Terrorism, radicalisation and Islam: Michel Wieviorka in conversation with Marc Sageman

Collective prayer on October 20 in Mogadishu in tribute to the 276 dead and 300 wounded, victims of the October 14 terrorist attack. Terrorism has become a global weapon. Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP

Michel Wieviorka and Marc Sageman, leading specialists in terrorism, political violence, radicalisation and their impact on our societies, exchange views for The Conversation France ahead of a conference at the Fondation Maison Sciences de l'Homme within the framework of the “Violence and Exit from Violence” program.



1. Is it possible to propose a concept of terrorism that is scientifically valid?

Marc Sageman: Terrorism is a legal rather than scientific concept derived from a compromise among jurists in the 1930s to create a new category of international crime in order to facilitate extradition of perpetrators. It referred to endangering a community or creating a state of terror – itself a controversial compromise at that time. Scientists have used it to study different but related phenomena dealing with political violence. It needs to be reflexive, for, as the quip goes, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. I have adopted this reflexivity in my new definition of terrorism, the “categorisation of out-group political violence during domestic peacetime.” Since the concept will still be used according to scientists’ true interest, I do not expect them to agree on a common definition for future research.

Michel Wieviorka has published several pioneering works on terrorism since the 1980s. Evil (Polity Press, 2012), looked at the issue of violence. Robert Laffont

Michel Wieviorka: The word terrorism, like many others, has a shared meaning in political contexts and in the media. It is difficult to use in a conceptual way, as confusion is always a risk. Moreover, as Marc Sageman is right to point out, the law needs a definition that makes it possible to sanction certain facts and, in international law, reach consensus.

Sociologically, terrorism has two key aspects. First, it is instrumental: for those using it, terrorism is a resource with limited costs and huge potential benefit. A single bomb, for example, or the use of a firearm could lead to profound changes in the life of a country. Second, terrorism has to make sense for its protagonists, with this particular fact that it combines a loss of meaning – it speaks artificially in the name of a class, a people, a nation, a community that does not recognise itself in its violence – and at the same time is overloaded with meaning – ideology, religion. Terrorism is therefore a calculation and strategy on the one hand and simultaneous loss and overload of meaning on the other. I demonstrated this in my 1988 book Societies and Terrorism (Fayard). For example, extreme-left Italian terrorism spoke in the name of a working-class proletariat that did not support its crimes, or that of ETA in Spain, which became increasingly violent as it expressed a national and popular myth that was becoming untenable.

Marc Sageman is an independent scholar (Phd. in political sociology and forensics psychiatry) and founder of the intelligence agency LLC. A former expert for the US Army and US intelligence services he has recently published Turning to Political Violence : The Emergence of Terrorism (2017, University of Pennsylvania). Marc Sageman


2. From a historical perspective, how is contemporary terrorism breaking with or, on the contrary, continuing a trend started in the 1960s and ‘70s?

M.S.: Contemporary terrorism results from a certain form of political violence dating back to the French Revolution, as illustrated in my new book Turning to Political Violence (University of Pennsylvania, 2017). Over the past two centuries, this type of political violence has evolved to become more professional and indiscriminate, targeting civilians. It often used newly available technology of the times. The first suicide bomber was a clock-maker in the French town of Senlis, who blew himself up in December 1789 and killed 25 other people, a record that stood for over a century.

‘December 13, 1789: the horrific revenge of a watchmaker named Billon, in Senlis’. J.F. Janinet/Bibliothèque nationale de France

The first bomb attack was the machine infernale used in the assassination attempt against Napoleon Bonaparte on Christmas Eve 1800 in the Rue Saint-Nicaise in Paris. Terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s was more focused on capitalists or the state – in the case of leftist violence – and on targeted populations – in the case of right-wing supremacist violence. The fact that the present wave of terrorism came from outside the West makes the West as a whole a target of this violence. This was not the case 50 years ago.

M.W.: There are important differences between the terrorism of the 1960s and 1970s, which itself is already a renewal of that of the late 18th century, Russian populists and other social revolutionaries of the late 19th century, and the contemporary phenomenon. The turning point came in the mid-1980s. Previous we have experienced internal terrorism, from the extreme left- or right-wing extremists, or separatist terrorism, as with the ETA in the Basque region; and international terrorism, starting with the one claiming to be for the Palestinian cause.

Now we have global terrorism, which combines internal and geopolitical dimensions, such as the crisis in France’s suburban zones and conflicts in the Middle East, which are often religious and focus on martyrdom – all of which have profoundly renewed this extreme form of violence. The old ways have not disappeared, as there are still right-wing and separatist terrorists, and violence fuelled by religion is not the monopoly of radical Islam – there is, for example, [Hindu terrorism]((https://theconversation.com/holy-cow-as-hindu-nationalism-surges-in-india-cows-are-protected-but-minorities-not-so-much-76632).


3. How is terrorism affecting France and America today, both in the short and long run?

One cannot study terrorism by focusing only on “terrorists”. Political violence is a dialectical phenomenon, a conflict pitting the state against a political protest community. The greatest impact of the current wave of terrorism in French and American societies is their respective countries’ similar responses, leading to the emergence of a security state. This type of response is more common in international war, to guard against enemy infiltration. This is worrisome because sophisticated surveillance technology could be used against any political dissenter. In the long run, after this wave of terrorism fades, this capability will remain, threatening privacy. I suspect that state overreach and scandals will curb this threat, as societal discussions will eventually reach a balance between security and privacy. This balance will shift according to society’s feeling of insecurity.

M.W.: Terrorism today combines internal dimensions, which are rooted in the political and social life of a society, and others related to defence and diplomacy. Its impact is immediate and, as Marc says, it encourages measures such as the French state of emergency or the US Patriot Act. These weaken democracy by granting the executive branch the right to bypass justice in the name of security, a necessity, but with the risk of abuses. Terrorism undermines the legitimacy of political authorities, which are still suspected of failing to do everything necessary to ensure the security of citizens, and it reinforces mistrust, weakens confidence and creates concerns about the future.

It also has economic impacts – for example, scaring away tourists at least temporarily, and requiring increased public spending on security mesures. It can influence international relations, encouraging certain alliances, for example. And in the longer term, it raises serious questions that call for renewed public policies in education, employment and the fight against discrimination.


4. Marc Sageman, you identified the concept of “home-grown terrorists”, men and women who left to fight for “jihad” in Syria and now returning to their home countries. Are we observing a new phenomenon and a change in the way terrorism might spread?

M.S.:. No. This has been a common phenomenon since the 18th century, which opened up the political arena to ordinary citizens’ participation. Some went to fight abroad for universal ideals of the French revolution – in fact, Americans owe their independence in part to French “foreign fighters”.

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, is the emblematic figure of a ‘warrior’ who left his homeland to fight in the name of an ideal (represented in 1791, painted in 1834). Joseph-Désiré Court (1797–1865)/Wikimedia

There were also the Greek war of independence from 1821 to 1829, the struggle against fascism in Spain in the 1930s and against the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the Yugoslavian conflict in the 1990s as well as broader-based conflicts.

All these returnees were viewed with suspicion, but with rare exceptions, the expected waves of political violence never occurred. They need to be monitored but it should not be assumed that they would necessarily carry out terrorism at home. If the Western powers defeat the Islamic State in a fair way, I do not anticipate a wave of terror in the home countries. The process is like demobilisation after an international war. The demobilised soldiers often go back to the lives they had before the conflicts.

M.W.: There have occasionally been comparisons of French youth going to Syria to join Daech with those who joined the International Brigades in Spain in 1936. But there’s no similarity in the sociology of those who supported the Republican Brigades in 1936 and those who went to fight for Daech. Today, in some cases at least, one cannot dissociates internal and foreign factors – action allows the two to be combined, to allow young people from a working-class area of France – or from a village in Normandy, for that matter – to give a meaning to their existence by joining a conflict taking place in the Middle East. That is why we need to talk about global terrorism – that is to say, terrorism that combines local, national and international meanings.

Bulgarian members of the International Brigades who fought alongside the Spanish Republicans during the struggle against Franco, 1937. 'Under the Red Banner' photo album, 1973


5. What do you think of the term radicalisation ? Is it still relevant or shall we change the vocabulary? What is the impact of such vocabulary in our societies.

M.S.: At this point, I do not believe that the word radicalisation can be salvaged. It means different things to different people. We need to be more precise in what we mean. Is it the acquisition of ideas that reject those of mainstream society, something that does not require violence; or is it turning to political violence, which doesn’t necessarily need to be accompanied by “radical” ideas. We need to have different words for these two processes, which are very different. Most commentators used these meanings interchangeably, often in the same sentence, leading to confusion and preventing clear thinking about this important topic.

M.W.: The word was useful, emphasising the uncompromising nature of the phenomenon in question. But radicalisation does not necessarily mean entering into terrorist, or even violent behaviour, and its use risks disqualifying or stigmatising individuals or groups who act uncompromisingly within a democratic framework. Moreover, in France a longstanding, rather centrist political tradition often uses the adjective radical.


6. There is currently a debate that opposes two theses, briefly summed up as: That radicalisation comes first and then religion, and that’s how it should be analysed. Or that religion comes first and then radicalisation. Which of these two analyses would you chose?

M.S.: Both theses greatly simplify the situation and are based exclusively on one of the current waves of political violence. In my most recent book I outline a process leading to political violence that transcends this dichotomy. I interviewed at length several dozen of neo-jihadis in several countries, and was surprised at their relative lack of religiousness or even radicalism.

Instead, they identified with the victims of the Assad regime on the basis of a common religion and felt they couldn’t stand by and do nothing. In essence, the “radicalisation” and “Islamisation” were concurrent and two inseparable dimensions of the same process driven by the moral outrage they felt at the massacres of members of their imagined community, the neo-Ummah. Of course, I simplify young but complex lives, but the point is that they were neither pious nor radical. In fact, they were not intellectual at all, and did not read much religious material – as was the case with scholars postulating these separate processes. They watched videos and read tweets especially of people they knew, and fantasised about themselves as being glorious fighters saving their self-referential community. While controversy is entertaining, I would urge journalists and opinion makers not to get hung up on pointless debates about gross oversimplifications. Nothing comes from them, not even better understanding of the processes at hand.

M.W.: I would slightly disagree here, Even if this debate is simplistic and awkwardly formulated, it obliges us to reflect on a major question: what is the status of religion in Islamic terrorism? Empirical observations – for example, those of Olivier Roy – often show that at some point late in the process Islam comes to animate the consciousness of the actors. But this does not prevent us from noticing that without Islam – even as it’s poorly understood by those involved – they don’t take action, as that would have no sense.

This obviously does not prevent an analysis of the way in which “radicalisation” takes place based on social processes on which working-class suburbs and the second-generation immigrants do not have a monopoly.

There is not a single model for explaining terrorist acts, but a certain diversity, with the particularity that they require a religious sense for action to take place. It should be added that this debate leaves no room for other hypotheses, and in particular the idea, dear to some psychoanalysts, that there may also be pathological dimensions in at least some cases, flaws that would also be related to psychiatry.

This article was originally published in French

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