Critical Terrorism Studies. A new research agenda. by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning (Eds.)

Critical Terrorism Studies. A new research agenda. by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning (Eds.)

Critical Terrorism Studies. A new research agenda.

by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning (Eds.). London, and New York, Routledge, 2009. 274 pp. ISBN10:0-415-45507-3 (hbk), £ 70.-.

In the late 1960s traditional War and Peace Studies were challenged on the European continent by "critical polemologists". Today, "Orthodox Terrorism Studies" are challenged by "Critical Terrorism Studies" (CTS) . The critical polemologists who criticised almost exclusively NATO but not the Warsaw Pact have disappeared long ago. Critical Terrorism Studies tend to be equally one-eyed by being "critical" mainly about Western counter-terrorism rather than focusing also on non-state terrorism. Ideology plays a large role such disputes. For many of the CTS scholars "objective social science …is a hegemonic project to sustain the status quo" (H.Toros & J. Gunning, p. 106) while "CTS is at heart an anti-hegemonic project" (R. Jackson et al, p. 227).

The editors accuse, in their introduction "the orthodox field" of orthodox terrorism studies of functioning "ideologically in the service of existing power structures", with their academic research. Furthermore, they claim that orthodox scholars are frequently being used "to legitimise coercive intervention in the global South…." (p.6). The present volume is edited by three authors associated with the Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Contemporary Political Violence (CSRV) in the Department of International Politics in Aberystwyth (Wales, UK). They also happen to be editors of a new Routledge journal "Critical Studies on Terrorism' . The "critical" refers principally but not exclusively to the "Frankfurt-via-Welsh School Critical Theory Perspective". The twelve contributors are not all equally "critical" in aHabermasian sense. The programmatic introduction of the editors is followed by two solid chapters from Magnus Ranstorp (former Director of CSTPV, St. Andrews, and currently Director of the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College) and Andrew Silke (formerly with the UK Home Office and now Field Leader for Criminology at the University of East London). They both rightfully criticize some of the past sins and present shortcomings of the field of Terrorism Studies. One of them approvingly quotes Marc Sageman who observed that "disagreements among experts are the driving force of the scientific enterprise". Such disagreements, however, exist among "orthodox" scholars like Sageman and Hoffman or Pape and Abrams. In that sense, the claim by some critical theorists that the field of traditional Terrorism Studies is ossified without them, is simply is not true. One of the problems with many of the adherents of the "critical" school is that the focus is almost exclusively on the strawman they set up to shoot - "orthodox" terrorism discourse rather than on the practitioners of terrorism. Richard Jackson claims that "…most of what is accepted as well-founded 'knowledge' in terrorism studies is, in fact, highly debatable and unstable" (p.74), dismissing thereby almost four decades of scholarship as "based on a series of 'virulent myths', 'half-truths' and contested claims…biased towards Western state priorities" (p.80). For him "terrorism is…a social fact rather than a brute fact" and "…does not exist outside of the definitions and practices which seek to enclose it, including those of the terrorism studies field" (pp.75-76). He objects to prevailing "problem-solving theories of terrorism" in favour of an approach that questions " the status quo and the dominant acts within it" (p.77). Another contributor, J.A. Sluka, argues, without offering any proof, that "terrorism is fundamentally a product of social inequality and state politics" (p. 139). Behind many of the critical theorists who blame mainstream terrorism research for taking 'the world as it finds it' there is an agenda for changing the status quo and overthrowing existing power structures. There is, in itself, nothing wrong with wanting a new and better world order. However, it is not going to be achieved by using an alternative discourse on terrorism and counter-terrorism. Toros and Gunning, contributors of another chapter, state that "the sine qua non of Critical Theory is emancipation" (p. 99) and M. McDonald als puts "emancipation as central to the study of terrorism" (p.121). However, there is not a single word on the non-emancipated position of women under Islam in general or among the Taliban and their friends from al-Qaeda in particular. One of the strength (some argue weakness) of Western thinking is its ability for self-criticism – something largely absent in the Muslim world. In that sense, this volume falls within a Western tradition. However, self-criticism should not come at the cost of not criticising adversaries by using the same yardstick. In this sense, this volume is strangely silent about the worldview of those terrorists who have no self-doubts and attack the Red Cross, the United Nations, NGOs and their fellow Muslims with equal lack of scruples. A number of authors in the volume appear to equate terrorism uncritically with political violence in general while in fact it is more usefully thought of as one of some twenty sub-categories of political violence - one characterized by deliberate attacks on civilians and non-combatants in order to intimidate, coerce or otherwise manipulate various audiences and parties to a conflict. Part of the volume advocates reinventing the wheel. J. Gunning, for instance, recommends to employ Social Movement Theory for the study of terrorism. However, that theory has been employed already explicitly or implicitly by a number of more orthodox scholars, e.g. Donatella della Porta. Many "critical" statements in the volume are unsupported by convincing evidence, e.g. when C. Sylvester and S. Parashar state "The September 11 attacks and the ongoing war on terror reinforce gender hierarchy and power in international relations" (p.190). Jackson claims that the key question for critical terrorism theory is "who is terrorism research for and how does terrorism knowledge support particular interests?" (p.224) It does not seem to occur to him that he could have studied this question by looking at the practitioners of terrorism and study al-Qaeda's ideological writings and its training and recruiting manuals. If CTS is a call for "making a commitment to emancipatory praxis central to the research enterprise" (R. Jackson et al, p. 228), CTS academics should be the first on the barricades against jihadists who treat women not as equals and who would, if they get their way, eradicate freedom of thought and religion for all mankind. It is sad that some leading proponents of Critical Terrorism Studies appear to be in fact uncritical and blind on one eye. (Reviewed by Alex P. Schmid, TRI)


Perspectives on Terrorism is  a journal of the Terrorism Research Initiative and the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies

ISSN  2334-3745 (Online)

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