Post 9/11 developments were a significant temporal juncture for the emergence of critical terrorism scholarship/studies (CTS) in the world. Traditional terrorism studies (TTS) had proven unable to predict the attacks of 11th September 2001, and could not possibly deal with the modern forms of conflict/terrorism involving warring parties using a disproportionate amount of force. This gap in the knowledge warranted innovation in existing theoretical frameworks, to make sense of the causes leading to the conflict.

Since the 1990s the terrorism studies arena has been dominated by the conventional terrorism studies strand that has inherent methodological, political and epistemological problems. As an insight effectively narrates, “the terrorism scholarship was innocent of methodology”. Traditional security studies have been saturated by militaristic, security centered approaches which perpetuated state narratives of the event and the subsequent agenda based policy prescriptions.

The early TTS scholarship was politically biased, lacked methodological rigor and was of short term imminent efficacy, rather than offering a deeper insight into the context of the conflict. It was accused of creating dichotomies of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’, and peddling historicized and depoliticized accounts of the events in question. In the case of 9/11, this involved a portrayal of American innocence, ignoring its history of perpetuating overt wars, covert operations primarily intended to destabilize regimes, funding anti-state elements in states, and creating a new class of war benefiters to prolonging conflicts for profit. All this kept the Military Industrial Complex a well-oiled machine, churning death and chaos.

This American self-exclusion from the disasters of their own making led to bypassing an opportunity to find the root causes of the conflict, and jumping on the problem solving band wagon with policy action. Academic legitimacy was also a cause of contention for its traditional approaches to terrorism studies, owing to the research-based fact that the majority of literature produced in this strand was by ‘one off-ers’ hailing from eclectic backgrounds and a myriad of research disciplines. These intellectuals who had their go at feeding the discipline in infancy did not have substantial expertise to broach these subjects, thereby bringing the legitimacy of their authorship in question. In the absence of alternative knowledge, the same old normative ideas were perpetuated, which led to a saturation induced replication in the knowledge base. The substance of orthodox terrorism studies was also mired in the problem of relying on secondary data sources, rather than primary interviews conducted at the site of conflict and of people who were actually affected. The spatial proximity between the researcher and the researched was created through the analysis of texts, books and every option besides actual field work, compromising the purpose of the enquiry itself.

Critical strands thus emerged as a rebel crew of academic scholarship that focused on intellectual caveats produced through the nature of traditional terrorism scholarship. The traditional approach was a top down enforcement of status quo ideas, while the critical terrorism stand took the bottom up approach and used an individualistic turn to explain the phenomena. The scholarship questioned the social and power dimensions of the discourses in terrorism studies and the categories and labels that perpetuate power. They inquired into the frames of reference that generated the militaristic, security-centered approaches, and the context of the events which led to the point of conflict came to light. Critical terrorism studies integrated theoretical insights from psychology, sociology, anthropology, gender studies, peace and conflict studies, medical science, etc. The reflective capacity of the critical terrorism strand made it popular and relevant in the game. CTS redefined the term “terrorism” itself and explored the marginalization, the lack of freedom, and depravity-induced grievances. It investigated the construct of “terrorism” itself and explored the question of what went into making a terrorist. This critical scholarship adds nuance to the lithified understanding of the concept as well and helps in seeing beyond stereotypes.

The Princeton Press published a case study called “The Engineers of Jihad” which focused on the symbolic sociological variables during the life histories of people who chose to become terrorists. The historicizing and politicization of the actor and the act itself diagnoses the problem from its roots and informs a nuanced explanation of both sides of the coin, i.e. the victim and the oppressor. The scholars hence negate the problem-solving efficacy of traditional terrorism studies by presenting alternative accounts of events; they also raise the possibility of counterinsurgency programs being ineffective without an iota of information about the background of the event, and mention that maybe political reformation will do the necessary. The use of suspected communities in place of the wholesale categorical labeling of terrorists was suggested by scholars, instead of demonizing the whole populate. Scholars questioned the possibility of state oppression qualifying as terrorism. The labels of “Islamic terrorism” and “terrorists” have been deconstructed by the critical terrorism scholars and it negates the “few labels” problem of traditional terrorism studies.

By being qualitatively more eclectic and intricate in nature, the critical scholarship faces a setback by being less policy relevant. The traditional terrorism scholarship, with all its problems, could act on imminent basis with policy outcomes (valid or invalid), instead of questioning its stance. It would have diffused the purpose of this scholarship.  The other foundational problem in critical studies also critiques its emancipatory stance, which has strong colonial undertones and is an issue in itself. However, the reflexivity of critical terrorism scholarship, coupled with practicality offered by terrorism scholarship, can lead terrorism scholarship on right path by contextualizing the conflict and creating objectives for solving the problem. Hence, critical terrorism studies in a supportive stance can move from the narrative capacity into the action research, and an integrated frame work can be more effective.


About Fatima Ahmad 1 Article
Fatima Ahmad is a Peace and Conflict Research Scholar at the Center for International Peace and Stability Studies, NUST (Islamabad).

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