Fifteen years after 9-11: What do we actually know about terrorism – and is that knowledge part of the problem?

The inescapably manifest dialectic between efforts to suppress terrorist networks and the effective reproduction of them – visible not least through the emergence of new state formations like ISIL – renders policy a research objective as logical as terrorism itself when it comes to understanding the growth and spread of radical Islam.

This presents researchers with a challenge to scrutinize and come to terms with both political and  epistemological fundaments of current strategies to fight terrorism. Policies are forged in webs of meaning. These webs of meaning consist, on the one hand, of values which underwrite the desirability of expected outcomes of policies – and, on the other hand, of assumptions which stipulate that specific policies produce certain effects. The fact that scholars contribute to this web of meaning – by echoing or challenging values as much as applying or refuting stipulations of cause and effect – makes, in the end, academic or expert knowledge on terrorism as relevant a research objective as policy itself.

However, too narrow a focus on policies and the modes of knowledge which underpin them will lead us away from both the very subject of terrorist strategies and the grievances which render young people liable to recruitment by terrorist networks. Ultimately, this also draws our attention away from the very social contradictions which engender both terrorism and its appeal.  Shifting attention from terrorism and its agents to policy and knowledge is simply not conducive towards an understanding of the dilemmas which render terrorism a preferred option to its strategists, or of the actual composition of the cosmological universes in which violence against unknown and unarmed individuals comes to attract young men and women.        

Yet, it seems there is no reason why a better grasp of the social origins of radical Islam should not be possible to achieve during the course of an exploration which begins, precisely, with a closer look at how we currently create our own knowledge of terrorism. It could even be suggested that a reconsideration of the categories we use to construct and shape our understanding of what we call terrorism necessarily must precede an eventual understanding of what this represents to those who plan, enable and implement it. After all, if we were able to grasp how those we routinely refer to as terrorists grasp the world without as much as polishing our eyeglasses first, chances are that we would have done so rather long ago.   

During the fall of 2016 we invite all those who are interested to take part in an effort to shed new light on terrorism in general and radical Islam in particular. We begin this effort by looking closely at the conditions which inform our own established understanding of terrorism, in an aspiration to unpack a contemporary concept and  obtain a vantage point which offers a greater degree of clarity. For this purpose we open our fall semester on 13 September with a lecture by Dr. Lisa Stampnitzky, who visits us from the Department of Politics, University of Sheffield. 

October 28 - Ravaillac the Scapegoat: Punishing the Assassin, Agonizing over Meaning

Lecture with Robert Appelbaum

Terrorism is not a thing, and it is only just barely an idea. In point of fact, our understanding of terrorism comes primarily through our perception of terrorist events – but events are complex phenomena, whose meanings depend on attitudes toward acts, agents, agencies, scenes and purposes.

François Ravaillac (1578– 1610) was a minor French legal representative and tutor from the provinces who felt called upon to kill his king, Henry IV, for the sake of the cause of Catholics in Europe. Kill the king he did, in the middle of Paris, with a stab to the king’s heart, and the nation was shocked. What now? Ravaillac was immediately apprehended, interrogated, and tortured, but no reason he gave for his treachery was satisfactory. Was there something inside the mind or soul of Ravaillac that could explain it, something Ravaillac was determined to hide? Did he have accomplices? Did he know something other people didn’t? Did he exist in a way that other people didn’t?

The interrogation, torture, and brutal execution of Ravaillac – he was humiliated, branded, quartered and torn to pieces, as a mob attacked him – exemplifies the popular strategy of trying to find the meaning of a terrorist act in the person who committed it.

  • Datum: 2016-10-28 kl 13:015 – 15:00
  • Plats: Engelska parken 2-0076
  • Föreläsare: Robert Appelbaum