and nature, was transformed into an ideology in whose name horrendous and savage crimes are committed.

This process of alienation allowed Khomeini to define war, which the Koran regards as a Satanic act, as a ‘blessing’ to be glorified. When he betrayed his democratic commitments and sought power at any cost, the dynamics of power took control of him. This example shows how both power and ideology are trapped in a closed circuit of domination, and how ideologies on both sides become alienated by power. When the relation of power and ideology reaches this point, power enters the phase of death, hence it will be dissolved. This is what happened to the USSR and what will happen to the Iranian regime. The example also shows how violence can become the only mediator in this relationship, how conditions for the continuation of terrorism are created, and how it is impossible to eradicate terror and terrorism in such a relation. It was because of this dynamic I warned (before President Bush and Prime Minister Blair attacked Afghanistan and Iraq) that such policy would have only one outcome: the drastic spread of terrorism.

Looking at ideologies from the perspective of the ‘war on terror,’ it is astonishing how far those on both sides, which are the western powers and the terrorist organizations, have been alienated. In the United States and in many European countries, the freedom of citizens is being eroded by excuses of the need for limited freedom due to the war on terrorism. The alienation of democratic ideologies in the West has deepened to such an extent that the socialist government of France has decided to change the French Constitution, giving the government complete power to eradicate terrorists. On the other side, we saw how Islam was alienated from a religion of peace, democracy, human rights, independence, and freedom into a totalitarian ideology of velayat-e motlageh faqih (the absolute rule of the jurist), which glorifies violence and hatred. This model of blind hatred and violence was later adopted by organizations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Why did the West help to create terrorist organizations?

In a 2001 interview with Le Monde, former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto stated that the Taliban was conceived by the British government, managed by the CIA, financed by Saudi Arabia, and operationalized by the Pakistani army. We also know that Western intelligence played a role in creating ISIS. The question is, why? One answer can be found in the need for an enemy in the dynamics of power. The more ruthless and fearful an enemy, the more secure the ruling class feels in its position. This is why the powerful not only need to create enemies, and why such enemies need to hold an ideology which the dominant power can challenge. In fact, the ideologies of both sides have the same content (violence) and differ only in form. This is why the language of negotiation becomes violence itself.

These powers necessitate each other. This is why I left Iran in 1981. I left in order to expose the organic relationship between Khomeinism and Reaganism. The infusion of the totalitarian ideology of the absolute rule of the jurist in Iran only became possible through the creation of constant crisis by both sides, starting from the occupation of the American embassy in 1979, through the continuation of the Iran-Iraq War for eight years, and recently in the nuclear crisis. Such a process, in different forms, has also infused the ideologies of terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

How to diminish terrorism?

Some policies based on the theory of de-violentization should be suggested here. De-violentization refers to methods for decreasing and eventually eliminating violence in social relations, and provides ways of opening up the closed circuit of violence between conflicting parties of power.

The first policy is that under the rubric of a ‘war on terror,’ freedoms should be expanded rather than limited. Greater freedom of expression will help counter terrorism. An example from the period of my presidency might be of use here. After the invasion of Iran by the Iraqi army, some clergy who had hoped to establish their dictatorship used the war as an excuse to muzzle the press. As the commander of armed forces, I vehemently opposed this policy and argued that freedom wouldn’t hinder the war effort, but would help it. As the clergy continued to shut down the press, I argued that “in the history of Iran it is unprecedented that the leader, just as he is worried about war and enemy attack, is even more concerned about the attack of freedom-devouring wolves on the fundamental freedom of people, and uses all the power he has to prevent them from destroying these freedoms.” Freedoms must not become the victim of a war on terrorism.

Secondly, freedoms must be used to challenge the leaders of terrorist organizations. When I became president in 1980, parts of Iran were embroiled in civil war. I challenged the organizations involved to a public debate. I wanted to ask why they had discarded the democratic means for pursuing political agendas which were open to them and instead resorted to armed struggle. For this purpose I granted their leaders immunity and I personally participated in a live TV–radio debate along with some of my military commanders. It was exceedingly successful. However, the clergy realized that this democratic method undermined their effort to take control of the state and prevented its continuation. Today, however, Western governments and civil societies can use the method. They could give immunity to the leaders of terror organizations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS and ask them to debate Muslim scholars on television and radio programs, to explain how they justify the use of terror and the massacre of innocent people through Koranic principles. They will either refuse, which will raise questions among their supporters and these organizations would, at least, face a recruitment crisis, or they would accept the challenge and their followers could see that they cannot explain such brutality through Koranic principles. I myself volunteer to participate in such debates.

The third policy is to stop the use of bombs and drones completely. Many experts, among them Jürgen Todenhöfer, an investigative journalist and former member of the German Bundestag, argued before the invasion of Afghanistan that there were no more than a few hundred terrorists in the Hindu Kush valley. The use of bombing and drones led to massive civilian casualties and so enraged the population in these areas that they joined these organizations; now the numbers of these militants have increased to over 100,000. Again going back to my experience during the war with Iraq, while the Iranian air force had dominated Iraq’s sky, the Iraqi military used missiles against some Iranian cities which killed and injured many civilians. I resisted demands for revenge and ordered the air force not to carry out any mission which might lead to collateral damage in Iraq. As a result, when sirens sounded in Baghdad and other cities, Iraqi civilians ran not for shelter but to the roofs of their houses to see the planes as they were certain that they were not targets. This method weakened Saddam Hussain’s propaganda for mobilizing Iraqi public opinion in the war with Iran. It became one of the main reasons that, nine months after he invaded Iran, he agreed to end the war and pay hefty compensation. If the clergy would have postponed the coup for even one week, a peace deal would have been signed. However, they needed war to strengthen their power and sped up the coup in order to prevent the signing of the peace treaty.

Fourth, Islamophobia must be confronted and should not be exploited for domestic or international power.
 Opposition to Islamophobia should not be confined to statements of government officials, but incorporated into education through schools and mass media. As ignorance is the main cause of fear, and as so-called Islamic organizations find victims within atmospheres of ambiguity and ignorance, dialogue and debates about Islam need to be conducted on a large scale. Only in this way will their reach shrink and evaporate.

Fifth, people living in western countries should know the truth about terrorism: that it does not emerge and develop in a vacuum, and that the condition of its emergence is domination. People need to know that, because this relation exists, many Islamic countries have become battlegrounds for western interests. People should not be tricked into believing that terrorists are committing such barbaric acts because they are against western values. Most of the people who are committing or supporting these acts don’t even know what western values are.

Sixth, we need more education about human rights and human dignity. When a person realizes that his or her life is sacred and that human dignity is intrinsic in all humans, such a person does not turn him or herself into a bomb. Those who do are people who believe that their lives have no value and that he or she is not a human with dignity and intrinsic rights.

The seventh policy is to confront all forms of discrimination. We can see discrimination in the Paris massacre and in the protest against it. It is necessary and important to protest, but protest should not be confined to what happens in Paris or other western cities. People need to protest wherever such violence happens. When Muslims see that massacres are happening all the time in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and Burma and that few people protest against these, it becomes a source of resentment and anger. When it comes to human life, protest and opposition against the violation of human rights need to become universal. This will create solidarity between people from different cultures and beliefs, as humanity, human rights, and dignity will become their common denominators.

If these and other methods of de-violentization are practiced, the swamp which provides the conditions for terrorism will gradually dry up and terrorism will become a thing of a past.

About the Author

Abolhassan Banisadr was Iran’s first president from 1980 to 1981, when he was overthrown in a coup in June 1981. In addition to theorizing the 1979 Iranian Revolution, he has published a wide range of books and articles in the fields of philosophy, theology, sociology and economy. His work centers around critiquing traditional and fundamentalist forms of Islam and, through in-depth study of the Koran, constructing revolutionary new interpretations of Islam as discourses of liberty which prioritize freedom, dignity, and human rights.

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