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November 16, 2007


Ellen Dobie

I find Jessica Stern’s novel to be thought-provokingly fascinating. Her book not only investigates the political, economic, social factors that contribute to the rise and spread of global terrorist networks, but also thoughtfully explores the philosophic nature of man and how humans are able to have so much faith in faith (so much to want to kill for a religion.) Overall, I believe Stern does a wonderful job of presenting a wide array of terrorists as individuals—and not as the angry and illogical radicals that pop culture would have us believe.
Stern takes on a Polanyi-esque structure as she seeks out structural and psychological explanations for terrorism instead of just assuming that these phenomena arise of their own volition. The individuals she encounters cross cultural, national, socioeconomic, religious, and gender lines; her journeys take her to fantatical Christian groups in the US that target abortion clinics, to Pakistani jihadi groups to ethno-religious conflicts in Indonesia. Many of these individuals have experienced feelings of loner-ness and exclusion and seek out inclusion within groups (cults) for identity, social status, financial support, and also to fight for a cause in an oppressive system. The social paralysis which these individuals experience causes them to think in extremes: capitalism vs. everything else, materialism vs. religion, life vs. death, West vs. Islam.
With that in mind, that many of the individuals that become terrorists have experienced alienation and humiliation that lead them to join radical networks, I would like to re-address the “Peace and Conflict Studies” worldview that Professor DeLong addressed in last Thursday’s lecture. This viewpoint—that much of world conflict is a result of communities’ inabilities to acknowledge similarities over differences. While I don’t think that a world-wide session of kumbayah-ing would be the solution to global peace, I do think that there is something to be said for fostering a sense of community and creating systems in which all feel included. If all lives were acknowledged as equally human and worthy, terrorism would probably not exist on such a prevalent scale—or maybe not at all. Stern points to this notion in all of her encounters.
In addition, While I understand Ben Peacock’s complaint (as conveyed by Professor DeLong during Thursday’s lecture) that Stern’s tone is naïve, I think that this actually helps her case. The bottom line is that we don’t understand terrorists as individuals with fears and hopes, insecurities and aspirations, personal relationships, etc. Instead, they are framed as radical and evil which allows us to “other” them and not see our own implicit role in their plight. Stern takes on a counter-culture stance by approaching these terrorists as humans, and her naïve tone creates an accessibility to her argument. As the audience travels simultaneously with Stern through the world of terrorism, her naivety fosters the novel’s sense of discovery and revelation. She even recounts her journeys in present tense, allowing every detail of her terrorist encounter to be experienced and internalized by the reader.

Ultimately I feel that Stern’s investigation of the people behind the radicality is well-constructed, reasonable and thoughtful. One criticism I have roots from her conclusion/policy recommendations chapter. In a section entitled “Why the Islamic World is Particularly Vulnerable,” Stern highlights two chief causes of why terrorism has a particularly strong presence in the Islamic World instead of other parts of the globe. First, she points to US support of Israel as a fuel for the fire. Secondly, she points to repressive Middle Eastern regimes that are good at suppressing terrorism inside their own states, causing terrorists to shift their sights outside of their country towards more vulnerable targets (i.e. America and the West.) While I think these two factors are important, I wonder why Stern fails to mention the geopolitical issue of oil. This seems to be a key geopolitical factor specific to the Middle East and Islamic World, especially with regard to its relationship to the West/America. While it is acknowledged that Stern’s book is not a manifesto on the macro-causes of terrorism (such as relationships between nation-states, geopolitical forces, structural causes) and instead focuses on more individual/psychological/personal motivations, I still find her non-mention of oil to be a glaring omission.

Yelena Bakman

I think that she does make a certain sense of something that to me, cannot make sense. Reading her work, examining her interactions with people of different backgrounds, I noticed how similar these people are. Looking first at Mr. Noble, he would be considered as one of the foot soldiers of, say, Hamas, if he were instead Muslim. He lived a hopeless life and this organization gave him purpose and a sense of belonging. This seems to be the key that larger organizations look for, just as one of the men that Stern interviewed had pointed out. On page 50 of her book, there is a list of all the things that the organization looks for in a recruit. I think it can be summed up simply as a poor, lonely, unattached (other than his parents) young man who is financial trouble. This list of qualities makes sense for someone who would be susceptible to be convinced that his life could instead “mean something via martyrdom”. Overall, I think she brings up many important points of history and humiliation that makes someone who is already down on their luck easily convinced to join such a society.

I think that Ellen Dobie’s point on the need to see similarities versus differences is key. In reality I think, we as humans tend to not only generalize but also divide everything into positive and negative; we seem to forget or ignore the neutral. As a result, we have a very dichotic society, with either your against or for “us,” whichever “us” one maybe talking about. The negative is always easier to see and serves the purpose for making the struggle possible. Stern mentions the necessity of training to desensitize the soldier. In this case, there is still training but the training is to emphasize the negative while leaving the enemy still a human with power. The power however that this person has is now all against that soldier. If the similarities were stressed then one would be unable to kill the other, and, as a result, this cannot be done by these organization. Ellen Dobie also mentions the lack of oil. And even though this is an important omission, I think it was done on purpose; Stern tried to make the point of how similar the terror groups were and showing a resource such as oil and the export of it to the West, would take away from her argument of these similarities. Besides, one could argue that if oil was the issue, then the fighting would be internal, like that where blood diamonds exist, versus external as it seems so now. And the lines wouldn’t be drawn on the religious other, but on the have’s versus that have-not’s.

Jennifer Miller

I agree with Ellen that Stern’s describing of the terrorist as an individual provides an important depth of understanding about terrorism often lacking in political discourse. I think it is crucial that Stern find threads of similarity among terrorist organizations and individuals, while equally as crucial that she distinguishes them from each other. The U.S is largely responsible for defining terrorism and who is classified as a terrorist. A simplified homogenous definition means that it is easier for a population to draw on an imagined collective consciousness of a “villain”, blindsiding the deeper economic, religious and social qualms embodied by that individual. In relation to defining terrorism, Stern highlights an important analysis from her subjects regarding the view of America as a terrorist state due to it’s military, economic and cultural influence. Definitions of terrorism do get blurry when looking at the behavior of the U.S. in relation to its role as a military superpower, supporter of Israel, and the fact that collateral damage-(the killing of civilians is what defines terrorism) is an accepted aspect of warfare.

In regards to the discussion about oil, I agree with Yelena that Stern aims to draw similarities between terrorists instead of simplifying the issue to one of oil. Yet I would add that Stern may not focus on oil but her book highlights the common issues of poverty and inequality within the global economic framework that the oil issue, and the terrorism issue are situated in. One of her interviewees describes how “fundamentally the biggest issue is the gap between rich and poor” (62). While Stern writes that poverty is not the motivation for terrorism in all cases, it plays a large role that cannot be ignored. Stern describes this issue in relation to the role of terrorist organizations as the welfare states. She cites how 60% of Hamas funds go to social welfare and how Laskar Jihad in Indonesia acts as an employment agency.

I think Stern does capture the “conceptual world of Jihad” as an alternative social, religious and economic agenda, though not homogeonous, that has often been shaped by the globalizing of U.S. liberal democracy, military power, and capitalism. A distinction she uncovers though is that some terrorists are not totally anti-globalization. It appears to me the fundamental point of this is that people want to be able have a role in framing the shape globalization takes within their borders and have not been able to. There is a strange parallel between this and “anti-globalization” activists, who are not anti-globalization but are really for an equitable globalization.

Irina Zeylikovich

I think Stern does an admirable job of trying to make sense of an
extremely complicated phenomenon. She is aware of the difficulty of
standardizing a set of observations to encompass a group of people who
as individuals became terrorists for very different reasons. Because she
is aware of this, she limits herself from making sweeping,
all-encompassing statements.
However, as far as making sense of the “Taliban, Al Qaeda, and their
ilk,” I would say Stern points out that one can’t. While she stresses
there are certain risk-factors that can be identified (history,
humiliation, conflicts over territory, etc) many times they cannot be
applied to terrorists as a whole. Just as she points out studies which
were flawed in that they treated this group of people as a whole without
separating socio-economic backgrounds and levels of education, so
understanding such terrorist networks cannot happen in an
all-encompassing view.
The portions of the books I found most interesting were ones that did not
deal with Muslim terrorists. The media today pays so much attention to
that branch of foreign policy that it completely eclipses terrorists with
other religious affiliations. Learning about them was an interesting
change of pace from what you normally hear on CNN, especially given that
Stern really brought it down to an individual level rather than
classifying groups as a whole. But it was specifically that, the book was interesting because it had the individual case studies, but it cannot be called a wide-ranging analysis of terrorism.

Kieran M. Duffy

I agree with Ellen and several others above in that Stern takes Terrorism and brings it from complex and comfusing questions down to the individuals that harness, manipulate and use terror to further their religious beliefs.

She does this superbly with score of interviews from places she went to ranging from Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan.

Stern asks questions such as what is terrorism and where does it come from? And presents case studies for all audiences to understand.

Stern points to a partial cause in these countries as the US supporting Isreal as they violate Human rights, and the US looks the other way in what she calls giving Israel a "Double Standard."

She does exrtraordinary work pointing to specific examples of the growth of terrorism coming from lack of social welfare, and unstable economies and how extremist groups capitalize on this and spread hatred for Western values, as many of these groups refer to Globalization as "Mcdonaldization."

What I found most appealing about her accounts over four years from all of the aforementioned countries and differant terrorists was her method of interviewing these individuals and trying to understand them and there cause, almost becoming one of them. Finding out what their grievances are, what leaders do to effectively run terrorist organisations, and how they are utilizing globalization to fund their operations and recruit new members via the internet. I also love the way she calls out the US not only with Israel, but how she says " We demand countries choose idealist security policies in keeping with our vision, but act, most of the time, to futher our own interests, often at the expense of the rest of the world" (295).

Elisabeth Miller

Before I began reading the Stern book, I had some preconceived notions of what terrorism is. However, I didn’t realize this until I began reading the book. I was somewhat confused when Stern began her first chapter by talking about Noble and the religious fellowship he belonged to in Arkansas. I realized that I had traditionally thought of terrorists originating outside the United States. Of course I had heard of Timothy McVeigh, but I always associated him with other people who I felt were simply not completely together mentally. The same with cults; I knew of them, but never would have considered them to be terrorist organizations. This is one of the reasons why I feel Stern’s book to be important. If I have been so deluded, and I consider myself fairly well educated, then I am sure many more Americans see terrorists as coming from the Middle East. Regarding other aspects of the novel, I was aware of a lot of the reasons for why people become terrorists, like alienation, religious reasons and the promise of wealth, but I didn’t know that many terrorist organizations actually took good care of their members. During one part of the book (pg. 62), Stern said that the organization Hamas attracted members by taking care of their children’s education and finding the parents jobs, as well as giving them money and food at the mosque. For some reason I thought that only the high members of terrorist organizations received financial benefits from the organization. So overall I feel that the book does pretty well in explaining terrorist organizations and how they work. This is definitely good in some respects, but while reading I couldn’t help but think that some deranged person could use the information in the book to start their own cult or following.

Dave Koken

Jessica Stern provides a much needed perspective on the issue of terrorism. She frames the issue in an atypical way that I believe provides a superior conceptual framework for understanding terrorist organizations, why individuals are compelled to join in their cause and how we might better prevent their proliferation and appeal.

As others have pointed out, the attention she gives to individuals provides an important human element to the people within these organizations; an element which is often lacking in more common reports, the CNN style that Irina referred to earlier. I say this human element is important because I believe it changes the way in which we view terrorists’ motivations. Traditional reporting often implies that terrorists or other religious fanatics are all belligerent and incapable of rational judgment or cooperation. While some “terrorists” certainly are these things, this grand assumption lacks a reasonable explanation as to HOW people became so close-minded. By communicating with individuals within these terrorist organizations, however, Stern’s work illuminates some of the sources which cause previously rational people to become seduced by organizational propaganda. Her argument presents convincing explanations that help to answer the incredibly important question of, why did people turn to these organizations in the first place?

While there is obvious importance in researching the habits and beliefs of functioning terrorist organizations, through her interviews, Stern also delves into many of the complex social, political and economic conditions in which terrorist organizations seem to thrive. Failed states that are incapable of providing basic services to its citizens leave people disillusioned, discontent and often seeking refuge in neighboring countries and create circumstances in which rage and extremism become viable options. Furthermore, abject poverty and poor health conditions have also been shown to give rise to similar feelings of hatred and desire to blame. Without accounting for conditions such as these (which is what the war on terror has largely done), it is very difficult, if not impossible, to understand what could allow someone to justify the killing of seemingly innocent peoples. But with these conditions in mind, explanations begin to surface. People have been known to do irrational things in desperate situations.

It is because of her more complete view of the issue of terrorism, considering both how the organizations operate and analyzing the sources of the discontent which these terrorist organizations rely on, that Stern’s description of terrorism seems more accurate than many other accounts. Additionally, it is from this fuller perspective that policy-makers will be able to direct government action in a way that could truly change the way the western world fights the “war” on terror; perhaps beginning to focus on development in addition to simply containing violence.

Karina Tregub

Through effectively communicating the results of her interviews and research, Jessica Stern does an excellent job in conceptualizing the religious terrorist groups that the world faces today. What struck me the most was her description of the rationale behind joining one of these organizations, and the thought-processes that the individual goes through before becoming completely submerged in these extremist ideals. This is connected to Stern’s prevailing emphasis on the terrorist as an individual, discussed by Ellen, Yelena, Jennifer, and others. Stern claims that “people join religious terrorist groups partly to transform themselves and to simplify life. They start out feeling humiliated, enraged that they are viewed by some Other as second class.” Although most people cannot comprehend how someone could kill hundreds of innocent strangers, these martyrs see reality through a completely different lens, and are dangerously faithful to this reality. Oppressed, they look to God for support and help, but when God stays silent, their rage enables them to act with violence, doing everything possible to punish their oppressors. Stern emphasizes this process because she believes it is important to understand and analyze it, in order to then hinder these terrorist groups from succeeding. Stern claims that we need to find a way to dissociate the groups, and turn them against each other. Although this is a very valid approach, it is also important to stop these individuals at the right time, before they have been completely immersed in rage.

However, the appeal of participating in extremist groups is not only to avenge their oppression. Stern pinpoints the insecurities that these individuals face, when looking at modernity and the future. Stern claims that, “In their view, arrogant one-worlders, humanists, and promoters of human rights have created an engine of modernity that is stealing the identity of the oppressed. The greatest rage, and the threat, stems from those who feel they can’t keep up, even as they claim to be superior to those that can.” Because these individuals feel that they must kill or be killed, by technology, modernity, and capitalism, there is a sense of inevitability that ultimately achieves resilience. Further, if Al Qaeda and other organizations are able to make the public feel victimized and oppressed, they instantly have support for their goals. A parallel could be drawn between these terrorist groups and the spread of Nazism: the German public felt victimized and exploited by more successful individuals, such as the Jewish people, who were therefore an easy scapegoat for Germany’s economic hardship. Once Hitler was able to convince enough oppressed and victimized individuals of the injustices done against them, the violence and destruction came very easily afterwards. The spark had ignited something large enough to exterminate over 6 million people, and devastate thousands of others.

Stern is completely right when she describes terrorism as “a virus that spreads as a result of risk factors at every level: global, interstate, national, and personal.” At the global level, she talks about the communication revolution, and how the Internet plays an important role in the spread of extremist ideologies. Since terrorist groups are able to utilize the web as easily as a Berkeley student, their success is even greater because it is fueled by determination and vengefulness. As long as they are able to gain the support of other extremist groups, especially in successful countries such as Germany, England, or the US, the virus spreads, and it spreads quickly. Because it is so difficult to influence these different levels at the same time, and do it effectively and safely, terrorist groups continue to succeed in their violent efforts, and the struggle against them becomes more and more complicated.

David Grande

Glancing through the pages of Jessica’s Stern book, it was hard not to point out the parallels as to what was depicted in her writings and the events we see in our world today. Terrorists in most people’s mind are filled with members who feel they are “lost” in society and need that spiritual guidance to place them in their life path. But what Stern does a great job in explaining the formulations of these groups is that there are many different reasons why people join.

While most people only think about the terrorist groups that are mentioned in the daily news, one fails to consider that there are many different organizations out there that are categorized as terrorists groups but are not based on the foundation of religion. And this is where Stern really does a great job on touching the idea, as people don’t realize that groups such as cults do fit in this mold. Furthermore, as the media and other outlets have tried to dissect the groups that we see today, it goes beyond our knowledge as to why people join these groups. As Elizabeth had mentioned, members are sometimes persuaded by taking care of their families, a factor that is rarely talked about.

And I think this is why Stern touches on ideas that most people really don’t talk about. It makes the reader second think about the information and knowledge we have been taught and tries to display the reader that there are many aspects of these groups that we need to know more about.

Roushani Mansoor

Jessica Stern’s journalistic and candid approach makes her book an interesting and easy read. I think the personal accounts she delivers through her interviews brings validation. In a political and social climate where there are so many preconceived notions about religious militants, Stern does a fantastic job of being as objective as possible. I think the conclusion that can be drawn from Stern’s book is that current religious fanaticism is a reaction to globalization and the “evils” of modernity where individuals turn to fundamentalist religion for guidance as “religious terrorism attempts to destroy moral ambiguities” (xxvii). Stern does an amazing job of breaking down the reasons behind joining groups like the Taliban from alienation to history. She focuses tremendously on the individual, evident by the questions she poses and her own motivations for writing the book. Stern also evaluates religion-based terrorist organizations at all levels- from the suicide-bomber to the highest-ranking official. It is interesting to see how at higher levels some organizations are just as corrupt as the governments they are fighting. Granted the kind of access Stern received to such guarded information is astonishing and helped illuminate underlying aspects of religious terrorism, I feel as though there are more profound reasons that the ones Stern gives. I do believe alienation, demographics and history are grounds in themselves, but I feel Stern makes generalizations about all religious militants on a few interviews. Additionally, I feel as though Stern misses key issues such as why Islamic terrorists are so much more successful in their endeavors than other religious terrorists. What about the non-violent religious groups? Are they attempting at converting these militants and work for peace? Maybe it is not necessary for Stern to answer these questions; they are just byproducts of her investigative work.
I think more than conceptualizing the inner-workings of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the like, Stern clearly demonstrates how failed states and governments breed a dangerous civil society. In each one of Stern’s accounts, the state provides very little for its citizens whom in turn depend on religious organizations to recover after disasters or even just make ends meet. For instance, after a huge earthquake in Egypt in the 1970s, it took the government 6-7 days to reach the effected areas while the Muslim Brotherhood was there within hours. Hamas in Lebanon provides schooling, daycare and food for families who cannot afford it themselves. These people trust and rely on these religious organizations more than their own governments thus continuing to expand their control and influence through community outreach. Because their governments cannot provide a stable environment in the ever changing and complicated modern world, anguished individuals enjoy the tradition and tranquility offered. Though I think Stern’s book is astounding, I cannot wholeheartedly say she completely and positively flushed out all religious terror organizations through personal accounts alone. Nevertheless, whether unknowingly or not, the common inherent aspect in all of Stern's examples is the failure of the state to provide for its people.
Lastly, I do not think not discussing oil is a gross omission on Stern’s part. Oil is a huge part of Middle Eastern politics, but this is not a book about the Middle East. Stern does a good job of demonstrating that religious fanaticism is not exclusive to Islam, a common misconception. Plus, Middle Eastern governments are the ones who control the revenues from oil, not the religious organization. Nor do they have a stake in where the oil profits go. Obviously they receive enough money and supplies to continue their operations. I would be interested to hear why others believe oil should have been included.

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