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The moral outrage at the actions of Islamic State (IS) is easy to both express and justify. An organisation that engages in immolation, decapitation, crucifixion and brutal corporal punishment; that seemingly deploys children as executioners; that imposes profound restrictions on the life-choices and opportunities of women; and that destroys cultural heritage that predates Islam is despicable. What drives such condemnation is complex and multifaceted, however.
When the suspect in the attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina was identified, the authorities circulated a photograph of him wearing a jacket adorned with the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and post-UDIRhodesia.
The symbolism isn't subtle. Like the confederate flag that flies over the South Carolina capitol, these are flags of explicitly white supremacist governments.
Rhodesia plays a particular role within right-wing American militia culture, linking anti-communism and white supremacy. The downfall of white Rhodesia has its own sort of lost cause mythic power not just for avowed white supremacists, but for the paramilitarist wing of gun culture generally.
The power of Rhodesia for paramilitarists is evident throughout the history of Soldier of Fortune magazine, a magazine that in the 1980s especially achieved real prominence. The first issue of SoF was published in the summer of 1975, and its cover story, titled "American Mercenaries in Africa", was publisher Robert K. Brown's tale of his visit to Rhodesia in the spring of 1974. (You can see the whole issue here on Scribd. Warning: There's a gruesome and disturbing picture of a corpse with a head wound accompanying the article.) For Brown's perspective on his time in Rhodesia, see this post at Ammoland.
SoF continued to publish articles on Rhodesia throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s. They also published articles about South Africa. Here's a two-page spread from the August 1985 anniversary issue (click to enlarge):
The introduction to the first article states:
SOF made quite a reputation in the early years of publication for fearless, firsthand reporting from the bloody battlefields of Rhodesia. Our efforts in that ill-fated African nation and our support of the Rhodesian government in operations against communist insurgents gained us two unfortunate, undeserved labels: racists and mercenaries. We are neither. On the other hand, we have never avoided consorting with genuine mercs to insure readers get the look and feel of Third World battlefields.
It's true that anti-communism was the primary ideology of SoF in the 1970s and 1980s and that they would take the side of anyone they considered anti-communist regardless of their race or nationality — they published countless articles supporting the mujahideen in Afghanistan, the Karen rebels in Burma (heroes of Rambo 4), and the contras in Nicaragua. (Ronald Reagan, he of the Iran-Contra scandal, supported white Rhodesia even longer than Henry Kissinger, causing them to have their first public disagreement. See Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge pp. 671-673.) But the kind of anti-communism that supported Ian Smith's Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa was an anti-communism that supported white supremacist government.
The second page there begins an article written by a veteran of the South African anti-insurgency campaigns, and it sings the praises of the brutal Koevoet (crowbar) unit in Namibia. Here's a passage from the next page: "It doesn't pay to play insurgency games with Koevoet. SWAPO had felt the force of the crowbar designed to pry them out of Ovamboland."
It's no great mystery why such campaigns would appeal to white supremacist groups, and why white supremacists would use the examples of Rhodesia and South Africa to stoke the fears and passions of their followers.
Consider the Greensboro massacre of November 1979. Tensions between the Communist Workers Party and the Ku Klux Klan led to the Klan and the American Nazi Party killing 5 activists. The neo-Nazi and Klan members accused of the crimes were acquitted. The head of the North Carolina chapter of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party of America in 1979 was Harold Covington, who was implicated in the massacre but never faced criminal charges. Covington loved to brag that he'd been a mercenary in Rhodesia, though his brother claimed that wasn't quite accurate:
I suppose he wanted to move someplace where everything was white and bright, so after a yearlong stint at the Nazi Party headquarters, he wound up going to Rhodesia, and he joined the Rhodesian Army. In different blogs and writings, he was always bragging, "Oh, I was a mercenary in Rhodesia and I went out and did all this fighting." But to the best of my knowledge, according to the letters he wrote to my parents, he was a file clerk. He certainly never fired a shot in anger. He started agitating over there, and the [white-led] Ian Smith government said, "We have problems enough without this nutcase," and they bounced him.
The myth of the lost white land of Rhodesia has proved resilient for the paramilitary right. It plays into macho adventure fantasies as well as terror fantasies of black hordes wiping out virtuous white minorities. Rhodesia sits comfortably among the other icons of militia culture, as James William Gibson showed in his 1994 book Warrior Dreams, in which he described a visit to a Soldier of Fortune convention:
All the T-shirts had their poster equivalent, but much else was available, too. John Wayne showed up in poses ranging from his Western classics to The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and The Green Berets (1968). Robocop and Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry decorated many a vendor's stall. An old Rhodesian Army recruiting poster with the invitation "Be a Man Among Men" hung alongside a "combat art" poster showing a helicopter door gunner whose wolf eyes stared out from under his helmet; heavy body armor and twin machine gun mounts hid his mortal flesh. (157-158)
Anti-communism doesn't have much resonance these days, and so the support of Rhodesia or apartheid South Africa can no longer be couched in any terms other than ones of white supremacy — terms that were previously always at least in the shadows. Militarism, machismo, and white supremacy have no objection to hanging out together, and the result of their association is often deadly.
An effective counter-terrorism policy requires the identification of domestic or international threats to a government, its civil society, and its institutions. Enemies of the state can be internal or external. Communist regimes of the twentieth century, for example, focused on internal enemies.
Category #6 is up today, and while Brown Girl Dreaming was one of my favorite reads of last year, I have opted to review the young reader’s edition of Malala’s story, which is co-written by the talented YA author (and … Continue reading →
Britain and the United States have been suffering from intervention fatigue. The reason is obvious: our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven far more costly and their results far more mixed and uncertain than we had hoped.
This fatigue manifested itself in almost exactly a year ago, when Britain’s Parliament refused to let the Government offer military support to the U.S. and France in threatening punitive strikes against Syria’s Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons. Since then, however, developments in Syria have shown that our choosing not to intervene doesn’t necessarily make the world a safer place. Nor does it mean that distant strife stays away from our shores.
There is reason to suppose that the West’s failure to intervene early in support of the 2011 rebellion against the repressive Assad regime left a vacuum for the jihadists to fill—jihadists whose ranks now include several hundred British citizens.
There’s also some reason to suppose that the West’s failure to support Georgia militarily against Russia in 2008, and to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons, has encouraged President Putin to risk at least covert military aggression in Ukraine. I’m not saying that the West should have supported Georgia and punished Assad. I’m merely pointing out that inaction has consequences, too, sometimes bad ones.
Now, however, despite out best efforts to keep out of direct involvement in Syria, we are being drawn in again. The rapid expansion of ‘Islamic State’, involving numerous mass atrocities, has put back on our national desk the question of whether we should intervene militarily to help stop them.
What guidance does the tradition of just war thinking give us in deliberating about military intervention? The first thing to say is that there are different streams in the tradition of just war thinking. In the stream that flows from Michael Walzer, the paradigm of a just war is national self-defence. More coherently, I think, the Christian stream, in which I swim, holds that the paradigm of a just war is the rescue of the innocent from grave injustice. This rescue can take either defensive or aggressive forms. The stipulation that the injustice must be ‘grave’ implies that some kinds of injustice should be borne rather than ended by war. This because war is a destructive and hazardous business, and so shouldn’t be ventured except for very strong reasons.
What qualifies as ‘grave’ injustice, then? In the 16th and 17th centuries just war theorists like Vitoria and Grotius proposed as candidates such inhumane social practices as cannibalism or human sacrifice. International law currently stipulates ‘genocide’. The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protest (‘R2P’) would broaden the law to encompass mass atrocity. Let’s suppose that mass atrocity characteristic of a ruling body is just cause for military intervention. Some nevertheless argue, in the light of Iraq and Afghanistan, that intervention is not an appropriate response, because it just ddoesn’twork. Against that conclusion, I call two witnesses, both of whom have served as soldiers, diplomats, and politicians, and have had direct experience of responsibility for nation-building: Paddy Ashdown and Rory Stewart.
Ashdown, the international High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002-6, argues that “[h]igh profile failures like Iraq should not … blind us to the fact that, overall, the success stories outnumber the failures by a wide margin”.
Rory Stewart was the Coalition Provisional Authority’s deputy governor of two provinces of southern Iraq from 2003-4. He approached the task of building a more stable, prosperous Iraq with optimism, but experience brought him disillusion. Nevertheless, Stewart writes that “it is possible to walk the tightrope between the horrors of over-intervention and non-intervention; that there is still a possibility of avoiding the horrors not only of Iraq but also of Rwanda; and that there is a way of approaching intervention that can be good for us and good for the country concerned”.
Notwithstanding that, one lesson from our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan—and indeed from British imperial history—is that successful interventions in foreign places, which go beyond the immediate fending off of indiscriminate slaughter on a massive scale to attempting some kind of political reconstruction, cannot be done quickly or on the cheap.
Here’s where national interest comes in. National interest isn’t necessarily immoral. A national government has a moral duty to look after the well being of its own people and to advance its genuine interests. What’s more, some kind of national interest must be involved if military intervention is to attract popular support, without which intervention is hard, eventually impossible, to sustain. One such interest can be moral integrity. Nations usually care about more than just being safe and fat. Usually they want to believe that they are doing the right thing, and they will tolerate the costs of war—up to a point—in a just cause that looks set to succeed. I have yet to meet a Briton who is not proud of what British troops achieved in Sierra Leone in the year 2000, even though Britain had no material stake in the outcome of that country’s civil war.
It is not unreasonable for them to ask why their sons and daughters should be put in harm’s way.
However, the nation’s interest in its own moral integrity alone will probably not underwrite military intervention that incurs very heavy costs. So other interests—such as national security—are needed to stiffen popular support for a major intervention. It is not unreasonable for a national people to ask why they should bear the burdens of military intervention, especially in remote parts of the world.
It is not unreasonable for them to ask why their sons and daughters should be put in harm’s way. And the answer to those reasonable questions will have to present itself in terms of the nation’s own interests. This brings us back to Syria and Islamic State. Repressive though the Assad regime was and is, and nasty though the civil war is, it probably wasn’t sufficiently in Britain’s national interest to become deeply involved militarily in 2011. The expansion of Islamic State, however, engages our interest in national security more directly, partly because as part of the West we are its declared enemy and partly because some of our own citizens are fighting for it and might bring their jihad back onto our own streets.
We do have a stronger interest, therefore, in taking the risks and bearing the costs of military intervention to stop and to disable Islamic State, and of subsequent political intervention to help create sustainable polities in Syria and Iraq.
In response to the arc of crisis burning across the Middle East, European governments seem to have reverted to traditional perspectives on stability and counter-terrorism. Their policies now exhibit many salient features from the pre-Arab spring period. European governments are active in the campaign against Islamic State and are providing Arab regimes with enhanced counter-terrorism, intelligence, and other security assistance.
So, have European policies come full-circle? Does counter-terrorism once again subordinate any focus on political and economic reform in the Middle East? In the early days of the Arab spring, ministers, leaders and commissioners lined up to insist they had learnt the lesson that security alliances with autocrats cannot in practice provide the stability that is their realpolitik justification. Have these same leaders now forgotten their own warnings?
There are certainly signs that the EU is reversing back to the past. Member states are reinforcing cooperation with Jordan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others in order to contain Islamic State. Military action against Islamic State is proceeding despite concerns that it is tilting the balance of power in Syria towards the Assad regime. Debates in Brussels focus on overcoming limitations to intelligence sharing and Europol’s constricted reach.
The prominent foreign policy debates are once again about defeating radical jihadism. Observing this fitful drift in strategic reflection is like watching a replay of the late 1990s or the period after the 9/11 attacks.
The reversion is not complete, however. Many still make the argument that stability, peace and de-radicalization ultimately depend on inclusive and participative government. EU policy-makers today have fewer illusions about purely security-oriented cooperation and alliances.
European governments have ruled out cooperating formally with the Syrian regime, and recall that Assad’s autocracy was one of the causes of the IS surge. Most stress that returning to the EU’s pre-2011 rapprochement with dictators such as Assad hardly offers grounds for sustained stabilization. They acknowledge that more not less priority needs to be given to encouraging inclusive, democratic government in Iraq. They are relatively uncritical towards the re-empowered Egyptian military, but maintain a greater distance than in the Mubarak era; several formal European statements have drawn attention to government repression in Egypt simply storing up the prospect of violence in the future.
Consequently, the situation is nuanced: the EU has tried security containment, and it has tried (modestly) backing the Arab spring as a route to social stability. Both apparently failed. So, what now?
The answer is that a better synthesis is needed between the security and reform agendas.
In the period prior to the Arab revolts, counter-terrorism experts played a more prominent role in European decision-making than those advocating a focus on supporting democratic reforms. In 2011 and 2012 this situation switched around: EU policy briefly became a more positive enterprise in assisting local Arab demands for better governance rather than a nervous and negative exercise in containment. It seemed that the main players in the region were IT-savvy, modern and cosmopolitan youngsters, not jihadists.
The pre-2011 policy over-played the counter-terrorism angle and failed to understand the Middle East’s underlying social changes. After 2011, the EU was not particularly ambitious in supporting democratic transitions; but its focus was on national-level reforms more than on the regional, geopolitical ramifications of states’ internal political changes.
It is easy to point out that a focus on political reform must be retained, to get to the root drivers of radicalization. But, the EU committed itself to supporting reforms from 2011 with little consideration of how this would relate to geo-strategic questions — how reform and geopolitics would condition each other in mutual symbiosis. As Islamic State rampages and Middle Eastern intra- and inter-state order teeters, the challenge is to move towards a better conjoining of security with reform imperatives.
It is now commonly argued that the EU should strike flexible and security-oriented alliances with friendly powers, forget about transformation and conditionality, and abandon its ambitious schemes of regional cooperation. Those favoring a security-first approach insist this is necessary because the logic of modernization in the Middle East and North Africa is once again subjugated to sectarian identities.
This argument contains much that is sound, but is now being pushed too far. In today’s dire circumstances, security cooperation is necessary. But pursued as the central plank to European foreign policy, it reinforces the very power dynamics that drive radicalization. It risks worsening the disease it purports to cure.
While regional alliances are needed to contain Islamic State, these should not divert the EU from providing more effective backing for moderate opposition groups in Syria; European governments have conspicuously not matched the United States’ new package of support for the Free Syrian Army. European governments talk of the need for inclusive government in Baghdad, but still need to reverse a decade of disengagement from Iraq. Iraq needs a genuinely democratic basis of inclusiveness not the current divvying out of power quotas between discredited elites. The EU should not forget that long-term stability in the Middle East still requires the tempering of social frustrations within unreformed Gulf states — however closely these regimes now work with Western powers on counter-terrorism.
And, perhaps most crucially, some form of more effective and broader regional security architecture is needed to link together what happens within states with what happens at a regional level. The EU needs strategic deliberation that more systematically connects security actions with domestic political factors in the Middle East.
A focus on reform without security cooperation today looks naïf; a focus on security without reform is likely to be self-defeating. The pressing need is to understand how these two dimensions of change are causally linked to each other.
Headline image credit: Yemeni Protests 4-Apr-2011 P01 by Email4mobile. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
The world has watched as ISIS (ISIL, the “Islamic State”) has moved from being a small but extreme section of the Syrian opposition to a powerful organization in control of a large swath of Iraq and Syria. Even President Obama recently admitted that the US was surprised by the success of ISIS in that region. Why have they been so successful, and why now?
Lebanese journalist and editor Hanin Ghaddar shares his thoughts.
To answer this question, one has to go back to the roots of this organization. ISIS did not come from a vacuum, and it is not this shadowy bunch of militants that mysteriously managed to control large areas of Iraq and Syria. ISIS has been around for a very long time, and its roots go deeper than its current military achievements.
As an organization, ISIS originated from Al-Qaeda’s group in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, a member of ISI, established Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria in 2011. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi formed ISIS in Syria, differences over ideology and strategy between ISIS and al-Nusra soon led to infighting, and eventually to a public repudiation by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri after Baghdadi refused his orders to leave Syria and return to Iraq.
Due to the difference in strategy, Baghdadi sought to create the Caliphate and his main priority was to self-sustain the Islamic State by strengthening its economy. This practical side of ISIS is very significant for its quick logistical and military success. According to many news reports, ISIS’s financial assets amount to $2 billion, with money secured from oilfields in eastern Syria, banks in Iraq, in addition to military supplies captured in Mosul. In addition, ISIS’s ability to operate as a real army lies in the fact that their military council is made up of former officers from Saddam Hussein’s army.
However, the popularity of the group lies somewhere else.
The states where ISIS is expanding and flourishing are visibly Iraq and Syria — the two states where Sunnis have suffered marginalization, humiliation, and brutal killing by the pro-Iranian Shiite and Alawi regimes. In both countries, the state did not offer a safe haven for citizens; on the contrary, the sectarian rhetoric practiced by community and political leaders added to the Sunni-Shia rift.
In Iraq, former PM Nouri al-Maliki’s inability to engage in dialogue with Sunni tribes, who helped fight al-Qaeda, led to the fall of Fallujah into ISIS hands in January. Maliki alienated these tribes and refused to share power with them. After the US withdrawal in 2011, these tribes went into open revolt against Maliki.
A feeling of betrayal also boosted this revolt, as the US started talks and unstated bargains with Tehran. It is not a secret that the International Coalition’s war against ISIS Syria did not stop Assad from bombing rebels in areas where ISIS is not in control. Ignoring the brutality of Assad by the West did not help reassure the Sunnis.
When Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s Quds Force Commander, and Iranian-backed militias like Asa’ib ahl al-Haq in Iraq and Hezbollah in Syria are left to wage war against the Sunnis in both countries, and aid the regimes in killing and torturing them, many Sunnis came to see ISIS as the most powerful defense against Iran’s persecution.
But it would be too naïve to only blame regional leaders and Western powers for the rise of ISIS, and enjoy the role of the victim. We are very much responsible, as people and communities. ISIS flourished in these two countries also because of the heightened sectarian rhetoric by the people everywhere. In the streets, traditional media, social media, and inside homes and families, everyone is practicing sectarian hatred, and judging each other’s commitment to Islam.
Our governments have denounced ISIS and promised to secure all available resources to rid the world of its threats, but have we really condemned ISIS when our media, political leaders and Imams at mosques still speak the same sectarian rhetoric and call for hatred?
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran condemned ISIS and pledged to fight all terrorism. But authorities in both countries are still practicing public executions in public squares. Only recently, Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Nimr was sentenced to death. His prosecutors called for his execution by “crucifixion”, a punishment which in Saudi Arabia involves beheading followed by public display of the decapitated body. How is this really different from ISIS’s beheading practice?
ISIS is a product of our culture of sectarian rhetoric, violence and hatred. ISIS thrives on the injustice and corruption razing our state institutions and communities. Therefore, any policy that aims at fighting and destroying ISIS has to take this into consideration.
To make sure another ISIS does not emerge, the roots behind ISIS’s power and popularity should be targeted. Justice needs to prioritized. Iran should not be treated as the better evil and its regional militias need to be stopped as we are trying to stop ISIS. Assad, who has caused the death of almost 200,000 people, should leave power and he and his lieutenants should be prosecuted under the auspices of the International Criminal Court (ICC) without delay. Otherwise, sectarian hatred and violence will never stop, and ISIS will only get stronger.
ISIS and Hezbollah today feed into each other’s rhetoric of violence and acts of terrorism. Without Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, ISIS and al-Nusra wouldn’t have gained any popularity, and without ISIS’s power, causing fear among the Shia community and other minorities, Hezbollah would have suffered more pressure to leave Syria, even by its own community. They should be dealt with consistently.
In addition, our media and religious institutions should be held accountable for inciting hatred and sectarianism. Those who call for violence through TV channels and inside mosques should be punished, even if they haven’t personally spilled blood.
Our governments, regimes and leaders might not like to tone down this sectarian rhetoric, because sometimes it serves their regional political agendas. Therefore, this should come as a condition for them to join any international effort or regional initiative. International funding for governments should also come with cultural and social conditions, aimed at alleviating sectarian rhetoric and boosting citizenship.
It is a very extensive and difficult route, but it is the only way. You cannot bomb ISIS away; it will grow back. It should be eliminated from the roots.
Heading image: Ar-Raqqah Roof Tops (Ar-Raqqah is the de facto headquarters of ISIS/ISIL) by Zeledi. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Signal crimes change how we think, feel, and act — altering perceptions of the distribution of risks and threats in the world. Sometimes, as with the recent assassinations and mass shootings in France, sending a message is the intention of the criminal act. The attackers’ target selection of the staff of Charlie Hebdo magazine, and that of taking and killing Jewish hostages, was deliberately designed to send messages to individuals and institutions.
Researchers examine social reactions to different kinds of crime events and the signals they send to a range of audiences. The aim is to determine how and why certain kinds of incidents and situations generate fear and anxiety responses that travel widely and, by extension, how processes of social reaction to such events are managed and influenced by the authorities.
The murder of Lee Rigby in London in 2013 can be understood as a signal crime as it triggered concern amongst the general public and across security institutions, owing to the macabre innovation of the killers in undertaking a brutally simple form of assault. Analysis of the crime has identified a number of key components to the overarching process of social reaction. Observing how events have unfolded in France, the collective reactions have followed a similar trajectory to what happened in London.
In the wake of both incidents there was ‘spontaneous community mobilisation’ as ordinary people sought to engage in collective sense-making of what had actually happened, coupled with collective action ‘to do something’ to evidence their opposition. Widespread use of social media platforms helped spread rumours as attempts were made to follow updates in the story; rapid moves were made to secondary conflicts as acts of criminal retaliation were committed against symbolic Muslim targets.
One prominent type of intervention evident in both cases has been a call from senior figures within security institutions and governments to urgently provide the authorities with enhanced legal powers, especially for digital and online surveillance. This is part of a wider reaction pattern that we might label ‘the legislative reflex’. This term seeks to capture how – following a terrorist atrocity and the public concern it induces – politicians who need to be seen to be ‘doing something’ almost automatically reach for new laws as their principal response. The presence of this reflex is evidenced by the fact that since 9/11, in the United Kingdom we have seen the introduction of a significant number of new laws including:
The Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, allowing for detention without trial (later overturned by the courts)
The Terrorism Act 2006, which extended the detention of suspects without charge from 14 to 28 days
The Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, under which police were permitted to continue questioning suspects after charge
The Terrorist Asset-Freezing Act 2010
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which is currently being debated by peers in the House of Lords
What we can detect here is how fear of not being able to protect against potential attacks is being mobilised to justify new preventative anti-terror legislation. In effect, public and political fear is being deployed to shape the reaction to terrorism, where reaching for new legislation has become part of the societal response to terrorist attacks.
However, it increasingly appears that this approach is inadequate and that we are dealing with a social problem that we cannot solve by legal means alone. Indeed, a more nuanced and sophisticated approach to counter-terrorism policy development would probably look elsewhere for solutions. After all, in both the French cases and that of Drummer Rigby, it transpired that the perpetrators were well known to the authorities as presenting a risk. Rather than creating legislative fixes to collect more intelligence, research suggests the focus must be on finding effective policy solutions to three inter-linked ‘wicked problems’ that have been identified in issues of radicalization and home-grown extremism.
The first of these, mentioned earlier, concerns the ability of the politics of counter-terrorism to resist the allure of introducing new security measures that might corrode levels of integration and cohesion. Over the long-term, over-reaction to terrorist provocations can be as harmful as the initial act itself.
This connects to the second ‘wicked problem’: tension between the tactical and strategic response to countering violent extremists. The police and security services focus upon stopping violent acts, often engaging with individuals whose ideas are not coherent with liberal democratic traditions. Preventing or stopping these acts does not reduce the longer term influence of these radical ideas.
Thirdly, all plausible theories of radicalisation into violent extremism identify a pivotal role played by ‘non-violent extremists': those who do not engage in violence directly, but whose ideas and rhetoric influence others to do so. These create a ‘mood music’ of ideas, values, and beliefs that presents violence as a permissible means to an end. In the wake of the killings in France, there has been a widespread call across Europe to protect the right to freedom of speech. However, this freedom will also be used by those motivated to undertake mass killings. Current counter-terrorism policy struggles with what to do with individuals who steer and propagate the radicalisation of others by engaging in activity that is troublesome and unpleasant, but not necessarily illegal.
One of the principal institutional effects of high profile signal crimes is to implant a political imperative to consider what can be done to predict, pre-empt, and prevent similar atrocities in the future. However, it is increasingly clear that it is not going to be possible to prevent all such attacks. Developing a conceptually robust evidenced understanding of how and why our collective processes of reaction occur in the ways they do, and the institutional effects that such assaults induce, seems vitally important if we are to collectively manage our reactions better when the next attack comes.
Headline image credit: Paris rally in support of the victims of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting, 11 January 2015. Photo by “sébastien amiet;l”. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
In the days following the terrorist attack in Paris on 11 January, thousands of people took to the street in solidarity with the victims and in defense of free speech, and many declared ‘Je suis Charlie’ on social media around the world. The scene is familiar with what we have seen in several other countries in the aftermath of major terrorist attacks.
The shooting spree in Copenhagen combines the old and the new of European jihadist phenomenon. Like virtually all European Holy Warriors, Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein is not an immigrant, but the son of immigrants, Palestinians who settled in Denmark before his birth.
In the 1960s British comedy radio show, Beyond Our Ken, an old codger would, in answer to various questions wheel out his catchphrase—in a weary, tremulous groan—‘Thirty Five Years!’ I was reminded of this today when I realized that it is exactly 35 years ago that my first book on privacy was published. And how the world has changed since then!
In July 2014 Yusuf Sarwar and his associate, Mohammed Ahmed, both aged 22, pleaded guilty to conduct in preparation of terrorist acts, contrary to s5 of the Terrorism Act. Sarwar was given an extended sentence (for ‘dangerous’ offenders under s226A of the Criminal Justice Act 2013) comprising 12 years and eight months custody, plus a 5 year extension to his period of release on licence.
Perera, Anna. 2011. Guantanamo Boy. Chicago: Albert Whitman.
(first published in the UK, 2009) Advance Reader Copy supplied by the publisher. Due on shelves in August.
"We must remember that once we divide the world into good and bad, then we have to join one camp or the other, and, as you've found out, life's a bit more complex than that."
Funny (or not so funny) - in searching for related links, further information and other reviews on Guantanamo Boy, I actually found myself wondering (worrying?) if my every passing stop along the Internet seeking information related to Guantanamo Bay will be tracked by some government official in a cubicle somewhere. Just the fact that such a thought crossed my mind, is an indication of the intense fear, distrust and paranoia that is gripping our world because of terrorism. With that worldwide fear and paranoia as a backdrop for Guantanamo Boy, Anna Perera has crafted an entirely plausible story about a 15-year-old British boy, Khalid, from Rochdale, a large town in Greater Manchester, England.
Khalid is much like any other boy from his town, interested in good grades, his mates, soccer ("footy"), girls, and online gaming. Though his family is Muslim, Khalid is a casual practitioner. When his family visits Pakistan to assist an aunt, Khalid's father inexplicably disappears. Khalid goes to check the address where his father was last seen, threading his way through a street protest enroute. Unable to find his father, he returns to his aunt's home where he is later kidnapped in the late night hours,
Surely only his dad could be coming through the door without knocking this time of night?
But he's badly mistaken. Blocking the hallway is a gang of fierce-looking men dressed in dark shalwar kameez. Black cloths wrapped around their heads. Black gloves on their hands. Two angry blue eyes, the rest brown, burn into Khalid as the figures move towards him like cartoon gangsters with square bodies. Confused by the image, he staggers, bumping backwards into the wall. Arms up to stop them getting nearer. Too shocked and terrified to react as they shoulder him to the kitchen and close the door before pushing him to his knees and waving a gun at him as if he's a violent criminal. Then vice-like hands clamp his mouth tight until they plaster it with duct tape. No chance to wonder what the hell is going on, let alone scream out loud.
And so begins Khalid's descent into a frightening labyrinth of secret prisons, interrogation rooms, and finally Guantanamo Bay detention center. A few lengthy passages are didactic in nature, but they are few in number. Khalid's unique perspective as a boy, a British citizen and non-practicing Muslim of Pakistani descent, offers a superb vantage point into the previously termed War on Terror. His sensibilities are Western, his concerns are adolescent, his perspective is that of outsider - he has known discrimination in England, he is too Western for his Pakistani relatives, he has little in common with his fellow inmates. Khalid is the perfect protagonist for this third-person narrative.
Heart-wrenching and frighteningly enlightening, Guantanmo Boy is not without bright spots - the power of small acts of kindness, the love of family,
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By Toril Moi
Like other Norwegians I am in shock at the terrible events in Oslo and at Utøya on 22 July. My heart goes out to the victims and their families.
I was not in Norway when the horror happened. On 22 July, I was giving a talk about Ibsen’s 1873 play Emperor and Galilean at the National Theatre in London. I only learned about the bombing in Oslo and the massacre at Utøya later that night. When I discovered that the terrorist in Norway saw himself as
By Charles Kurzman
Last month, a few hours after a bomb exploded in downtown Oslo, I got a call from a journalist seeking comment. Why did Al Qaeda attack Norway? Why not a European country with a larger Muslim community, or a significant military presence in Muslim societies? I said I didn't know.
A second media inquiry soon followed: Given NATO's involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the number of disaffected Muslims in Europe, why don't we see more attacks like the one in Norway? This question was more up my alley. I recently
Carl R. WeinbergEditor, Magazine of History
On Tuesday March 11, 2003, I was working in my office at North Georgia College and State University (NGCSU), when I received an email that I will never forget. It was sent to all faculty and staff on the campus listserv from one of my colleagues on the subject of “America's Defense.” His email noted that some of our
By Andrew Staniforth
For Americans, no act of terrorism compares to the attacks and from that moment the history of the United States has been divided into ‘Before 9/11’ and ‘After 9/11’. In lower Manhattan, on a field in Pennsylvania, and along the banks of the Potomac, the United States suffered its largest loss of life from an enemy attack on its own soil. Within just 102 minutes, four commercial jets would be simultaneously hijacked and used as weapons of mass destruction to kill ordinary citizens as part of a coordinated attack that would shape the first decade of a new century.
By Richard Landes
In the years before 2000, as the director of the ephemeral Center for Millennial Studies, I scanned the global horizon for signs of apocalyptic activity, that is, for movements of people who believed that now was the time of a total global transformation. As I did so, I became aware of such currents of belief among Muslims, some specifically linked to the year 2000, all predominantly expressing the most dangerous of all apocalyptic
In September, 2008, The Fed and the Treasury came to President George W. Bush and issued him an economic suicide threat. Secretary Henry Paulson walked into the Oval Office and put a financial gun to his own head and said, give us $800 Billion dollars or in 24 hours the American economy will die and 5 trillion dollars would disappear with the entire world economy. President Bush said yes. What if he had said NO? -
The Consortium by Steven Clark Bradley ________________ Feature Post
A Bird's-Eye View Of the People's Republic of China
In “The Second Republic – Patriot Acts Part II,” the President of the United States is confronted with a radical underground secret cabal that has targeted America with a domestic bio-terror attack that dwarfs the assault unleashed on September 11, 2001.
This second book in the Patriot Acts trilogy takes the reader inside the White House where treachery and terrorism boils below its underbelly. While trying to avoid invoking emergency powers that could destroy American constitutional freedoms, a former Special Ops officer, now the President of the United States, races to stop a deadly virus, which has killed thousands of innocent Americans.
This Fisher Harrison saga, The Second Republic, is an action thriller that could appear on any of today’s headlines, on any given day with a plausible scenario for the death of humankind that is too frighteningly conceivable for comfort.
When Too Much Security Can Kill You! Steven Clark Bradley
"An office sought and achieved by a candidate according to the rules set out in the US Constitution who, once elevated to high office, proceeds to ignore, disavow, repudiate, deviate from and misappropriate the powers and limitations prescribed, declared and demanded therein." -Steven Clark Bradley
On the Internet, terrorists can find a wide-open playground for particularly sophisticated violence. I have no doubt that the people at the US Department of Defense, when they brought about the inception of the Internet, never thought in their worst nightmares that come 2013, every terrorist splinter group would boast a website and that all the advantages of the Internet would be at the service of terrorists for organizing, planning, and executing their attacks on innocent people.
The Internet helps terror groups in a variety of activities: recruiting members, establishing communication, attaining publicity, and raising funds. Terror organizations direct their messages to their various audiences over the net with great sophistication. The primary audience is the central core of activists, who use the website as a platform for information about various activities. Messages are disguised by pre-agreed codes, and if you’re unfamiliar with the codes, you won’t understand what’s being talked about.
By means of such encoded messages, a global network of terror can operate with great efficiency. It can manage its affairs like an international corporation: the leader passes instructions to various operations officers around the world, and they pass instructions onward to their subordinates. Using the Internet for information transfer, the organization can create a compartmentalized network of activists who cannot identify one another. Even if one cell is exposed, the damage to the overall network is minimal. Ironically, that survivability was exactly the factor that guided the US Department of Defense when it set up the Internet in anticipation of a doomsday scenario.
The second audience that the terror websites speak to is the general community of supporters. Messages for them are open, not disguised, and the operational side is toned down a little. At the site for the general public, the focus is on negative messages regarding the terror organization’s target, and on legitimizing attacks against it without going into specifics. The site presents history in a way that suits its agenda, and often it tries to attract legitimate contributions for its activities by concealing them behind various charitable fronts.
Some of these sites sell souvenirs with the terror organization’s logo, as if it were a sports team. Thus fans can buy scarves or shirts that give them a strengthened sense of identification with the terror organization. The site allows visitors to join discussions, and in some cases it also tries to attract people from the community of true believers into the community of activists. Of course such a process is undertaken with much caution in order that spies not infiltrate the organization. When new volunteers are recruited, there is a great advantage to enlisting people who don’t fit the terrorist stereotype, since such people can serve as couriers without immediately arousing suspicion. On the other hand, the less the new volunteer belongs to the community from which the terror organization sprang, or resembles a member of that community, the greater the suspicion of untrustworthiness. So such a new volunteer will be performing under close watch, or will be assigned to a one-time task that is to end in the grave.
The third audience is the group to be terrorized. In addressing this group, the organization has the objective of arousing fear, and it publicizes its terror operations in order to “win” the audience to the idea that each of them, including their family and closest friends, is likely to be the next terror victim. This baleful message is accompanied by an ultimatum to the audience: if all its demands are not met, the terror organization will make good on all its threats. The terror organization will try to show that because it’s fighting for absolute justice and has no mercy as it makes its way to that goal, it’s unstoppable. It immortalizes its terrorism in well-concocted documentary films that portray successes among its deadly operations, and by documenting executions performed on camera.
Examining the way that terror organizations address their audiences over various channels, we can see that most terror organizations deploy a rather impressive public-relations corps. Many terror organizations, not satisfied with a website alone, expand onto social networks and use other net-based avenues such as e-mail, chats, and forums.
The language of terror is quite interesting. Terrorists lay all the blame on the other party, which they label the aggressor while they present themselves as the real victims who speak in the name of human rights and who champion the oppressed. Take for example the international terror organizations. They explain that terror is the only method they have for striking back defensively at the imperialist aggressor. The terror organizations delegitimize their opponents and describe their enemy as the ultimate aggressor, a perpetrator of criminal actions such as genocide, slaughter, and massacres. Sometimes the fight is considered part of a continuing religious war and the messages bear a religious aura. For instance, a jihad with the prophet Muhammad as the commander in chief, in charge of the courageous legions that the organization represents.
Terror organizations tend to describe their murderous activities as self-defense by a persecuted underdog. They ignore the human side of their victims and use the psychological tool of dehumanization against the opponent, defining it as a group that has no human face. Thus for example, after the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, the Al Qaeda organization completely ignored the thousands of murdered people and chose to focus on the indignities that the capitalist Americans had wreaked, and were continuing to wreak, and on the importance of the Twin Towers as a symbol of the western world’s decadence.
Nine countries, mainly the United States and Russia, possess 17,000 nuclear weapons, many of which are hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki almost 70 years ago. An attack and counterattack in which fewer than 1% of these nuclear weapons were detonated could cause tens of millions of deaths and could disrupt climate globally, leading to crop failures and widespread famine. A greater conflagration could cause a “nuclear winter” and threaten the future of life on earth.
The recent tensions concerning Ukraine demonstrate that although 23 years have elapsed since the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons remain a clear and present danger to humanity. Persistent threats include accidental launch of nuclear warheads, proliferation of nuclear weapons among nations, potential acquisition and use of nuclear weapons by non-state actors, and diversion of human and financial resources in order to maintain and modernize nuclear arsenals in the United States and other nations.
Despite safeguards, accidental detonation remains a real possibility. A few years ago, a US Air Force plane transported six missiles tipped with nuclear warheads, unbeknownst to the pilot and crew. Twice, in recent weeks, it was revealed that as many as half of navy and air force personnel who maintain nuclear-armed missiles and would be responsible for launching them if commanded to do so had cheated on their competency examinations. In 1995, Boris Yeltsin, then president of Russia, had only a few minutes to decide whether to launch Russian nuclear-armed missiles against the United States in response to what, on radar, looked like a US air attack with multiple re-entry vehicles (MERVs); it turned out to be a rocket launched by a team of Norwegian and US scientists to study the aurora borealis.
Another major concern is that the leaders of the nine nations that possess nuclear weapons each have absolute authority — unchecked by other government officials or institutions, even in the United States — to launch an offensive or allegedly defensive nuclear strike.
Furthermore, proliferation remains a serious threat. During the past decade North Korea obtained nuclear technology and fissile materials, and developed and tested one or more nuclear weapons. At least until recently, Iran apparently was — and may still be — on the path to developing nuclear weapons. Given the widespread knowledge about nuclear technology and the potential availability of fissile material, non-state actors could acquire and use nuclear weapons.
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Betty Puma, from the 5th Munitions Squadron, reviews a nuclear weapons maintenance procedures checklist as part of the Nuclear Surety Inspection (NSI) May 19, 2009, at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. An NSI is designed to evaluate a unit’s readiness to execute nuclear operations. Areas to be evaluated during the NSI include operations, maintenance, security and support activities needed to ensure the wing performs its mission in a safe, secure and reliable manner. This no-notice inspection is expected to conclude May 22. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Miguel Lara III/Released). defenseimagery.mil
Highly-enriched uranium (HEU) — the fissile material used in nuclear weapons — is distributed globally, and used in nuclear reactors to perform research or power aircraft carriers and submarines. Converting to low-enriched uranium would eliminate the possibility of HEU being stolen or otherwise diverted to produce nuclear weapons.
Yet another major concern is the huge diversion of financial resources to maintain and modernize the US nuclear weapons arsenal, estimated over the next 30 years to be about $1 trillion. The proposed nuclear weapons budget of the US Department of Energy for fiscal year 2015 is higher than at any time during the Cold War. Meanwhile, substantial cuts have been proposed in programs to dismantle and prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons — and in programs to reduce poverty and protect human rights.
To most Americans, all of these concerns are out of sight and out of mind. Each of us has a responsibility to become more educated about these issues, increase the awareness of other people about them, and advocate for measures to reduce the dangers associated with nuclear weapons, including the abolition of nuclear weapons.
A longstanding proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons is the Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC). In 1997, a consortium of experts in law, science, public health, disarmament, and negotiation drafted a model convention. The Convention would require nations that possess nuclear weapons to destroy them in stages — taking them from high-alert status, removing them from deployment, removing warheads from delivery vehicles, disabling warheads by removing explosive “pits,” and placing fissile material under control of the United Nations. Such a convention has had wide public support throughout the world.
An immediate step that could pave the way to the Nuclear Weapons Convention and the eradication of nuclear weapons is a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Such a treaty could be negotiated with or without the participation of those nations possessing nuclear weapons. It could create an international norm of the illegality of nuclear weapons, similar to the norms that have been established concerning chemical and biological weapons, antipersonnel landmines, and cluster munitions. Such a treaty could put substantial pressure on the nations possessing nuclear weapons to comply with their disarmament obligations — which they have been unwilling to do thus far. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has mobilized 300 civil-society organizations in 90 countries to campaign, on humanitarian grounds, for such a treaty banning nuclear weapons.
Given resurgent Cold-War-era arguments for revitalizing US nuclear-weapons capabilities to deter Russian actions in Ukraine, we must resist measures that would reset the “Doomsday Clock” to a point that places all humanity — and indeed all life on earth — in great peril of annihilation by nuclear weapons.
Barry S. Levy, M.D., M.P.H., and Victor W. Sidel, M.D., are co-editors of the recently published second edition of Social Injustice and Public Health as well as two editions each of the books War and Public Health and Terrorism and Public Health, all of which have been published by Oxford University Press. They are both past presidents of the American Public Health Association. Dr. Levy is an Adjunct Professor of Public Health at Tufts University School of Medicine. Dr. Sidel is Distinguished University Professor of Social Medicine Emeritus at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein Medical College and an Adjunct Professor of Public Health at Weill Cornell Medical College. Victor W. Sidel was a member of the 1997 consortium of experts in law, science, public health, disarmament, and negotiation that drafted the model Nuclear Weapons Convention. Read their previous blog posts.
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Within moments of the terrorist attacks in London on the morning of 7 July 2005, news of the unfolding crisis on public transport had reached traders in the City. The London Stock Exchange index, the FTSE 100, lost 3.5% of its total value within just 90 minutes of the trading session that day as a direct result of the bombings – equivalent to a total de-capitalisation of around £44,000,000,000. This immediate economic impact is staggering in and of itself, especially when you consider it only cost the British home-grown Al Qaeda terrorist cell £1,000 to finance their attack.
In the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 coordinated bombings, financial investors concentrated their sales orders on shares related to the tourist sector, fearful of travellers opting to cancel their stay in London. However, and even though the large airlines and tour operators, such as Lufthansa, gave their customers the option of cancelling or postponing their trips to London, there was no significant number of cancellations. The London Stock Exchange recovered its losses very quickly and by the close of trading on 7 July they had been restored. This was a remarkable achievement, serving to limit the potential impact of the home-made bombs that were detonated earlier that day.
Paternoster Square, home of the London Stock Exchange
The swift recovery from the potential economic losses during 7/7 had been pre-planned; the terrorist response in the City of London had not been left to chance. There were three important factors that were instrumental in restoring trading confidence in London so swiftly. The first was the British Government’s suggestion to the London Stock Exchange to suspend electronic trading in order to avoid a ‘deluge of orders’. This immediate counter-measure undoubtedly contributed to reducing losses, although the stock exchange operators had to face the almost impossible task of processing all orders by telephone.
The second factor which proved essential in restoring trading confidence in London was directly related to the impact of the attacks on the London’s infrastructure which was considered slight when compared to the catastrophic terrorist attacks in the United States of 9/11. In New York, many of the companies in the World Trade Center sustained huge losses, personal and financial. Canto Fitzgerald, whose footprint spanned the 101st to the 105th floor of the North Tower, lost 658 employees in the attack. The impact of losing such an influential trader and investor alongside others such as Morgan Stanley, the Atlantic Bank of New York, Bank of America, Fuji Bank, Lehman Brothers and Ashai Bank in New York itself, who represented just some of the financial institutions operating in the Twin Towers, served to exasperate the economic repercussions of Al Qaeda’s attack. The impact upon the New York Stock Market was devastating. Altogether, the United States Stock Market posted losses in terms of de-capitalisation of the Dow Jones Industrial and NASDAQ of $1.7 billion.
The third factor which proved instrumental in restoring trading confidence in London was that in the wake of 9/11, most financial institutions headquartered in London had developed ‘emergency evacuation plans’ which would enable them to transfer their business within a very short time-frame from central City of London locations to premises outside the urban area. These crisis contingencies provided confidence to investors and traders of business continuity; it appeared that the learning from 9/11 by government and financial security experts had served to minimise the economic impact of 7/7.
The economic repercussions of terrorist attacks reveals the short, medium, and long term consequences of terrorism. The sheer size, scale and scope of the economic impact of terrorism provides evidence to support the notion that terrorism in itself needs to be distinguished from other types of criminality, as it reaches far beyond the human, social and economic impact of other crimes. First and foremost terrorism is a crime, a crime which has serious consequences and one which requires to be distinguished from other types of crime, but a crime nonetheless. Terrorism seeks to undermine state legitimacy, freedom and democracy, the very fabric of our collective community values in Britain. These are a very different set of motivations and outcomes when compared against other types of crime. This is the reason why tackling terrorism is different to countering other types of criminality and why it requires a dedicated and determined approach to prevent it.
As the UK begins to observe the green shoots of economic recovery, we can be thankful to those in authority who quietly and patiently counter the threat to keep our communities and economic interests safe. A major terrorist event specifically targeted towards creating economic instability in the UK committed during the recent period of our financial vulnerability could have had a substantial impact – a catastrophic attack from which we may not have recovered so quickly with far-reaching economic repercussions. That being said, all in authority are required to note that the threat from terrorism remains substantial and complacency based upon the absence of a major terrorist attack remains misplaced and unwise.
Martyrdom and terrorism are not new ideas, and in fact have been around for thousands of years, often closely tied to religion. We sat down with Jolyon Mitchell to discuss the topic of martyrdom and how it relates to terrorism in the past and today.
How did you get into working on martyrdom and related topics?
Before moving to the University of Edinburgh, I worked as a producer and journalist with BBC World Service. While there I was part of a team who covered a number of news and human interest stories relating to martyrdom, terrorism and hostage-taking. For example, we interviewed a number of Western hostages (such as Terry Waite and Brian Keenan) soon after they were freed from several years of captivity in Lebanon. Listening to their stories led me to think further about the motivations of those who had captured and had then held them for many months. I would later investigate why some of their number would go further and resort to acts of violence or terror against Westerners, while others would be prepared to give up their lives to promote their cause. It became clear then to me that one community’s martyr can be another community’s terrorist.
What fascinates you so much about the topic of martyrdom?
In Media Violence and Christian Ethics, I investigated how different people remembered, responded to and interacted with images of violence. I became fascinated with how different audiences handled “dangerous memories,” including memories of martyrdom. This work led in turn to research trips to countries such as Rwanda and Iran. In Tehran I found myself surrounded by stories and images of martyrdom, which went back many hundreds of years. In Rwanda, I investigated sites of martyrdom from the genocide in 1994. I am also fascinated by the different ways in which martyrdom is interpreted. For some, a martyr and a martyrdom are objective empirical realities that can be studied as isolated phenomena, for others they are largely created by later communities. From both perspectives there can be many different kinds of martyrdom. Who makes a martyr and their martyrdom is a more complicated question than it at first appears. Some suicide bombers embrace death in such a way as to lay the foundations for their ends to be described as a martyrdom and themselves to be thought of as martyrs. Some actively pursued martyrdom while others, when they realized death was inevitable, became more considered in their actions, writing, or speech. Some individuals such as Charles I or Jose Rizal, the founding martyr of the modern state of the Philippines, may have lost control of their lives, but they attempted to control the way their deaths would be remembered. Others did not have the luxury or time to be able to try to influence their earthly afterlives. The way in which later communities describe and then interpret a death influences whether it is remembered as a martyrdom. This diversity of interpretations and perspectives are rich topics for analysis.
How far has militant martyrdom become increasingly secular?
There are different kinds of martyrdom and different motivations for being prepared to offer one’s life to promote a particular cause. Those who are prepared to die, and take other lives, are described by some as martyrs and by others as murderers. There is a tradition of “secular martyrs” who are motivated not by religious belief, but by political objectives. For example, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka used suicide bombing as a way of promoting their own cause. Their deaths were celebrated by many local Tamils as seeds of freedom. Nevertheless, in other contexts such as in the Middle East some individuals are prepared to die to kill for both religious and political reasons.
Why is it so important to look at connections between martyrdom and terrorism today?
While it can be useful to make a distinction between active and passive martyrdoms, predatory and peaceful martyrdoms, military and non-violent martyrdoms, there is clearly a close connection for many between martyrdom and terrorism. In Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction, I suggest that over the last few years martyrdom has gone digital. The digitization of martyrdom is changing the way martyrs are commemorated, remembered, and interpreted. Audiences now have direct access to countless original martyrdom stories, texts and martyrologies (lists of martyrs). Online images of martyrs are now widely accessible. A few taps on a computer or mobile phone and anyone can see the faces of those named as martyrs. They criss-cross the globe weaving unexpected patterns, leaving traces of deaths that otherwise might be forgotten. As memories of martyrdom are remembered and re-presented digitally, images of martyrs and martyrdoms can “bear witness” both to practices of violence and peace.
Every film reflects the historical and cultural context out of which it was produced. Cecil B. Demille’s The Sign of the Cross is no exception. To our CGI-trained eyes, like most black and white films from the 1930s, this films looks like a window onto a foreign land. The dialogue, the shots, and the narrative all seem peculiar or certainly idiosyncratic. Nevertheless, this film, like several other films touching on martyrdom, raises important questions pertinent to discussions about martyrdom today. For example, why do some people embrace death for their faiths? How do state powers attempt to control the bodies of their subjects? And what role does religious belief have in the making of martyrs?
Film still from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932), reproduced courtesy of Paramount and the Kobal Collection, ref. SIG001CC.
In your chapter you also mention the movie Becket, which includes another notable cinematic martyrdom. What kinds of materials have been used to preserve the story of King Henry III and the knights who killed archbishop Thomas Becket in his own cathedral in 1070?
Following the murder of Thomas à Becket (c.1118-1170) by four of King Henry II’s (1133-1189) knights in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170 his remains were buried at the eastern end of the Cathedral’s crypt. Concerned that his body might be stolen, the monks ensured that the burial was carried out swiftly, with a stone placed over his tomb. At least one hole was cut through the stone so that pilgrims would be able to kiss the place where Becket was buried. Becket was canonised in 1173 by Pope Alexander III (c.1100-1181), just three years after his murder. Thousands of pilgrims were soon visiting the shrine of the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Here was a Northern European Norman saint whose remains became a magnet for visitors. The significant increase in the number of visiting pilgrims substantially augmented the wealth of the Cathedral and the city of Canterbury. When alive, Becket’s manner as Archbishop had won him few friends, but when dead he was venerated as a saint and a martyr. As such he could pray for the living, so becoming a focal point for generous giving. Pilgrims, for example, were able to purchase Becket badges or tokens marking their pilgrimage. By 1220, his bones were transferred into a jewelled golden shrine on a raised platform in the Cathedral’s specially constructed Trinity Chapel, where offerings also increased.
Both relics and images of Becket travelled swiftly in the first few decades after his death. It was not long before stained glass, wall paintings and manuscripts were being illustrated with scenes of his life and martyrdom. The V&A’s director in London, Alan Borg, claims that there was “a sort of Becket mania” that “spread across Europe.” Evidence suggests that within a few decades of his death, the spread of Becket’s martyr cult stretched from Iceland and Scotland to Palestine and Italy. Becket’s memory touched many people’s lives, though by the time the humanist Erasmus (c. 1466-1536) visited the shrine at Canterbury in the early sixteenth century he was bemused at the wealth and showmanship of one of his guides introducing him to the relics. The story of Beckett would later become the subject of plays (notably T.S. Elliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral”) and films. In this way the story of Beckett’s martyrdom has been amplified, elaborated and translated into new materials.
Dominic Janes, Alex Houen, and Jolyon Mitchell are the co-editors of Martyrdom and Terrorism: Pre-Modern to Contemporary Perspectives. Dominic Janes is Reader in Cultural History and Visual Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. In addition to a spell as a lecturer at Lancaster University, he has been a research fellow at London and Cambridge universities. His latest book project is Queer Martyrdom from John Henry Newman to Derek Jarman. Alex Houen is Senior University Lecturer in Modern Literature in the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Pembroke College. He is author of Terrorism and Modern Literature, as well as various articles and book chapters on literature and political violence. Jolyon Mitchell is Professor Communications, Arts and Religion at University of Edinburgh .
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Just after dawn prayers on the morning of 14 August 2013, Egyptian security forces raided a large sit-in based at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiyya Square and another at al-Nahda Square. Six weeks earlier, military leader and Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi staged a coup to remove Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, from office. In response, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians across the country congregated in public spaces to protest the coup and the perceived reversal of the revolutionary moment that began in early 2011 with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade long authoritarian rule.
As they opened fire on the encampment, security forces killed over one thousand Egyptians. The exact figure has been difficult to ascertain, in part because officials reportedly burned the bodies of those killed during the course of the twelve-hour operation. Graphic images of the charred interior of the Rabaa al-Adawiyya Mosque began making the rounds on social media within hours of the raid. A recently published investigative report by Human Rights Watch contends that “police and army forces systematically and intentionally used excessive lethal force in their policing, resulting in killings of protesters on a scale unprecedented in Egypt.” The report also asserts that no Egyptian officials have been held accountable for the Rabba massacre, while all state inquiries have essentially justified the army’s actions.
Just as shocking as the new military regime’s repressive clampdown on the Islamist opposition has been the widespread support for such measures across broad swaths of Egyptian society. In addition to the hundreds of thousands who supported Morsi’s overthrow by taking to the streets on 30 June, a month later Sisi called upon Egyptians to rally in Tahrir Square in support of the military’s aim to “fight terrorism”—code for the continued clampdown on Morsi’s supporters. It is under the shroud of this popular support that the state could commit the horrors at Rabaa without batting an eye.
One year later, there is little moral outrage in Egypt over the appalling course of events at Rabaa. Rather than offer up a moment of collective introspection, the passage of time and the newfound political stability under Sisi have only more deeply entrenched the dominant narrative that the protesters got what they deserved. In Egypt’s “new normal,” popular culture has internalized the necessity of extreme state violence against a perceived minority of violent political agitators.
To be sure, the critiques of the Muslim Brotherhood spanned a wide array of issue areas, from the group’s vision for an Islamic government to its contentious interactions with state institutions and revolutionary forces. However, the emphasis on the group’s supposed inclinations toward organized violence is singled out here for its propensity to validate egregious human rights violations by state authorities in the name of security.
The dehumanization of thousands of ordinary men, women, and children, many of whom are not even members of the Muslim Brotherhood, occurred as state officials and media personalities continually utilized the imagery of terrorism and violent extremism to depict the protestors. Footage of police raids was set to the soundtracks of Hollywood action films and televised with large captions reading “Egypt Fights Terrorism” in Arabic as well as English.
Given its enduring quality, however, it would be a mistake to assume that this incitement campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood is a recent incarnation. Far from being a makeshift construct that aided in Sisi’s alarmingly rapid political ascent, the recent application of the “war on terror” motif stems from a historic struggle over the Egyptian national narrative that pits the state against one of the country’s oldest social movement organizations.
In their attempt to overturn a popular mass movement that had made limited revolutionary gains, counter-revolutionary forces constructed a broad narrative that placed the historical trajectory of the Muslim Brotherhood within the state’s struggle to combat terrorism that dated back to the mid-twentieth century. To press its case to a public that is largely ignorant of the historical nuances involved, the anti-Muslim Brotherhood movement made exceptionally anachronistic use of various flashpoints in modern Egyptian history.
Shortly after Morsi’s election in 2012, during a commemorative event for the sixtieth anniversary of the 23 July 1952 revolution, self-declared Nasserists lamented that Egyptians had not learned the lessons of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s experience with the Muslim Brotherhood. “They were never to be trusted,” said one prominent spokesperson for the group. In successive weeks, other writers and commentators referred to the campaign of political violence that dated back to the 1940s, placing the blame squarely on the Muslim Brotherhood and its brand of Islamic activism.
Elsewhere, the chorus of critics recalled the turbulent 1970s and the rise of underground militant groups that they attributed to the Muslim Brotherhood and in particular the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the organization’s leading ideologue until his execution by the Nasser regime in 1966. The rise of an Islamic insurgency culminated with the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. The chronology continues well into the Mubarak era, as prominent media personalities impugned the Muslim Brotherhood for its supposed role in the outbreak of anti-state violence in the mid-1990s.
If one follows this chronology to its logical conclusion, one could reasonably believe that the Muslim Brotherhood was founded with an ideological bent toward violent, anti-state contention, which it pursued through the active development of a military wing and then sustained through successive waves of terrorist acts over the course of eighty-six years.
The problem with the terror metanarrative is that it represents a gross misreading of history and a transparent effort by the state to paint its opposition with the broad brush of extremism. In reality, the Muslim Brotherhood confronted the question of political violence at various stages in the development of its activist mission. The appearance of its militia during the 1940s is well documented and has been examined at length by numerous scholars. Many of the recent references to this research, however, fail to mention that the Muslim Brotherhood’s armed wing existed within the chaotic field of post-war Egyptian politics in which every major political party and social actor was as likely to fight its battles in the streets as much as in the parliament or the newspapers.
The Secret Apparatus, responsible for covert attacks against public officials in the late 1940s, was dismantled following Nasser’s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954. As it reorganized itself in later years, the remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood’s core leadership internalized many of the elements of this nebulous section of the organization—its strict hierarchical structure, discipline across the ranks, emphasis on secrecy and indoctrination—but notably not its inclinations toward violence. In other words, the proponents of the Secret Apparatus, figures like Mustafa Mashhur and Kamal al-Sananiri, believed in its tenets as a means of enduring state repression, not actively resisting it.
When the Muslim Brotherhood resumed its activism in the mid-1970s after a two-decade absence, it was in the shadow of major developments within the Islamic movement that covered both the ideological and the organizational realms. The pressures of a repressive political climate and the widespread use of torture in Nasser’s prisons threatened to fracture the Islamic movement, leading a small minority of former Muslim Brotherhood members and impressionable young Islamic activists to adopt a militant outlook that found inspiration in Qutb’s impassioned and uncompromising view of the Nasserist state. Qutb’s most fervent supporters believed Egyptian society to have become so corrupted by a secular dictatorship that the gradual reformist mission of the Muslim Brotherhood would simply not suffice. Instead, they argued for the path of violent revolution led by a vanguard of true believers.
For all the attention it has received in recent years, this view never prevailed among the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood leaders, most of whom worked actively to discredit it. In 1969, the group’s imprisoned leader, Hasan al-Hudaybi, authored a tract entitled Preachers, Not Judges, which argued forcefully in favor of a reformist approach to political empowerment that hinged upon popular preaching and mobilization across all segments of Egyptian society. Hudaybi directly repudiated the practice of “takfir,” or declaring fellow Muslims to be unbelievers, limiting the role of Islamic activists to one of “du‘a” or callers to the faith.
In spite of the alarming rise of a number of Islamic militant groups that committed notorious crimes throughout the late 1970s, the more important (and certainly more enduring) story of the decade was the ability of the Muslim Brotherhood to reconstitute itself as the chief representative of the mainstream Islamic movement. Hudaybi’s successor, a lawyer named ‘Umar al-Tilmisani, oversaw the group’s reemergence by constructing an Islamic call, or “da‘wa” that found widespread appeal within a new generation of Islamic activists across Egypt’s colleges and universities. By the end of the Sadat era, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians had found in the Muslim Brotherhood a forum for oppositional politics premised on building a strong social base and gradual engagement with state institutions. In fact, as several student leaders from the era have since argued, were it not for the moderate and gradualist Islamism packaged and distributed by Tilmisani’s Muslim Brotherhood, the spread of militancy among the nation’s disaffected youth would have been far more pervasive.
That sentiment is worth recalling as one unpacks the implications of the coup government’s efforts to eradicate one of the country’s oldest social movements from Egyptian society. In the past year, the organization was declared illegal by judicial decree as well as a cabinet decision. As the state’s campaign of intimidation, indefinite detentions, torture, and mass executions continues to descend upon the nation’s independent activists, Sisi’s pledge to destroy the opposition presents a haunting prospect. “There will be nothing called the Muslim Brotherhood during my tenure,” he told an interviewer last May. Sisi’s aggressive social engineering project is bound to hold grave consequences for a country that is already reeling from several years of social and economic volatility and a regional insurgency that become more potent after the military’s takeover.
Despite its desperate attempts to do so, the Sisi regime has yet to demonstrate that the Muslim Brotherhood has had a hand in any of the militant bombings that have occurred since Morsi’s overthrow. For all of its faults—and they are many—the organization has maintained a consistent record of non-violent contention against successive authoritarian rulers, having reasserted its ideological as well as institutional mission in the 1970s.
As recent events in neighboring states have demonstrated, when the avenues for the legitimate expression of an Islamically oriented political program are closed, extremism prevails. The alarming rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is just one such example. In a recent online video, an ISIS spokesman commenting on events in Egypt reserved the bulk of his condemnation for Morsi, not Sisi. He declared the imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood leader “an apostate” and relished at the prospect of serving as his executioner. The greatest threat to religious militancy is not an equally violent state-sponsored secularism, but rather an open political climate that accommodates competing modes of activism irrespective of their religious, sectarian, or ideological leanings.
By conflating the Muslim Brotherhood’s legacy of oppositional politics with violent incarnations of anti-state contention, the terror metanarrative attempts to establish on a false basis the state’s ability to respond to perceived threats with all means at its disposal. The memory of the massacre at Rabaa will live on as a reminder of the painfully high cost of the abuse of history.
Headline image credit: AFP PHOTO / MOSAAB EL-SHAMY, CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.