"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
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.
Tori DeAngelis American Psychological Association November 2009
Guardian 20 August 2009
Munira Mirza Rising East 4 May 2006
Brendan O'Neill spiked 18 July 2005
Gary Younge Guardian 11 July 2005
Todd Richissin Sydney Morning Herald 3 September 2004
Minette Marrin The Sunday Times 10 January 2010
Arundhati Roy Guardian 13 December 2008
Bill Durodie spiked review of books May 2008
Rob Weatherill Culture Wars 4 March 2008
Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema Islamabad Policy Research Institute 4 February 2007
Brendan O'Neill Slate 1 June 2006
Andy Beckett Guardian 15 October 2004
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.
al-Jazeera 31 August 2009
BBC 8 July 2008
Ayaan Hirsi Ali New York Times 6 January 2008
spiked 28 November 2003
Professor Adam Roberts BBC History 27 August 2002
Mark LeVine University of California, Irvine 4 October 2001
BBC News 2001
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.
Guardian 26 January 2010
Guardian 24 January 2010
Independent 24 January 2010
BBC News 24 January 2010
Daily Telegraph 23 January 2010
Daily Telegraph 18 January 2010
The Times 29 December 2009
Guardian 7 September 2009
Guardian 6 July 2009
Guardian 20 April 2009
The Nation (Pakistan) 20 February 2009
Melanie Newman Times Higher Education 17 July 2008
Guardian 19 July 2005
BBC News 1 May 1999