Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Terrorism definitions and pedagogy

Bit of an aside on definitions of terrorism:

Definitions of terrorism are really frustrating because there are so many of them. Talking about them seems to many scholars of terrorism to be like an endless trap that is pointless to get caught in, and will retard any prospects of real research. Or a hopeless bog of politics that will suck at your soul like an actual bog sucks at your feet with every step.

But pedagogically, talking definitions is one of the most important and valuable gateways into introducing students to major issues in studying terrorism, and this comes from the broader benefits of reflecting on how and why we define stuff.

First, it helps us locate and excavate implicit normative assumptions. In terrorism, this is usually most visible in the condition of ‘targets civilians’ that students typically add. In this case, the category of ‘civilian’ is not so much a legal term but a moral and cultural one, and thus we can look at how it is contended and constructed. It also focuses our attention on the ways in which terrorism-using movements and persons construct ‘the other’ to be threatening and combatant-like. The apotheosis of this can be seen in something like Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi‘s ruling that Israeli foetuses are targets because they will eventually grow up to join the IDF. On the other end of the Israel-Palestine terrorism discourse, attacks targeting IDF soldiers typically are called terrorism and have effects that look like terrorism. Largely because soldiers are typically young conscripts and have a sort of social position as ‘everyone’s child/younger-sibling’, and thus occupy a curious valence position of power and vulnerability.

Second, it helps us draw out answers, again often implicit, to the ‘why theorise?’ question. This is always a question that should be at the forefront of our minds when we research anything, but for the study of terrorism, some major divides show up. Many definitions of terrorism are developed specifically to assist law enforcement agencies or other government institutions in counter-terrorism duties, and thus definitional criteria such as ‘unlawfulness’ or ‘non-combatant targets’ or ‘non-state perpetrator’ are there for legal and bureaucratic reasons. This is because the definition is not, in the end, aimed at a scholarly understanding of the social world, but a policymaker’s understanding. Conversely, the definition I prefer in most cases–‘the dramatic use of insurgent violence in order to influence the political behaviour of an audience’–is designed to give maximum analytical leverage on as many different historical manifestations of terrorism as possible. But as a result, it’s quite general, and doesn’t offer much help in orienting policy or ethical evaluation. It’s good for an historical and sociological study only.

My view as someone who researches and teaches on terrorism-related topics is that the two most important things I can bring to a conversation are ethical and analytical self-awareness, more so than any specific empirical insights on how (counter-)terrorism works in a causal sense or in a given case. In this sense, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the frustrating definitional debate is also the best asset at hand for doing my social duty as a scholar on this.

Anyway, merely an aside.

Polity Relevance and Political Science

Forget ‘policy relevance’. As other sharp scholars have observed, evaluating our work according to whether it contributes to the agenda of policymakers is to use a vacuous and morally concerning measure. Are we so desperate to be advisers to the prince that we’re ready to turn ourselves into the social version of civil engineers? If so, we’re doing ourselves a great professional disservice as well, since down this road lies narrower funding opportunities and the increasing delegitimisation of speculative research that cannot immediately be tortured into spilling out policy recommendations.

In fact, I might go so far as to take a leaf from Kieran Healy’s book: fuck policy relevance.

Let’s all come out for polity relevance.

What does that mean? Well, first, it means staying true to our vocation—to the ethical commitments of being a scholar, of sitting in a position of considerable social privilege and prestige, and of dedicating ourselves to the production of scientific knowledge. As social scientists, we are obliged to produce public facts. We offer up evidence and analysis with a validity beyond partisan commitments, designed to make people into better citizens. Into more thoughtful, self-aware, informed, and empowered members of our community. This is why we teach and this is why we have a right to things like tenure, without which it is basically not possible to perform our important duty to society.

Polity relevance means that we orient our work around the needs of the political community as a whole. Part of this is, without a doubt, helping the government govern better. Government is one of the needs of the political community. But it isn’t the only need, and more significant still, government is an embedded need. Government is part of governance, by which I mean the way power and values interact in practice to organise and regulate the institutions of society. The implication being, of course, ‘polity relevant’ scholarship is attainable for all social scientists, because governance as a theme suffuses our domain of study.

There’s little point in listing examples of polity relevant scholarship. Anything people care about could qualify, by definition. But I can propose a few features or virtues that can increase polity relevance.  Polity relevant work should be accessible to the public in some shape. This doesn’t mean everything has to be written for a non-academic audience, but some people in a scholarly conversation should be writing plain-language and open-source reviews covering what scholars are saying and why they’re saying it. Polity relevant work should be critical, in that it should attend to the limits or weaknesses of popular narratives, and provide the facts needed to challenge, reflect upon, and reorganise the status quo. Polity relevant work should be ambitious, produced not in search of incremental epistemic progress but in search of creative perspectives on pressing problems.

Of course, I’m not saying anything new. Much of this is old hat to anyone talking about reflexivity. Plenty of scholars calling for a practical orientation in social science or analytical eclecticism have said similar things. Really, policy relevance, narrowly conceived, is trope that survives despite all the kicking it receives. It’s a horse we failed to slay, and yet remains resilient despite the beatings.

If all I can contribute is a pithy trope of my own, then so be it. Next time you present your interesting, socially engaged work at a conference and someone in the audience questions its ‘policy relevance’, respond with ‘sorry, but aren’t you mispronouncing “polity“?’

Making Sense—and Nonsense—of ‘Religious Terrorism’

It’s been ages since I’ve posted here, and I am going to try to go back to writing posts with a bit higher frequency. But, since I am also inundated with stuff today, I’m going to totally cop-out by cross-posting something I wrote months ago but forgot to put here as well. A while back, I posted this to the generally excellent collaborative blog attached the the Bulletin for the Study of Religion.


Making Sense—and Nonsense—of ‘Religious Terrorism’

by Simon Frankel Pratt

One does not have to engage all that deeply with popular and academic conversations on terrorism before religion shows up. These days, and especially in the media, such conversations mainly consider one religion in particular, but this hasn’t always been so. A few decades ago, before Islamist militancy became such a preoccupation—of commentators and of militants—the sectarian dimensions of the conflict in Northern Ireland might have been held up as a case study in ‘religious terrorism’. Several more decades before that, Jewish nationalist violence in Mandatory Palestine may have served. But for all the attention that it has received, the relationship between religion and terrorism is often stated in the most confused of ways. It bears clarifying, and that it what I hope to do here.

One of the more problematic attempts to study that relationship is also quite oft-cited and well-known. Mark Juergensmeyer’s book Terror in the Mind of God [1] investigates the supposed phenomenon of ‘religious terrorism’, defined as ‘public acts of violence …for which religion has provided the motivation, the justification, the organization, and the world view’ (7). Surveying a range of terrorist acts, groups, persons, and causes, in admirable empirical detail, Juergensmeyer comes to a strange conclusion: ‘In examining recent acts of religious terrorism…I have come to see these acts as forms of public performance rather than aspects of political strategy’ (xi). Yet this statement makes little sense for two reasons, one conceptual and the other empirical.

To propose this dichotomy between symbolic, performative action on the one hand and strategic action on the other is to misunderstand what terrorism is all about. To define it in the most general of senses, terrorism is the dramatic use of violence in order to influence the political behaviour of an audience. Terrorism is all about performances and symbolism; the individual people killed or maimed by terrorists are targeted in order to produce a reaction in onlookers, who are moved—to fear, to hate, or even to inspiration—by the display. If an act of violence is not a public performance, then it is not an act of terrorism.

Moreover, most cases of ‘religious terrorism’ Juergensmeyer examines show, as a matter of well-established record, a clear strategic character. The IRA is the subject of countless strategic analyses while Hamas’s pragmatic orientation has been the subject of both journalistic and academic commentary, to mention two such examples. [2] In fact, both such groups are also, for all their religious convictions (which, in the case of the IRA, were never that strong), mainly interested in national liberation. That religious divides track with—or are constructed into—salient political ones is an important feature of these cases, but doesn’t imply that primacy of the former over the latter. In other words, the groups or persons that we might treat as exemplars of ‘religious terrorism’ are no less strategic than their secular counter-parts, and their actions are no more symbolic.

Where does this leave us? One option is to simply dissolve the problem. This is the approach taken by William Cavanaugh in The Myth of Religious Violence. [3] Cavanaugh offers a critique of Juergensmeyer somewhat similar to my own, but goes so far as to suggest that the problem with the category ‘religious terrorism’ in fact lies in the very notion of religion itself. Cavanaugh, building off of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, denies that religion even exists outside of the peculiar Western context in which distinct religious and secular institutional spheres emerged. Cavanaugh (and Smith) offer a strong case in defence of this view, but what if we still want to keep ‘religion’ as a category that transcends ‘the West’ and its historical configurations?

It is a simple fact that our discourses around terrorism make reference to religious dimensions. Rather than rubbish them wholesale, I prefer to draw upon sociological theories of religion and culture to try to come up with a useful approach. There are two questions I want to address here: does ‘religious terrorism’ really exist, and if not, what really is the relationship between these two things? I think answering them will provide some clarity.

In answer to the first, ‘religious terrorism’ probably does not exist, at least not as something distinct from ‘secular terrorism’. As I mentioned, explicitly religious organisations such as Hamas make use of terrorism in the pursuit of secular or at least ‘worldly’ ends. Even al-Qa’ida uses terrorism for these prosaic reasons, seeking the withdrawal of Western powers from Muslim communities and the overthrow of inadequately pious native leaders. Nor is it clear to me that Marxist-Leninist terrorists such as the Red Army Faction were any less ‘religious’ than al-Qa’ida is: both are doctrinaire organisations seeking widespread, permanent social transformation through the use of symbolic violence. Both are guided by constellations of ‘uniquely motivating’ values and metaphysical assumptions, complete with eschatologies. The fact that some terrorists defer to divine authority and prophesy, as opposed to, say, what they take to be the scientifically demonstrable laws of history, does not mean that the former engage in different form of terrorism than the latter.

But, as I have said, I still think it worthwhile to pay attention to ‘religion’ in some cases. Again, as a fact of discourse, we refer to as ‘religious’ some terrorism-using organisations on the basis of their explicit and clearly important engagement with certain theological traditions. Arguments presented in terms of scripture may play a role in ‘de-radicalisation’, while disagreements within groups may hinge over interpretations of texts or the authority of certain persons to offer such interpretation. Temples and their associated schools, as concrete institutional spaces, may be sites for recruitment, radicalisation, or contention of views that orient terrorist violence or legitimise its use. Theological discourses privilege certain kinds of claims over others; to invoke Gadamer, they have a horizon of interpretive possibility, and this will shape the outcome of contention and socialisation processes occurring in and through certain institutional fields. In other words, the sorts of things we tend to call ‘religious’, ordinarily, are much more important for understanding some terrorist groups than others. Religious terrorism may not exist as such, but the category of ‘religion’ remains a helpful one for studying terrorism in context.

This leaves us with a clearer way to look at the relationship between religion and terrorism. On the one hand, we cannot distinguish some particular variety of terrorism as distinctly ‘religious’. On the other hand, we can recognise that religious dimensions, as sets of texts, discourses, and social spaces, are implicated in some cases of terrorism more than in others. Terrorism, as a political strategy, requires recruits, resources, a guiding ideology, a message, and a place where all these things can come together. Once upon a time, we might have looked at the fringes of leftist student movements to see how this might occur; now we look at the Taliban or ISIS.

[1] Juergensmeyer, Mark. 2003. Terror in the Mind of God: The global rise of religious violence. University of California Press.

[2] See, by way of respective examples, Neumann, Peter. 2005. “The Bullet and the Ballot Box: The Case of the IRA.” Journal of Strategic Studies 28(6): 941–975; Mishal, Shaul and Avraham Sela. 2006. The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence and Coexistence. New York: Columbia University Press.

[3] Cavanaugh, William T. 2009. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular ideology and the roots of modern conflict. Oxford University Press.

Terrorism is not a tactic, and insurgency is not a strategy.

Let me first explain what I mean by these terms. ‘Tactics’ are situationally embedded forms of instrumental action. To put it more simply, a tactic is a manoeuvre. It is performed in space and in time, involving interactions between actors and their environments (including such things as ‘enemy actors’). ‘Hit and run’, ‘flanking’, ‘sweep the leg’, ‘aim for the heart’, ‘retreat when the enemy is strong’—these are all tactics, because they refer to specific movements that one can engage in.

Strategy, on the other hand, refers to forms of action disembedded from spatial, temporal, or otherwise situational structures of interaction. To put it more simply, a strategy is a kind of interaction that can take many concrete forms, depending on where and when it is employed. ‘Propagandising’, ‘provoking’, ‘deceiving’, ‘outbidding’—these are all strategies, because they are (to quote a famous definition), ways of taking the material means available to us and using them to achieve a given end.

The above definitions of tactics and strategy may be my own, in that I am phrasing them in ways that dovetail well with how I view society, how I view action, and other such Big Matters of Social Ontology. They are not, however, idiosyncratic, and look a lot like the definitions used by other strategic theorists or scholars of war and conflict.

It is pretty easy to see how terrorism is not a tactic, based on the above definition. As has been well demonstrated [1], what we might call ‘terrorism’ can be used in the service of a wide-ranging number of overarching strategies, but itself tends to follow a certain framework [2]: the use of violence before an audience to alienate people from their familiar sources of security, provoke from them a response (be it submission, retaliation, or something else), and gather legitimacy for a particular agenda based on that response. This does not describe any particular set of manoeuvres. You can do this by bombing a restaurant, shooting up a train-station, hijacking an aircraft, or even just threatening to break someone’s legs. The possibilities are endless! What it does describe is a form of interaction whereby concrete resources or behaviours can be used to achieve certain ends. In other words, it describes strategy.

Insurgency is much harder to define. There are some good candidates out there. The UK’s field manual on countering insurgency defines it as follows: ‘An organised, violent subversion used to effect or prevent political control, as a challenge to established authority…[using] a mixture of subversion, propaganda, terrorism and armed force to achieve their objectives[.]’ The US’s own manual, FM 3-24 defines it similarly as ‘[An] organized, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power, or other political authority while increasing insurgent control’. The CIA’s Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency defines it as an attempt ‘[to control] the resources of a country through the use of irregular military forces and illegal political organizations… to weaken government control and legitimacy while increasing insurgent control and legitimacy [and] to control a particular area.’ These definition help give us a sense of what we’re talking about (and countering), but they also show a certain confusion.

The confusion in these definitions is that they seem to switch between describing a specific constellation of strategies (‘subversion, propaganda, terrorism…’) and describing a mode of warfare (‘organised, violent subversion [of an] established authority’). This may require some elaboration. Insurgencies are civil wars, involving an internal, rebellious challenge to an ‘established authority’—usually a state—in an attempt to topple and replace it with something else, or at least alter its form significantly. Defined thusly, the term does not refer to a strategy, but simply to a state of affairs, to an episode of conflict between a government and a challenger. Insurgencies can form around revolutionary aspirations (‘change everything!’) or nationalist ones (‘give us autonomy’), because war itself can be waged for all sorts of ends. Yet the definitions I just quoted go on to identify specific strategies with insurgency, which I think is a mistake.

It is true that insurgencies all seem to involve some similar strategies of subversion. But this does not make insurgency a strategy itself. Rather, it tells us something about the context to most insurgency: namely, that they are struggles against the modern state. The modern state rests upon a set of social conditions that should be familiar to anyone who’s taken a political science course or three: claims to a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence, effective governance, and the general willingness of bureaucrats to keep performing their institutional duties. If you wanted to subvert the state, what strategies would you employ? Hopefully, the answer should be fairly evident: undermine the state’s claimed monopology on legitimate violence, inhibit the state’s ability to govern, and dissuade (through coercion, propagandising, or baser forms of enticement) its functionaries from doing their jobs.

Yet this need not always be the case. An insurgency against something other than a state may involve different strategies, because the bases of other kinds of authority may differ from those of the state. Moreover, a simple survey of the history of insurgency against states itself shows an enormous variety of strategies. On the one hand, we have Mao, whose first major act upon arriving in the mountains of the Jinggangshan, at the head of a ragtag band of revolutionaries, was to declare a new Soviet state based out of five local villages. For Mao, insurgency involves the long-term, labour intensive construction of a counter-state within the territory of the enemy, to be used as a base for building mass support and establishing the kind of population that is ideologically and institutionally ready to accept a new regime. For Mao, insurgency ends in a final ‘conventional’ phase in which armies mass and take all major cities. On the other hand, we have someone like Carlos Marighella, whose ‘urban guerrilla warfare’ involves no attempt to build a base, no massing of armies, and is mainly devoted to provoking the state into hamfistedly alienating its own constituents through excessive counter-terrorism. Or, say, Che Guevara’s Foco theory, according to which all the revolution needs is some inspiring acts of violence to serve as focal points for popular uprising—a similar idea to the notion of ‘Propaganda of the Deed’, which underlay 19th century anarchist terrorism.

So what explains these confusions, these mistaken identifications of terrorism with tactics and insurgency with strategy? In both cases, the problem is the reification or naturalisation of certain historical moments. Well, in the case of the former, the problem may just be a poor understanding of terrorism and its history, without any need to throw in big theoretical concepts. But, especially in the latter, the problem arises when we look at the particular way a kind of situation plays out and say, ‘that’s the only way it could be’. It’s as if we defined ‘war’ as ‘a conflict between uniformed, formally constituted military forces’—surely the problems with that should be apparent? I’m not going to complain about this kind of thing when it shows up in military field manuals, since these are pieces of practical instruction designed to facilitate military success. But if we’re seeking to understand insurgency and terrorism more broadly, without merely seeking to counter them, we should show a bit more conceptual clarity and sophistication.

[1] Kydd, Andrew H., and Barbara F. Walter. 2006. “The Strategies of Terrorism.” International Security 31 (1): 49–79.

[2] Neumann, Peter, and M. L. R. Smith (2005). “Strategic Terrorism: The Framework and Its Fallacies.” Journal of Strategic Studies 28 (4): 571–595.

A new Zionism?

I was obliged to write an essay on a major threat facing Israel, for an application to a well-funded workshop that I ultimately was not accepted for. In it I argue that a major threat facing Israel, perhaps the biggest threat, has to do with the ideological underpinnings of the state as a political community. That is, the threat relates to Zionism and its problems. I also outline what a new Zionism should look like, and how it deals with that threat.

Since it is no longer under any kind of evaluation, I post it here in case it catches anyone’s interest.

One significant challenge to Israeli security and identity: the changing meaning, and practice, of Zionism.


Zionism faces a crisis. While the long-standing conflict between left-wing and right-wing Zionisms needs little introduction, its dimensions have transformed. The State is built. The Jews will not be pushed into the sea by invading Arab armies. Even the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons seems to be diminishing. Israel is at the forefront of technological and scientific innovation. Israelis are still at risk, of course: qassams and katyushas may fall, fired from Gaza or Lebanon, and Palestinian terrorism may compromise the safety of residents. But Israel now probably faces only one existential security threat.

That threat is not of physical destruction but of a loss of self—a threat to what the sociologist Anthony Giddens referred to as ‘ontological security’. If Zionism becomes completely associated with racism, apartheid, and occupation, in the minds of the world and in the eyes of liberal Jews inside Israel and outside it, then the State I earlier expressed a desire to protect will have ceased to exist. A state is not just a set of institutions, but a community with a shared will and destiny. The community of Israel marches towards a precipice, as ‘BDS’ gathers steam on North American university campuses and as many young Israelis figure out ways to acquire Western passports.

The problem may be stated thus: how can Israel survive the occupation of Palestinian lands without ceasing to be a state worthy of Zionist aspirations? The short answer is that it cannot. As the pithy adage goes, Israel can only be two of the following three things: a Jewish state, a democratic state, and a state that includes the West Bank. But while I hope for a two-state solution, I can offer no novel plan to arrive at that halcyon outcome. Before that happens, before the diplomats can work their magic and the ‘spoilers’ can be marginalised, Zionism needs to change.

The ‘New Zionism’ must evolve along three dimensions. First, it must embrace a more inclusive understanding of citizenship, of what it means to be a part of the political community, with a stake in its future and a voice in its present. Young Diaspora Jews need to be citizens, and engage not only in Hasbara but in shaping Israel as Israelis do. Moreover, Palestinians must be citizens too; they are not to be a ‘partner for peace’ in the sense of an allied community, but part of Israel and the Zionist ideal—‘ehad mishelanu’. This may take the form of separate Jewish and Palestinian states, but we must accept our shared destiny. As such, important Zionist conversations must involve more than just Israeli citizens and the odd Diaspora intellectual.

Second, it must be pragmatic. Zionism must be flexible, compromising, and reflective. This doesn’t mean giving up on core principles of Jewish self-governance, homeland, and safe haven. But it does mean recognising that not all of what we may want is attainable any time soon, and furthermore that we must bargain with people whom we may not like. Practically speaking, the main implication of this is that pro-settlement Zionism must give up the West Bank. But that is not the only implication. Left-wing Israelis must accept that Israel will not become a secular ‘Western’ space indistinguishable from Amsterdam or Berlin. Diaspora Jews must accept that they have responsibilities as citizens of Israel (in the aforementioned sense). And Jews of all kinds must continue to accept what we have accepted for countless generations: sometimes we have no friends to help us out.

Third, it must be humanistic. By this I mean, simply and forcefully, that we must not abuse the weak, the marginalised, or the defenceless in our Israel. When we are afraid, we must not become bigoted. When we are powerful, we must pay attention to who is affected by our power. When we are divided, we must remind ourselves that we’re all in this together, and this extends to everyone we touch with our actions. And when we are united, we must ask ourselves why.

The New Zionism I propose won’t tell us the best way to fight terrorism—though it may push us towards more discriminating uses of force like targeted killing. Nor will it say whether Israel should draft the Haredim or, perhaps, abolish the draft altogether. It’s not an ideology; it may not even be a form of nationalism anymore. But it will help us survive as a critical-thinking, robust, and ethical community of Jews and Israelis, regardless of what the world throws at us.

Reza Aslan’s theory of religion and politics

As talking heads in the media once again make problematic, ultra-general claims about Islam’s supposed essential bellicosity, or attribute to Islamic texts and practice the power to make adherents violent, we might be tempted to respond with Reza Aslan’s counter-arguments. Aslan is a willing pundit, unafraid and unreserved in responding to vacuous, literalist, and historically ignorant readings of Islam or claims about Muslims. There are few others willing to play this role, and it is an important one, given how much bigoted bullshit on the subject shows up from various commentators, ranging from Fox News commentators to ‘New Atheist’ authors such as Sam Harris.

I wish, though, that it wasn’t Aslan performing this role. I am not the only one to take issue with Aslan, and I suggest reading the views of actual scholars of religion on his views and work, as I am not a specialist in this area.

One reason for this is my concern for Aslan’s apparent credential inflation. Aslan routinely identifies as as scholar of religion, despite his academic post being in creative writing and not having, from what I have been able to ascertain, a single refereed publication. Indeed, he has from what I can tell only one scholarly publication, in a non-refereed journal that does not accept unsolicited submissions (ie it’s highly unusual and not part of mainstream academic conversations). While he has written numerous books on subjects ranging from the historical Christ to political Islam, all of these books are in popular presses, rather than academic ones. Aslan’s PhD is in sociology, and his dissertation research was apparently on the study of Islamist social movements, which does much to explain his perspective but which does not necessarily situate him in the sociology or anthropology of religion.

I have great respect for those who manage to do a doctorate in sociology, but if they do not publish in scholarly journals or present at scholarly conferences, then they are not scholars. They have retreated from scholarly conversations and from the academic spaces in which scholarly research is produced and discussed. Though I respect the role of informed and educated popular authors writing books on relevant subjects, I also have an interest, as an actual scholar (albeit of most junior level), in policing the boundaries of the term, and of keeping it distinct from popular commentaries.

Much more important, though, is my discomfort with Aslan’s substantive views. After all, you don’t have to be a scholar of religion to make valid and helpful points about it. Aslan appears to have taken an approach from social movement theory and inflated it into a general theory of religion in politics. Again, this is unsurprising given his educational background, but it also is methodologically unsound and misrepresents what this approach is actually good for, as exemplified in scholarship on Islamism produced by people like Carrie Wickham or Asef Bayat.

Aslan’s theory of religion and politics is that people ‘bring their values to their religion‘. This is a very succinct and illustrative quote. His approach is to view religion as a language through which political claims can be articulated, and a concrete institutional space (places of worship, community centres, schools, etc) where social movements can organise. This is fine for examining particular facets of social movement activism during periods of contentious politics, and should be a vital part of any discussion of Islamism.

It must not, however, be the end of the story when we talk about radicalisation and the role of specific religious narratives in fueling violence. The other side of the coin here is that religions are potent sources of value-generation (cf. William James) and socialisation in society. Religious spaces are where people learn their values, and theological traditions determine the boundaries or horizons of intellectual and interpretive possibility. By taking political claims-making into the realm of particular knowledge-traditions, you privilege some views over others.

In other words, we cannot treat religion as some kind of cultural epiphenomenon, reflecting non-theological cultural processes that determine the form and expression of values and beliefs. Theology is part of those processes. It is not the only part, and those processes are dynamic and complex, showing the bankruptcy of most literalist readings of religious texts or of simplistic, unidirectional causal arguments that go from textual interpretation to cultural practice. But Aslan does not seem interested in discussing that complexity, and prefers to offer a simplistic causal theory of his own, in just the opposite direction. This may be a tonic for one kind of anti-Muslim bigotry, but it does not help anyone understand Islamism better.

In addition to advancing a view of religion and politics that no sociologist or anthropologist of religion would find remotely adequate,* Aslan also seems to misrepresent the social and cultural conditions of Muslim majority countries. In this widely shared clip of him engaging with Bill Maher—whose views I find even less palatable than Aslan’s, by a long shot—Aslan suggests that countries such as Indonesia, which have de jure equality between men and women, may be held up as examples of actual gender equality in Islam. He also states that female genital mutilation is a ‘Central African problem’, which is empirically false (as discussed in this previously shared link). Either Aslan is knowingly playing fast and loose with the facts, or he just doesn’t know the facts.

With all due respect to the rarity with which scholars are willing to do what Aslan does, and the man’s many well-reviewed popular books, I see him as a charlatan, at least when it comes to his self-presentation in his media commentaries. He claims the mantle of scholarship without producing scholarship, and claims to be a scholar of religions while advancing theoretically problematic views not held by sociologists of religion (despite his background being in sociology). His defence to (possibly bigoted) attacks upon Muslims is to respond with false or dissembling claims, and while I am sympathetic to the epistemic limits of sound-bite territory, he doesn’t offer follow-up clarifications either.

There are a few other commentators on Islamism whom I would suggest going to instead of Aslan, too. Maajid Nawaz is one good example, and Shiraz Maher is another (though Nawaz has a more prominent media presence).

*Based on my admittedly limited knowledge, confined to a few books and articles in these fields and a habit of attending their conference panels when I have spare moments, as I find they are home to some innovative and sophisticated social theorising.

Remembrance Day: Reflection, Not Militarism

I wrote an op-ed with my friend Rob Tarzwell, a veteran of the Canadian Forces and currently a professor (and practitioner) of psychiatric and nuclear medicine at the University of British Columbia. We couldn’t get it placed anywhere in time for this year’s Remembrance Day, so I am carrying it here for now.


Remembrance Day and its main symbol, the poppy, sometimes get a bad rap. Critics, sensitive to how its imagery and ritual can be used to glorify war, reject both. However, in their discomfort with our government’s militaristic turn over the past few years, these critics miss something crucial. Whether or not one thinks war is justified, we enrich public discourse on foreign policy and the ethics of armed conflict by recognising and respecting veterans, and others affected by war, on November 11th.

Generations of Canadians have been to war, as members of our military and as civilians, often immigrants, caught up in hostilities. By honouring them, living or dead, we can also make space for thinking critically about foreign policy. As we stand to attention this November 11th , Canadians fight in Iraq, stand ready in eastern Europe, and maintain peace with the UN around the world, dispatched by our country to be ready to kill and, perhaps, to die. We need an honest national conversation about our military operations, but we should also show respect for those who serve. And as a matter of fact, these two things well complement each-other.

Listen to what soldiers have to say. They are sworn to become instruments of policy, and they willingly do so at great personal cost. Their choice to serve may arise from complex and personal motivations; one shouldn’t assume they know why they put on the uniform and why they fight. As a result of the pressures of this special role, they have often engaged in considerable reflection. Hearing their perspectives and their stories offers a glimpse into a world that thankfully few Canadians have experienced.

Don’t dismiss the imagery and rituals of remembrance, even if one is uncomfortable with how they are sometimes invoked in political rhetoric. One might choose not to attend the cenotaph ceremony or wear a poppy, but one can still appreciate that these are deeply cherished symbols to those who have served, to their families, and to large segments of the public.

Remembrance is for all, regardless of religion or political affiliation, and thus has the power to unify and focus our public conscience on the ethics of war.  One need not join in any national rituals to recognize that for many Canadians, participation is a communal link to all who have served and died, and a meditation on the nature of force, of courage, of wounds, and of sacrifice.

If it is policy we dislike, we should not take our frustrations out on members of the military, some of whom profoundly dislike the orders they willingly follow (within the boundaries of the law) and who are bound, while in uniform, not to comment on matters of national concern.  Voluntary surrender of the right to protest is absolutely central to the military ethos of liberal democracy, and we are wise to reflect on how difficult that is, even if for the greater good.

As Canada marches forward in a complex world of shifting threats, new allies, and old fears, Canadians should not forget to have a critical conversation about the military, about militarism, and about where and when we deploy lethal violence. We have a moral commitment to humanitarianism and to democracy, but it is often unclear how we should best honour these values. And although sometimes war is necessary, countries (and politicians) frequently have been too quick to resort to the ‘war’ option.

War carries costs. By keeping a tradition of remembrance, we bear those costs with maturity and compassion. By recognising veterans on November 11th, we learn from our past and orient ourselves towards a more thoughtful future.

For this reason, we wear our poppies and place wreathes at the cenotaph

Memes and Cultural Evolution

Many people are familiar with the concept of the ‘meme’: units of cultural material that are transmitted throughout populations and evolve in a manner somewhat analogous to genes. Richard Dawkins coined the term and the general idea [1], prompting some measure of scientific activity, including a journal [2], devoted to the study of memetics. However, memes and memetics never gained much traction amongst social scientists and philosophers, and ‘meme theory’ currently enjoys essentially no credibility as a scientific theory.

In this post, I will explain why that is, and I will point to some alternative, sounder approaches to thinking about and studying the way knowledge and practice diffuse and evolve throughout societies .

Evolutionary epistemology and social science seem to go well together. Theories spread, transform, grow, live and die – ‘are selected for’ – not just in science but in society as a whole. Nor is this pattern of diffusion, evolution, and selection restricted to substantive or propositional content (i.e. to claims about the world); music, language, food and fashion, technology all seem to fit this model throughout periods of history. If we want to understand why that is, we must answer two questions:

  1. What is the thing that is being transmitted/diffused, selected-for, and transformed? That is, what is the ‘genetic unit’ of cultural evolution?
  2. What mechanism(s) are responsible for cultural evolution? That is, what kinds of recurring processes lead to the units of cultural evolution spreading and changing?

Meme theorists seem to offer these answers:

  1. Memes are independent units of cultural information, such as ideas, behaviours, or theories, that move between human hosts and influence what those hosts do, thereby causing changes in their environment.
  2. Memes ‘leap from brain to brain’ [3] by somehow generating imitation.

These answers, as I will explain, are not very good.

The notion of independent, self-replicating units of cultural data is both conceptually and empirically problematic. Conceptually, it appears to rest on dubious ontological foundations; that is, it seems to be a very strange kind of thing. Memes are not cognitive phenomena, according to Dennett, although they clearly can produce something cognitive (beliefs). They are contained within human beings, and so they are not social structures or systems, unless we conceive of structures and systems in highly reductionist terms. So what are they? Perhaps they are just a convenient shorthand for a bunch of other stuff, and are not meant to refer to something real? But if that’s the case, then (i) they are not analogous to genes, which we probably think are real and (ii) we only have reason to use the concept of a meme at all if it provides considerable empirical value.

It doesn’t, though. Provide empirical value, that is. As any anthropologist or sociologist will attest, culture isn’t made up of little, discrete bits of behaviour or knowledge. It is this big, inter-subjective, inter-related mess of interacting and continually changing practices, tastes, dispositions, and interpretations oriented around social life. It exists in holistic ways, with one particular bit of culture only making any sense when placed within the context of the larger whole. It’s not just that culture could be a ‘memeplex’ [4], but that culture is a web of symbols and meanings [5] surrounding us and making us who we are even as we continually recreate it through our actions [6]. Hence dividing it into independent units deprives us of our ability to appreciate culture as something emergent, and completely ignores the way that culture is not only something that seems to dwell within us but also constitutes the actual social environment in which we live and act [7]. Whatever empirical value we get from keeping the concept of the meme must be counter-posed to the enormous empirical value we lose by adopting a concept that is unsuited for appreciating vast and relevant parts of culture and social life.

Not only that, but the mechanisms of evolution proposed by meme theorists seem either trivial or absurd. Nothing simply leaps from brain to brain; people imitate other people due to processes of socialisation and influence. These can be such things as direct peer pressure, in-group solidarity, coercion, persuasion, observation, or adaption. To name a few possible candidates. These mechanisms range from the level of individual psychology to society-level structural influences, and thus do not appear to correspond to anything remotely similar to the ways in which genes engineer the machinary of their own reproduction; again, we must appreciate cultural or social evolution by taking into account emergent structures and systemic wholes, as well as their component parts. The reductionist approach of memetics just won’t do the conceptual and empirical job.

Of course, if we were left with no alternatives, we might decide that memetics is good enough. Luckily, though, we have alternatives. Better alternatives. So many alternatives, actually, that there is a robust debate among actual social scientists over where and when one alternative is better than another for a given problem or area of social life. For example, one of the most popular approaches is to conceive of culture as made up of symbols. Associated with hermeneutic theorists [8] such as Wilhelm Dilthey, Max Weber, Clifford Geertz, and Paul Ricoeur, and semiotic theorists [9] such as Ferdinand de Sasseure and Roland Barthes, this approach offers a much more helpful way of thinking about what culture is, ontologically or cognitively. Nevertheless, this approach makes it difficult to understand how culture spreads and changes. To address this, theorists such as Anthony Giddens, Pierre Bourdieu, Margaret Archer, Jeffrey Alexander, and Charles Tilly have treated the symbolic structures of culture as existing in a mutually-constituting relationship with the individual actions and practices of people as they go about interacting with one-another and living their lives. Practices concatenate or chain together in various ways to produce emergent changes at the structural or system level, which circle back to the level of individuals as their environment changes accordingly, in a dialectic process stretching back into history.

Drawing more explicitly from evolutionary theory, evolutionary epistemologists such as Karl Popper or Donald Davidson have suggested that theories spread and are selected-for in a way somewhat analogous to Darwinian evolution, where more empirically successful (and perhaps more accurate) theories win out over less successful ones. And pragmatist philosophers such as Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey have used evolutionary metaphors to produce highly influential metaphysical theories [10] and theories of mind and action [11], which have formed the basis for more recent attempts to theorise change and innovation based on something like spontaneous mutation or novel synthesis, such as by Hans Joas [12].

It may seem daunting to look at this long list of names and theoretical traditions in thinking about what culture is and how it changes, but are you really going to stick with memes out of laziness? This is all material that can be covered in an introductory course in sociology or anthropology with enough detail to make it possible to talk about culture or society without resorting to unhelpful or incoherent Darwinian metaphors. And if taking such a course is not feasible, buying and reading a textbook surely is. I’ll even take questions by email.

Tl;dr almost everything conveyed by the term ‘meme’ can be conveyed by the term ‘practice’, ‘approach’, or ‘tradition’, and what cannot be conveyed with those terms can be conveyed with other slightly more complex vocabulary associated with an actually credible theory in the social sciences.













Which social science?

Unlike the natural/physical sciences, the social sciences show no settling of method. By this I mean that within the social sciences, scientists work from multiple and fundamentally disparate approaches to research and enquiry. This varies somewhat across disciplines; anthropologists almost entirely employ ethnography while economists almost all use formal models, though there are differences even within these fields as to what the ontological and epistemic status of data and theory actually is. But on the whole, there doesn’t seem to be any single way to define what social science is and how it is distinguishable from other sciences. Rather, there are several dominant views as to what it means to commit a social science, and there is no obvious way to select one as superior to the others in any categorical sense.

In this post I will provide a bit of an introduction to these different approaches. I’ll go over some of the main philosophical problems that confront philosophers of social science, and trace how different solutions to those problems have led to different social sciences (in the methodological rather than the disciplinary sense). I’ll offer a few critiques of each of those approaches, and finally I’ll situate my own views and preferences, providing a brief defence for them.

What does it mean to commit a social science?

There are three key questions that social scientists must, at least implicitly, answer in order to get on with the business of doing social science.

  1. What is the domain of social science? In other words, ‘what is the social world?’ This is a deceptively complex question in that multiple answers seem plausible. Is social science about theorising how humans behave around other humans? Is it about studying meaning – about situating people within ‘webs of significance that [they themselves] have spun‘? Is it about studying all action? Is the domain of science continuous with the domain of language? Is it the study of rules? Or is there no rigorous ontological way to demarcate the social from the non-social, such that the domain of social science is really no more than whatever social scientists want it to be?
  2. What is an explanation of social things? Again, there are multiple plausible answers to this. Some answers should be familiar to anyone who has read even a little into the philosophy of science? Is a good explanation one which subsumes events under general or predictive laws? Or is it one that specifies the entities of an objective reality and describes their causal interactions? Or is it that, in social science, a good explanation is simply one that provides us with the reasons that motivated people to have done what they did?
  3. What counts as evidence in the social sciences? Simply put, what does it mean to observe or document the social world and how do these data allow us to build whatever it is that an explanation of social things should be? This is not just a question of methodology, but requires us to take a stand on the relationship between observer and observed, and on the status of knowledge claims in the sciences. Depending on our answer to the preceding two questions, we might decide that data are limited to recordings of events, or we might say that descriptions of real structures count, or perhaps only that reports about motives or beliefs tell us something about anything.

There are huge differences in the methodological implications that follow from how we answer these; that is, social science research will proceed in very different ways, based on how the researcher solves these philosophical puzzles. And these questions remain contested within the social sciences. Of course, philosophers of science still contest similar kinds of questions when it comes to the natural sciences, but actual practicing physicists, chemists, biologists, and the like rarely need to wonder about them. For whatever reason (more on that later), natural scientists have been able to avoid major fractures on these matters, and their disciplines tend to be more or less unified when it comes to matters of basic methodology.[1]


Though ‘positivism’ as a mode of enquiry in the social sciences dates, at least nominally, back to Auguste Comte, what typically receives the label today in the social sciences is significantly different from what Comte proposed. In discussing its roots, it makes more sense to relate it back to the tradition of logical positivism and to critical responses to that tradition made by Popper and Hempel. For positivist social scientists – who comprise the bulk of scholars in political science and sociology – the social world is constituted by the behaviours characteristic of interpersonal interaction. In other words, positivists are studying (a) people engaging in actions that (b) engage with other people and with things like institutions or ideologies. If this seems like a vague or under-specified definition of what social is, I suggest setting aside this concern. Positivists typically have. Positivist explanations typically seek to subsume social behaviour under general, predictive, though typically probablistic laws that specify how a change in one variable ’causes’ a change in another variable, ideally though not always through hypothetico-deduction. True to its Humean roots, evidence for positivists consists of recordings of events, sorted into types and coded to indicate occurrence or non-occurrence at a given value. And, true to their roots in logical positivism, positivist scholars in the social sciences have advocated for a unity of method that entails a similar ‘logic of enquiry’ for both social and natural scientists.

Though positivist social science for a while truly embraced the search for laws of behaviour, and did not aspire to anything more (on the grounds that such aspirations were doomed), it has since expanded in horizon to incorporate the search for causal mechanisms, typically defined as ‘intervening variables’. It has always quite frequently referred to the behaviour of entities such as institutions, states, or firms, rather than to only that of individuals. These broader horizons, though they reflect the practical necessity of referring to collectives and to processes when talking about social reality, bring with them certain philosophical tensions. To refer to causal mechanisms as ‘intervening variables’ appears to dissolve the ontological implications of a mechanistic theory of causality; it turns talk about the role that certain kinds of interactions play in bridging cause and effect into observations of nothing more than finer-grained sequences of events. This is in keeping with Humean empiricism, but it doesn’t seem to preserve what makes mechanistic theorising helpful in the first place – namely, that it allows us to step beyond ‘sense events’. Meanwhile, important questions about the relationship between individuals and the larger social entities in which those individuals live – on the relationship between structure and agency – become answerable only in terms of behavioural patterns, effectively shoving into a ‘black box’ questions of meaning, subjectivity, and normativity that are quite central to other modes of social enquiry.

Hermeneutics and Interpretivism

From the mid-19th century onwards, philosophers have sought to bifurcate the natural sciences and the social sciences according to a fundamental difference in method. While the natural sciences involve the search for the laws of nature, the ‘sciences of man’ (geisteswissenschaften as those in this almost-exclusively-German tradition called them, taking after Dilthey, who coined the term) involve uncovering the reasons according to which actions are rational. The bifurcation of ‘explanation’ and ‘understanding’ defines this methodological difference; the social sciences, according to this tradition, require us to interpret social life and reconstruct the cultural or normative backdrop of a given set of events. In other words, the social world is one of meaning-laden actions taken by subjects moved by moral and instrumental reasons, and an explanation of those actions is an interpretation of them that shows why they made sense.

While this approach is historical, in that it involves rooting explanations in particular points of social time and space, it still leaves plenty of room for theorising. However, theory in this tradition is very different from theory in the positivist tradition; finding laws are not the goal (nor even held to be possible), but taxonomy and ideal-typification are common. The prototypical examples of theory in this tradition would be Weber’s taxonomy of authority and his attempt to explain the apparent affinity between capitalism and certain Christian communities in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. But in the past several decades, the interpretive tradition has taken a sharp post-modern turn, in which social scientists are less interested in trying to explain big social processes spanning tens or even hundreds of years and more interested in limiting their investigations to local and often overlooked discourses or forms of life , without trying to abstract from them. In other words, the interpretive tradition has taken on a distinctly anthropological sensitivity. This is not inconsistent with the roots of the hermeneutic or interpretivist tradition, for a consistent thread throughout is to treat theory more as a means of organising our data and less as means of uncovering deeper relationships, but the critical and post-modern shade of much scholarship entails a lack of interest in truth or objectivity that many scholars find off-putting. It is also difficult to talk of anything other than discourses and meanings in this tradition, which makes theorising social structures related to class-relations or institutional orderings like states or bureaucracies difficult if not impossible.

Structural Realisms: Historical Materialism, Structural Functionalism and Critical Realism

A third stream of social science, which sometimes gets conflated with positivism but which really, really isn’t, is Critical Realism and its antecedent in the social sciences[2], historical materialism. Historical materialism is the Marxist approach to theorising society, and classically involves explaining explaining all social phenomena as the product of underlying economic structures – of ‘basic’ relations of exploitation and exchange – and explaining variation across social time and space in terms of differences in the broader form (or ‘mode’) that those underlying structures take. This traditionally takes the form of mainly economic analyses of particular historical cases; knowledge is produced not through empirical cross-case comparison but through explicating the causal processes and relationships specific to those cases. In some ways similar to historical materialism, though not coming from the Marxist tradition, is structural functionalism. Structural functionalists hold that society is made up of interlocking sets of self-regulating systems, and thus that actions can be understood according to their role (or function) in maintaining the stability of those systems. Thus like historical materialism, structural functionalism involves explaining specific cases by making reference to a delimited set of social structures which determine who people are, what their interests are, and why they do what they do. The ‘economic determinism’ of historical materialism has fallen out of favour, and many aspects of the Marxist approach to thinking about the social world have been taken up by postmodern discourse theorists, while structural functionalism has fallen out of favour for all sorts of reasons, largely being replaced by historically-minded interpretivists or by rational choice theorists. But there remains an interest in ‘real structures’ and their properties. This interest has, over the past three decades, been increasingly taken up by Critical Realists, working from the philosophical foundations set forth by Roy Bhaskar.

Critical Realists retain the historical materialist view that society is constituted by structured relations between actors whose roles are defined by those relations, but drops the economic determinism; now structures of ideas can be just as causally important, and the structures salient to explaining society can comprise a nexus of interacting ideas, institutions, even physiological attributes. For example, gender can be as important as class. What really distinguishes Critical Realism here is the addition of a dispositional theory of causality to that structural ontology. Critical Realists hold that structures have ‘causal powers’ – the inherent disposition to generate a discrete set of effects under the right conditions. Explanation thus consists of the identification of the structures, causal powers, and conditions that generate social events – to go beyond correlations of outcomes and to find the underlying social objects and relationships that make society what it is. Thus while it is historical like the Weberian or hermeneutical tradition, it is not about trying to understand how situated social actors make sense of their worlds, but about describing the world as it really is, with theories serving not merely as ideal types but as possibly correct representations of objective reality.

While Critical Realism is considerably more sensitive to the power of ideas than historical materialism, it depends heavily upon highly contentious ontological and epistemological presuppositions, including strong emergence and the possibility of isomorphically representing the social world through our theories.[3] While a Critical Realist philosophical framework makes it possible to use the language of causation and constitution to discuss a wide range of social phenomena, it ceases to be much more than a very complex set of ideal types if it can’t be realist. At this point, it becomes nothing more than a curiously blithe form of interpretivism, in which relatively little explanatory role is given to the uncovered reasons that people had for doing what they did, and most attention is paid to arranging the data into coherent structural patterns – in other words, hermeneutics that ignore the very thing that would make them explanatorily adequate, out of the vain desire to transcend the perspectives of individual subjects. Suffice it to say, this would also deprive Critical Realism of much of what makes it ‘critical’ to begin with.

Some Final Words, and My Take

I broadly locate myself in the hermeutical or interpretivist tradition, but I find a great deal of value in Critical Realism as well. Ultimately, I find many of the criticisms of realist philosophy of social science to be compelling: I do not think that it is possible to describe some ‘really real reality’ through the use of language, and even if there is enough stability to the natural world for some sort of quasi-realism, I do not thing that the social world exhibits that level of stability. I join with the American Pragmatists in viewing the entire project of theorising as an attempt to make sense of the world, and thus I ultimately see theories as ideal-types. That said, it is common for hermeneutic and interpretivist approaches to focus so much on individual minds or, alternatively, on mind-less discourses containing no agents but only symbols, and these approaches make it hard to think about the big picture in social life. It may be that the idea of a social structure, like class or gender, is nothing more than a convenient way for us to organise our experiences of the world as we live through it, but it is a very helpful idea nonetheless. It is a challenge to link the concept of a structure, which is basically ‘objective’ in character and which sits at a ‘macro-level’ position in our social ontologies, and the phenomenal bedrock of life and action that underpins the hermeneutical approach. [4] But that challenge need not prevent us from maintaining our broadly hermeuticist philosophical foundations and still building theories that make reference to macro- or meso-level social things like structures, processes, causal mechanisms, and the like. It merely means that we must ultimately recognise that our theories about such things are about solving conceptual problems arising out of our need to understand, and not about painting a picture of the social world as it really is.

Finally, one might notice that I’ve devoted little time to my position on positivism. This is ultimately because I find positivism an uninteresting and unhelpful form of theorising. Its fundamental mode is to locate conjunctions of events, but this provides me with no satisfying account of causal relationships or of actors’ reasons. In other words, it provides neither explanation nor understanding.


[1] This is not to say that the natural sciences don’t feature many significant methodological debates, nor that natural scientists never consider questions of philosophical relevance. Rather, I mean that the basic questions about being and knowledge that must be given at least implicit answers in order for a science to proceed don’t really come into the picture like they do in the social science.

[2] It is important to note that Critical Realism is not supposed to be specific to the social sciences, even if philosophers of the natural sciences have not given it much attention.

[3] This would be contentious for a few reasons. First, many physicalists – and Critical Realism is a kind of physicalism – would deny that mental states could be anything other or more than token ‘brain’ states, meaning that agency, which is an essential feature of the social world, is a sort of ‘illusion’ resulting from the vast complexity of the mind. Were this true, Critical Realist theories would be guilty of reducing actors to ‘structural dopes‘, and therefore would suffer from the same undesirable determinism as their historical materialist and structural functionalist predecessors. Second, all of the criticisms that philosophers have made of the notion that we can ‘step outside of language’ or in any way represent an ‘external reality’ through language apply to Critical Realism in a way that they do not to hermeneutical/interpretivist or even to positivist alternatives.

[4] A challenge I hope to take up in some of my own work.


Radicalisation, Belief, and Violence

An awfully popular and depressingly always-relevant topic discussion these days is the relationship between radicalisation, violence, and ideological or religious belief. One of the most salient questions people seem to want to answer is on the connection between scriptural or textual interpretation (i.e. what it says in the holy book) and the motives that members of radical groups have for committing violent acts. This post is my attempt to introduce some of the academic literature on radicalisation to the discussion. In it I will tackle several key questions by reviewing several of the most well-regarded scholars and articles:

  • What is radicalisation?
  • Who becomes a radical?
  • How does one become a radical?
  • What is the role of religion or ideological belief?

Specifically, I will rely as much as possible on four articles. They are ‘Mechanisms of Political Radicalization‘ (2005), by McCauley and Moskalenko [pdf], ‘The Staircase to Terrorism‘ (2005), by Mohaddam [pdf], ‘The Role of Religious Fundamentalism in Terrorist Violence‘ (2007), by Rogers et al [pdf], and ‘The Trouble with Radicalization‘ (2013), by Neumann [pdf]. There are two reasons for this. The first is that it lets me defer as much as possible to scholars whose expertise on this issue vastly exceeds my own. Peter Neumann, for example, is among the world’s foremost authorities on radicalisation, and has co-directed the ICSR for many years. The second is that it allows anyone who finds my claims contentious to easily check my sources and confirm for themselves that I am accurately representing the opinion of these experts. To facilitate this, I will be detailed in my citations.

What is radicalisation?

As Neumann points out, the word ‘radical’ has no meaning outside of a larger social context in which certain views are viewed as more extreme than others (876). Nevertheless, he suggests some basic definitions. ‘Radicalization’, he writes, ‘is the process whereby people become extremists’ (874). He identifies a conceptual divide between ‘between notions of radicalization that emphasize extremist beliefs (‘cognitive radicalization’) and those that focus on extremist behaviour (‘behavioural radicalization’)’ (873). He uses this divide to examine a debate within the scholarly literature on radicalisation between those who focus on the way in which individuals develop extremist beliefs and then decide, for whatever reason, to engage in violence based on those beliefs, and those who believe attention should be directed primarily at behaviour alone. Neumann’s conclusion, however, is that both the substantive beliefs that actors hold and the social mechanisms by which extremists engage in violence (the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’) are essential to the picture, and suggests that social movement theory provides a way forward in thinking about radicalisation and violence (884).

The conceptual distinction between cognitive and behavioural extremism is paralleled in how McCauley and Moskalenko approach the nature of radicalisation: ‘Functionally, political radicalization is increased preparation for and commitment to intergroup conflict. Descriptively, radicalization means change in beliefs, feelings, and behaviors in directions that increasingly justify intergroup violence and demand sacrifice in defense of the ingroup’ (416). As this shows, they are interested specifically in what leads to violence.

Fathali Moghaddam takes the more practical approach of looking at what moves people to engage in terrorism, defined as ‘politically motivated violence, perpetrated by individuals, groups, or state-sponsored agents, intended to instill feelings of terror and helplessness in a population in order to influence decision making and to change behavior’ (161). By extension, an extremist or a radical is someone willing to engage in such actions. Rogers et al, meanwhile, seem interested in whatever will make a person from a religious group willing to kill and die for a cause, as they are both casting their net wide and looking mainly at religious radicalism, as opposed to other forms (254).

For what it’s worth, I prefer the definition proposed by McCauley and Moskalenko, as I think it is the most flexible and unproblematic, while taking into account some of the normative concerns that Neumann brings up regarding cultural context.

Who becomes a radical?

It is evident simply from a brief consideration of the wide range of violent ideological and religious groups that have popped up around the world over the past century that many types of people can become a radical. In addition to Islamist groups, which surely need no listing, there have been Jewish groups (such as IZL and the Stern Gang), Buddhist groups (see the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Muslims by Buddhists in Burma), Sikh groups (such as those responsible for the Air India bombing), Hindu groups (such as the LTTE, who were until 2000 responsible for more suicide bombings than every other group in the world combined), Christian groups and individuals (such as the Phalangists or, arguably, Anders Breivik), Marxist-Leninist groups (such as the Red Army Faction), purely nationalist groups (such as the IRA),  and anarchists (such as Action Directe).

Psychologists and psychiatrists have consistently found that individuals who become terrorists are not, as a rule, psychopathic or otherwise psychologically abnormal (Rogers et al 2007, 254 citing a long list of other experts). Neumann, Moghaddam, McCauley and Moskalenko, and Rogers et al all find that radical or terrorist violence is a ‘last resort’ for most people, coming only after they have gone through a long process of increasing individual radicalisation and commitment to radical activities and groups.

How does one become a radical?

While Neumann in the article of his that I’m citing here does not really discuss this issue, instead reviewing major debates in the literature, he has elsewhere offered a model of radicalisation claiming that individuals begin with sets of social/political grievances, develop an ideology that explains the origins of these grievances and proposes possible solutions for them, and finally mobilise through various social mechanisms to engage in extremist or violent actions.

Moghaddam uses the metaphor of a staircase to explain how individuals move through increasing levels of radicalisation until the point that they are finally ready to engage in violent actions. Each of the steps represents an individual’s progress towards more radical values and activity, and while many people may climb the lower steps, only a few ascend all the way. The mechanisms that drive radicalisation, in his model, differ per ‘step’ of the staircase, but include such things as the displacement of aggression, the solidification of categorical thinking, and the sidestepping of inhibitions (164-166).

McCauley and Moskalenko use the metaphor of a pyramid, with a wide range of mechanisms spanning the very personal/individual to the broadly social all having the power to tug people towards the apex, although, like Moghaddam, they observe that an ever diminishing number of people reach that apex and engage in radical violence. Their mechanisms are helpfully laid out in this table here.

mechanisms of radicalisation
Rogers et al conclude based on an extensive literature review that radicals are usually ‘rational, psychologically healthy individuals’ (256) and are drawn into engaging in violent activity by a range of social drivers, such as ‘the loss of parents or loved ones (fragmented families), severe conflict, especially with parents, and the existence of a criminal record’ (Ibid.). While they affirm the importance of cultural values validating self-sacrifice or struggle, they find these values wholly inadequate for explaining why terrorism happens (257), preferring to focus on the role of group social dynamics and the ways in which personal identity becomes subordinated to group identity and violence becomes a necessary action for an individual to take in order to affirm their sense of self (258-259). In this they draw upon the literature in social identity theory,  from social psychology.

What is the role of religion and ideological belief?

As Neumann points out, looking at the substance of radical beliefs is essential to understanding why some radical individuals engage in violence and others do not (880). However, in many cases the substance of religious belief has been found to be less important than tactical or strategic pressures. As Rogers et al note, a near consensus has formed that religious beliefs poorly explain suicide bombing, and that other situational factors are far more significant, such as concrete grievances and self-esteem issues on the part of the bomber (254). Furthermore, while LTTE represents a primarily Hindu ethnic group, its aspirations and organisational institutions are for the most part secular, but they have made extensive use of suicide bombing.

None of the models describing the process of radicalisation that I have cited make much reference to the substance of belief. They refer instead to the power of interpersonal dynamics, such as peer pressures, or socio-economic dynamics such as competition for resources or state use of repression, to explain why individuals come to the conclusion that extremist beliefs and actions are justified. This suggests, I think, that while looking at such things as religion is important, both because it helps us to understand the rhetoric and vocabulary with which extremists express their grievances and demands, and because it helps us to understanding the historical basis of certain social identities and groups, it is less helpful to look at theology or ideology as an explanation for radical violence.

Instead, as these various radicalisation experts show, it is more productive to look at psychological and social mechanisms that drive increased involvement in radical activities and which progressively limit the options available to individuals until they feel like violence is the only thing left to them.


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