I recently saw the critically acclaimed German film, "Der Baader Meinhof Komplex," which depicts the exploits of the Red Army Faction (RAF), the terrorist group responsible for the wave of radical violence that swept Western Europe during the 1970s and 1980s. Although the group survived into the 1990s, its heydays ended with the capture, the trial and the eventual prison suicide of its principle protagonists, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof.
Watching the film, I felt strangely nostalgic about what was then referred to as the "Age of Terrorism" -- the period between the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and the late 1980s when socialism and Marxism began to collapse as alternate utopias. It was a time when the Baader-Meinhof Gang was just one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of terrorist organizations - including the Japanese and Italian Red Army Factions, the myriad Palestinian and Irish terror groups - that littered the Cold War world.
And what a world it was... overtaken as it was by tumultuous developments: The East-West balance of terror; anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements; civil rights and anti-apartheid struggles; anti-Vietnam, anti-nuclear protests; students' uprisings; and feminist awakenings.
It was an age of animated arguments in smoke-filled coffeehouses and dorms, about Camus, Koestler, Fanon, Gramsci, Negri and Brecht. A time when dissertations were written on Che's foco theory, Mao's "Little Red Book" and the Marighella's "Mini Manual of the Urban Guerrilla." It was a world beset by anti-communist uprisings in East Berlin, Budapest and Prague, followed by right-wing coups and countercoups, including the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in Congo, Salvador Allende in Chile; the Savak terror under the Shah of Iran, apartheid violence against black South Africans and Israel's subjugation of Palestinians, sometimes brutally, as in Lebanon's Sabra and Shatila refugee camp.
Yes, it was a world up in flames in every direction, periodically incensed by a massacre in Munich Olympic village, a bloodbath at the OPEC headquarters in Zurich, bloody shoot outs in Rome's da Vinci or Tel Aviv's Lod airports or a the made-for-television explosion of empty jetliners on the tarmac of a Jordanian airfield.
It was also a time for unlikely heroes and antiheros - there were the likes of Tariq Ali, Herbert Marcuse, Abbie Hoffman and then there were Bobby Sands, Leila Khaled, Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, and, of course, Baader and Meinhof.
Even with so much violence and mayhem in all corners of all the continents, the world seemed much safer then than it is today. That's because even the villains of the day and their venality had a method; there was a probable "just" cause behind most acts of violence. Even the anarchists and nihilists seemed to have had a definable goal or an alternative vision. One could find an ideological rationale, if not sanction, for even the most spectacular act of terror, so much so, terrorists who survived to retire or be paroled or reformed, could still lay claim to the justness of their goals and rationalize their actions.
A sympathetic 2005 documentary about Leila Khaled, the once-feared member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), who now lives a retired life in Amman, Jordan, won awards in several international film festivals. Till recently, she used to visit European cities on lecture tours, speaking about the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Kalashnikov-wielding poster girl of Palestinian terror wrote in her memoir that she wept the day President Kennedy was assassinated. Clearly, she was a different kind of terrorist who waged a different kind of terrorism in a world that was very different.
We don't have to rationalize the wanton acts of violence by such radicals to recognize that they were nothing like today's jihadi terrorists who have only a barbarian disdain for life and psychopathic lust for death. Such is the nature of religious violence, unconstrained by the need to reconcile indiscriminate means with a temporal or a tangible end.
But Western democracies are squarely responsible for the rise of Islamic jihadism. Not only did they demonize the socialist but secular alternatives to liberal democracy, but also recruited, incited and abetted ragtag armies and regimes of the religious right against the so-called godless ideologies and systems.
With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Afro-Asian countries that were still struggling with postcolonial nation building, were deprived of the alternative utopia that socialism represented. The alienation caused by flawed modenization and failed developmental paradigms was easily exploited by Islam, a religion that by its very nature appeals to premodern chauvinism.
Against this background, jihadi terrorism might just be a smaller problem when compared to the looming danger of heightened religiosity of Muslims everywhere, irrespective of ethnic and geographical distinctions. For instance, young Britons of Pakistani origin recently outraged their fellow citizens who were honoring the British soldiers killed in Afghanistan by carrying placards that said "Islam will dominate the world," "Shariah (is) the true solution. Freedom go to hell."
That is the kind of senseless and purposeless bravado laced with inexplicable hate and intolerance which cannot be cured without an emotionally and intellectually resonating counter ideology. There is, therefore, an urgent need to change the "clash of civilizations" narrative by refocusing the antagonism between the West and Islam as a class conflict. Only that would enable angry Muslim youth to make common cause with classes alienated from globalization and render Marx, not Muhammad, a cause célèbre.