Ask most people to describe modern-day terrorists, and they’ll probably talk about Islamist groups such as al-Qa’ida, Hamas, Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, or the 7/7 Bombers, or some other group of Muslims Who Hate Our Guts. This is not unreasonable, since for the past few decades the majority of terrorist acts that have received global attention have been carried out by MWHOG. It isn’t unreasonable to cite their religion as an important part of their identity, because they themselves express their goals and motives in religious language. The fallacy occurs when we start to talk about their terrorism as though it’s fundamentally different from the terrorism that secular groups have used, because of its ostensibly religious character.
I’m in a Masters degree programme studying terrorism. In my core class, there is not a single Muslim. I don’t think many of my classmates have any education in Islamic theology or history, nor in ways in which Islam is a part of modern politics. This ignorance constrains the extent to which my classmates will be able situate terrorism and the policy responses it generates in any sort of broader present-day context. Some have be tempted to put Islamist terrorism into a category of ‘religious terrorism.’ Others have preferred the opposite extreme, and view religion as the convenient language for presenting political grievance. While I think this latter position is closer to the truth, it is still missing some very important parts of the picture. When a political commentary is expressed and justified through the norms of religion, that religion becomes the framework for discourse and thus becomes increasingly powerful in shaping the perspectives and principles of those engaged.
On that note, what is ‘terrorism’? Nobody-but-nobody can agree on a good definition. However, the consensus starting point for most scholars seems to be that it is is ‘a politically motivated tactic involving the threat or use of force or violence in which the pursuit of publicity plays a significant role.’ According to Weinberg and Pedahzur’s 2004 paraphrase of the results of a survey sent to some of them by Alex Schmid in in 1985. This is as good a starting point as any, though. Basically, here’s what we need to remember:
Terrorists are pursuing a political agenda through communication.
Terrorism isn’t merely about the act of violence. It’s about publicising that act, communicating justifications and desires. Depending on the context it isn’t even about convincing people to fear you, but about convincing people to like you, to follow your example, and to support your agenda. Propaganda by deed. Hence if you want to know what’s going on in the minds of any given terrorist group, it’s essential to begin with the basics of communcation: ‘who says what to whom through which channels to what effect?’
Most have answers for only some of these questions at best. Who are they? People for whom religion offers the normative framework with which they build their understanding of the world. By what channel do they communicate? Mass media. To what effect? Hard to say, as most repudiate but still many sympathise. It is the ‘what’ and the ‘to whom’ that require us to know something about the relevant religion and its aherents. I think that if we commentators and students, hoping for good analysis and scholarship, understood better the impetus behind the ‘Islamist turn’ in the politics of many Arab and Muslim countries, and of Islamic history and thought itself, we’d develop a better grasp of what those terrorists on the news are trying to say and how their message will be received.
Instead we often shove it into one of two binary categories. Either we call it ‘stuff done by religious psychos‘ and through our ignorance fail to see how this terrorism contains rational engagement with the real world, or we prefer the cynical assumption that it is ‘stuff done by people with a realpolitik agenda who make pragmatic use of religious terms.’ What we often forget is that religious radicalism is embedded within a nuanced political and cultural discourse of careful historical narratives, allusions to popular symbols, and philosophical appeals to shared principles. We fail to see the interplay of Islamic norms, popular reality, and the tensions between pragmatism and dogmatism.
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