Book Review: Depoliticised approaches to the understanding of terrorism and politically compromised scholarship

30th Nov 2018
Book Review: Depoliticised approaches to the understanding of terrorism and politically compromised scholarship

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The Cambridge Companion to Religion and Terrorism. Edited by James R Lewis. Cambridge University Press. 2017. HB. £67.99.

The academic field of Terrorism Studies is a highly dubious one, fraught with many problems. As Tom Mills and David Miller point out in Chapter 4 of The Cambridge Companion to Religion and Terrorism, terrorism studies first emerged as a field in the West during the Cold War era, spearheaded by a group of researchers known as the ‘terrorism mafia’.

This network of people was replete with former military and intelligence experts from America and Britain who specialised in counter-insurgency propaganda tactics during 20th-century conflicts. Experts from the terrorism mafia were not interested in studying terrorism in a casual way and were sceptical that terrorism could be stopped by removing its “roots causes”.

After the Soviet threat diminished in the 1990s, the United States continued to support Israel and Arab state autocracy as par for the course, and any threat to their power in the region was still given the label of “terrorism”.

But without the Soviet spectre looming, potential uprisings and insurgencies in the Middle East had no ideological commonality, that was until 9/11 happened, and the invention of “Islamism”. The subsequent evolution of terrorism studies as an academic field then became overwhelmingly concerned with defining and understanding “Islamism” as a theocratic ideology.

A Mills and Miller point out: “…the overwhelming focus on Islam and Muslims in terrorism policies and terrorism research reflects the interests of Western states which are themselves major driving forces behind the contemporary conflicts of which ‘terrorists’ are part.

Such states, principally the United States and its close allies in Europe and the Middle East, have recklessly pursued policies known to fuel ‘terrorism’, whilst at the same time fostering forms of knowledge and expertise which are geared towards the management of political violence, rather than developing and understanding its underlying causes. In this sense, the problem is not so much depoliticised analysis as politically compromised expertise.”

A good example of how terrorism studies are politically compromised is King’s College London’s Department of War Studies. King’s College works closely with the Ministry of Defence, providing advice to them and training for the armed forces. A visiting professor at their department is David Omand, a former Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator and, according to Mills and Miller, “reputedly the main architect of the United Kingdom’s counter-terrorism policy”.

The department is fostering the academic field of ‘new terrorism’, which evolved from the old terrorism mafia and attempts the impossible feat of independent scholarly study whilst also being aligned to a clear political pro-war position.

The Cambridge Companion to Religion and Terrorism is similarly compromised as its opening chapter is by a new terrorism scholar called Mark Juergensmeyer. In her 2013 book Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented ‘Terrorism’, Dr Lisa Stampnitzky describes Juergensmeyer as intellectually aligned with the core members of the terrorist mafia of the 1970s.

In the opening chapter of this book, Juergensmeyer talks about the religiosity of Palestinians and how it exacerbates their violence but is not so much interested in the religiosity of Americans and Israelis and how it exacerbates their violence, as they are state actors.

Bizarrely, state violence is not within the remit of terrorism studies which only concentrates on the violence of non-states actors, and looks only at one side of a violent struggle.

Juergensmeyer frames the whole Palestinian resistance to occupation as religiously violent aggression, one that is potentially never-ending, because for Palestinians “the timeline of sacred struggle is vast; perhaps even eternal”.

In this way, terrorism studies invert power relations, looking at the aggression of states as a defence, and the defence of non-state actors as aggression. This view is propagated continually in Western media outlets with regards to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The majority of the chapters in The Cambridge Companion to Religion and Terrorism are either politically compromised or depoliticised, decontextualised approaches to terrorism, looking at terrorism in isolation of its war-time context.

This approach is reflected in the Editor James R Lewis’ own contributing chapter in which he concludes that the theory that Western Muslims join international terror groups because they wish to travel back in time and live how they imagine life was like for the Prophet Muhammad, is an important ‘variable’ in understanding their behaviour, and just as important as any political variable.

Lewis’ approach is effectively trying to understand the power of the Islamic State through its recruitment methods rather than through the means in which it came about in the chaos of post-war Iraq. This is the “analytical void” that Mills and Miller talk about from which it is impossible to make a rational analysis of terrorism at all.

It can be argued that The Cambridge Companion to Religion and Terrorism is a politically compromised piece of scholarship, and therefore academically compromised.

Due to the primacy, it has given to the work of Mark Juergensmeyer who is intellectually aligned to both the original ‘terrorism mafia’ and academics at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, it is difficult to see this book as pure scholarship outside of the context of the counter-terrorism policy framework.

Given that the majority of the chapters of this book are depoliticised approaches to the understanding of terrorism, the book is doing little to redress the implications of terrorism studies for the civil liberties of Muslim citizens all over the world. Not even a Cambridge Companion to Islamophobia, which doesn’t exist, can counteract the negative human implications of the field of terrorism studies.




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