Moving Beyond Self-Serving Myths: Acknowledging the Principal Cause of Radical Islamic Terrorism

There has been a recent surge of allegations that the underlying motive for outrages such as the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino is that radical Islamists hate Western values. Senator Marco Rubio is perhaps the most blatant in pushing that thesis. One of his campaign commercials asserts flatly that such violent extremists target us because we let women drive and girls attend school.

That argument is simply an updated version of the meme that President George W. Bush highlighted in the period following the 9-11 attacks. According to Bush and his supporters, Islamists hated us “because of our freedoms.” Just nine days after the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bush addressed Congress and emphasized that theme. “They hate our freedoms,” he said, “our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” Such an argument was simplistic and misleading then, and it is simplistic and misleading now.

That is not to say that it is impossible to find a jihadist somewhere who is so unhinged that he would want to slaughter Americans simply because of a virulent hatred of Western culture. But even the bipartisan commission that investigated the 9-11 attacks conceded that the primary driving force for Islamist terrorism was anger at U.S.-led foreign policy in the Middle East. And there were no pacifists, “blame America first” types, or “isolationists” on that commission. The members made the grudging admission that Western actions in the Middle East were root cause of Islamic terrorist blowback because there was overwhelming evidence that it was true.

The Marco Rubios of the world act as though Western policy and the wreckage it has caused in the Muslim world is an irrelevant factor with respect to terrorism. But the United States and its allies have been meddling extensively throughout the region for decades. Indeed, beginning with the military intervention in Lebanon in 1982, they have been almost continuously imposing punishing economic sanctions on, bombing, or invading Muslim countries. Such conduct, and the acute suffering it has caused, might have a little something to do with the rage that is now directed at the West.

Indeed, there are more than a few hints of that motive from the statements of radical Islamic operatives. Osama Bin Laden responded directly to Bush’s facile argument that al-Qaeda attacked the United States because of a hatred of Western values. Bin Laden noted that his group had not attacked countries such as Sweden. That was true even though Scandinavian culture (especially its liberal sexual mores) was far more offensive than American culture to conservative practitioners of Islam. The reason for the restraint, Bin Laden emphasized, was that Sweden had not attacked Muslim countries. Indeed, he stated categorically that “any nation that does not attack us will not be attacked.”

It is also pertinent to remember the words of the terrorist gunmen at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris. They did not shout out: “This is because you let women drive!” Instead, they shouted: “This is for Syria!” France (along with the United States and other Western allies) had been bombing areas controlled by ISIS in Syria for more than a year. The Paris attacks were bloody payback.

Lest the usual flock of neoconservative hawks try to distort this analysis as a “justification” for terrorism, let’s make it perfectly clear: deliberately attacking innocent civilians is never justified, no matter what the underlying grievance. But stressing that point is far different from pretending that there is no underlying grievance, which is what Rubio and his ideological cohorts are attempting to do.

Ending the U.S.-led policy of militarized meddling in the Middle East might not mean the end of radical Islamic terrorism directed against the West—at least not immediately. But the old adage that when you find yourself in a hole, your first action should be to stop digging, applies here. As a first step, we need to stop pursuing the policies that have produced such catastrophic blowback.