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November 16, 2007


Sarah Dryden

Stern’s examination of terrorist groups was very insightful and intuitively presented. I think her approach is particularly important given the current state of tension between Islamic fundamentalist religious groups and Western values. Stern’s assessment of terrorist activists who “double” themselves in order to become an individual capable of murder and suicide is especially relevant today; in order to fight terrorism, we must first understand its motivation, and second be sure not to assume the same position. For example, terrorist activist groups often vilify governments, pitting their own “in” groups against the Other, the Enemy, the subhuman “out” group. As Elisabeth pointed out previously, it is easy for Americans in this decade to do the same thing. We often create monsters out of Islamic jihadists, seeing them as inhuman and unintelligible. Stern’s analysis of terrorist groups shows this to a common theme amongst them, and our own “fight against terrorism” will soon become discredited and hypocritical if we don’t make better efforts to understand and empathize with the terrorist threat.

Stern did a great job of bringing to light the world of the terrorist; with her descriptions and historical accounts, it becomes much easier to see why some activists are driven to extremity in order to protect their way of life. Personal hardship makes it easy to see desperate solutions as viable, and violence is definitely a way of finding strength and purpose again. With an institutionalized excuse to desensitize oneself to such terror and create a “new self,” I could understand how such approaches gain so much momentum. Her idea of “mixed motives” behind terrorist action (material or personal as well as spiritual or ideological) is also very persuasive. As Stern suggests, many leaders have become powerful simply by virtue of identifying what a population or group of people need, and providing it. A desperate people will always try to alleviate their situation, especially if it offers the opportunity to punish those who are sustaining their oppression.

One point that did strike me as a broad generalization is that terrorist groups thrive where states are unable to provide for their populations. Roushani addresses this idea in her post, and I agree that it makes sense. However, Stern did highlight strong cult followings within the U.S. Members of these religious Christian Right groups were not generally underprivileged or living in the same misery as, for instance, the Palestinians; consequently, it is hard for me to agree with that statement. It would seem instead that terrorist groups thrive wherever the government does not address all the ideological needs (as well as social and economical needs) that its population requires.

Ellen suggests in a previous post that a way to fight terrorism is by fostering a sense of community and inclusion in the world. I think that after reading Stern’s book, pushing “community” would be one of the least helpful approaches to stemming terrorist violence. Certainly as a secondary effect, perhaps a stronger global sense of community will make each nation responsible for helping every other nation to success, but underpriviledge and oppression will still exist – and thus terrorists will still find outlets for their rage and violence. This is especially true since, as Stern herself says, the American conception that that all lives are equally worthy is fundamentally opposed to religious believers like Islamists. There is no way that we can gloss over this fact and advocate global “kumbayah” love, as many posters call it. This is too simplistic of a solution, especially since globalization and the export of such Western ideas is precisely what is threatening Muslim communities.

Ellen Guan

I believe, like many of my classmates, that Stern offers a very insightful and thought-provoking read. As I am an atheist, I have often been amazed at the power of religion. Thus, I have always had some personal theories in regards to why some religious people behave fanatically and much of my thoughts were reinforced in Stern’s book.

Unlike some of my classmates, who believe that Stern’s insights are a bit naïve, I think that it actually offers a very accurate description of the situation. For Taliban, Al Qaeda, and their like, the situation in the respective countries are very similar due to political turmoil and oppression. Like Andrew stated before, terrorism comes from radical group’s ability to gain supporters. For Stern, trauma from oppression and the like in their lives causes these supporters to have to desire to join as a part of something bigger and to take suicidal action for a bigger cause.

This makes intuitive sense, because if someone lived in a country of constant political turmoil and loses all their loved ones, it is very likely that they will resent. When they have nothing more to lose and have accumulated a vast amount of anger, it is likely that they will want to strike back against their oppressors. The radical religious groups offer channels through which traumatized individuals can complete a desired task and reinforce their desires to strike back against their oppressors with religion – persuading them that they are doing the right thing for the common good.

In reality, these people are not very different from us. They are just born to a different country and a different situation in life. Nonetheless, we often demonize them to differentiate their radical religious acts from ours when in fact the fundamental idea is the same. I agree with a lot of things that Anthony has mentioned, but I particularly enjoyed his use of 300 as an example of demonizing. The clear distinction between the good, the muscle flexing heroes, and the bad, the ugly monsters, serves as a symbolic representation how we often demonize people that we think are evil.

All in all, I think Stern offers a very realistic view on terrorism in the name of God in the conceptual world of Taliban, Al Qaeda, and their like.s

Arsalan Mahtafar

One of the most important goals realized by Jessica Stern’s novel was breaking stereotypes. I was very interested in the fact that she actually knew a lot about the elements that fuel Islamic fundamentalism. Contrary to the popular belief, she never mentioned in her book that radical Islamic terrorism is a response to Western democracy, western liberalism, or the western way of “McLife.” She identified, correctly, that most of the hatred of Muslim insurgents are directed towards Neo-Imperialist Western nations, namely Britain and the US, and that the reasons behind their anger has nothing to do with their “liberal democracy,” but has to do with the fact that these nations support Israel—a state which they believe is an intruder, a brutal murderer, and a sponsor of terrorism. She also pinpointed the economic and social roots of terrorism with great accuracy.
In criticism however, I was very disappointed in the fact that she overlook history; and she overlook the legacy history has placed on the people of the middle east. The United States and Britain were countries that have historically played a fowl role in the region. It is widely known among the Islamic insurgents that the US and Britain have installed and supported hostel regimes in their nations, and these regimes that have terrorized and suppressed their citizens, while at the same time represented the interests of the US and Britain. The legacy of such acts, such as the 1953 CIA-AJAX orchestrated coup in Iran, has created a genuine distrust, hatred, and fear among middle-eastern nations towards these countries, and fuel many of the Anti-American/Anti-British sentiments in the middle east.

Krista Ellis

Krista Ellis
Web Assignment 12

I think that Stern’s view is overly simplified, but that for such a controversial, relevant and untouched issue, she does a good job starting the debate. Stern takes the conceptual world of the Taliban (basically terrorism) and breaks it down into the following five points; alienation, humiliation, demographics, history and territory. While I think she did little to emphasize the interaction between these elements, they are a basic framework through which we can understand terrorism. Her real contribution, in my opinion, was the information she gleaned from very hard to access sources; actual terrorists. Especially interesting was the profile of a typical Palestinian suicide bomber from General Ammar; “Young, often a teenager. He is mentally immature. There is pressure on him to work. He can’t find a job. He has no options, and there is no social safety net to help him… No means for him to enjoy life in any way. Life has no meaning but pain… The only way to find refuge is in God.” This character profile shows the impact of the elements Stern highlights so that we can begin to have a conceptual understanding of a terrorist, a reason behind why a man could possibly feel that his life only has meaning and significance only by ending it for his beliefs. This leads to the question of whether terrorism is rational or not. The point I believe Stern gets across is that terrorism is rational to the leaders and to the organization; the leaders are well educated, have intense belief systems which are carried out, benefit by receiving money and power from their position. The terrorist organization has benefited from the global system it seeks to destroy; globalization. Bin Laden, though not ethical by any means, is rational in his actions by maximizing his resources against his ‘enemy.’ The terrorist soldier (the al Quaeda operative, Taliban solider, suicide bomber) should not be considered rational because he has been psychologically manipulated through his belief system to think that lives of humans have different values, including his own, that should be ended for the greater good. In the end I think Stern’s main contributions are a basic outline from which to begin understanding the workings of terrorist organizations and direct information through interviews from which we can draw our own conclusions.

Connie Lim

Jessica Stern’s Terror in the Name of God conveyed a more individual-based and psychological approach in Stern’s analysis of terrorism from all over the world. From extremist anti-abortion groups based in the United States to terrorist groups near Kashmir, Stern provides a wide variety of terrorist groups to exemplify the different contexts in which terrorist groups begin, and the different methods of perpetuating the momentum of the organizations.

In terms of making sense of the conceptual word describing these terrorist groups, I feel that Stern gives a much needed perspective that shines light upon less discussed matters in our mainstream media; Specific causes and situations in which these people encounter cause them to be especially vulnerable to the lure of extremist terrorism. Other topics that I felt were very valuable were Stern’s description of the internet and its ability to help terrorist groups maneuver and build a following. Another important point of Stern’s is that the most difficult types of organizations to pin-point and hold responsible for their crimes are the loosely structured ones where there is no concrete culprit. By shining light on the terrorist groups’ tendencies towards deconstructing a conventional organizational bureaucracy to allude outsiders and any culpability, Stern is able to show the complications and separate nuances that cause for terrorist groups, and their resilience.

I would have to agree with Ellen Dobie’s statement with something that I thought Stern did not discuss enough. I would have liked Stern to place more discussion on is the geopolitical drives behind a lot of the terrorism happening in the middle east. Although Stern does mention a couple reasons for the Middle East’s propensity towards terrorism--US support of Israel as a fuel for the fire and/or repressive Middle Eastern regimes that suppress 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.), I feel that Stern should have taken a step back from her predominant focus on the individual towards a more political overview to give some international context to the issue.

Nonetheless, Stern creates a useful palette for others to consider. However, her palette is incomplete, and other shades of analysis should be placed on more political and economic factors that really draw people together, towards a terrorist and extremist cause.

Christina Adranly

As previous comments have noted, I admire that Stern considers "terrorists" from three different religions, dispelling the commonly held myth that terrorists are those darker-skinned fellows that reside abroad. Through her interviews, Stern is able to draw some deeper similarities that transcend religious lines, such as their common concealed motivations of greed and fear. We as Americans are fed a rather narrow definition of terrorism by politicians and the media, so Stern's compelling account is especially relevant in this context.

I would like to comment on Stern's "naive tone" as noted in lecture last Thursday (mentioned in a previous posting). It is obvious that academics should strive to present objective, well-educated information; I also do not believe that optimism equates to naivety. Her seeming "naivety" is actually what enables her to get even closer to the terrorist's psychology, a feat that few academics would dare to do. As Stern mentions, the only way to appease/eliminate terrorists is "inside-out", or by learning about their true inner feelings as opposed to rashly generalizing their goals and beliefs as a means to an end.

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