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November 16, 2007


Eric Silverman

After reading Jessica Stern’s book, my preconceived notions of terrorism became more malleable. Like many others, I assumed that fanatic terrorism was limited to irrational groups who were manipulated by their superiors into doing something destructive and violent. This book describes how terrorists are more than just mindless anarchists with elusive and intangible goals, but rather are alienated and humiliated people who are not fitting in to this new world. In an Polanyi-esque manner, the economic, political, social, cultural, and religious world are very much interconnected, and they attach themselves to the beliefs they hold closest to their heart and hope that it will dominate all the other facets of their world.

After reading this book, however, the only difference between terrorism and liberation appears to be the sanction of a ruling power. Personally, I feel that her definition of terrorism as something that is first, aimed at non-combatants, and second, uses violence as a dramatic tool and is less concerned with the “physical result.” She then goes on to claim that States can be the perpetrators of terrorism, even if we are using the narrow focus of religious fanaticism.

The mirror goes both ways. When President Bush said that the United States was going on a “Crusade” after 9-11, to what extent was that just another hilarious Bushism and to what extent did he stumble across something deeply rooted in the ethos of this nation? One of the only reasons that Israel has received so much support from the right is because fundamentalists believe that the coming of Zion will bring back the messiah. At the heart of America, there is a beating Christian heart that, frankly, has as monumental influence on the legislation and foreign policy of this country. We have fit her definition of terrorism for a long time: we’ve destroyed medical facilities, blockaded countries, and even assassinated leaders, while at the same time ending every presidential address with, “thank you, and God bless America.” I suppose my fundamental question is when did the age where we use religious rhetoric to kill people ever end? Just because we use digitally guided bombs in stead of airplanes does not make us any different. Today, the only difference is that we are now at a level of dialogue with these estranged cultures that is unprecedented, and we are both uniting under our respective common enemies.

Jazmin Segura

I have to agree with the comments that others have pointed out, Jessica Stern does a great job in putting a face and humanizing those terrorists that the media portrays as cruel, insensitive beings that kill innocent children. One of the things that astounded me the most was the fact that she is one of the few people who acknowledges that we must understand where and why those people desensitize people to the point of being capable of killing, in order to defeat ‘terrorism’. As David mentioned, Stern addresses what everyone else omits and I think this is important because Stern's expands on the idea that terrorists don’t join these organizations only because of their religious beliefs but instead expands on other motivations like feeling alienated, humiliated, displaced, and so forth. I want to focus on this point because these different motives only reflect the high degree of complexity of the issue. There is no easy solution to stop “terrorism” and it becomes even more difficult without the information that she provides us with. Therefore, we have to understand what motivates them into joining these terrorist organizations if we want to help save our lives.
Moreover, I feel as though her goal is to broaden our perspectives to develop a multi-pronged strategic approach that can actually solve the problem- “a virus that spreads as a result of risk factors at every level: global, interstate, national, and personal;” rather than taking simple solutions like a war with Iraq. Moreover, this issue of the war in Iraq reminds me of another issue that I came across when reading Stern. One terrorist mentions that everyone who is against the US’s ideology of capitalism and democratization is a terrorist but with the war in Iraq, I ask myself, who is the terrorist here? I mean, " We demand countries to choose idealist security policies [to] keep with our vision, but act, most of the time, to further our own interests, often at the expense of the rest of the world" (295) Moreover, it seems that from her investigation each terrorist group believes that their way to do things is the right way, and that there is an evil force that has to be destroyed. However, the "evil force" in question varies, but what makes Bush’s desire to fight ‘evil’ (in Iraq) different from their terrorists attacks? We feel we have the right to invade other countries and impose democracy and capitalism because that is the right way to do politics and because we believe that is what’s best for them, but is it really? Or are we merely acting in our own interest?
Don’t the people in the White House, the people conducting the war on terror also conduct torture and humiliation, conditions that create more terrorism (at least that’s what I got from Stern)? Bush often speaks of fighting evil so I wonder if the anti-terrorist has become a terrorizer?

Alexander Henson

Stern approaches the motivations behind terrorism as coming from a dissatisfaction with God, or whatever entity that they call God. I think she hits the nail on the head when she says that groups like the Taliban and al Qaeda (and the individuals that comprise them) truly believe that they are acting for the greater good. Something that I think that goes overlooked is the aspect of what motivates new groups to form and to continue fighting – with the knowledge that today’s militant, “terrorist” groups are being hunted and combated on larger scales than ever before.
Another aspect that is somewhat overlooked is a barometer by which these groups measure success or failure. Considering 9/11 – can it be considered, in the context of the ultimate goal of al Qaeda, as a success? It undoubtedly inflicted a measure of physical and emotional pain not only upon America, but upon western/capitalist nations and industries the world over – but the U.S. itself has not showed any signs of relenting, nor will it likely ever relent to attacks by extremists. There may also be the problem of the numerous messages of different groups and their various splinter cells having their messages diluted by the mixed flow of different groups’ ideologies, the shock/horror of their violent acts, and whatever bias/spin the media may put on it.

Joyce Yawa Amoah

I agree with Ellen and Yelena that Jessica Stern’s book is thought-provoking and challenging. Jessica Stern in a crafty (good) way involves her readers directly in the conversations with these wide arrays of terrorists and religious extremists instead of making them just listeners. This style of writing stamps a human face on these groups of people that we –as civilized society- have come to abhor, yet at the same time Stern makes their ordeals human.

Stern affords us the opportunity to visit these terrorists and see the kind of places they call home; see their families and the kind of society they live in or are forced to live in. We also get the chance to examine the rationale behind a terrorist’s and an extremist’s decision to kill innocent people. At the end of this trip with Stern, the first question that comes to mind is, is there truly a difference between the suicide-murderer and the trained soldier? I know this is a harsh question but if we take a close look at the motives behind the decision of a trained solder to kill and that of a suicide bomber we see that these two distinct groups have the same goal. For example let’s look at a scenario involving an Israeli soldier and a teenage suicide-bomber from the Gaza. The soldier is trained to protect and defend his country by using arms and kill if necessary, an enemy who possess a threat to his country. Let’s say a Palestinian teenager who fits the bill of a suicide-bomber in a crowded Israeli nightclub. Should the soldier shoot and kill this youth on mere suspicion will be justified because he is trained to defend and protect his country. In the case of the Palestinian teenager, strapping a bomb on his body to commit that act believes that by taking the pain to his oppressors, he is equally defending his home, whether it is regarded by the outside world as a nation or not; the soldier and the suicide-bomber are both in their own ways defending their individual countries. The point here is that suicide-bombers act with the intent to protect their home just like the soldier. However, for the suicide-bomber is purely an act of extreme desperation and humiliation and not because of antimodernists sentiments.

I don’t believe that terrorists are necessarily “antimodernists” (294-5) at least not those living in the Gza Strip; because any group of people who are living in a perpetual “epidemic of despair” (32) need help in the form of development. Basic modern amenities like schools, portable drinking water, sewerage systems jobs and shelter will change the dynamics in the Gaza. Non religious people turn to religion when they are faced with economic despair and not because of globalization per se.

Globalization is not the reason why certain groups of people seek refuge in religion. They seek refuge in religion because globalization through technology makes them aware of their situation in comparison to others. For example the teenager in Gaza, through media-TV and movies- comes to the realization that his situation is not normal compared to U.S teenager. In his state of desperation he decides to humiliate his oppressors.

Certainly world session of kumbayah-ing will not solve the problem just like Ellen pointed out, however globalization can be used as a tool to deliver economic hope to people “engulf in” socioeconomic “epidemic of despair” (32). Should the United States be held responsible for the actions of terrorists in the world simply because they are the biggest supper power? No. but the U.S can certainly restore the Palestinian youth’s faith in mankind by providing him a home and a job in his homeland.

susanna babos

Jessica Stern begins her book in the following manner: "A few years ago I decided to do something scholars rarely do: I decided to talk with terrorists". This is something that no one else has done before her: nobody ever inter4viewed terrorists in search of what makes them kill in the name of God, and what justifies their actions, or at least in their point of view. In my opinion, especially after 9/11, we, modern Western societies tend to think that terrorist are exclusively Muslims; however, to me it was very refreshing to see that Stern not only interviewed Muslim terrorists but also Christians and Jews. This actually made me think of whom I consider a terrorist and more importantly, made me realize that terror is a double sided coin, and whom I consider a terrorist heavily depends on what perspective I take and how open my mind is concerning this subject matter. For example, we tend to view radical Islamists terrorists, however, Pres. Bush himself is striking back more ferociously than any of these groups, and in my opinion, and this is considered terror in itself. Therefore, there is not one single terrorist group in this case, but both of the parties are. Thus, in this case, the anti-terrorist became the terrorizer himself. What is the difference then between the two?
I think that Stern is not a political partisan in any sense, however, this does not prevent her from taking a strategic stand, meaning that her main goal is to understand the motive behind terrorist actions, and take cautionary steps according to these.
In my opinion, one of the most striking sentence of the book reads as follows:” In the end, however, what counts is what we fight for, not what we oppose. We need to avoid giving into spiritual dread, and to hold fast to the best of our principles, by emphasizing tolerance, empathy, and courage." This is very new to me, because nowadays, when Pres. Bush is advocating the wanted dead or alive scheme, Stern brings in a brand new perspective on how these matters should be treated. And courage is what is really important, and Stern herself demonstrates this courage in her book: her courage to go out there and talk to very dangerous terrorists gave the rest of us a new insight to how terrorist operate and think and feel, and how the fight against them should go.
These are not Jessica Stern's questions. They are ours. Stern's focus is on the terrorists and their motivations. She wants to gain information that can help save our lives. Our focus is on Bush's ineffective, incompetent, simple-minded response to terrorism.

Ziwei Hu

Like my classmates, I found Stern's book to be very insightful and interesting to read. I must admit, I had a fairly narrow conception of terrorism before I read this book. My classmates have already discussed various ways in which "Terror in the Name of God" relates to other themes in our class. I particularly like how Ellen relates Polanyi to Stern, in that Stern “seeks out structural and psychological explanations for terrorism instead of just assuming that these phenomena arise of their own volition.” However, I’d like to offer a slightly different interpretation of the interaction between economics and terrorism- namely that economics plays a role in perpetuating terrorism. This is a common theme that Stern references throughout the book; for instance, she writes that “jihad is a lucrative undertaking…managers and trainers are relatively well paid.” Terrorism is profitable because it commodifies something that is not naturally a commodity- religious beliefs, loyalty, relationships, and feelings of alienation, humiliation. An example of someone who was able to capitalize on this commodity extremely effectively is Osama bin Laden, who is described in Chapter 8 as being “a great force. He goes from organization to organization, persuading people to donate money or donate their lives to jihad.”

I know that I’m make a huge generalization right now, but what I’m trying to say is that it seems that not only does the market economy and the forces of Western capitalism marginalize a lot of vulnerable people in developing countries and make them more likely to join a terrorist organization, but ironically, there seems to be a thriving economy of terrorism as well.

Samira Ghassemi

Ziwei makes an interesting point about the economical gains of terrorism – makes interesting table banter, especially over the given turkey holiday. On a more serious note, Stern does delve greatly into the countries, as other fellow students have pointed out, trying to learn first hand what terrorism means while learning why this phenomenon occurs.

As I perused certain parts of the book, it reminded me of the movie, “Syriana” where the Pakistani father and son were left jobless and were seeking employment. The son found friends who were able to provide the simple necessities such as a protein-rich dinner and a place to sleep. He then “sacrificed” himself for the gain of something even greater than him and his family – it was all for god. This was just one example of the lacking social networks, and therefore with none, these are acceptable outlets for many.

More on topic, to argue whether Stern makes sense of the conceptual world of the Taliban or not is seen when Ellen pointed out that Stern’s naive perspective allowed the readers to follow her even closer; certain ideas and beliefs we may have had before reading this, and when we put situations into context from her first hand experiences, one can maybe understand the root. Ellen also brought up a point that surprised me as well – oil. It’s the whole reason the Middle East is sought for and yet it seems to be a hush-hush topic. The only reason why Israel has any type of power is because it is backed up by the US, which causes animosity toward both countries. If anyone knows anything about international trade, when one economically large country creates barriers to trade, other countries will retaliate to those predatory measures, and this act will only cause more hostility. Stern points out examples like Pakistan and textile quotas, “We demand that other countries open their markets to our goods, even as we maintain protections on ours,” (294) and thus citizens believe “Al Qaeda is more interested in their well-being than is the United States.” We have done this to other countries as well, even Australia a couple years ago when we declared “free” trade, but held on to some restrictions.

Andrew Epstein

While I do agree with many of the people who posted before me, I also feel it is naïve to think anyone other than members of the Taliban or Al Qaeda can really make sense of their conceptual world. And even in the case of the specific members of these groups, Stern has proven that it is far too easy for these people to be sucked in by enthusiastic leaders and popular demand. I also find it appealing that Stern chooses to look at terrorists as people and not simply radical modes of destruction to society, however, in many cases; some of their actions are so vastly inhumane it becomes hard to categorize them among us. By no means do I think this only applies to radical Islamic groups because as Stern shows us the idea of giving up everything, even ones life, applies to many radical individuals fighting for their beliefs and their God. I agree on principle with Ellen in thinking, “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.” However as a realist I do not think this utopia will ever exist. People will continue to be grouped based on race, religion, sexually orientation, etc and this will ALWAYS perpetuate an us vs. them feel to society. I agree with Stern in thinking the power of terror comes from the radical groups’ ability to gain supporters and influence individuals who are yearning to become part of something bigger than them. However, to become successful in disbanding these groups would be to go against the biggest cause for death and war since the dawn of time, religion. And even if we were successful, the nature of society only allows for us to find other groups with which to differentiate ourselves from those around us. So I believe it is a near impossible task to “make sense of the conceptual world” of any group that is so radically opinionated it fails to accept any other form of thought different than their own.

ghillie little

Through the interviews Stern has with several individuals, their stories shed light on what many find appealing in becoming part of an organization like the Taliban. Stern’s reveals what it was that cause previously rational people to become seduced by organizational propaganda. As said earlier Stern manages to humanize the terrorist organizations to understand the basic reasons as to what draws individuals to become involved.

People in the US see terrorists as deranged individuals who have an indescribable hate towards the US for some unknown reason. Stern explains that there are several reasons towards and individual’s decision to be involved in such a society. Stern focuses on the fact that they persuade individuals through the immense benefits that they receive upon joining. Individuals were provided with jobs and jobs for their family members as well as education for their children. The organizations gain the individuals allegiance to their cause due to their belief that the organization truly cares about their well-being.

I agree with Roushani’s comments about the mirror going both ways. Just because the US uses digitally guided bombs instead of airplanes does not make the US any different. Roushani makes a great point, how is the US any different from the terrorist organizations. The US has committed several acts which Stern would classify as those similar to the acts of those we consider terrorists, while at the same time ending every presidential address with, “thank you, and God bless America.”

I think Jessica Stern does make sense of the conceptual world of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and their ilk because she is able to humanize their actions to allow to people to begin to understand the rationality.

Madeleine Dale

The most fascinating thing about Stern’s book is that she represents these so-called “fanatical terrorist groups” at the individual level. She talks about how many of these terrorists have come to identify with groups because they are lonely and simply seek something or some cause to identify with. I think that Stern hits upon something very interesting and important here because perhaps a solution to terrorism would be creating a greater sense of inclusive community among groups. I believe Stern’s main point is that today we don’t look at terrorists as individuals with individual problems, insecurities, goals or aspirations, we only hear the word “terrorist” and think of one large group of people with an ultimate goal of destroying “Western civilization”. I think Stern’s work is revolutionary because it provides a clear way of looking into the problem of terrorism with a proposed way to fix it. Perhaps if we looked more at the individual or the regime types, or the leaders of these “terrorist-ridden areas” we could find a way to end terrorism instead of containing it in while place while provoking it in other places. I also agree that Ellen Dobie’s point about similarities and differences is key. We do always tend to look at differences as identifying factors, which then leads to positive and negative connotations. If we continue to divide our world up into like-states and un-like states and thus good states and bad states, we will end up with a completely bipolar society where there is one side and it is against the other side. If we use such broad terms, such as “terrorists” it becomes easier and easier for us to classify people under these terms which essentially means we can easily file people into the “bad and evil state” folder. Then, when it comes to conflict, we know clearly who our enemy is and we know who to go after. The problem is that nobody stops to see the similarities between groups, and with Stern pointing this out, perhaps people will be able to look past the labels and begin to realize that not all social, economic, political and religious agendas that differ from their own are automatically “the enemy”.

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