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Much of Pape’s talk centered on the “martyrdom” videos of four of the 9/11 hijackers and two from the July 7, 2005, bombings in London, as well as a video from American-born al-Qaeda propagandist Adam Gadahn—all of which entail railing about the evils of American and British imperialism. According to Pape, Gadahn did not discuss Islam as a religion; rather, his message was “a plea for his brethren under foreign occupation.” He concluded that “if you remove the foreign occupation, you remove the root of their deep-seated anger.”
Perhaps, but this approach is easier said than done. Moreover, to an Islamist, foreign occupation means something much different than it does to a Westerner. Should the Spanish relinquish their territory so that bin Laden and his ilk can stop pining over Andalusia? Should Israel simply vacate the West Bank tomorrow or, going further, unilaterally commit seppuku (after all, Palestine is considered an Islamic waqf, or trusteeship, endowed by God)?
Pape lacks an understanding of the genius of al-Qaeda—and other terrorist groups—as a propaganda organization. Although driven by radical Islamic theology, they know that Westerners care deeply about racism, colonialism, the environment, and other such causes, so they appeal to these left-wing talking points to gain the sympathy, or at least empathy, of their Western audiences. They find a willing dupe in Middle East studies academia, with Robert Pape himself serving as a pungent example.
Pape also failed to mention that many of the suicide bombings that have occurred in Iraq involved Sunni perpetrators acting against Shiite targets—the June 13, 2007, terrorist attack on the Great Mosque in Samarra, for example. Such attacks, which are ongoing, are obviously not directed at foreign occupiers, but, rather, are manifestations of the Sunni-Shiite divide. Shiites have been persecuted and even massacred throughout much of Islam’s history, and still are today in Saudi Arabia. Likewise, Shiites have persecuted Sunnis in Persia. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, despised Shiites for theological reasons and wanted to murder them en masse. How does all this fit in Pape’s paradigm?
This is not to say that foreign occupation does not cause resentment or play a part in inspiring suicide bombing operations. However, Pape’s attempt to create a universal explanation based on such resentment is erroneous. Different people have different motivations. The motivation of al-Qaeda and its ilk is to kill as many infidels as possible for the sake of the ummah (Community of the Believers). This is the ultimate, unquestionable end-game that overrides any expedient complaints about foreign occupation. Moreover, there is a whole religious and sociological pathology involved in suicide bombings that has little or nothing to do with the West.
Pape’s thesis may apply in some cases, but by flippantly refuting anything that goes against his thesis, he is blindly refusing to consider other motivations.
Jared Sorhaindo is an MA candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University concentrating in Middle East Studies and international economics, and an intern for the Middle East Forum. He wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.
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