The recent killing of the editorial team of Charlie Hebdo and of four French Jews in Paris has again brought the debate back over what terrorism is and who becomes a terrorist. The questions are, obviously, not new and it might be seen as a sign of a vibrant social science debate that they have not been satisfactorily answered (see for instance this interesting row of articles in the Journal of Social Philosophy). In the meanwhile, the space for ideologization and politicization of these questions from all sides remains open with the troubling consequences we can already see in France, from increased securitization and surveillance to mounting racism.
There is an intuitive understanding of ‘terror’ as arbitrary and gratuitous violence that aims at spreading fear and insecurity among a population. However, with this in mind drone attacks are, quite obviously, as much terrorism as the killing of cartoonists and supermarket costumers (a good discussion how the terms ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ are politically constructed and disputed in the case of US-Israel-Palestine relations can be found here). The question what terrorism is and who the terrorists are goes deeper because it touches the much more fundamentally political question of legitimate uses and users of violence; hence, any intuitive answer will be unsatisfactory.
Debating the question becomes all the more complex in an age of transnational violence. In the 1970s and 1980s when left-wing extremists killed politicians and industrial leaders in Westeuropean states, they did so within a neatly circumscribed political field with a so-called military-industrial state complex on the one hand and a so-called revolutionary cell on the other. The question of what terrorism is became subsumed in the question whether the Red Army Fraction’s (in Germany) killings were politics or not (and the imprisoned RAF members treated as political prisoners or as common murderers). Although in theory the RAF’s members appealed to an abstract idea of world revolution, the RAF’s act were not committed in the name of some far-away imagined community but self-assumed in their own interest as revolutionaries within Germany; the aim was to kick off a revolution in Germany first not in any other part of the world.
This is different to the current attacks. Here, there is also a very abstract idea of a Muslim community in the background and which, by definition, includes French Muslims, but importantly there is the very concrete objective of destabilising Western military policies in far away countries. The strategic target of the attacks was, if the communique of the Yemenite Al Qaida is to be believed, actually not in Paris but in Syria, Afghanistan, Mali, Tchad and other ‘holy lands’. The killers did not aim at changing French politics in France. Yet, the killers were French as French can be, apparently not particularly religious themselves and rather socialized in the petty criminal and drug dealing milieus of France’s marginal zones; they were neither Palestinians nor Libyans who have to deal daily with the terror of Israeli or French bombings.
With RAF killings, the answer one gave to the question what terrorism was (murder or a political act) automatically included the answer to the question what a terrorist was (a murderer or an insurgent against social injustice). Now, this has become more complex. One could for instance acknowledge that some armed groups are resistance movements to occupation (as many do for Hamas in Gaza) and acknowledge their legitimacy to use violence.
However, it is then difficult to see what French marginalized, disenfranchised youth has to do with it. In order to make this argument, one needs to create a connection between Gaza or Syria and Corèze (where the Kouachi brothers apparently grew up). This is what a number of texts circulating on the internet actually try to do by postulating a general oppression of all Muslims, in France and in Iraq alike, but the link remains unconvincing per se. There are many marginalized, disenfranchised and frustrated youth in France; yet, not all of them are Muslims and not all Muslims are marginalized and disenfranchised. As Olivier Roy points out correctly the very idea of a Muslim ‘community’ in France is factitious. It might well be that it was one objective of these attacks to create such communitarian antagonism, exactly because it does not exist in the facts of French society.
It is more promising to separate the motivations of the killers from the motivations of the killing. The debate over who becomes a terrorist is often represented as opposing the hypothesis of individual mindsets to the hypothesis of strategic, well-calculating political networks. Yet, there is no reason other than the observers’ own ideological goggles not to assume that both can be true. One can perfectly well see the three young men as mere tools of a larger, transnationally calculating strategy of violent confrontation, and as subjects who act out their own individual social and, eventually mental, troubles within their very own realm. Young men and women have to be socialized into networks of violence (as summarized here) and these structures of socialization are, indeed, ‘homemade’. (I find it noticeable for instance that the Kouachi brothers staged their attack like a headshooting video game which is much more symptomatic of French youth culture and not in the Hamas or Chechen style of a suicide bombing.)
If, indeed, both were true then the political responses, too, have to be kept separate. ‘Standing the ground in Syria’ as the French President took his mouth full the other day or bombing Yemen will not stop the French marginalized zones of society to produce young men and women who are willing to let their lives to kill others; and starting (finally) to work seriously on the issues of daily racist prejudice, of rampant exclusion and marginalization, of urban decay and (most important of all in my eyes) educational misery might not have much effect on Palestinian statehood or peace in Syria. Yet, the realization that one has maybe very little to do with the other would, very importantly, open space for a democratic debate whether the state’s money should to go into more bombs on far-away places or is better spent on education, culture and employment, in France’s marginalized zones in particular but in the entire country in general.
So far for politics…but on the research side of things, separating the individual terrorist from the greater question of transnational terrorism paradoxically requires an inter-disciplinary approach. Academically, the question of the terrorist’s mindset has been kept at arm’s length by political science research out of fear that any investigation into the subjective experience of terrorism (and the corresponding debates about deviance or not) would delegitimate the assessment of its economic, social and political causes. If one argues that the oppression of Palestinians in Gaza is causally the same as the oppression of ‘muslims’ in France and that therefore the three killers of last Wednesday have acted out of the identitary humiliation that Muslims apparently feel all over the world, then, of course, any psychological or socio-psychological explanation of terrorism is inacceptable. On the other hand, if one argues that terrorists are purely the product of dysfunctional socialisation processes, examples of delinquance rather than politics, or simply psychopats, then any further investigation into the causal connections with wider world politics is inacceptable. In both cases, the reaction would be to fend off inter-disciplinary approaches out of ideological fears or egoistic fencing off of research claims.
If, however, one accepts that there is a missing link between individual mindsets (which still then need to be more clearly defined) and greater globalised schemes of oppression (which then still would need better explanation than simply ‘oppression’ or ‘imperialism’), then social sciences working on the individual and micro-cosmen of terrorists (psychology, socio-psychology, anthropology, sociology) need to be integrated with those social sciences who work on the dynamics and pitfalls of globalisation (international relations, comparative politics, international political economy).
That is easier said than done. Apart from a host of practical problems (the competitive nature of funding that incites in-disciplinary research or simply the physical non-dialogue between the disciplines), there is a row of serious epistemological and ontological questions that need to be cleared. Obviously, there is the agent-structure problem and, if one thinks in terms of linear causality, the what/who causes what/who? Yet, this could be solved with an approach that disposes of linear causality and accepts the relational assumption that socialization is a two-way (or even multi-way) process, in which agents continously participate, by their very lives, in the reproduction of structures, which, in turn, condition the individual’s agency. Yet, the greater problem is that these dynamics of reproduction-socialization-reproduction are not linear and direct, and maybe not even coherent. In the end, the question which structures produce which kinds of agency and vice-versa can be only answered empirically, and that is probably the most frustrating part for all those who want social science to produce ready-made answers immediately when disaster strikes.