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TOPIC GUIDE: Terrorism ideology and injustice

"Terrorism, ideology and injustice – exploring the roots of contemporary terrorism and the arguments about the role of ideas"

PUBLISHED: 01 Feb 2010

AUTHOR: Dolan Cummings

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Terrorism is rarely out of the news today. In the wake of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day [Ref: Daily Telegraph], and following subsequent investigations, the Home Office raised the UK terror threat in January to ‘severe’, meaning that an attack is ‘highly likely’ [Ref: Independent]. More than eight years on from the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington [Ref: BBC], and more than four years since the 7/7 attacks in London [Ref: BBC], the threat of radical Islamist terrorism continues to haunt British life. Debates rage about the efficacy and legitimacy of the ‘war on terror’, with some arguing that Western foreign policy only provokes further attacks [Ref: Guardian], and others insisting there can be no let up in the struggle to defeat terrorism [Ref: BBC]. Similarly, there are disputes about whether we should compromise our civil liberties for the sake of greater security, or whether that just diminishes the very freedom we are supposed to be defending [Ref: Debating Matters]. But what is terrorism, and what different understandings lie behind the various arguments about how to address it? Terrorism certainly means different things at different times and places, but by exploring the debates about terrorism here and now, we can also better understand our own society and the tensions within it.

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Terrorism and injustice

Historically, debates about terrorism were closely connected to conflicting ideas about justice and injustice. Two or three decades ago, terrorism in the UK was most likely to mean Irish Republican violence. The Provisional IRA had been waging a campaign against the British state since 1969, both attacking British troops in Northern Ireland and conducting high-profile bomb attacks on the British mainland, resulting in civilian deaths and casualties [Ref: BBC]. Then it was relatively clear what was at stake: the IRA was demanding British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, and for reunification with the Republic. The British state, supported by the Unionist majority in Northern Ireland itself, refused to recognise this is as a legitimate claim, and sought to defeat the IRA by military means. As with the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East [Ref: Guardian], the issue hinged on conflicting ideas about who was in the right, and while the majority of the British public opposed the IRA, there were those who believed they were rightly confronting injustice, including a very significant section of the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland itself. Indeed, in the twentieth century, it was often argued that, ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. Some argue that today’s Islamist terror is also a response to injustice, whether the mistreatment of Muslims and the Palestinians in particular or the oppression of the poor world in general [Ref: UN News Centre]. Indian writer Arundhati Roy argued after the 2008 attacks on Mumbai that these were ‘blowback’ for various injustices [Ref: Guardian]. There was a huge controversy after the 7/7 attacks in London about whether they were a consequence of the invasion of Iraq [Ref: Guardian], with then Prime Minister Tony Blair refusing to accept that they were. What is at stake however, is not merely motivation, or even the justice or injustice of the Iraq invasion or anything else, but also whether terrorists can be said to represent any constituency beyond themselves [Ref: Carnegie Council].

Terrorism and ideology

Terrorism is traditionally understood as being grounded in extremist ideologies. An ideology is a particular way of thinking that expresses the interests of a specific group, or a vision of the world as they would like it to be. The Irish and Palestinian cases can both be seen as examples of ‘national liberation struggles’, whereby a large group of people present themselves as a nation demanding sovereignty, which is not currently recognised by existing states [Ref: IRSM]. Not all advocates of these struggles endorsed violence, but those who did drew on the authority of that nationalist ideology. Other terrorists in the twentieth century claimed to be fighting for socialism, like the Red Brigades in Italy [Ref: Wikipedia], while still others have carried out attacks in the name of far-right ideologies [Ref: The Times]. Opposition to such terrorism can focus on condemning the tactics, while recognising the legitimacy of the ideology, or attacking the ideology itself. Those who argued that the 7/7 attacks were ‘blowback’ for the Iraq war typically condemned the attacks as murderous, while suggesting a real grievance lay behind them, and even that they added to the case against the war [Ref: Guardian]. In contrast, few people accepted the ideological assumptions of David Copeland, who nail-bombed a gay pub in London in 1999 [Ref: BBC]. In fact, one enduring response to terrorism is to label the terrorists as disturbed or insane, which may of course be true in some cases. Experts on terrorism now often study the psychology of terrorists: while this does not preclude an ideological aspect to their behaviour, it does tend to diminish its importance [Ref: APA]. Others, notably the filmmaker Adam Curtis [Ref: Internet Archive], have focused on how contemporary Islamist ideology allegedly emerged not simply in opposition to Western foreign policy, but at other times as a result of Western support [Ref: CRG].

Terrorism and nihilism

Not all terrorism can be described as ideological, or indeed even as the work of disturbed individuals. Some of the earliest terrorists were the Russian nihilists of the nineteenth century, who rejected all authority and used violence against the existing order without putting forward a coherent ideology of their own [Ref: Wikipedia]. They were later superseded by the precursors of the communist movement, but the nihilist outlook has recurred at various times and in various places since. Nihilism is particularly associated with relatively privileged and educated sections of society, and some have suggested that many radical Islamist terrorists fit this mould rather better than that of the freedom fighter or even religious zealot [Ref: Washington Examiner]. Since many such terrorists, including the 9/11 attackers and the failed ‘underpants bomber’ of December 2009, were educated in the West, it has been suggested that we should look closer to home to understand their thinking, rather than blaming foreign ideologies [Ref: New Statesman]. Why is it that young people exposed to the best the West has to offer choose to reject everything it stands for? And what do the ‘war on terror’, and reactions to it domestically, tell as about Western attitudes to our own declared values, from civil liberties to the belief in social progress?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Understanding terrorism

Tori DeAngelis American Psychological Association November 2009

Multiculturalism and the ‘war on terror’

Munira Mirza Rising East 4 May 2006

Creating the enemy

Brendan O'Neill spiked 18 July 2005

Blair’s Blowback

Gary Younge Guardian 11 July 2005

Fighting injustice, oppression only way to defeat terrorism

Todd Richissin Sydney Morning Herald 3 September 2004


We must target radicals – before they target us

Minette Marrin The Sunday Times 10 January 2010

The monster in the mirror

Arundhati Roy Guardian 13 December 2008

History: it’s just one bloody thing after another,

Bill Durodie spiked review of books May 2008

Reasoning out suicidal mass murder

Rob Weatherill Culture Wars 4 March 2008

The root causes of terrorism

Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema Islamabad Policy Research Institute 4 February 2007

The making of the terror myth

Andy Beckett Guardian 15 October 2004

Rational Extremism: Understanding Terrorism in the Twenty-first Century

David A Lake IO Foundation and MIT Symposium on September 11, Cambridge University Press 24 April 2003


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

PLO: History of a Revolution

al-Jazeera 31 August 2009

London Attacks

BBC 8 July 2008

Blind Faiths

Ayaan Hirsi Ali New York Times 6 January 2008

Does al-Qaeda exist?

spiked 28 November 2003

The Changing Faces of Terrorism

Professor Adam Roberts BBC History 27 August 2002

10 Things to Know about Terrorism

Mark LeVine University of California, Irvine 4 October 2001

Al Qaeda overview


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


Book launch for Invitation to Terror

Frank Furedi Battle of Ideas 2007


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