Below is an article I wrote which was published in the Johannesburg Star newspaper on 28 May 2011. I'm interested in brainstorming how we could communicate directly to foreign militaries and their proxies intervening in the Arab and Muslim world that foreign military behaviour needs to be more sensitive to local cultural and religious contexts. Any ideas?
Americans celebrated loudly after al-Qaeda's Saudi leader, Osama bin Laden, was killed by US special forces in a raid on his hideout in Pakistan on May 1.
New Yorkers gathered at Ground Zero — the site of al-Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center's Twin Towers in 2001 — to show their joy.
However, Western politicians have made it clear they are aware that Bin Laden's death will not signal the end of terrorism in the name of Islam. So, the US already anticipates "following it up with a few more", in the words of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Could this translate into continued missile strikes from US military drones to root out al-Qaeda's "support network", which lurks in Yemen and Pakistan, according to President Barack Obama, or into more torture victims behind locked doors at the US's offshore prison camp, Guantanamo Bay?
Perhaps the US imagines that the demon of Islamic terrorism will be vanquished through such measures. But such hope has already been revealed as fond illusion following the killing of more than 90 people in a suicide bombing of a frontier constabulary fort at Shabqadar, Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border. A Pakistani Taliban spokesman said the attack was the "first revenge for Osama's martyrdom".
The language of vengeance follows the manner of Bin Laden's death and its reporting. An unarmed man was assassinated. The media seemed to revel in the bloody killing, almost gleefully appropriating the allegedly military term "double tap" used to describe the use of two shots (one to the chest and one to the head) that guarantees the death of the human target.
Obama was reported to have watched the assassination live on a televised satellite feed. The dead body was later dumped at sea, demeaning and humiliating his family, according to some imams and his son.
Research into the views of terrorists has found that one of the main drivers of political violence is humiliation.
Harvard University lecturer Jessica Stern spent 10 years interviewing perpetrators of religious terrorism all over the world. She talked to the foot-soldiers and the decisionmakers of extremist Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups.
The results, published in her 2003 book, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, revealed humiliation is the most commonly cited reason — although not the only one — for becoming a religious terrorist.
Humiliation has been described as the experience of being placed against one's will in a situation where one is made to feel inferior; where, according to German scholar Evelin Lindner, "the victim is forced into passivity, acted upon, made helpless".
Many Arabs and Muslims can recount examples of such experience at the hands of Western militaries and their proxies. The taunting of Afghan women in front of their families by US soldiers in Afghanistan has been widely reported, as have the strip-downs of Palestinian men to their underpants at Israeli checkpoints.
During and after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, US soldiers commonly put bags over the heads of Iraqi men when they arrested them in front of their families. More broadly, racial and religious discrimination is experienced by Arab and Muslim diaspora communities in Western societies, which can create groups of unassimilated, disenfranchised young Muslim men, and from which the home-grown bombers who killed 52 people in London in July 2005 emerged.
The discrimination and abusive behaviour directed at these Arab and Muslim communities at home and in the diaspora is experienced as deep humiliation, acute loss of dignity and, possibly, trauma, according to peace-building activists Scilla Elworthy and Gabrielle Rifkind.
These feelings in turn can lead to a drive for vengeance at any cost. Stern believes that after experiences of humiliation, for which specific other individuals and groups can be blamed (justifiably or otherwise), religious terrorists seek to simplify and sanctify their lives through participating in what they perceive as heroic acts to purify the world.
In this context, what could be described as "evil" can arise when the pain of trauma grows so great that its victim can no longer sustain the feeling and becomes susceptible to perpetrating terrible acts.
Of course, neither experiences of being shamed, nor terrorist activity, are confined to the Arab world; just as such humiliation is not caused solely by the West.
But shame clearly provides great motivation.
Until Western counterterrorism policies and practices avoid producing gratuitous humiliation in the Arab and Muslim world, Islamic terrorism will likely persist.
When reflecting on the value and effects of their military ventures in the Arab world, as well as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Western and Israeli armed forces must train their military personnel better about the customs and religious sensitivities of the communities encountered during intervention. Their warfare strategies must seek to avoid producing unnecessary humiliation.
In addition, Western countries need to thoroughly integrate Muslim communities that they host.
Finally, Western leaders must listen to political Islam, which entails recognising and addressing the present unequal balance of power between the West, and the Muslim and Arab world.