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November 16, 2007


William Chen

Stern does a great job delving into the psychology of terrorists to give us a better understanding of their motivations for doing what they do. For instance, she uses the concept of Humiliation to explain how terrorist leaders get so many youth to join. The youth feel oppressed and use this chance to fight back. Another concept is with regards to demographics, and how government policies may shift one minority group to the region of another, which induce a mixture of different people and powers. This eventually leads to Holy Wars, in which both sides dedicate themselves to one side. She also explains the organizational structures of terrorist groups to depict the way these groups recruit and why it is so difficult for the U.S. to penetrate into their network. For instance, Al Qaeda hires special groups for one-time missions, so it is very difficult for the U.S. to trace and investigate. These organizations also receive funding from charitable organizations and other leaderless organizations that want to hurt the U.S. Due to all those reasons, Stern believes that the U.S. should adopt different policies in dealing with terrorists. For example, she even suggests hiring unemployed terrorists for their valuable information. Stern believes that to deal with the complexities of terrorist organizations, the U.S. should find a better way to deal with them instead of just invading them and torturing them because that just makes more of their youth want to join.

Serena Yang

I think Stern’s book is a good exploration of the appeal of terrorist organizations and why they are so successful, but there is something rather unsatisfying about it. Her approach, her interviews, make the terrorist personal so that we can better understand him, but I feel that her conclusions at the end of her book diverge from what she says before. The last chapter of her book turns the focus back on America and what America can do in response to Islamic fundamentalism, but I think her recommendations are sorely one-dimensional, as if she has not read her own book.

She calls terrorists antimodernists and seems to imply that if only we could better include them in the global market, things would be much better between us. However, Stern’s use of the words “modernity” and “antimodernists” throughout the book strikes me as the very thing against which Islamic fundamentalists are struggling. The idea that the American way of politics, culture, and economics is synonymous with modernity and progress is inherently inclusive and inherently decisive. Stern says “to the extent that globalization and the New World Order means the spread of such values [violence and consumerism], the antimodernists’ complaints are understandable, even if their violence is not” (p. 295), but if globalization and the New World Order are deemed the “right way” then these antimodernists can only believe that nothing short of violence can save their cultures and their societies.

Indeed, I thought this was something Stern was trying to explain in her book. Several times the interviewees maintain that they are “for peace” and that violence is, to them, their only outlet (whether or not this is true is another debate altogether). Furthermore, the men she interviews describe globalization as the “new colonial system” and America’s exportation of culture. So when Stern says at the end of her book that we should open our markets to Pakistani textiles, it seems illogical. And in her final chapter when she says that there are two “values at the core of the American system and in many other parts of the world [that] are worth defending and reaffirming” (p. 295), namely our high respect for human life, regardless of race, gender, or religion and our commitment to freedom of religion, it seems to me that these are values that America needs to reaffirm for herself before trying to do so in other places. The obvious example, of course, is the war in Iraq and the kind of American ideology that allowed for such logic as democracy by way of foreign force.

I think what we can take away from Stern’s book, however, is that Islamic fundamentalism is a two-way street. It’s a reaction to America and then we Americans react back. Although we cannot control how terrorists react to us, we can control how we react to them. And this is a point I think Stern understands well and advocates, albeit in a somewhat hypocritical fashion, in the last chapter of her book.

Christiaan Strong

Stern does a very nice job discussing the inner workings of a terrorist organization. She delves into all the major points concerning philosophy, recruiting, and the networking behind all of this. She makes great sense of the conceptual world of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and terrorism as a whole, because her work provides first hand accounts of her interviews with terrorist leaders and then she adds her own opinions and input concerning the matter. Whether you care for her opinions or not does not take away from the fact that her research provides great insight into terrorist organizations.
The first part of her book investigates the five “Grievances That Give Rise to Holy War”. She cites Alienation, Humiliation, Demographics, History, and Territory as the contributing factors that lead to the creation of a holy war. She speaks of the ease with which terrorist organizations recruit the youth that have few choices regarding the future of their lives. For many they will have medial jobs and live a mediocre life. This alienation is coupled with humiliation caused by “…institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the United Nations are imposing capitalism and secular ideas on them with the aim of exterminating traditional values” (283). This makes joining a terrorist organization quite appealing to the youth who are not well versed in the world and don’t have many other appealing options.
History and territory can be viewed together. The combination of past history and the present territories inhabited by rival groups creates tension between groups that ultimately leads to conflict. “Both [groups] use selective readings of history and of religious texts to justify violence over territory” (106). The objective of these groups is two fold: to promote their own religious zeal and gain political power. This is most apparent in countries that have long standing conflicts concerning religious territory, which often leads to political conflict, the most notable conflict is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the final chapter Stern offers her opinion on how to respond to terrorist ideology. There is no definitive solution that will guarantee an end to terrorism, but Stern notes that simply invading another nation to weed out a terrorist group is often costly and ill planned. Stern states, “Unless we understand the appeal of participating in extremist groups and the seduction of finding one’s identity in opposition to Other, we will not get far in our attempts to stop terrorism” (283).

Zack Simon

I found Stern’s novel very thought provoking, especially as I have much more background in Sociology than I do in either Political Science or Economics. I really believe that Stern’s work fits much more neatly into the category of sociological work than either of the latter fields. In this respect, her work is distinguished from the works of past writers we have read works so far. I wanted to find a great problem with her work, but I found very little in terms of the conclusions she reached through her research. Her own defense against inevitable critique of her methodologies and conclusions drawn is both necessary and significant in considering her (limited) perspectives in the light of methodological and popular political critique.

In terms of the novel’s main content, I am very much in support of Jessica Stern’s arguments, focusing on the human aspects of these religious terrorists—the alienation, humiliation, demographics, history, and territory. It’s easy to draw conclusions on her work. Her arguments sound convincing, focusing on the psyche of the religious terrorist while shedding light on the various unrelated factors that play a purportedly deterministic role in “turning spirutual longing into murder.” She also explicitly recognizes the “Us vs. Them” phenomenon: “…The IMF, the World Bank, and the United Nations are imposing capitalism and secular ideas on them with the aim of exterminating traditional values.” I understand what she’s getting at.

In relation to the framework of this course, Stern asks these questions in her concluding chapter: “Who stands to gain? Who is making money? Who is receiving benefits of any kind? Who is taking advantage of whom?” These are some of the most important questions, I think. Yes she doesn’t give much profound insight into what one might do with these answers—nothing remarbly original anyway. She recognizes the ‘source’ of the problem in its political-economic context: “…at the national level, a government’s inability to provide basic services, protect human rights, or to maintain a monopoly on violence damages the state’s ability to fight extremist groups.” But what I really do not understand is how she could conclude this tome with the world’s weakest “Policy Recommendations”:

“[We] should encourage the condemnation of extremist interpretations of religion by peace-loving practitioners…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 the last line of her novel, supposedly a testament to several years’ work and countless collaborative projects by the nation’s purported authority on religious terrorism. And this is what she comes up with. I found her book to be a fascinating read, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if most other classmates of mine found this conclusion/”recommendations” just plain dumb-sounding, or at the least, simple.

Hye Jin Lee

It is astonishing how Stern actually talked with the terrorists and it is a forward step to understand the terrorism in their minds instead of making simple critique from our point of view. Her effort to understand them is also noticeable when she writes "talking with" terrorists, not "to." Her thorough narrative of difficulties that she faced when trying to understand and communicate with them, I found, was extremely helpful and made great support for her argument. Although it would be impossible to fully understand a terrorist’s point of view as a person would not be able to understand a religion without actually being a religious person, her argument provides great insight to rapidly rising religious terrorism such as Al Qaeda and Taliban. According to Stern, religious militants are especially difficult to understand because to them, terrorism is a fully just way to worship God and a way to “purity” the world.

The argument of militants creating a double identity was persuasive with examples of doctors and other professions that require “another-self” in order to perform their occupation. I would agree that a person would not be able to kill an innocent person when fully himself/herself. There are different sectors of terrorists but all of them that Stern interviewed said that they felt spiritual calling and felt fulfillment by participating in terrorism: “many report a kind of spiritual high or addiction related to its fulfillment” (281). They also transform themselves and simplify life by joining terrorist organizations. They put on a new identity in place of a humiliated second-class self and also put on a clear-cut perspective world where there is no uncertainty. There is only evil/good, black/white, kill/die, and victim/oppressor. It is this kind of thinking that is the most dangerous to the human soul. We lose uniqueness and personally when we try to identify ourselves with the things that are already defined. We lose room to think critically and grow as individuals and this can lead to terrorist violence in extreme cases, not only on the visible physical level, but also in psychological level. Her realization that terrorism is attacking on every level-militarily, economically, psychologically, and most importantly spiritually-is extremely well thought-out. Furthermore she points out how it is challenging to destroy the existing moral distinctions. As Serena said, her conclusion seems a bit one-dimensional because it is an American perspective and what we can do, but I think it is almost impossible to provide a solution that is multi-dimensional because we cannot change their thoughts as terrorism is a war of ideas.

Cindy Yu-Hsin Chou

Stern’s focus on the psychology behind terrorism brings an extra dimension to the reasons behind terrorism; not only in the way that America’s self-promoted supremacy has reigned and led to its overconfidence, as many other authors have pointed out, but furthermore, in examining the ideology, sense of identity and self that terrorists gain, and other reasons that provide an additional dimension to why terrorists go through with the actions they do. As a result, she provides insight into how terrorist organizations are so successful as they are able to appeal to the individual’s desire for identity by inspiring them to adopt their ideology, followed by their desire to provide for their families, thus adding an extra sense of personal achievement when individuals decide to work for terrorist organizations. Stern’s thesis is thus counterintuitive, though I do agree with and applaud it: her implied statement is much that terrorist organizations are much more tame and are able to recruit terrorists through an ideology that is much more mellow than that of the United States; because terrorist organizations do not impose but seek to inspire, and because they appeal to individual needs by providing for the family, they are thus able to provide a sense of purpose for the people they hire. Stern’s solution, ultimately, is thus the same: America must stop seeking to influence through the iron fist, but instead find a softer socialization process to get through to terrorists and those who have doubts towards the actions towards the United States, for fear that they will lose legitimacy if they choose to continue with their sense of “good” versus” evil” in the world.

Adriana Gomez

I personally found Stern’s book very fascinating. I find her research appropriate and useful on the ground that she was probably able to see the world through the eyes of the terrorists and accurately describe their reasons for their actions rather than simply labeling them as madmen.

In the previous posting, as York pointed out, Stern notes that the typical suicide bomber fits a number of described characteristics; again, “young… teenager…immature… jobless…etc.” But alike this, she notes the side of them that is suffering and striving to improve their own conditions. Stern mentions that with futile efforts to pick up living conditions, these men often wind up in emotional pain. “When the pain of trauma is so great that the victim cannot sustain feeling, he too becomes susceptible to propagating further evil.” Seeing that conditions lack improvement and life on its own becomes more difficult, I guess one could see how it is that the only thing these people have left is to strive for the approval of a supreme being regardless of what requests they are being asked to comply with. The constant misery of existing in turmoil makes it entirely possible to become enraged with those who live in abundance and are said to be worthy of blame.

As for those who manipulate the people into these sorts of acts: these people have the central role of encouraging these suicide bombers to commit these acts of terrorism through the use of information. Stern writes, “Selective reading of history is a powerful tool for mobilizing terrorists seeking to settle conflicting claims to the same territory.” Historical events, in turn, serve the purpose of giving leaders foundations for the actions that they manipulate their men to do.

Overall, I believe that Stern does a good job of seeing the motives behind terrorism abroad. The only thing is that I still cannot see the link in the motives of the intense believers in Christianity within the United States and the motives behind terrorist attacks abroad. They appear to be very different. Perhaps, if I am not mistaken, terrorist attacks from abroad appear to come from social constructs of poverty or poor living and governmental conditions whereas those issues of extreme religious beliefs in the United States seem to come from a matter of inflicted religious fear or personal choice. I could be wrong, but this is how I read Stern. Someone care to answer?

Kenichiro Nakahara

Stern’s work I feel is conceptual to the world of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and their ilk. Stern observes the “terrorist” issue from political, economic, and social perspectives. Her main point which I found quite interesting was the fact that she views terrorists as “individuals”, not as big organizations or as some countries like the United States views “the whole country (Iraq)”. A point she makes which I had to side with was the fact that individuals who join these terrorist groups do not all have the same exact incentives when they join. The fact of the matter as Ellen states is that some would have a motive to join so they can transform from the class they belong to at the moment and these also become motives to make rational decisions.

Terrorists and terrorism especially in the time we live today are viewed as extremely dangerous groups (which I’m not going to lie, they are…). What I feel Stern is trying to point out is that terrorists are in the end individuals. If the United States government were to have this frame of thought that the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center was an “individual’s” attack, do you think that the war in Iraq would have occurred? Honestly, I do not think so. If the US government had taken the attack as one that came from an individual, they would have gone after the small number group and truthfully, there would have been no motive to go to war with the entire country Iraq and be in the position today where they have extreme political tension with Middle Eastern countries. As we discussed in our section yesterday, if we were to follow Stern’s thoughts about the threat coming from a smaller organization or even an individual, it would not only give terrorists a more vague motive to attack but it may also lead to simpler resolve for countries like the US since they would not have to go to war to solve conflicts.

Brenda Castillo

I think that one of the things that I had the hardest time understanding, just like Stern mentioned in her book, were the terrorists themselves. As I read through Stern’s interviews with terrorists I found what many terrorists said absurd because they considered themselves not killers but followers of God’s will or when some terrorists considered suicide not the violent killing of self but as a form of obtaining the ‘highest’ status of martyrdom. I find these ideas absurd because as Hye Jin Lee mentioned, we cannot understand terrorist thought just like we wouldn’t be able to understand a religion if we weren’t religious people. But as I kept on reading Stern’s book I began to understand why Stern wrote this book. I began to see why and how terrorism is created through religious fundamentalist mindsets, which I still find very hard to understand. Even though it is hard to understand the mindset and beliefs of terrorists, I found Stern’s book helpful in the sense that it gives us the background on the history and the foundation/creation of the psychology of terrorists groups.
After seeing the background of the foundation of terrorist groups, one of the contributing factors that I found interesting and yet complex is how the situation of being isolated, from the world in the case of many countries where terrorists groups come from, leads for individuals to find forms of feeling like they belong by joining a ‘controversial’ group to obtain visibility. Many of the countries, mostly middle-eastern countries, which are the homes for many terrorist groups, are excluded from the globalization or ‘macdonalization,’ as Stern mentioned in a television interview, and which in our world today makes a huge impact because most countries that are out of the globalization plan suffer the most economically. As Stern mentions, terrorists begin to fuel their ideologies on the suffering of their people and enhance their extremist views. This idea is interesting because I had always thought of terrorism as a way to exclude the outside world from intervening in the religious fundamentalists’ way of life and ideologies. Specifically, I often found terrorism as a way to deny the ideologies of the the western world, such as the idea of democracy and capitalism.
Overall, Stern makes sense in why terrorist movement such as Al Queda and the Taliban are where they are now. We are able to get an understanding from Stern’s book on how terrorist groups are able to influence others through religion and the concept of family and why terrorism is unstoppable when it is an ideology that seems so justifiable and ‘right’ in the minds of these terrorist groups.

Vera Bersudskaya

Stern has done an impressive work visiting unsafe places to interview terrorists. However, I think that her book is disappointing. Maybe for someone who has never thought about terrorism, it might provide new info. However, it seems that she has very little insights that could not have been determined without all the interviews. It seems almost common knowledge, that people who are alienated and humiliated will tend to be attracted to extremist organizations. Likewise, she did not need to risk her life to determine that terrorist organizations agonize against “the Other” (like Muslims in Maluku against Christians), manipulate history (Jews wanting to build the Third Temple), use territorial claims (Militants in Kashmir). Her stories about personal lives of terrorists are interesting; however the fact that Ja’far has a beautiful third wife is useless for our understanding of terrorism. She gathers such valuable, not to say exclusive, information, but does not draw almost any original conclusions. I agree with Hye Jin Lee that the argument about the “double identity” of militants is persuasive and effective in explaining their actions. Another interesting insight is the desire to join a terrorist group or a sect in order to find a clear path in a complicated multifaceted world with an excess of choices. In addition, she affirms that in many cases terrorist organizations become profitable organizations for leaders and members. Great! How can this help us curb terrorism? Unfortunately, Stern cannot answer this question. Why go through all the trouble that she has gone through to write (as Zack Simon has already pointed out) a surprisingly unenlightening conclusion. After all that research, she ends up restating prior scholarship on the subject as well as general solutions, which are not likely to be viable. Of course terrorism is an immensely complex subject and there is not answer as to how it is to be dealt with; but I expected much more from this book.

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