Writer explains war, terrorism in terms of chaos

Bob Tippee

War in Lebanon and plans to blow airplanes out of the sky raise a simple but difficult question: Why?

Mark LeVine, professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, Culture, and Islamic Studies at the University of California—Irvine frames answers in terms of "sponsored" or "managed" chaos.

In an article in the summer edition of the Middle East Journal, LeVine says the phenomenon shows up in Russia and the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union, parts of South America, border zones such as between the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, the northern frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.

"What most scholars believe is new is that in the last 2 decades the liberalization of the economies of these countries, coupled with (and in many ways, encouraging) the weakening of their political systems, have produced a state of confusion, uncertainty, and chaos that has led people at all levels of these societies to seek whatever means possible to survive in, and where possible benefit from, the growing disorder," he writes.

In the Middle East, governments can restrict challenges to authority yet lack the societal influence they need to achieve stated political and development goals.

"This dynamic most often has created a social stalemate in which the middle ground between authoritarianism and truly democratic political activity is a primary area of contestation," LeVine writes. In Iraq and Palestine, occupation by foreigners and related violence aggravate conflict, creating exploitable—and exportable—disorder.

"The instrumentalization of chaos and the heightened violence of occupation that fosters such a dynamic have very specific effects on the practice of Islamist (or indeed any religious) activism," Levine writes. "That is, they sustain a focus on hostility towards other cultures, more or less extreme and sometimes violent, that in the absence of any form of substantive political change or development makes it exceedingly difficult to sustain dialogs or even cooperation between religious movements, governments, and societies at large."

This helps explain why some people yearn to kill innocent strangers. If you travel by air, though, it's not what you really need to know.

(Online Aug. 11, 2006; author's e-mail: bobt@ogjonline.com)

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