Humans fight over space, especially if there isn’t enough of it. Many of us have experienced feelings of rage and vitriol directed against hooligans who “steal” a parking spot that we believe to be rightfully ours. We earned it. We saw that spot first and we waited for it. Most of us do not engage in a physical conflict over a parking space but a few of us will. Imagine, then, if someone important to us was killed over a territory we believed was rightfully ours. How many more of us would get physical? Clearly, territory is important to all of us. Our identities arguably begin based upon our physical surroundings, i.e., where you are born: island or continent; region; nation; state.
Its importance underlies why territory is perhaps one of the most common, if not oldest, sources of earthly conflict. So much so that US war on terror is a war against a dispersed group of people willing to use terrorism (asymmetric warfare) as a tactic to reclaim territory believed to belong (or owed) to them. This notion should be at the forefront of current policy issues.
Policymakers and scholars appear to be returning to literature previously written about Vietnam and insurgency while thinking about new language to describe the religious and “civilizational” factors involved in the current war against terrorism. Although many issues may be salient enough to lead to war, the territorial perspective suggests that territorial issues are especially salient and especially likely to lead to conflict and war, according to scholar John Vasquez in his study, Why Do Neighbors Fight? Proximity, Interaction, or Territoriality. He argues that territory is conspicuous as a cause of war and is the source of conflict most likely to end in war.
Islam’s association to terrorism has become a wildly popular issue area. For example, one of the most commonly cited articles in US government policy circles is Mark Juergensmeyer’s book Terror in the Mind of God. Juergensmeyer constructs the concept of “cosmic war,” a metaphysical battle between the forces of Good and Evil driving the religious imagination and compelling its adherents to violence. In his study, Exclusion and Embrace. A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, MiroslavVolf describes that theology instrumentalizes religion to justify violence and revenge. According to a study done by the RAND, experts believe that jihadist objectives are broad, that jihadists seek to drive out the infidels, topple apostate regimes, foster religious revival, re-establish the caliphate and expand Islam; they are opportunistic. The goal of jihadists is to build a following, not taking ground, and that their time horizon is distant. Arguments such as these, that pit “good” against “evil,” focus on “cosmic” terms or reify religion out of current conflicts, though useful in terms of generating imaginative ideas, do not help to shed light on the current conflict environment which appears to be quite unfamiliar to us. Experts inevitably suppose an understanding of “Islam” that is monolithic by comparing it to Western conceptions of the world and fail to think of “the enemy” neutrally, or by null comparison. The notion that Islam is set apart by being “opportunistic” is part of a fuzzy picture that invites presumptions and bias.
Why is it so important to better understand the nature of territorial conflict? Failing to recognize the mentality behind why territory is so important for so many Muslims will lead US policymakers to error and misperception, further enflaming the relationship between Western and Muslim cultures. For example, our failure to fully understand the brazenness of the “Soviet mentality” permitted the country’s leaders to ship missiles 90 miles from the continental US without compunction, according to Sovietologist Herhart Niemeyer in his book, An Inquiry into Soviet Mentality.
Mark Baldassare, in his article, Human Spatial Behavior, published in the Annual Review of Sociology, conducted research on the consequences of spatial orientation and human behavior. He argues that the more basic the values at stake in a crises situation “the higher the cost crises actors are willing to incur to protect them and the more extreme will be their crisis management technique.” According to his study, few issues are more basic than territory. He finds two groups:
Contact cultures are considered to be highly involved in their interactions and thus use small interaction distances, like high densities, and engage in frequent touching (Arabs and Latins were used as examples).” Non-contact cultures on the other hand, shun touching, dislike high densities, and avoid close interpersonal distances (Northern Europeans and North Americans were placed in this category).
The sort of cultural misunderstanding the Islamic world has faces manifests itself in negative attitudes about the US foreign policy, and perhaps the American people as a whole. Afghans for example, are attached to their territory in some of the same ways that Americans identify with their birth-city or favorite sports franchises. However, their notions of territorial ownership run a different course than ours. In his prescient essay, With Their Hands on Their Hearts, William Vollmann, asks about Osama Bin Laden in an interview with an Afghani combatant:
Vollmann: What happens if one of your enemies comes to you as a guest?”
“Why we must be good to him. He can stay with us as long as he likes. We must feed him and honor him and give him everything the best.” We must protect him with our guns.”
And when he leaves?
“Then no problem. We can follow him and kill him.
“This tale is instructive,” says Vollmann. “From their point of view, the Afghans were not asking for the moon in stubbornly harboring someone who might be an international mass murderer. They might love him or hate him. That was not the point.” What appears to us as complicity and “harboring” appears to this Afghani to be normative. As such, when the US began their operations against the Taliban, we underestimated the cultural difference of Afghani society and extent to which they would not appreciate our actions. While Coalition forces acted under a desire to bring freedom and a better standard of living to Afghanistan, Afghanis sincerely believed that by infiltrating their territory, we were attacking them and not freeing them, and seeking to hurt their Taliban brethren for no reason discernible to them. New Yorkers, indeed, all Americans, felt similarly during 9/11.