In Europe, the so-called refugee crisis (better: refugee protection crisis), revealed deeply grounded reservations of Europeans against Islam and Muslims. Across the Atlantic, Islam is currently a controversially debated topic as well. Also in the United States questions about the Islam and the influx of Muslim refugees dominate public debate: How to deal with a religion in whose name fundamentalist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS commit violent terrorist attacks? How to deal with a religious group whose culture is perceived as fundamentally different from Western values? In this climate of uncertainty, a general feeling of mistrust, fear, and hatred against Islam and Muslims is gaining ground. These feelings are usually subsumed as Islamophobia, that is, according to researcher Serdar Kaya, “unfavorable prejudgments of Muslim individuals on the basis of their religious background.”
To name just a few examples: In his victorious campaign for the presidential elections of 2016, President Donald J. Trump called for surveillance against mosques and this week, the Trump administration banned people from mostly Islamic countries from entering the United States. While editorial cartoons in American newspapers regularly express attitudes that are hostile against Islam, some authors even bring claims forward that Islam does not deserve religious freedom protections under the First Amendment of the American constitution.
Especially in contrast to Europe, the U.S. have always claimed secularism and religious freedom to be at the centre of American identity. The hostility now expressed towards Islam does not fit in the dominant national narrative. How could Islamophobia evolve in the US? And is it indeed a new phenomenon?
In the decades prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Islam and Muslims were hardly on the political agenda in the U.S. Apparently, no coherent image of ‘the Muslim’ and the religion had been constructed in this period. Also, Americans did not have explicit negative sentiments against Muslims. American indifference towards Islam might be explained with the design of American secularism that declares religion to be a strictly private matter. American identity is therefore, as Zolberg and Woon put it, “no longer anchored in Christianity narrowly defined” but because of the massive influx of immigrants around the 20th century, developed into “a more diffuse deistic civil religion that easily embraces other faiths.”
Post-9/11: The Muslim as Security Threat
In the context of ideological and geopolitical struggles in the Middle East such as the Palestinian armed actions, the hostage crisis in Iran, as well as the Iran-Iraq war, Muslims were increasingly depicted as aggressive individuals that were easily seduced by ruthless religious leaders from the 1980s onwards. In the aftermath of 9/11, this conflation of Muslims and terrorism was fueled and has now gained significant ground in public debate. Hence, Muslims are now mainly associated with the fundamentalist positions of Islamist terrorist groups and are often framed as a threat to the safety and security to American society. Accordingly, Islam is constructed as an inherently violent and intolerant religion. The image of the Muslim as an extremist criminal and of Islam as a violent ideology is successfully enhanced by right-wing populists such as Donald Trump who exploit people’s anxieties for their own electoral successes. Moreover, Islamophobic sentiments were reinforced by further terrorist attacks in Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, and Paris in 2015. In the course of these events, Muslims became seen as both a threat from the outside (Middle Eastern terrorists attacking the Western world) and from within (so-called “homegrown terrorists” planning attacks, as has happened in France in 2015).
The Muslim as Cultural Other
At the same time, the Muslim is increasingly constructed as a cultural Other in America, especially by anti-Islam think tanks. Muslims are depicted as an out-group that is essentially “un-American”. This perception was revealed first and foremost in the political debates related to Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency. Many prominent voices implicitly questioned if a Muslim could ever become president of the U.S. – even though in Obama’s case only his father identified as Muslim. In addition to that, the presumed anti-American character of Islam has also been articulated in the controversies on banning Islamic Sharia law as a source of American law.
Muslims are not only perceived as different, but also as a threat to American culture and identity. In the aftermath of 9/11, multiple books have been published that contribute to the spread of conspiracy theories of Muslims planning to dominate the world. These theories, e.g. in America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It by the Canadian author Mark Steyn (2006), use the relatively higher population growth of Muslim minorities in Western countries as a key argument to predict the decline of Western civilization.
American Islamophobia – Not as New as One Might Think
Many political analysts argue that American Islamophobia is not a recent phenomenon, but that the terrorist attacks rather served as a catalyzer for a longstanding fear and hatred of Muslims in America that preceded 9/11. Hence, although the anti-Muslim discourse became visible only after 9/11 in America, it has a longer history. In fact, American Islamophobia embraces cultural tropes that predate the US itself: British Islamophobia that developed during the colonization of Islamic parts of Asia fuelled Islamophobia in the US. As a consequence, Muslims usually had to fight for their whiteness in order to get naturalized – even if they were phenotypically white. Once arrived in the U.S., the Muslim minority has been regarded with the same suspicion as any other religious minority such as Catholics, Jews, etc. Last but not least, the Islamic religion might have also played a role in racial discrimination against people of color throughout American history and still in the 20th century. All in all, it seems as if the anti-Islamic propaganda of the post-9/11 era merely revives old racial and religious prejudice.
On June 6 2016, a group of experts and students of European studies including Daniele Carminati, Christopher Heumann, Jesse van Amelsvoort, Marek Neumann, Senka Neumann-Stanivukovic, and Yining Chen, had a roundtable discussion on the November 2015 Paris attacks and 2016 Brussels bombings. Yining Chen, then the Editor-in-chief of The Euroculturer, had the original purpose of organizing this discussion to trace and reveal a specific mode of governance, a certain assemblage/arrangement of interlocking concepts, substances, forces including human and non-human agencies and organisms. If we see ISIS attacks as a specific part or so-called “event” of this assemblage/arrangement, how is this mode of governance organized/arranged/assembled within and through those attacks? For instance, who and what are made accountable? What kinds of affects, such as grief, anger, what forms of condemnation or approbation are deployed and mobilized? How do those two attacks rivet scholarly or political attentions? How is their “eventfulness” utilized by market and state actors to make sensible the social distribution of life and death, emergence and extinguishment?
“Elements” thus refer to those “who”s and “what”s, and the “security/governing nexus” can be one of the “how”s. But we are not focusing on those “elements” and “how”s/dispositifs/mechanisms as independent or closed entities, but rather as dispersed and competing discourses and material anchors that constitute the aforementioned mode of governance/arrangement/assemblage.
What and how are the various elements made relevant in the discourses and practices revolving around the two recent “ISIS” attacks?
Is there any interaction, interrelation or interdependency among those elements?
What do those interaction, interrelation and interdependency reveal about how we are governing and being governed?
What I am expecting from the discussion, is a collaborative research on what is continually being cited, circulated, and formed among those various practices, and how those various practices produce substances that meet and mirror the presumption of the cited, circulated and formed.
My personal opinion on the various elements in the discourses and practices revolving around the two recent “ISIS” attacks is that there is an excessive focus on ideological belief. There are two main arguments that support this statement: the factors for radicalisation in Western European Democracies and political power that rests on radical Islamism.
First, the individuals who carried out the Daesh attacks in Paris and Brussels were radicalised in a predominantly non-muslim environment and factors such as social exclusion, identity crisis and lack of perspective for personal success are overwhelmingly responsible for this radicalisation rather than muslim socialisation. The perpetrators of the attacks in Paris and Brussels, grew up and were socialised in French and Belgian “banlieues” or “sensitive neighbourhoods” that feature high crime rates, high unemployment rates and poor living conditions. The dominant factor for their radicalisation was the resentment for the French and Belgium society resulting from these conditions, with radical islamism presenting itself as an outlet for this resentment. Although radical muslim ideology is a dominant factor for radicalisation, I believe that the factors pushing individuals towards radicalisation are overlooked.
The second argument is that the leaders of terrorist groups pursue radical ideologies in order to strengthen their own power through traditional legitimacy in the Weberian sense. Just as the power of European nations was legitimised by a holy alliance with Christianity, leaders of Daesh use radical Islam to inspire loyalty and obedience. Other examples include Wahhabism, a religious sect that the Saudi-Arabian royal family rests much of its power on since the creation of the Saudi Arabian State in the middle of the 18th century.
Overly focusing on increased presence of radical islam in Western societies distracts from pertinent social issues and polarisation of society. Neglecting the role of radical islamist ideology in strengthening the position of power of political actors such as Daesh leadership or the Saudi Royal family harms a crucial argument in delegitimising movements exploiting religion for their own political gains.
The song mentioned in the discussion: IAM – Demain c’est loin live Egypte https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYNeFxSrjHU. According to Christopher, “it is a critique of precarious living conditions in French suburbs that is still relevant today.”
The subtopic I covered attempted to gather the reasons, known and speculative, of why people join ISIS or support their ideologies, both the ones actually going to fight in Syria and the ones embracing the ‘terrorist’ actions in Europe. There are several theories recognizing the fact that most of the recruits are outliers, borderlines, people with mental problems or purposeless people who supposedly ‘failed in life’ and are seeking revenge against society. Yet, according to several experts, the reasons are deeper and more complex than it is commonly known. After every terrorist attack the media attempts to cover singularly every known suspect, deceased or not, while creating an aura of negativity around the attackers. This behavior is legitimate but oftentimes abused. One of the most recent cases has been acknowledging that there may be some specific areas where people are more prone to subscribe to ISIS ideals (e.g. Sint-Jans-Molenbeek). It is not fair to negatively label whole communities because of such events and, additionally, it fails to consider the greater picture. Recruits come from sensibly different walks of life. Several newspapers and experts wondered about what may lay behind the reasons pushing such a different array of people to these final acts, which are commonly fatal for the perpetrators. My part will attempt to gather most significative ideas revolving around the topic and combine them with the main discourse and, eventually, the recent events. A second step would be trying to speculate on the roots of recruits’ reasoning and how to oppose it without causing further social discontent from both parties (Muslim and non-Muslim). The final goal should be to demystify the idea that recruits are all coming from similar backgrounds of criminality and dig deeper into why, even people who apparently have no connection with such extremism, may be willing to join them.
We should always historicize current events, put them in a historical overview. Certainly, choosing the right perspective matters. Following the “wave theory” of terrorism, we could say of the current wave of Islamist terrorism that it comes after anarchist violence around 1900, decolonization violence around the 1950s and revolutionary resistance in the later decades of the Cold War and thus is part of a fourth wave of religious violence. To me, such a perspective seems to include both dispassionate historical observation as well as political motives. It is history of the longue durée, it does not reveal anything particular about our present moment.
For what is distinctive of contemporary Islamist terrorism with which the West is faced, as well as the West’s response to the recent attacks in Paris (of course “Bataclan” and other locations in November 2015, but also Charlie Hebdo in January of that year) and Brussels (just some months, but I am also thinking of the attack on the Jewish Museum) is that it feeds into Europe’s difficult and fractured history with Islam. Islam created Europe as we know it: for the Greeks, “Europe” referred to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, and it remained so for the Romans. Yet when Islam spread from the Arabian peninsula into the Middle East and Northern Africa, “Europe” moved – emigrated – north, and became synonymous with “Christendom.” The Moors were stopped in Southern France, and consequently pushed back; the Turks came to Vienna, and were pushed back. Isabella and Ferdinand ended the Reconquista when they conquered the last lands of the Emirate of Granada in 1492 (and, in the process, expelled all Jews, too). Islam was pushed beyond Europe’s borders once more. (The Balkans, where we find the most Islamic countries, percentage-wise, have never had a place – that is to say, have held a very awkward place – in the European imaginary, of course.)
Somewhere after 1683, when Ottoman forces besieged Vienna, “Europe” lost interested in Islam and turned its eyes to the world. As the Ottoman Empire went into a long decay, Europeans conquered lands all over the globe and gained wealth until then unimaginable. And so it went, until September 11, 2001, when a small number of airplanes and an outrageous response refocused Western eyes on the Middle East.
It is the premise of scholarship on postcolonial Europe that Europe today has not sufficiently, nor adequately, nor even substantially, dealt with its colonialist and imperialist history. And although it has become accepted that “the Empire writes back,” when the Empire strikes back, those attempts are ill-understood. Europe and the U.S. have ruled over countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa for decades, if not centuries, and have muddled in its politics ever since. The result is chaos, disorder and anger at those Western interventions. Yet we in the West have forgotten about these histories, or chosen to neglect them; instead, we present these attacks come out of nowhere. That is blatantly untrue – could it ever not be?
What’s new or contemporary about postcolonial Europe’s pains? That “they” – Muslims, Islamists, terrorists – are no longer “there,” if they ever were. Pretending that Islam is not part of Europe is senseless and in fact dangerous in our day and age, yet I wonder if politicians and the media understand that.
The discourse surrounding the emergence/existence of ISIS and the recent tragic terror events has, in my view, revealed several interesting elements, of which I would briefly like to discuss two; the different ways of translating international events into domestic courses of various EU member states and the increasingly evident lack of true political statesmanship among EU countries. Furthermore, I will briefly assess which implications these will have on how the EU will govern us.
In the aftermath of recent terror attacks claimed to be committed by supporters of ISIS, all eyes were on the European political elite as these, with both their words and actions, would set the tone of fighting Islamic fundamentalism. It is here that I was puzzled by how the “Islamic terrorism/refugee wave” nexus got pronounced differently among the EU member states. More interestingly, one could observe the reemergence of a soft border between – what is often termed – “old” and “new” Europe. Even more interesting, however, is the fact that while it predominantly were the old, Western, EU member states that were directly affected by the terror, it was the political elite of the new member states that explicitly linked Islamic terrorism to the recent migration issue. Certainly, while the Western European states are not immune to increasing nationalism/populism, whether in the form of the German Alternative für Deutschland, its French counterpart Front National, or the Austrian FPÖ), at the level of the highest political leadership, the discourse was one of caution, moderation, and warning of hasty conclusions that could spark further controversy (think of Merkel, but even Hollande). On the other hand, what we have witnessed in the new member states was a political elite contributing to an atmosphere of fear among the society, heightening political tensions. Here, one only has to think of statements by such politicians as Czech President Zeman, or Slovak and Polish Prime Ministers Fico and Szydlo, respectively.
What, then, is such a division in discourse and way of governing one’s population indicative off? I believe that it speaks to three things predominantly. First, there is a clear difference in the level of democratic consolidation among the two “parts” of the European Union. One again only has to look at the recent policies introduced in Hungary or Poland. This is the more surprising as we have been led to believe that through close observance of the Eastern European countries’ transition towards democracies, the EU has ensured that only consolidated democracies would join its ranks. The recent events, however, beg to differ. Second, the political cultures among the individual EU member states are as far apart as they were two decades ago. The idea of an “ever closer Union” has not materialized. Of course, while now pronounced markedly, this comes as no news to those following EU politics over the last few years, particularly the intra-EU debate surrounding the Greek debt crisis. Third, I see that scholarship on the EU’s enlargement policy is not yet obsolete. While a few years back, the 2004/2007 EU enlargement round has been presented as one of the EU’s most successful foreign policy endeavors, with the recent events enfolding, the EU’s enlargement policy – both past and future – should be revisited critically.
The second element the ISIS-related discourse revealed is the process of political statesmanship giving in into political populism. Naturally, in any times of (perceived) crisis populism flourishes, but the more important it becomes that mainstream political parties row against such populist waves. However, lately, we have seen very little of this among major European political parties. Rather, what we observe is a slow pupulization of mainstream politics, with the extremes becoming acceptable and promotable. We have seen this in the recent Slovakian presidential elections, but also in parliamentary elections across Europe, whether in France, Finland, Croatia, or Hungary. This further impacts on how liberal democracies understand the term “party politics.” First, it becomes increasingly difficult for the average voter to distinguish among the many competing parties as these increasingly become each other’s lookalikes. Second, by incorporating some radical rhetoric – yet never going the extra mile to becoming fully extremist – into their political programs as they fall into the populist trap, traditional mainstream political parties alienate some of their core voters. Third, as a result of the first two, we see new political movements emerge to answer very specific electoral wishes. This further adds to the political fragmentation that we have been observing in the past few decades in EU members states, making deliberative politics increasingly difficult.
Finally, I would like to conclude by a short political forecast. The domestic political fragmentation described above will have – and to some extent already has – far-reaching implications also for EU politics. The EU’s carefully crafted compromise between supranationalism and intergovernmentalism also worked thanks to the underlying logic of carefully balancing the interests of the center right and center left. As such, for instance, introducing the single European market has been offset by more emphasis on re-distributory and market-correcting policies. With the center right and center left losing in strength at the national – and by extension at the EU – level, it will becoming increasingly difficult for the EU to govern us.
Senka Neuman Stanivukovic
Every year, students of the Euroculture program are asked to organize a trip to Brussels for themselves and their fellow students. The trip takes place in the second semester of the 1st year; usually in March or April. Students go to Brussels to gain a glimpse of the Brussels bubble. Sooner or later, some of them will also become a part of this bubble. This year, the trip was scheduled for early April. On the morning of March 22nd, only a few days before planning for this year’s Euroculture trip was to be finalized, Brussels was attacked in three coordinated bombings; one bomb exploded at the Brussels Airport and one and the Maalbeek metro station. A third bomb was found during the Airport search, but it failed to activate. The attack left 35 killed and 300 injured. In my contribution to the panel, I would like to revisit the debate among the Euroculture students and staff that took place in the aftermath of what soon became the Brussels attack. The debate concerned if we should proceed with the trip or not.
I start my discussion – rather unoriginally – with a simple static. On average, 2 million people younger than 75 die yearly in the EU-28. The leading causes of death are heart-attack and cancer. 3% of all deaths are non-natural. The dominant cause of non-natural deaths are transport accidents; 0.3 %. The second most dominant cause of non-natural deaths is falling accounting for 0.2%. Since 1980, there have been roughly 4000 terrorist related deaths in Western Europe. The highest number of deaths by terrorism was in 1988, when 270 people died in the attack on the Pan Am flight. Last year’s attacks in Paris left roughly 150 dead. This year, 35 people died in the Brussels attack. That is roughly 59,965 deaths less than those caused by transport accidents and 39,965 deaths less than those caused by falling.
Now, Euroculture students and staff are a fascinating crowd; surely not easily upset or frightened. We tend not to be afraid of flying, driving, or eating fries. We travel gladly and extensively. We take stairs, ride bikes and walk, so falling is not perceived as life-threatening either. But, in the aftermath of the Brussels attack, whether or not to travel to Brussels was extensively debated. Some were relatively reluctant to go for safety reasons or a general feeling of discomfort. Others were supportive of the trip taking place, arguing that life should continue regardless of (or in spite of) the attacks.
So, why were some of us afraid and why was the trip debated in the first place? Cultural studies (partially security studies also) will tell you that being afraid of terrorism is similar to being afraid of ghosts as neither are real. Terrorism, accordingly, is interpreted as a discursive construction that prevents us from reading these violent acts as counter-hegemonic forces. This is certainly not a justification of terrorism. Rather, the analysis examines practices through which the state, by way of labeling something as “terrorism” or “an act of terror”, disgraces its rivals and reinterprets old disputes. Furthermore, by way of labeling something as “terrorism” or “an act of terror”, the state makes its citizens feel vulnerable and consequently more supportive of illiberal practices such as surveillance or even torture. Accordingly, in some very twisted way, terrorism legitimizes and enhances the state.
Good, so now we know what happens when and after we feel frightened. But, why are we so afraid of terrorism when statistics tell us the real danger lies in the innocently looking patat met mayo? Here, focusing solely on discourse and politics of fear does not provide a complete picture. I will therefore argue that problematization of terrorism as a discursive strategy is a serious case of reductionism. I would therefore, slightly rebelliously, like to move away from the script that was so kindly provided to us by Yining and say that there is more to the story than just discourse.
I therefore argue that – rather than deconstructing the official discourses – we should start by agreeing with them. First, terrorism does present an ultimate challenge to the Westphalian system. It is more than an act of war. It is more than an act from the fringes of society. Terrorism is an anti-thesis of the system because it is fluid, irrational, non-hierarchal, and constructed through the affect. Second, terrorism shifts the us-them binary because it comes from the in-betweens/the lack. Terrorism comes from the gaps of our society. Terrorist organizations may replicate state structures or mode of organization and we do see terrorists relaying extensively on modern technology. But, terror itself denies sovereignty as the main principle of social organization. As such, it is anti-us rather than against-us. Terror is not a counter-sovereignty or counter-reason, but it is anti-sovereignty and reason. Third, and this brings me to my final point, Bush jr. was correct that one can’t negotiate with terrorism. Once negotiations begin, reasons starts and terrorism ends. Bush jr. was, however, wrong on multiple other points including the illusionary that one can fight or enter a war with terrorism.
Good, so, Bush was right, your books were wrong. Still, why are we afraid? Terrorism is ultimately subversive. It destroys the order through which the system is created and shows potentials of a different one. In terror, we are all equal as potential victims. Immediate reactions to terror are physical; we are shocked, afraid, disoriented, angry or unprotected. Terrorism destroys reason. We see production of discourses (legitimizations) before and after terror, but these are always dislocated. Terrorism is therefore not a counter-force to the self, it is the negation of the self. The only way a state can respond to terrorism is through destroying itself. Fascism, as an extreme form of a control society, is ultimately self-destructive.
I will end with an anecdote. Last Saturday, the City of Groningen has organized an open-day at a Groningen police-force and fire-brigades. My son follows “Fireman Sam” almost religiously, so we went to see firetrucks, etc. Among others, we were shown a police-bus used for transport of inmates. We were explained that because the Dutch penal system is highly efficient, home-grown convicts are no longer held in prison but often serve time under house arrest. This, however, creates a surplus in a prison capacity and these busses are often used to bring Norwegian and Belgian inmates to Dutch prisons to serve a part of their sentence here. It is a good system, we were told, because in-house sentences have proven a dropping rate of recidivism, while the expensive prison system continues to be financed by foreign capital. However, this situation turns Foucault on his head. Is the fact that “the mad”, “the bad”, and “the ill” are no longer closed away, but are walking freely among us, a sign of diminishing state and a greater liberty? Alternative being that we are all – in the eyes of the state – potentially “mad”, “bad”, and “ill” and live in an overarching yet invisible madhouse, prison, and a hospital.
In conclusion, I gladly accept Yining’s request to discuss discursive responses to the recent terror attacks in Europe. We can discuss how acts of terror were reasoned/normalized by the elite, media, or even Euroculture discourses. Yet, we should not forget that terror and terrorism is not normal, that it is anti-normal. Accordingly, I would like to push the debate towards terror as a subversion of normality.
James W. Leigh (Absent due to illness)
I broadly propose that many of the narratives concerning recent terrorist acts perpetuated in mass media do not reflect carefully enough on the relationship to certain ‘internal’ issues in European or Western societies. Here I am not referring to questions of foreign policy (and therefore to a view of terrorism as a response to the actions of Western states), as I see this as another potentially misleading argument. Instead I suggest that because recent acts of terrorism in Europe have tended to be perpetrated by citizens of European countries, people who grew up in those states, our understanding of them needs to become more focused on internal factors.
Essentially what makes an act ‘terrorist’ is not just the act in itself, but more so the framing of it and the transmission of fear/terror via mass communication. Thus when an attack takes place, it is our mass narration of it which determines its precise nature. Yet in our desire to construct a terrorist bogeyman, a frightening ‘other’, out of the perpetrators of the attacks in Paris and Brussels, we do not merely fulfill the destiny of the act by constructing it as ‘terrorist’; we may also overlook the more ordinary/banal (criminal) nature of those responsible. This is problematic, as it means we focus on a particular set of extremes, those which can be tied to religion/belief and therefore fit in with the idea of Islam as the ‘other’, the non-European enemy without.
Instead we could look towards the more commonplace social problems of those who carried out the Paris and Brussels attacks, which may be considered as challenges ‘within’. These individuals appear drawn to extremes, whether religious or non-religious. Prior to religious fanaticism, the majority were at some point involved in activities which would appear somewhat contrary to social norms; drugs and arms dealing, etc. Thus radicalisation is important, but it is only one factor, and moreover is a later stage in a larger process; it is not necessarily the root of the problem. Focusing on the Islamist character of the attackers or links to ISIS has two particular effects; it emphasises the alien, ‘other’ nature of the perpetrator without reflecting that they originate ‘within’, and it overlooks the somewhat broader sociopathic and criminal characteristics of these individuals (and how they arise). The result: We are too focused on asking how to address radicalisation itself, rather than asking how certain people become open to radicalisation in the first place, and how we might deal with the social ills which give rise to such openness before it gets to that stage.
In my last article we discussed what terrorism is and how the Islamic State got to where they are today. A brief conclusion highlights how terrorism is a method to obtain political power by executing acts of violence directed at civilian targets with the aim of spreading fear amongst a state’s citizens. The process leading up to an act of terrorism may be referred to as radicalization. Today, much is being made about radicalization on the Internet and how violent extremist groups are using the platform to spread their messages worldwide. This article will explore some of these narratives as well as discussing the methods in place to prevent and combat radicalization.
The use of propaganda in conflicts is nothing revolutionary, however what differentiates contemporary extremist propaganda from previous forms is the method of communication. When Al Qaida initiated their large-scale propaganda campaign in the early 2000’s they were dependent on existing media outlets to convey their messages. Rather than having to submit material to established media outlets such as Al Jazeera, today it is possible to distribute messages through an array of outlets online. What this form of communication has enabled is that violence promoting groups may spread their ideologies to an audience of proportions unheard of previously. Twitter, in 2016 alone, removed 235 000 accounts that have been deemed to be supportive and active in the distribution of terrorist-related content.
Since the 2014 self-declaration of the Islamic State’s caliphate [a form of Islamist government representing the political unity and leadership of the Muslim world] the terrorist organisation has rapidly expanded its global propaganda campaign. At the centre of this campaign is Dabiq, the online magazine written in seven languages by IS own media outlet, Al Hayat. Dabiq aims to offer an insight into the “daily life” of the caliphate and combines gruesome images from the battleground with religious discussions and examples of IS built infrastructure. One example of this are articles where converts to the Islamic State offer “sincere words of advice” to former Christians who have converted to Islam, in turn attempting to establish a link between the terrorist group and potential recruits. Outside of Dabiq, IS have released two issues of Rumiyah – Rome – which focuses less on the theological discussions than Dabiq. In the latest issue of Rumiyah readers are offered a discussion on the psychological and practical problems one might run into before conducting a “just terror attack”. Promoting the knife as the weapon of choice, the reader is offered religious guidance aimed at legitimizing the tactic as well as a practical discussion on pros and cons of different types of knives. IS and other self-proclaimed jihadist groups have previously spread these types of “terrorist-attacks for dummies”, for those interested, instructions for bomb-making are only a few clicks away. IS also produce an Arabic newsletter, as well as French periodical Dar al-Islam.
In 2015 I analysed IS propaganda in comparison to Al Qaeda’s and found a clear distinction between how the two groups have presented themselves through outward directed messages. What the study revealed was that IS presented an identity in accordance with a martial role. A martial role, which is one of two aspects of Arena and Arrigo’s theory “the terrorist identity” emphasises military strength and the overwhelming sense of uniqueness within a group. This uniqueness if founded on the establishment of the caliphate and control of a geographical area. IS control of an area spanning across northern Iraq and Syria,(an area roughly the size of the UK) is a clear distinction to other self-proclaimed jihadist-groups. Although Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram are active in specific areas of Somalia/Kenya and Nigeria/Cameroon/Niger/Chad respectively, these groups do not hold uncontested territories in which they are able to produces and uphold infrastructure as IS have. If you are interested in reading more about the self-presented identities of IS and Al Qaida,click here.
Nevertheless, IS have over the past two years gained recognition for the gruesome propaganda videos, which borrow influence from western culture, such as video games and movies. These videos include countless executions, decapitations, public crucifixions, the tossing of HBTQ – persons off buildings, the Jordanian pilot burnt to death in a cage, and suicide bombings. In a new study from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point a group of researchers and military personnel, including leading terrorism researcher Bruce Hoffman, have examined over 9,000 official media products produced by the Islamic State. The study revealed that over 50 percent of produced media focused on issues outside the Islamic State’s borders. These issues contain walkthroughs on how to perform terrorist attacks – such as the one presented in this article –, fatwas calling for attacks against westerners, and several articles condemning and establishing their enemies as the generalizable other. However, new studies are revealing that the group’s presence on social media platforms is reducing.
However, with IS presence reducing on American social media accounts,far right extremist groups have increased by 600 percent on Twitter .Right-wing extremist groups such as the Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordiska Motstånds Rörelsen – NMR), which is predominantly active in Sweden and Finland, presents an often overlooked threat to a nations security. In Sweden the NMR are attempting to frighten city officials and journalists. In Borlänge, the movement’s Nordic hub, officials have been greeted by their front steps covered in blood and in southern Sweden a municipal official had his car lit on fire and garage door covered with the NMR’s symbol. Meanwhile in Finland, the government is attempting to pass legislation which would enable the banning of extremist groups. The new legislation is a response to the death of a 28-year old that died of wounds he received at a NMR demonstration. If you are interested in the rhetoric of right-wing extremists in Europe read my colleague Sabine Volk’s insightful article on the subject.
The counter-narrative method may be divided into three areas; direct counter-narratives, aimed directly at the messages released by extremist groups. Alternative narratives offer an alternative understanding of the narratives released by extremist groups aiming at delegitimising the violence aspect within a group’s ideology. Within the alternative method the messenger, i.e. the person/group delivering the alternative message must retain a high level of legitimacy within the intended recipients. In the case of takfir-salfist jihadist, Imams and other Islamic religious leaders may condemn the fatwa’s produced by the Islamic State and produce fatwa’s condemning violence by drawing references from the Quran. More so, the experiences and knowledge of former members of right-wing extremism has proven to be an effective method for engaging the target audience in preventative discussions. This type of messenger is also gaining traction as a deterrent in jihadist recruitment. The third counter-narrative method is the development of media- and information knowledge and critical thinking amongst youth. This tactic is particularly popular in the Nordic countries. However, despite the new databases, knowledge centres and support for counter-narratives, there is little to no evidence supporting the effectiveness of direct counter-narrative campaigns as part of a radicalization prevention strategy. Rather than acting as a preventative measure the removal of extremist content online, which is a common aspect of counter-narrative campaigns, and messages directly targeting extremist content, are dependent on the publication and distribution of extremist propaganda. Therefore the method is heavily reliant on extremist groups, rather that setting its own preventative agenda.
Another problem facing current preventative campaigns is the difficulty in measuring their success. Security details will always be able to measure the amount of casualties in terrorist attacks and the figures regarding the roughly 30 000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq have been waved across most international media outlets. The amount of individuals who have not been radicalized is intangible, and existing measurement tools are inadequate. However, leading actors within counter-narratives such as the British think-tankInstitute for Strategic Dialogue are developing instruments for measuring counter-narratives outreach. Nevertheless, measuring likes, comments and shares on social media will not highlight the amount of individuals that have not become radicalized.
Although current research paints a gloomy picture for those encouraging counter-narrative campaigns, those promoting alternative narratives and media- and information education have a more positive outlook. Research in the Netherlands, the United States, and the UK, has pointed towards the potential that alternative narratives may be developed as part of complete anti-radicalization campaign. More so, the application of media and information education in youth is likely to develop the critical thinking amongst a state’s citizens, in turn making them more resilient to anti-democratic narratives.
There is no such thing as a quick fix when it comes to countering radicalization and recruitment to violence promoting extremist groups. However, by combining preventative measures with deterrent methods, which are known as soft vs. tough methods, it is possible to create a long- and short-term strategy to combat terrorism and violent extremism. In this, the internet remains an important battleground.
Eric Hartshornewill be back next month with his editorial asking if either Soft or Tough methods of countering radicalisation are more effective. For Eric’s article on the history of terrorism, click here.
Nice, Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Ankara, Baghdad, Lahore, Dakka and Orlando are just a few of the cities worldwide that have in 2016 been at the receiving end of violent extremist attacks. The list could be extended and made more dramatic, which would include several hideous attacks in Iraq and Turkey which have taken place in the last couple months. One feature that connects these attacks is terrorism, and to the now officially classified as terrorist, Islamic State in the Levant and Iraq (IS). In Europe, the EU and its member-states are on high alert, allocating large amounts of resources to combatting terrorism. Increased prison sentences, infringing surveillance and measures such as the removal of citizenship and the instigation of a state of emergency have been implemented across the continent. It is a situation Europe is trying to grapple with. However, in order to gain a deeper understanding of the current situation, we must take a step back and discuss what exactly is being combatted- what is terrorism? We must also ask how IS – the group currently seen as the most prominent terrorist organisation active in Europe and the Middle East– ended up where they are today.
When discussing terrorism there are two main points which are crucial to its understanding. That is, that terrorism itself is a method, and that its ideological foundation may differ over time. Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading terrorist researchers and his definition of terrorism relies heavily on the methods executed by a group or an organization. Hoffman’s definition of terrorism is as a method of which the main practice is the deliberate use of non-democratic means to obtain political power. The most common type of non-democratic means is the use of violence to spread an ideological message, whereas in democracies the state maintains a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. By attacking vulnerable groups, such as civilians, the aim of such attacks is to spread fear amongst its victims and the political leadership of a country by causing uncertainty and unrest. The second point is terrorism’s capacity to change over time. David Rapoport’s terrorist wave theory highlights the violent method’s evolving character, dividing modern terrorism into four specific eras. Each era has unique characteristics.
The first era developed as a response to the Russian Czar’s inability to instigate political and economic reforms leading to internal dissent and the rise of anti-government movements. The second wave, which lasted from the 1920’s to the early 1960’s had its ideological foundation in national self-determination, and included such groups as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Basque independence organisation, ETA. The third wave was social revolutionary in goal and included various socialist extremist organisations in Europe, such as the Red Army Faction in Germany. Within this third wave (1960’s to 1979) the methodological base of modern day terrorism was laid by the adoption by terrorist organisations of techniques such as sustained bombing campaigns. Today’s era, also known as the fourth or religious wave is characterised by its adaptable usage of different techniques and the ease of transmission of propaganda. This enables groups in this contemporary wave to remain active and more effective compared to the groups in previous waves.
A quick historical overview of Al Qaeda’s development reveals some of these traits. As a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a global mujahedeen movement grew out of the Afghani resistance movement. Following the Soviet’s withdrawal in 1989, one of the movement’s key members would gain further influence, Osama Bin Laden. Fast forward fifteen years and the Iraqi war is at a worst, and as a response to the US led invasion, Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda establishes an Iraqi branch through a local insurgence group. This new Al Qaeda branch came under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and was to be known as Al Qaeda in Iraq. AQI would continue to develop during the American led occupation and with the rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the group’s new leader after Zarqawi was killed in an American airstrike in 2008, the Islamic State was born. There is obviously much more to IS’s development than just Al Qaeda’s decentralization, such as the Shiite majority government’s treatment of the country’s Sunni Muslim’s, but what their development highlights is how groups within the religious wave are able to evolve past there parent organizations to adapt to new situations while maintaining the momentum of the ideological base.
IS in itself represents an interesting case study when discussing terrorism, returning us to the first theme of terrorism as a method. When the group proclaimed its Caliphate in 2014 much of the western world’s response focused on denouncing the group as a terrorist organisation, while IS developed its own propaganda aimed at emphasizing the group’s aim of establishing an Islamic nation. IS did so by emphasizing the everyday aspects of life within the Islamic State through its different media outlets such as its online magazine Dabiq, which is translated into seven languages and well worth a read for those interested in IS rhetoric. In the early days of the Islamic State, the group would embrace modern methods of terror such as suicide bombings and kidnappings. However, rather than directing such attacks towards citizens, such methods where used for military means. An example of such a tactic is how IS would pack armour-plated trucks with explosives that would then be driven into a military checkpoint and detonated. This combination of military and terrorist tactics was a crucial element in the rapid expansion of the group across Iraq and Syria, at a time when the militaries of these countries were divided and weakened by war. However, since IS has suffered military setbacks at the hand of coalition forces and the Iraqi army, it is possible to identify a change in tactics. The planned attacks in Paris, Brussels, Turkey and across Iraq followed by the continuous onslaught of lone-wolf attacks such as those in San Bernardino and Orlando highlight this change in tactics. Today IS is, by Hoffman’s definition, deploying the full arsenal of terrorism, targeting civilians in order to spread fear.
Today’s religious wave of terrorism has long surpassed the life expectancy of Rapoport’s previous eras, challenging previous research and methods in combatting terrorism. However, today new innovative measures are being examined to combat this wave of terrorism from a non-militarized perspective, in the hopes of treating the problem at its source. At Uppsala University an international and interdisciplinary team led by Professor Isak Svensson of the Department of Peace and Conflict aims at exploring contemporary peaceful means for resolving conflicts with at least one self-proclaimed jihadist actor. Although not directly applicable to the attacks in Europe over the past years, the research project aims at revealing the potential or limitations of peaceful means in resolving local conflicts such as those in Nigeria with the Islamic militant group, Boko Haram, Afghanistan with the Taliban and in Syria and Iraq with IS. What connects these groups is their self-proclaimed ideological bases within the religious wave of terrorism. These groups, along with the likes of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines all hold geographical territories under their control and claim to be committed to an Islamic jihadist ideology, however to date it is only IS who has conducted, and claimed connection to, attacks in Europe. The response resonating from western states has to date been tough. However, more and more states are adopting the “softer” approaches to counter-terrorism, pushing the envelop for new ways to prevent individuals from radicalizing, rather than solely focusing on preventing or responding to attacks. In the end, the phenomenon known as terrorism is unlikely to disappear in any foreseeable future. It is easy to forget in today’s jihadist dominated terrorism discourse that left- and right-wing extremist groups have made their presence felt in the not to distant past and may do so again. In Sweden alone, over thirty planned housing facilities for asylum seekers have been burnt by a group of sympathisers of the far right agenda.
Although the near future may seem bleak there are several initiatives pointing in the right direction. In Århus, Denmark, the local counter-radicalization model – a co-operation between the municipality, regional police force and local mosque – has set the precedent for the soft method approach, valuing integration and participation over punishment and exclusion. In Sweden, a national coordinator to defend democracy against violent extremism is pushing for preventative measures such as developing the critical analytical skills of youths regarding the internet and within the new strategy (July 2016) the government encourages local initiatives of cooperation between the religious communities, municipalities, authorities and police. In complete opposition to such initiatives, the current debate regarding the so called burkini is doing nothing but adding flame to fire which is the ISIS propaganda and recruitment machine. Nevertheless, with the amount of foreign fighters traveling from Europe to join IS falling, along with the groups geographical area, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The question is not if the fourth wave of terrorism will end but when.