Tag Archives: Islamic Terrorism

How Terrorists Are Made: 2 — Group Grievance

Continuing the series on Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko. Previous post: How Terrorists… 1 – Personal Grievance.

This post looks at the psychological mechanisms at work among those who are radicalized and turn to terrorist acts in response to threats or harm inflicted on a group of cause they care about.

Readiness to sacrifice for friends and family is so common that it is often seen as natural and no more in need of explanation than having two eyes. But sacrifices for non-kin present more of a puzzle.

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Vera Zasulich (1849-1919), a leading nihilist, shoots and wounds police chief Trepov in retaliation for his brutality : she is tried but acquitted by a sympathetic court.1878
Vera Zasulich (1849-1919), shoots and wounds police chief Trepov in retaliation for his brutality : she is tried but acquitted by a sympathetic court.1878

Vera Zazulich (alt Zasulich. Link is to Wikipedia article)

Nineteenth century Russia was a time of social turmoil. Vera Zazulich, from a modest noble family, became involved in student activist circles. She was arrested and exiled to a remote village in 1869 but returned to mix with a new student group.

Zasulich became outraged over an event she read about in the newspapers — the flogging of a political prisoner. The Governor of St Petersburg, Trepov, had passed the prisoner twice; the first time the prisoner removed his hat but not the second time. Trepov ordered him to be flogged. Zasulich did not know the prisoner, was not herself threatened in any way, but according to her own testimony at her trial she decided to risk her own life to follow her conscience and attempt deliver justice upon cruel government officials for their mistreatment of student activists. (Zasulich had planned with a friend to kill two government officials and drew lots to decide their respective targets.)

Their motivation was to see justice done. It was entirely altruistic. They had nothing to gain; Zasulich was acting on behalf of people she did not know against others she did not know personally. Her actions and testimony following her crime (she did not attempt to hide and said she was prepared to face any penalty the court decided) make it clear that she had nothing to gain for herself. read more »

Two New Books: On Suicide Bombing & Muslim Secular Democracy

Two new books arrived in my mail this morning. One I had purchased, the other was a gift.

Having skimmed a few pages of each I am already well pleased with my new acquisitions. Stephanie Fisher once commented on one of these, Muslim Secular Democracy, edited by Lily Zubaidah Rahim, and that has only just been released:

It seems to me, from the interview, your summary and the blurb on Amazon, that what she claims is beyond refute. It’s historically demonstratable and what I once thought was commonly understood. I do wish those who dismiss Islam with assumptions about a ‘heart’ etc, would honestly read a bit of history. The more I dwell on it the more convinced I am that this book, combined with Espositos must be read for the sake of a future – for god’s sake world, read them and understand….:

Stephanie’s remarks about reading and knowing a little history turn out to be a most pertinent message of both my new books.

Another commenter recently asserted, in effect, that the failure of Muslim populations of the Middle East to change their governments demonstrated that they loved oppressive and dark religious authoritarian rule more than freedom and an open society. I wish such readers could have a look over my shoulder as I read the first page of the introduction to Muslim Secular Societies:

In the wake of the political sandstorms unleashed by the “Arab Uprisings,” almost every Arab state faces serious political challenges and pressures to reform. Authoritarian governance, both Islamic and secular, has been resoundingly rejected by the Muslim masses. Also resoundingly rejected by the Muslim masses are the violent methods of militant Islamists. (p. 1)

Turn the page and we read this: read more »

Someone get Scott Atran to tell us which soccer club these guys belonged to. — Tweet from Sam Harris

Nigeria's Street Football: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-15257141
Nigeria’s Street Football: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-15257141

The title was a tweet by Sam Harris: https://twitter.com/samharrisorg/status/337313832814919680 in response to the horrific terrorist murder of Lee Rigby in London. I told someone in a recent comment that I would do a post explaining my perspective on what lies behind Harris’s response. (In that same comment thread one can see a video in which Sott Atran goes some way to explaining what a soccer club has to do with terrorism.)

Firstly, who is Scott Atran? From Wikipedia:

Scott Atran (born 1952) is an American and French anthropologist who is a

  • Director of Research in Anthropology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris,
  • Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University in England,
  • Presidential Scholar at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York,
  • and also holds offices at the University of Michigan.

He has studied and written about terrorism, violence and religion, and has done fieldwork with terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists, as well as political leaders. . . .

. . . he received his PhD in anthropology from Columbia University. . . .

Atran has experimented on the ways scientists and ordinary people categorize and reason about nature, on the cognitive and evolutionary psychology of religion, and on the limits of rational choice in political and cultural conflict. His work has been widely published internationally in the popular press, and in scientific journals in a variety of disciplines. He has briefed members of the U.S. Congress and the National Security Council staff at the White House on the The Devoted Actor versus the Rational Actor in Managing World Conflict, on the Comparative Anatomy and Evolution of Global Network Terrorism, and on Pathways to and from Violent Extremism. He was an early critic of U.S. intervention in Iraq and of deepening involvement in Afghanistan, and he has been engaged in conflict negotiations in the Middle East. . . .

Atran’s debates with “new atheists” Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins and others during the Beyond Belief symposium on the limits of reason and the role of religion in modern society highlight the differences between “new atheists” who see religion as fundamentally false and politically and socially repressive, or worse, and those like Atran who see unfalsifiable but semantically absurd religious beliefs as historically critical to the formation of large-scale societies and current motivators for both conflict and cooperation.

Atran has taught at

  • Cambridge University,
  • Hebrew University in Jerusalem,
  • and the École des Hautes Études in Paris.

He is currently

  • a research director in anthropology at the French National Centre for Scientific Research
  • and member of the Jean Nicod Institute at the École Normale Supérieure.
  • He is also visiting professor of psychology and public policy at the University of Michigan,
  • presidential scholar in sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City,
  • senior research fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford University,
  • and cofounder of ARTIS Research and Risk Modeling.

I am belatedly catching up with two of his books, In Gods We Trust and Talking to the Enemy, after having read a few of his scholarly journal and online writings.

I mentioned Atran’s video presentation — there is also follow up to that and Atran’s exchanges with Sam Harris at The Reality Club, Beyond Belief webpage (note on that page there are several in depth comments by Atran). Of his exchange with Sam Harris he writes: read more »

Flawed and Dangerous: The Popular Notion of “Religious Terrorism”

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Richard Jackson is currently Deputy Director at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS).

Available online is a Political Studies Review 2009 article “The Study of Terrorism after 11 September 2001: Problems, Challenges and Future Developments” by Richard Jackson “of Aberystwyth University”. (Professor Richard Jackson has since moved to the University of Otago so is not to be confused with the current Richard Jackson at Aberystwyth University who is Professor of Accounting and Finance.)

I am copying an extract from that article here, having changed some of its formatting and added highlighting for easier reading. This section is a damning indictment on the popular notion of “religious terrorism” so I should first quote the far more optimistic abstract of the entire article.

Terrorism studies is one of the fastest-growing areas of social scientific research in the English-speaking world. This article examines some of the main challenges, problems and future developments facing the wider terrorism studies field through a review of seven recently published books. It argues that while a great deal of the current research is characterised by a persistent set of weaknesses, an increasing number of theoretically rigorous and critically oriented studies that challenge established views suggest genuine reasons for optimism about the future of terrorism research.

So there is hope beyond the travesty addressed in the following extract. (I have copied the details of the cited works at the end.)

The Rise of ‘Islamic Terrorism’ Studies

Predicated on the popular notion of ‘religious terrorism’ first articulated by David Rapoport (1984) and galvanised by the identities of the 11 September 2001 attackers and the massive media coverage given to al-Qa’eda, an extremely large literature on ‘Islamic terrorism’ has developed in the past six years (Jackson, 2007a). Silke’s analysis of articles published in the leading terrorism studies journals demonstrates that studies on al-Qa’eda and affiliated groups grew significantly after 1995 and now make up a significant proportion of all terrorism studies published in the core journals (Silke, 2004b).

With a few notable exceptions (see Gerges, 2005; Gunning,2007b; Halliday, 2002), the vast majority of this literature can be criticised for

  • its orientalist outlook,
  • its political biases
  • and its descriptive over-generalisations,
  • misconceptions
  • and lack of empirically grounded knowledge (see Jackson, 2007a).

Rooted in an uncritical and simple-minded acceptance of the notion of a ‘new’ kind of ‘religious terrorism’, this literature

  • typically adopts an undifferentiated and highly exaggerated view of the threat posed by ‘Islamism’,
  • traces a causal link between Islamic doctrine and terrorist violence,
  • attributes religious as opposed to political motives to ‘Islamic terrorists’,
  • fails to differentiate between local political struggles and a global anti-Western movement
  • and assumes that the religious motivations of ‘Islamic terrorism’ rule out all possibilities for dialogue and diplomacy
  • – among others.

Shmuel Bar’s (2006) Warrant for Terror is in many ways emblematic of this popular literature. Based on an analysis of a large number of recent fatwas, or the legal opinions of Islamic jurists that deal with the permissibility or prohibition of actions (Bar, 2006, p. x), Bar’s aim is to explore the role fatwas play in ‘Islam-motivated terrorism’ (p. xiii). read more »