The Fetish of Ideology in Studies of Terrorism

By Ziad Munson

When studying terrorist organizations, scholars focus primarily on organizational ideology. Ideology remains the central way in which scholars organize their understanding of many different questions about such groups. We use ideology to explain why people join terrorist organizations; how such groups form and develop; and how to classify terrorist groups in the spectrum of organizations. It is no surprise that social scientists use ideas as the basis for study. However, other variables – discussed below – are of equal, and often neglected, importance.

We focus on organizational ideologies in part because groups themselves are highly invested in the self-presentation of their beliefs. Political organizations, whether engaged in violent conflict or not, see themselves as organized around and motivated by a particular ideology; it is their raison d’être. Thus they make their ideology readily available through speeches and other pronouncements, constitutions, pamphlets, tracts, social media posts, conferences, tv and radio broadcasts, and interviews. Indeed, most groups spend a great deal of time and energy communicating their ideology to anyone who will listen. They are engaged in active efforts to portray themselves as motivated by the power of ideas.

Alas, social scientists are complicit with these groups in promoting the idea that ideology is the center of such groups, around which all else revolves. Scholars are comfortable with ideas; ideas are what they know best, and are the currency of their professional lives. Given their training and experience developing, discussing, evaluating and synthesizing ideas, it is perhaps not surprising that scholars would focus the greatest attention on the ideas of political organizations too. This tendency is particularly apparent in the study of organizations engaged in terrorism, in part because it is one of the easiest aspects of terrorist groups to access. Terrorist ideology is widely observable even for the most reclusive and secretive organizations. This makes data collection much easier compared to discovering reliable information on organizational history, leadership structure, resources, relationships to other groups, and so forth.

The end result is a tendency to elevate and even essentialize ideology in our study of political organizations, particularly those engaged in terrorism. Sets of ideas are regarded as essential elements of the character and dynamics of a group, and their ideology is seen as setting them apart from “ordinary” groups or “regular” people. Over the last fifteen years, ideology has become a fetish in the study of terrorist groups. What is lost is a critical attention to process; that is, the specific mechanisms by which political organizations develop and, in the case of organizations that turn to terrorism, the pathways they follow in the use of violence.

Let me provide a few examples of the problem drawn from my own research on the trajectories of some of the most influential and deadly transnational terrorist organizations. The ideology of such groups seldom provides much leverage in differentiating them from the general societies and communities from which they emerge. The official program of the ELN, one of the major terrorist groups in Columbia, focuses on demands for housing reform, education reform, a national health plan, and minority rights– goals that are widely shared among many Colombians. In the Middle East, the ideology of Hamas centers around the idea (written in their charter) that “Palestine is an Islamic land…Giving up any part of the of the homeland is like giving up part of the religious faith itself.” The idea isn’t particularly meaningful in defining the group, though, as it is a common viewpoint among many Palestinians who are not Hamas supporters. And it mirrors similar beliefs about Judaism and Israel held by many religious Israelis and American Jews who are not a part of, or even support, terrorist groups of any kind. I’ve examined the ideological positions of fifty different major terrorist organizations around the world, and at least 80% of them have an ideological platform that is indistinguishable from the general population. So why so much focus on ideology?

The ideology of terrorist groups is also often malleable and changing, making it a poor basis for classifying groups or accounting for their dynamics. This is particularly true when it comes to organizational goals. Let me use al-Qaeda to illustrate this point. In 1988 its focus was to take control of Afghanistan; in 1992 it was to kill U.S. soldiers in Arabia and the Horn of Africa; in 1996 it was to free Muslims around the world; in 1998 it was to kill Americans worldwide; in 2001 it was to free Palestine. Other well-known groups, including the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Palestine, the PKK in Turkey, ETA in Spain, and the Shining Path in Peru have similarly changed their ideological goals.

The fetish of ideology that has characterized terrorism studies for years now continues to blind analysts to the reality that ideology is an emergent quality of organizational dynamics, not an essentialized category that determines and defines such dynamics. It leads to an excessive focus on individual motivation and beliefs and leads away from core processes that many organizations, both violent and non-violent, have in common. We should be asking questions about issues such as the crucial period in the lifecycle of an organization when it turns to violence, processes of organizational fracturing, and the relationship between leadership composition and organizational structure. We need to move beyond analyzing, picking apart, and debating the nuances of ideology.

Social movement studies have much the same problem. As I wrote about in a previous Mobilizing Ideas post, there is reticence to consider terrorist groups as social movements. But there is also the same tendency in social movement studies to separate groups by ideology and think about different ideologies as a marker for different types of groups — that require different kinds of data and different kinds of explanations to be properly understood. Thus we have different theories and analyses of movements with right-wing ideologies compared to (otherwise similar) groups with left-wing ideologies. Yes, the beliefs of a group are important. But they are not the central variable through which most important aspects of mobilization can be best understood.

1 Comment

Filed under Civil Wars and Contentious Politics, Essay Dialogues, Uncategorized

One response to “The Fetish of Ideology in Studies of Terrorism

  1. Mohammad Zakaria

    Yeah! I agree. Basically, the debate goes back to the question, Who are the terrorist groups? If we consider ideology at the viewpoint to look at the movement then many peaceful movements too can be considered as terrorists as they share the same ideology. Ideology might be same among many groups, but the manifestations may be either violent or non-violent.
    By the way, I will be happy if you could mention detail about fifty different major terrorist organizations, on which you have done study. From that, I may get to know that how have you defined terrorists.


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