Magazine, Vol. 1: Terrorism
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Terrorism and Sociology

Terrorism is a social phenomenon to the core.”

Dr Daniel Witte, Käte Hamburger Kolleg “Recht als Kultur”, Internationales Kolleg für Geisteswissenschaftliche Forschung

42: Is terrorism a topic with which sociology should concern itself?

Daniel Witte: Terrorism is an innately social phenomenon and therefore a research topic in sociology. Though this sounds dreadfully trivial, it is not. Modern terrorism is in its causes, its structures and dynamics as well as its effects a thoroughly social matter. If all terrorists were psychopaths, then sociology should probably leave questions concerning action theory to clinical psychologists. The question regarding the specific social circumstances that lead people to decide to use terroristic strategies – which is a sociological question – would then have been incorrectly phrased to begin with. But this is precisely not the case: statistically speaking, terrorists are astonishingly normal people, as research shows time and time again. Modern terrorism also emerges in social forms that we know from completely different areas of life: e.g. as an organisation or a network. Furthermore, terrorism is not primarily concerned with killing particular people, but with the provocation of social and communicative effects, i.e. an impact on society in a broader sense. The current discourse of fear, for instance, is closely linked to this topic. So these issues are clearly at the centre of a sociological analysis of the present.

42: So sociologists take an interest in the topic of terrorism because it is relevant to their subject matter?

DW: The relevance of the topic, besides the disciplinary competences, is another question altogether. In this particular case, however, I see no particular need for an explanation – although generally sociologists should take heed not to let politics, economics, mass media discourses, and other forms of heteronomy impose their research questions upon them. In the case of terrorism, the societal relevance of the topic seems to me as undeniable as the genuine social significance of the manifold questions that are connected to it. One thing should perhaps be made clear: “terrorism” is not even a single, well-defined issue. What we are discussing is a specific type of political, strategic action which raises a multitude of diversely layered questions that in turn have to be discussed with regard to their historical and regional context. Ultimately, sociology studies the matter’s aspects that are, as Georg Simmel once put it, “solely society”. After all, though terrorism is a thoroughly social matter and not a botanical or mathematical one, it does not imply that all aspects of this complex issue refer to social structures and the concurrent effects of social practices to the same degree. If, for example, theological figures of thought, arguments of legal doctrine, or questions of ballistics come into play, the sociologist is well advised to trust the expertise of other fields or acquire the relevant background knowledge.

42: Terrorism is being observed and analysed by many academic fields. In how far does sociology contribute a different perspective? What are some examples of explanatory models that sociology provides concerning terrorism?

DW: Sociology provides its own distinct perspective of the phenomenon “terrorism” in the way just mentioned: by enquiring after its specifically social causes and effects. Your question bears a strong implication by mentioning “explanations”: You want to know why certain agents in certain situations under certain circumstances become terrorists. For that question alone sociology offers diverse answers that are more or less commensurable, and may be explanatory to varying degrees in specific cases.

42: What is the sociological explanation for individual radicalisation then?

DW: There are diverse reasons that may lead the individual person towards radicalisation and eventually to terrorism; this is somewhat like asking “How do you explain why someone becomes an insurance salesman? Or a vegetarian?” But, of course, there are historical, cultural and especially political factors that have a considerable influence. In case of the German “Red Army Fraction” (RAF), for example, the debate about the parents’ generation’s role during the period of National Socialism was a central factor. Adding to that was a certain intellectual climate within many Western societies. Furthermore, the influence of certain theories and ways of thinking plus a large-scale socio-cultural movement within the collegiate milieu, from which a few people secluded themselves gradually and defected to the underground, played a role in the radicalisation. The current Islamist terrorism in turn is certainly not independent from developments that have shaped especially the Near and Middle East for many decades; developments in which Western societies were and are still involved in manifold ways, for instance, politically, economically, culturally or militarily. Radical interpretations of political Islam certainly play a major role in it, too, but I believe it to be wrong – and, by the way, utterly dangerous – to take them out of their historical context and then pretend that terrorism may be understood simply by way of textual hermeneutics of a few particular surahs.

42: So terrorism does not become fathomable from a radical interpretation of religion alone?

DW: Yes, I firmly believe that it does not. Besides, the more fascinating and important questions are why certain interpretations in some religions currently experience this remarkable renaissance. Or which features within our own contemporary society lead middle-class kids from the Voreifel to see Jihadism as an attractive, counter-cultural offer to give their lives meaning instead of, for instance, hip-hop or punk. Why they convert to an Islam of which they hardly scratched the surface and yet travel to Syria to join the “holy war” as “foreign fighters”. That is – unfortunately in the double sense of the term – quite adventurous. Interpretations of the Quran will not provide satisfactory answers to these questions.

42: What will offer answers then?

DW: A few points that one should assess sociologically to understand contemporary terrorism have already been mentioned. Needless to say, there is an array of further factors that may play a role, for example, the influence of mass-media propaganda and the dynamics of distribution that the Internet has unleashed. In some cases, there is also a long-term tradition of conflict that has special importance (I am thinking of the ETA or IRA, for instance). In other cases, experiences of marginalisation and deficits in integration are contributing factors, and at some point group dynamics come into play almost every time – but there it is often too late anyway. So you see: a complex phenomenon such as terrorism can certainly not be “explained” in a mono-causal manner. 

42: So sociology provides possible explanations for terrorism. What about sociological perspectives concerning its consequences?

DW: Sociology does indeed, besides these “explanatory approaches”, concern itself with the manifold consequences of terrorism and its effects on the societies which it addresses. Sociologists are in a way always generalists, though in a very specific sense. For almost every aspect of society there is a more differentiated special branch of scientific reflection. To stick with the example of terrorism: there is political science, the study of religions, media studies, but also diverse fields with a regional focus (like Indology or Arabic studies). And if you switch to the perspective of the social observation of terrorism, there are even more areas involved. I like to illustrate this with the example of 9/11: It was not just a political event; it was a topic in nearly all social fields. September 11, that is now a “classic systems-theoretical figure”: this means that it has in that sense taken place many times. For example, in the economy, on the markets and stock exchanges as well as in theological debates and in churches, in the most diverse outlets of media and sciences, in law and education as well as art and literature, and so on. A possible starting point for sociology is essentially one that brings these different perspectives into relation – if you like, a top view – that observes how different social areas observe the same event in their different ways; how they communicate and put their findings into practice. The fact that very different things are focused on and very different aspects seem relevant in this process: for example, the question whether an attack is of military nature and what actions international law would dictate in such a case; how religious minorities can be protected from discrimination in the future; in which way one should react with regard to the next parliamentary elections or one’s share portfolio; or even which aesthetic qualities could be found in the collapse of the twin towers – the fact that all these highly distinctive questions may be put centre stage when reflecting on the same event forms an insight that can only be found from a sociological perspective. When we talk so much of “complexity” we are talking of this very way our modern society is structured.

42: Is terrorism a new phenomenon or is it a cipher that merges established phenomena and thereby makes it something distinct and threatening?

DW: That, of course, depends on one’s own understanding of the term “new”. Terrorism is not a new phenomenon, but a distinctly modern one; a phenomenon intimately linked with the characteristics of modern society. There is a multitude of definitions of this term which is, by the way, also used as a stigmatising attribution time and again. The phenomenon that we call “terrorism” today – the purposeful and organised exercise of violence to achieve goals that are in the broadest sense political through the spreading of fear and terror in innocent spectators – this phenomenon only began to play a significant role in the 19th century, a few precursory events excluded. Maybe you have heard of the concept of the “propaganda of the deed” which goes back to the anarchical movement. With this, the meaning we use nowadays comes into focus when accounting for terrorism primarily as a “strategy of communication” (a quote from Peter Waldmann which has become quite famous by now).

42: Which ideologies supply the legitimisation of the terrorism of the modern era?

DW: Ideologically, the 20th century has seen all possible varieties of this strategy: From left-wing radicals (like the RAF or the Red Brigades in Italy) and right-wing radicals (think of the Wehrsportgruppe Hoffman and the Oktoberfest bombing in 1980, the most severe act of terrorism in post-war Germany) to ethnic-nationalistic terrorism (as seen in Ireland and the Basque Region) up to radical environmental and animal protection organisations (like the Earth and Animal Liberation Front), for which the FBI coined the term “eco-terrorism”. In some of these cases, religious motives and patterns of legitimation already start to come into play, and in the case of Islamic terrorism they clearly dominate the narrative. I am still of the opinion, however, that even this specific form of terrorism can only be understood by looking earnestly into its political – which means: not primarily religious – goals.

42: So terrorism in its current form is not a new phenomenon?

DW: No, it is not a “new” phenomenon. It is nevertheless “modern” in a structural sense because it systematically exploits certain features of modern societies. Systems theorists especially speak of terrorism as a “parasite” of the structural properties of these societies. Without a state monopoly on the use of force and a democratic public sphere, without the weighing of freedom and security that is constitutive of open societies, without modern mass media, nowadays with their live coverage and infinite loops of reporting – without all of these and many more specifically “modern” aspects of society, terrorism would be utterly impossible.

42: Since the attacks on the World Trade Center, Islamic terrorism is at the centre of what is commonly understood as terrorism. Is religion, especially Islam, a sufficient cause of terrorism?

DW: This question is one where I don’t even understand the approach. Terrorism is a complex social phenomenon that categorically eludes mono-causal explanations. If the implied idea behind your question is whether religious belief (even ceteris paribus) inevitably leads the protagonists in question to become terrorists, then I believe the absurdity of the question to be obvious. The same goes for followers of different denominations; and even if you look at Islamism as a fundamentalist or radical political interpretation of Islam, you will find quickly that, statistically speaking, almost none of the Islamists actually become terrorists. We are still dealing with incredibly low percentages: When looking into the annual reports of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, one finds that for years, it is assumed that there are about 45,000 Islamists in Germany of which about 1,000 are classified as possibly dangerous, and only about 150 people that actually require “special governmental attention”. The proportions that we are dealing with stand at between 2 and 0.3 percent, though these numbers only represent a “potential”. If you put those numbers into relation with the total number of Muslims living in Germany ­– which is pretty much a hundredfold – you arrive at the result of approximately 0.2 to 0.03 per mille potential terrorists. Sufficient causes look rather different.

But these numbers are still essentially simple calculation games. It is more useful to look at history and global empirical analysis of terrorism. As far as the recent history of the issue is concerned: The American political scientist Robert Pape published a great sociological book about ten years ago, statistically evaluating the data of all suicide attacks around the globe from more than two decades (1980-2003). One of the most interesting results of the study is, very broadly speaking, that concerning the origin of the suicide attackers of al-Qaida, the deployment of US-troops in the respective home country is a much better predictor than the predominance of Islamic fundamentalism or Salafism – if you consider this factor, the likelihood of radicalisation (or rather, the percentage of the entire population) suddenly increases tenfold. Globally speaking, the countries with the largest Muslim populations like Indonesia and Pakistan are massively underrepresented in international terrorism while the most suicide attacks worldwide have been committed by the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) over the course of many years – a separatist group in Sri Lanka that is largely made up of secular Hindus. Of course religious belief systems and differences play a role in many confrontations – as patterns of legitimation, as a medium to give meaning to life, and so on – but as a general rule, these confrontations are embedded in ethnic-nationalist and global, military conflicts that one should not lose sight of. Even IS, which shows intense religious aspects by its explicit goal to create a caliphate, is only fathomable as a religious-political-military hybrid. To come back to your question: religion in the general sense and radical Islamism in the particular sense (not to mention “the” Islam) do neither present a sufficient nor a necessary cause for terrorist practices.

42: Terrorist attacks are usually accompanied by extensive media coverage. Do the media play into the hands of terrorists by generating attention? Is terrorism even constructed by media coverage in the first place?

DW: Well now, one should differentiate a bit more. A factual attack with the physical effects of a detonated explosive charge, injured or killed people, all of that is not “constructed” by mass media – that would be epistemological nonsense. In how far certain events are amalgamated in the coverage, which other issues are being omitted, and how that creates contexts and establishes certain narratives so that at the end there is a specific image of a complex phenomenon like “terrorism” – all of these questions are naturally not independent of media coverage and public discussions in late modern societies. Negating that would be equally naive. A fitting example for the resulting connection between official portrayal and public perception may be the restrained handling of the term “right-wing terrorism”, which has been criticised time and again. Think of the misnaming of the series of attacks by the NSU that went on for years – keyword “Doner Killings” and the investigations in the family environment of the victims.

42: So what does the connection between media coverage and terrorism look like?

DW: Basically, the media itself plays a central role in terrorist strategies. As I have already mentioned: without mass media, modern terrorism would be utterly impossible, as it does exactly not aim at killing as many people as possible as effectively as possible. It rather aims at the psychological and social effects that are achieved beyond the group of people immediately affected by the attack. In this respect, it is in its very structure dependent upon a broad and extensive, surprising and shocking media coverage. For our late modern societies and the “economy of attention” which culturally dominates large portions of said societies, this represents a paradox that cannot just be solved: we should look away, but naturally we cannot. Theoretically, one could steal terrorism’s thunder by not reporting on the attacks – but this is, of course, just a thought experiment. However, I have recently observed first small indications of an increased sensibility concerning the responsibility that we have when circulating images – if this leads to an increase of questions concerning media ethics in the middle run, it would be a first step. But tell that to the tabloids. Something that could be said in addition to my statement earlier about terrorism being primarily a strategy of communication: It is part of the perfidiousness of this strategy that open societies take on a major part of that communication by themselves by distributing the “message” of terrorist protagonists. The fact that terrorism imposes that distribution upon us to a certain degree and thereby makes us aware of our own helplessness is ultimately part of the violence which it applies.

42: Dr Witte, thank you very much for this conversation.

Interview: Marian Blok

Translation: Eva Fürst

Foto: slagheap/flickr

Dr Daniel Witte
Käte Hamburger Kolleg “Recht als Kultur”
Internationales Kolleg für Geisteswissenschaftliche Forschung, Bonn

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