Terrorism as a Political Ideology - Antithesis of Liberalism

Opinion23.10.2012Dr. Ronald Meinardus

When defining an object or concept, an effective way to mark its contours is to describe its antithesis, its direct opposite. In the case of defining terrorism as a political ideology, liberalism is its exact opposite, and outlining liberalism’s principles can thus help us understand what the political ideology of terrorism entails.

Though they are many, the principles of liberalism can be clearly defined: freedom of the individual, human rights and equal opportunities, the rule of law, democracy, protection of minorities, as well as a free market economy and the respect for private property are all liberal principles. Though approached in a varied manner, these principles more or less constitute the basis of all liberal democracies around the world today.  Terrorists of all colours reject these principles. It should thus be relatively easy to define terrorism as a political ideology by simply listing the opposites of liberal principles. However, in international forums, diplomats often fail to reach a common definition. Usually the main reason for this revolves around the question whether the definition should apply only to organizations or to sovereign states as well. 

One problem in finding a definition for the political ideology of terrorism lies in the various interpretations of the concept of political ideology itself. These are strongly dependent on political, historical and even national contexts. In Germany, for instance, due to specific historic circumstances, ideology has a negative connotation and is often associated with dogmatism. In other societies, this may be very different. In general terms, an ideology is an organized collection of ideas, or more broadly, in the sense of “Weltanschauung”, “a way at looking at things”. No doubt, there exists a terrorist ideology – although this – as is the case for many other attributes of terrorism – has evolved with terrorism over time.

The definition of terrorism offered by the former Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Anan, as presented in his address to the International Summit on “Democracy, Terrorism and Security” on March 10, 2005 in Madrid, Spain, combines this general definition of political ideology with a broad perspective on the goals of terrorists: “Any action constitutes terrorism if it is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians and non-combatants, with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from any act.”

According to this definition, terrorism always involves (the intention to perpetrate) a violent action or set of actions (usually by non-state actors) aimed at promoting a political objective. By this definition, a terrorist force, in terms of real power is always inferior and outmatched in relation to the state it is targeting. One strategic advantage of terrorists is that they operate in the underground and attack with surprise. 

The strategy of terror is primarily focused on creating psychological impact and effects. Terrorists do not set out to gain territory, but rather aim to shock and intimidate individuals or groups of individuals. They often select targets of a high symbolic value in order to humiliate their opponent. Typically, terrorists have no concern for innocent victims; on the contrary, attacking and killing innocents is a tactic to cultivate fear and anguish, and to terrorize the population. 

dr. ronald meinardus

From a liberal view point, we should never sacrifice or infringe on human rights, for if we do, we would hand victory to the terrorists and the enemies of freedom.

Dr. Ronald Meinardus, Ex Head of Regional Office MENA at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

Confronting terrorism has become the number one issue in many countries and has dominated international relationsfor the past years. This alone may be termed a major success of the terrorist campaign(s). Governments all around the world have convened on various occasions to discuss concerted responses to the challenge. At the abovementioned discussions in Madrid in March 2005, the international leaders crafted a five-point comprehensive strategy, also known as the five “Ds”: dissuade disaffected groups from choosing terrorism to achieve their goals, deny terrorists the means to carry out their attacks, deter states from supporting terrorists, develop state capacity to prevent terrorism, and defend human rights in the struggle against terrorism.  

Generally, a broad consensus has evolved regarding the importance of these five elements. Yet major differences, particularly in the Western hemisphere, have sprung up regarding the last point of human rights. 

From a liberal view point, we should never sacrifice or infringe on human rights, for if we do, we would hand victory to the terrorists and the enemies of freedom. It is against this background that liberals cannot accept what the current U.S. Administration continues to allow at Guantanamo Bay, where suspects, be they prisoners of war or alleged war criminals, are held in detention without satisfactory explanation of their culpability. 

Finally, contrasting with the perception of many Europeans and their governments, the present U.S. Administration regards the war against terrorism as primarily a military problem that calls for military solutions. In this context, the war against terror has been and continues to be used as an explanation (and legitimization) of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Many Europeans see this differently, and do not perceive terrorism mainly as a military threat that can be overcome with military power. European security agencies perceive a growing tendency of self-radicalization and self-recruitment of young Muslim militants, many of whom are actually living in the very midst (yet on the fringe) of European societies. Superficially, the experts assert, the radicalization is religiously motivated. Other sources of Muslim extremism are social and political alienation, the sense of being excluded from society and unemployment. The fight against terrorism, in this context, requires much more than military might: it means protecting other liberal principles like equal opportunities, creating new jobs through a free market economy, and protecting minorities. 
Terrorism as a political ideology, and the antithesis of liberalism, may best be countered when liberal democracies protect the principles of liberalism. Where terrorists define themselves by fighting the principles they hate, liberals must fight them back by embracing the principles they hold as paramount.