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Third World anger lies at the heart of terror attacks

By Eric Louw - posted Monday, 21 October 2002

Terrorism is a weapon of the weak. Terror acts are carried out by those who feel simultaneously aggrieved and frustrated by existing power relationships. Terrorism offers them a means to hit back and create conditions facilitating the recruitment of new supporters.

It is all too easy to slip into an Australian-centric or American-centric view of the world when thinking about the New York and Bali Terror attacks and ignore the political dynamics in far-away places that cause such attacks. But this is unhelpful when trying to understand why terrorist-attacks occur and counterproductive when formulating responses. Rather, we need to look at those conditions internal to the Third World which breed terrorism.

The roots of today’s terror attacks lie in the Atlantic Charter which transferred global hegemony from Europe to the USA. When Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter in 1941 he ended the era of the European Empires and shifted global power across the Atlantic. This was to initiate a new form of domination based on an American style of ‘governing’ distant territories. Unlike the Europeans, the US did not raise the stars and stripes over subject people and did not dispatch armies and bureaucrats to rule over conquered peoples. Instead, America achieved dominance by encouraging a particular genre of trading relationships between the USA and a new kind of political entity that was brought into being – namely, Third World states run by modernising governments.


When these ‘independent’ states were created power was carefully transferred to a particular sort of person – namely, local people who had been westernised during the colonial era. These people were (like their colonial masters) always cultural minorities in their own countries – the products of Western education systems, intent on maintaining their western life-styles in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. So, when independence was granted, these Westernising elites simply stepped into the shoes of their departing colonial masters. The new ruling elites may have changed their racial composition, but did not change their cultural composition. For the Third World masses ruled by these new elites, little changed, except for the faces and names of their rulers.

Significantly, because these Westernising elites had a vested interest in maintaining the economic-infrastructure built by European colonialists they effectively became ‘partners’ in maintaining a socio-economic order that benefited the West, and even in expanding the modernizing project initiated by European colonialism. They became, in effect, ‘partners’ in running America’s far-flung trading-empire. This new style of ‘global governance’ had the great advantage of being much cheaper to run than the old European colonial model, because the West no longer had to maintain an Imperial army, police-force and bureaucracy – because local ‘natives’ now administered the machinery of governance themselves.

But the Americans did not have it all their own way because, following the Second World War, the USA had to contend with Soviet power. The result was that during the Cold War two forms of Third World modernizing elite emerged – one type attached to the USA and another attached to Soviets. But significantly, from a Third World perspective, both were Westernising/modernising elites. Both the pro-Soviet and pro-US ruling elites were effectively engaged in same modernisation project. An early exponent of this perspective was Ali Shari’ati, whose 1980 book, Marxism and Other Western Fallacies contributed to the emergence of Muslim fundamentalist opposition to both Soviet-communism and Western-capitalism. For Muslim fundamentalists, the common thread to both these modernising projects was that they represented an ‘ungodly’ cosmopolitan-materialism. Worse, the universalising (imperial?) imperatives in both these materialisms were seen to threaten all other cultural forms.

So what has that got to do with today’s terrorism? Everything.

The point is, the Atlantic Charter initiated the post-colonial era which saw Third World populations handed over to Westerners-in-dark-skins who, in many instances, proved to be inept, corrupt and brutally repressive. Many enriched themselves at the expense of those they ruled over. These new rulers became, in effect, the ugly face of modernisation, Westernisation and, by the turn of the century, of Americanisation. The result was the production of a huge pool of hurting, frustrated and angry people across the Third World, especially in the Middle East and Africa.

The reality is that modernisation has inflicted great suffering on many people across Asia, Africa and the Middle East. These people feel disempowered and at the mercy of both their local ruling elites (as the visible agents of post colonial modernisation); the West in general; and America in particular. It is a pain that is outside the experience of Americans and Australians, which makes many Third World behaviours (such as political violence) incomprehensible to Westerners. To make matters worse, Americans and Australians are largely shielded from this pain because they only encounter the Third World in a second-hand way – either via what is told to them by members of Third World Westernised elites (who benefit from this modernisation) or via the news media. And the Western news media tends to report the views of the modernising elites, rather than the masses being modernised.


So across Asia, Africa and the Middle East are millions of people who feel aggrieved and are looking for someone, or something, to blame for their pain. They provide a pool of people ripe for political mobilisation and radicalisation by skilled political operators. And that is where terrorism comes in. It is no accident that both September 11 and Bali were the work of people who had experienced first hand the dislocation and pain of the world order initiated by the Atlantic Charter.

Ultimately, terror acts like Bali are pieces of political theatre designed to communicate with multiple audiences simultaneously. The most important audience are those the terrorists want to recruit as future supporters – those they want to radicalise. They are also communicating with their existing supporters – and ‘empowering’ them by demonstrating that they can ‘hit back’. Another audience is the ruling group that the terrorists oppose, and this ruling group’s allies.

For the terrorists, a successful outcome from Bali would be to provoke the Australians and Americans into pressuring the governments of southeast Asia into heavy-handed counter-insurgency actions because this will provide the radicals with the "evidence" they need to "prove" that the governments they oppose are "Western puppets". The result of this would be to provide those experiencing the pain of modernisation with an identifiable enemy. From this could flow a new cycle of recruits, new acts of terror, more counter-insurgency operations; more recruits, more terror, etcetera. Terror would then have produced a spiral into the kind of turmoil that precisely undermines the conditions required for modernisation.

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About the Author

Dr Eric Louw is Director of Communication Programs at the School of Journalism & Communication, University of Queensland.

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