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[Terrorism is] ... the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or ... Terrorism is specifically designed to have far-reaching psychological ...

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POLS 373 Foundations of Comparative Politics

What Makes a Terrorist?

Abbreviated Lecture


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • Before beginning any discussion of terrorism, what need to do something. What is this?

  • Quick answer: we need to clearly define the concept of terrorism. This is especially important for a concept as emotionally charged and as politically loaded as terrorism is.


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What Makes a Terrorist?

Criteria for a definition of terrorism:

  • The definition should reasonably precise and clear-cut; that is, it should be clear how terrorism is differentiated from other forms of violence.

  • The definition should be primarily descriptive or analytical, as opposed to emotional.

  • In a related vein, the definition should not be premised on a moral or political judgment, which either automatically de-legitimizes or conversely legitimizes the act or terrorism or terrorists.


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • Hoffman defines terrorism is the following manner:

  • [Terrorism is] … the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in pursuit of political change. All terrorist acts involve violence or the threat of violence. Terrorism is specifically designed to have far-reaching psychological effects beyond the immediate victim or object of the terrorist attack …. Terrorism is designed to create power where there is none or to consolidate power where there is very little.


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • It is useful to breakdown the components of this definition:

    • Terrorism is an intentionally violent act

    • Terrorism is a tool used to pursue an objective, i.e., political change

    • Terrorism is, at base, a symbolic act designed to instill fear in the larger population

    • Terrorism is the “weapon of the weak.”

    • Hoffman (and others) also provide one more component: Terrorism is committed by subnational and/or non-state actors


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • Can Islam be both a religion of peace and of violence at the same time?


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • To some, the answer is clearly “no.” Consider the quote I use in the chapter by Robert Morey:

    “The blood lust of Islam is … rooted in a perverted religious impulse to kill and mutilate others in the name of Allah. This is what makes it so insidious and wicked. The killing of innocent men, women, and children in the name of Islam is a thing of praise and a badge of honor. The more you kill, the more Allah is honored. The greater the destruction, the greater the glory of Islam.”


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • To understand the contemporary culturalist position, we have to go back to a key culturalist assumption, which is that…

  • … culture or religion is not monolithic, that it doesn’t speak with the same voice.


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • This is what I mean, in part, when I say that most culturalists would not argue that “culture makes a terrorist,” but that cultural and religious values—which are often intentionally manipulated by charismatic leaders or strong organizations—can contribute to the making of terrorists

  • These same set of values, manipulated or interpreted by a different leader or group, by contrast, can also contribute to the making of pacifists


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • In this regard, one of the best ways to think of culture is as a meaning-making medium, which interacts with other forces—political, economic, and social—to influence or shape the behavior of individuals


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • To understand the logic of the culturalist position, we also need to recall another key assumption, namely, that culture has power


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • Cultural symbols need to be understood in the context of particular place and within the context of broader social, political and economic forces: these contextual factors will make the use of cultural symbols more or less possible, more or less effective.


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • In this regard, culture is not purely an independent variable

  • At the same time, many culturalists would agree that culture and religion have an autonomous effect insofar as they sometimes provide a necessary or at least authoritative basis for collective action

  • That is, without an appeal to culture, some collective activities might be virtually impossible.


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • On this point, consider the rise in one particular type of terrorist activity: suicide bombings. How can this activity be explained or understood without taking into account cultural factors?


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • First, in Lebanon it is fairly clear that terrorism was a product of a deeply divided, unequal, and oppressive society and political system. In other words, terrorism did not simply emerge from nowhere and with no basis

    • This is what I mean when I say that cultural symbols need to be understood in the context of a particular place and with the content of broader social, political, and economic forces.


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • Second, it took a long time for terrorism to emerge, although there were incidents of political violence between the dominant and subordinate groups in that country.


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • Third, when terrorism finally did emerge, it was not clearly or primarily associated with fundamentalists or religious/cultural leaders.


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • Fourth, when Islam and political violence did come together, it did not happen “naturally” or automatically.

  • Instead, Islam, in effect, had to be co-opted and reshaped by leaders of Lebanon’s political struggles.

    • Nor was this co-optation one in which a “pure” Islam was used to justify a turn toward terrorism. In fact, Islamic principles were combined with Marxist-Leninist principles to create an ironic, but very powerful hybrid.


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • Fifth, the application of Islamic principles to the legitimation of terrorism required a “redefining” of supposedly bedrock values.

    • For example, Islam forbids suicide; suicide is considered a grave sin, and the person who commits suicide is doomed to continual repetition in Hell of the action by which he killed himself.” Yet, it was in Lebanon where the “suicide bomber” first appeared in the Middle East.


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • To justify the act of “suicide terrorism,” one of Lebanon’s leading Muslim clerics argued that a special context existed in Lebanon and this special context made it permissible for Muslims to “explode” themselves in the name of Islam, and to defeat enemies of Islam.

    • In a similar vein, the concept of Jihad was redefined to justify and legitimize all sorts of political violence.


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What Makes a Terrorist?

  • The important point is this: The “Islaminization” of political violence carried out by Hizballah allowed the organization to claim a divine or sanctified role, which, in turn, conferred an obligation on the part of all Muslims to support, or at least not oppose, the actions taken by Hizballah.

  • The more successful this process of Islaminization, the more powerful Hizballah became.


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