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This course was last updated December 2012

Understanding Terrorism: A Social Science View on Terrorism

Over the last 25 years, much of the research on terrorism has been accomplished without rigorous adherence to analytical frameworks. This series of three modules will trace the history of religious terrorism scholarship, introducing you to Social Identity Theory (SIT) and demonstrating how this particular scholarly approach within social psychology can provide nuance, depth, and rigor to your studies of religious terrorism. The first two modules will focus on explaining and exploring SIT itself, while the final modules take a closer look at the phenomenon we refer to as “religious terrorism.” By applying the analytical framework of SIT to different historical and contemporary religious terrorist groups, this course offers students of homeland security and terrorism studies a new understanding of group and individual dynamics within a covert environment.

After completing this series of modules, the student should be able to:

  • Define Social Identity Theory (SIT).
  • Discuss the effects of individual and group dynamics on an individual’s understanding of his or her identity.
  • Critically examine past and present approaches to terrorism studies.
  • Illustrate how Social Identity Theory can be helpful to analysts studying terrorism—particularly, religious terrorism.
  • Explain how organizations relying on religious authority to justify extremist actions use religion or theology as a strong in-group designation.
  • Understand the importance of properly recognizing terrorist motivation when giving an assessment or analysis of a terrorist group or attack.
  • Recognize the difference between religious and theologically motivated violence.
  • Give historical and contemporary examples of religious and theologically motivated terrorist groups.
  • Give contemporary groups or issues proper historical context.
  • Identify major religious traditions and sects that have provided motivation for terrorism in the modern age.
  • Identify some of the most influential authors on the subject.

Here are a sample of suggested books for those interested in additional reading on topics related to Understanding Terrorism: A Social Science View on Terrorism

Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Anchor Books, 1967)

  • Description: In this seminal book, Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann examine how knowledge forms and how it is preserved and altered within a society. Unlike earlier theorists and philosophers, Berger and Luckmann go beyond intellectual history and focus on commonsense, everyday knowledge—the proverbs, morals, values, and beliefs shared among ordinary people.  When first published in 1966, this systematic, theoretical treatise introduced the term social construction,effectively creating a new thought and transforming Western philosophy.

Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017)

  • Description: Bruce Hoffman’s Inside Terrorismhas remained a seminal work for understanding the historical evolution of terrorism and the terrorist mindset. In this revised edition of the classic text, Hoffman analyzes the new adversaries, motivations, and tactics of global terrorism that have emerged in recent years, focusing specifically on how al Qaeda has changed since 9/11; the reasons behind its resiliency, resonance, and longevity; and its successful use of the Internet and videotapes to build public support and gain new recruits. Hoffman broadens the discussion by evaluating the potential repercussions of the Iraqi insurgency, the use of suicide bombers, terrorist exploitation of new communications media, and the likelihood of a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear terrorist strike. Closer to home, Hoffman reconsiders the Timothy McVeigh case and the threats posed by American Christian white supremacists and abortion opponents as well as those posed by militant environmentalists and animal rights activists. He argues that the attacks on the World Trade Center fundamentally transformed the West’s view of the terrorist threat. More relevant and necessary than ever, Inside Terrorism continues to be the definitive work on the history and future of global terrorism.

Mark Juergensmeyer and Margo Kitts, Princeton Readings in Religion and Violence (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2011)

  • Description: This groundbreaking anthology provides the most comprehensive overview for understanding the fascinating relationship between religion and violence–historically, culturally, and in the contemporary world. Bringing together writings from scholarly and religious traditions, it is the first volume to unite primary sources–justifications for violence from religious texts, theologians, and activists–with invaluable essays by authoritative scholars.The first half of the collection includes original source materials justifying violence from various religious perspectives: Hindu, Chinese, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist. Showing that religious violence is found in every tradition, these sources include ancient texts and scriptures along with thoughtful essays from theologians wrestling with such issues as military protection and pacifism. The collection also includes the writings of modern-day activists involved in suicide bombings, attacks on abortion clinics, and nerve gas assaults. The book’s second half features well-known thinkers reflecting on why religion and violence are so intimately related and includes excerpts from early social theorists such as Durkheim, Marx, and Freud, as well as contemporary thinkers who view the issue of religious violence from literary, anthropological, postcolonial, and feminist perspectives. The editors’ brief introductions to each essay provide important historical and conceptual contexts and relate the readings to one another. The diversity of selections and their accessible length make this volume ideal for both students and general readers.

Anders Strindberg and Mats Wärn, Islamism: Religion, Radicalization, Resistance (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2011)

  • Description:Islamism has emerged as one of the most significant political ideologies of the 21st century. From the Islamic Revolution in Iran to the grinding struggle of Hizballah in Lebanon and the devastating 9/11 attacks by al-Qa’ida, Islam has become both a critical discourse and a framework for active resistance, which levels a potent challenge against the ideals of modern secularism and the structures of Western hegemony.This book offers a rigorous and balanced analysis of how and why Islamism has risen to the fore as the dominant voice of Islamic discourse and what accounts for the often vastly different political agendas, tactical choices and strategic objectives of individual Islamist groups. It shows how a common Islamist language of resistance and defiance acquires distinctive meanings and implications in different local contexts, as well as how these local struggles connect to each other. Drawing on important insights from social psychology, critical studies, and post-colonial studies, the book pinpoints the underlying dynamic that drives Islamist struggles in the world today, and shows how diverse experiences of repression and humiliation – real or perceived – are translated into an equally diverse collection of struggles aimed at promoting an alternative social order of independence and dignity framed by Islam.Islamism will be essential reading for students and scholars of Islamic Studies, as well as general readers with an interest in the role and status of Islam in contemporary international politics.

Mansfield, Laura, His Own Words: A Translation and Analysis of the Writings of Dr. Ayman Al Zawahiri (Utah: TLG Publications, 2006)

  • Description: In much the same manner used by Adolph Hitler in Mein Kampf, Al Qaeda Second in Command Dr. Ayman Zawahiri has laid out the ideology and road map that Al Qaeda intends to use.  This book contains translations of the writings of Dr. al Zawahiri, including his 2001 book Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner.  It also includes his important post-September 11, 2001 audio and video taped messages.

Fathali M. Moghaddam, From the Terrorists’ Point of View: What they experience and why they come to destroy. (Westport CT: Praeger Security International, 2006)

  • Description: Presenting a picture of the world giving rise to Islamic terrorism, From the Terrorists’ Point of View argues that terrorism arises from a deep and pervasive identity crisis in Islamic societies. The account presented in these 10 chapters is shaped by the author’s first-hand experiences of life in the Islamic world, as well as his more than quarter-century of research on the psychology of conflict and radicalism. Moghaddam shows us why individuals who are recruited into terrorist organizations are convinced it is the only viable alternative. They believe there are no effective legal means of expressing their grievances and participating in decision making, so they become socialized to see terrorist organizations as legitimate. The organizations they join train them to adopt an us vs. them categorical view, seeing all members outside their group, including civilians, as among the evil enemy ranks.  Looking at the perspective of the terrorist groups themselves, Moghaddam explains why current U.S. policy, focusing almost exclusively on individual terrorists and their eradication, will achieve only short-term gains. He argues that the more effective long-term policy against terrorism is prevention. That, he writes, requires cultivation and nourishment of contextualized democracy through culturally appropriate avenues. Only allowing people a greater voice and creating mobility opportunities for them will ensure that they do not feel a need to climb the staircase to terrorism.

Henri Tajfel, Social Identity and Intergroup Relations (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010)

  • Description: This study of intergroup relations remained for long on the periphery of mainstream social psychology. However, fresh research and thinking did much to overcome this neglect of one of the fundamental issues of our time, so that it became a clearly visible and major trend of research within European social psychology. Originally published in 1982, this book represented some of the facets of these developments, and aimed to provoke further discussion of important empirical and theoretical issues. The contributors examine the relations between social groups and their conflicts, the role played in these conflicts by the individuals’ affiliation with their groups and the psychological processes responsible for the formation of groups. This book discusses key issues which will be of interest to students, teachers and researchers in social psychology and all related disciplines concerned with a better understanding of social conflict and intergroup attitudes and our social reality.
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