One of the definitions of terrorism is use of unexpected, unlawful, and shocking violence against noncombatants or any other targets by members of a secret group or agents for the purpose of making public a political or religious agenda and /or coercing or intimidating a government or civil group into giving in to the demands that are inline with their agenda (Hudson, Mageska, Savada and Metz 1999).
The theoretical literature on the study of terrorism has not received the full attention of sociologist. However, in three decades, the subject is increasingly gaining attention following increased acts of terrorism across the world.
In this paper, the author discusses the sociological causes of terrorism. The paper starts with a deep examination of the available literature on the sociological causes of terrorism. This will help in getting the accounts of past studies on this topic. The paper them takes a theological perspective on the causes of terrorism by considering theories that were put forward my theorists like Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and George Mead. The study then concludes by bringing the explanations together to give a more conclusive sociologic cause of terrorism.
Sociologist had showed little interest in the topic of terrorism. Much of the study was focused on analysis of conflict, labour struggle, and criminalization including violence on form of riots and revolutions. However, the topic can be related to several of the sociological theories for instance the social control theory suggested by Max Weber (Deflem 2004). The question that is the focus of this paper is establishing why some people break away form the society to establish their careers in terrorism. One of the past studies in this is the works of Barkan (2013) that suggests three sociological perspectives of understanding war and terrorism.
According to Barkan (2013), one of the theories that can be applied in understanding terrorism is functionalism theory. Functionalism is a concept that explains how people join terrorism as a way of increasing social solidarity especially when a society comes together to fight a perceived common enemy. Ozdamar (2007) also shares the same approach as he indicates that terrorism is a method of struggle and not a means to political violence. In this view, when people come together they share a common purpose and hence they feel more patriotic and united in their course. On the same point, functionalism can be applied in explain how people use terrorism as means of maintaining freedom and establishing democracy.
Conflict theory on the other hand is a concept that explains how people engage in war and terrorism to advance their interests for meeting social needs. In this theory, it is shown how people work together to form a ruling class that works to control the society not for the interest of the citizenly but for their own interest. Still, this theory explain the way a certain group of people organize themselves and engage in terrorism as a way of extending their control or influence in other territories (Barkan 2013).
Terrorism is believed to be caused by many factors. This includes economic, religious, political, and even sociological factors. Other hypotheses point that terrorism is caused by psychological factors (Hudson et al. 1999). Being a multi-causal phenomena, terrorism cannot therefore be explained from a singular perspective. Brynjar and Katja (2000) give the same perspective as they reiterate that terrorists come from wide range of multifaceted social economical backgrounds. For instance, terrorists can be educated people or people deprived of education. In addition, terrorists can be found from people of both sexes and ages or from people of both sound economic backgrounds or from poor societies. Similarly, they can be found within well developed countries and also in very poor countries. This explanation makes the definition of who a terrorist is and the possible factors that motivate terrorism somewhat complicated.
When trying to relate the sociological causes of terrorism, we need to explore the political, cultural, and historical contexts and relate them with the individual’s beliefs and ideologies. In addition, terrorism must be related to the environmental factors in order to come up with a comprehensive theory on sociological cause of terrorism. Brynjar and Katja (2000) indicates that, while terrorism is initially a matter of personal perception of the social conditions and individual choices of joining, participating and even continuing to engage in acts of terror, the topic must be studied by considering the social context in which terrorism occurs. Therefore, one must establish the circumstances under which extremists find terrorism beneficial.
One of the hypotheses indicates that terrorism, most often than not, follows the failure of other avenues of mobilization of support for a radical program or failure of non-violent means of solving political problems. It is urged that, by turning to terrorism, perpetrators are made to believe that it is another way of igniting mass revolts. Still, some people view terrorism as a means of sparking political uprising that is an essential catalyst to popular revolutions. Ozdamar (2007) indicates that by terrifying people, terrorists create fear on a wider audience other than the target themselves. This enables them to create an environment that is conducive for demanding for political changes.
Terrorism can also be observed from the perspective of political approach. This approach provides the explanation that, terrorism emanates from environmental factors. People can grow up to become terrorists out of being in an environment that is conducive to the rise of terrorism. These environments include national or sub-national environments, for instance, universities where students learn about revolutionary ideologies like the Marxist-Leninist ideologies that guide students to forming radical groups (Brynjar and Katja 2000).
Another approach to understand terrorism is the organization approach. This approach suggests that, terrorism is not a reserve of an individual. Rather, terrorism arises from a collective idea where groups of people organize acts of terrorism based on common beliefs. It should be noted however, that, the level of individual commitments to the actions and the beliefs held by these group do vary. Ozdamar (2007) also gives the same perspective of organization approach by suggesting that, terrorists carry out their activities as a means of survival in a competitive environment. This approach is criticized by the view that, one individual who makes most of the decisions and instructs his /her lieutenants into carrying out terrorist acts dominates most of the terrorist groups. This is for instance viewed in the case of Osama Bin Laden who seemed to make most decision and give orders. Therefore, under such circumstances, it becomes highly probable that decisions of joining, engaging and maintaining acts of terrorism emanates from a collective decision-making processes.
In order to understand the sociological cause of terrorism, we will consider the views of past theorists in the field of sociology. Much of the concern in the past has been on explain the causes of terrorism from a political and economical perspective. Although most of the theorists did not focus on the subject of terrorism in a serious way, their theories can be linked to the subject as a way of cultivating a deeper understanding of the sociological cause of terrorism. In this section, we will consider what theorists like Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, George Mead, and Max Weber in trying to get a deeper understanding of the sociological cause of terrorism.
- Karl Marx: Conflict and social stratification theory
One of the Karl Marx central theories is the theory of stratification. The theory talks of human being living in a social stratified society. This social stratification is the main cause of conflict with the society. Due to social differentiation, there is a resulting internal stress as well as exploitation within the society. Marx thought that industrial capitalism has stratified human being within our society into the rich and the poor. There are those who have power and those who are powerless. There are bourgeoisie and those who are working. The people who are the owners of capital are interested in increasing their profit margin. The laborers need to work for the owners of capital to get wages. Thus, there is struggle between the owners of industries and the labourers. This causes conflict within the society that grows to terrorism because not only is the society stratified, but even the globe itself is stratified. There are industrialized countries, the industrializing countries and the least industrialized countries, (Driedger, n.d.).
Marx looked at industrial materialism as a cause of alienation of humans. As mentioned earlier, industrial capitalism results into stratification of human beings into the few rich (Bourgeoisie) and the poor masses (proletariat). In order to eliminate this alienation, Marx concluded that the Bourgeoisie (the proponents of capitalism) must be overthrown. In the world today, the Americans and their allies are viewed as proponents of capitalism whose agenda is to extend their political and economic influence across the globe. Marx would thus view terrorism as a way of fighting capitalism that is largely represented by America. This explanation is better illustrated by Bill Geddes work in his book titled “The history and nature of Capitalism” as he indicates that people from the western countries including the political leaders hold an unusual understanding of objective reality. These people also believe that they have the responsibility to make other people and communities across the world to live by these understanding (Geddes 2013). The west extends its political and economical control in most of the developing countries. In the last decade, America has engaged in wars with several countries in Middle East where terrorism is believed to be the roots of terrorism for instance in the Iraq war, Pakistan and Afghanistan War and others. Looking at this perspective, Marx would thus look at acts of terrorism against America as retaliatory measures against the Western nations that control much of the political and economical landscape among developing countries.
- Emile Durkheim: Social Cohesion, Solidarity and suicide
Emile Durkheim focused on the theory of cohesion and solidarity that can explain sociological causes of terrorism. The enfeebling spirit of individualism in French society during the time of Durkheim compelled him to find out the sources of the social cohesion and solidarity. Durkheim’s theory was informed by the changing trend in that time where, individuals were alienating themselves unlike in the traditional times when they worked as associations and communities. He opposed this by giving the view that individualism was resulting to destruction of the community and the social order including the societal values, (Driedger, n.d.).
Durkheim classified suicide into 4 categories that include Altruistic, egoistic, fatalistic and anomic. Suicide terrorism can be classified as Altruistic and Fatalistic in nature. In the altruistic perspective, suicide terrorists feel highly connected to their social groups or religions such that they end up placing greater value to the group target rather than on their lives. Some do so by, for instance, following a religious ideology of a more beautiful afterlife. On the other hand fatalistic suicide terrorists lack a connection with the society and most often view life as meaningless. Suicide bombers who can be classified in this category are mostly those who come from a lower social economic class with fewer family ties. In short, Durkheim social cohesion and suicide theory can be connected to terrorism by the conclusion that, as cohesion within a society is eroded, there is higher likelihood of people joining terrorist groups. Also, as people lose the connection to the familiar social context they are more susceptible of seeking new social context where they fit, for instance, involvement in terrorist organizations (Snellens, 2010).
One of the views in Durkheim theory on this issue is that religion is important as a mechanism for integrating people and as a symbol of unity. Secondly, religion plays a vital role as the foundation of social change. Thirdly, ritual, hierarchy, community, and ceremony are the most enduring element in a religion (Driedger, n.d.). Terrorism is very firmly connected to the Islamic dogma that established the ideology of the holy war “Jihad” that terrorists align themselves (Driedger, n.d.).
- Max Weber ideologies
Max Weber focused on the legitimate authority and the justified violence. Weber’s theory analyses political terrorism. As Weber defines politics in his theory, he described politics as “means striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state.” Part of any country’s power originates from the country establishing its own power legitimacy in a way that it does not need to use violence or physical force to claim this power. Weber’s theory examined the sources of legitimacy of authority and outlined three avenues gaining legitimate authority as follows: first, there is traditional legitimacy. Secondly, there are leaders who are charismatic--those who have personal gifts of grace, and thirdly the legal legitimacy created by validity of legal statute. Weber explains that there are political leaders with passion. These are the leaders who seek political power to serve and not for self-gratification. These are the leaders who have devotion to a serving cause. Weber names and compares two ethics, the ethic of absolute ends and the ethic of responsibility. He says that the first ethic of absolute ends is interested in intention and the ethic of responsibility is interested in the foreseeable results of individual’s actions. Individuals who believe in ethic of absolute ends are responsible only when their intentions are not killed while believers of ethic of responsibility are careful of the effects of their actions on others. Therefore, suicide bombers take their actions as a way of protesting against injustice as well as inspire other people into the same protest yet they do not care about the consequences of their actions to others, (Couto, 2010).
According to Weber, extremism is supported by emphasis on ideas, passion, and politics. Suicide bombers view their actions as a way of protesting against injustices, and as a means for inspiring others to make similar moves. This is without considering the consequences of their actions to themselves or to fellow human beings (Couto, 2010).
- George Herbert Mead: Mind, self and society
George Mead, in his Mind, Self and Society theory established that for a person, the social identities are created as he/she undergoes social interaction with other people and the reflection of their identities in regard to the social exchanges. In this theory, Mead established that, the identities are produced as people agree or disagree and as they negotiate with fellow humans. Consequently, peoples’ behaviour is adjusted according to our self-image that is based on the interactions with other people and self-reflection of themselves concerning those interactions (Zevallos 2014).
In George Mead’s perspective, just like people join a club or organizations, the social membership of an individual depends in fulfilling specific criteria. He continues to establish that, such criteria is constructed socially i.e. the criteria is created by a social group. It follows that; a person cannot belong to a group until the other people belong to the group. The theory extends to explain how people make decisions of belonging to a given group and which group not to belong. In the context of terrorism, becoming a terrorist depends on fulfilling the criteria of the “group” which is constructed by the group (terrorist group). For a person to identify himself as a terrorist, he/she me must interact with people who consider themselves terrorists and upon taking a self-reflection of him/herself, must feel that he/she satisfies the criteria of remaining in the group of terrorists.
Although many sociology theorists did not mention about the issue of terrorism directly, one can take a hypothesis in what they would have thought about the sociological causes of terrorism. In my view, the theory suggested by Durkheim on Social cohesion and the other suggested by George Mead (self, mind and society) are probably the best sociological theories to explain the causes of terrorism. However, the theories suggested by Karl Marx on conflict and social stratification and Weber’s Justified violence cannot be ruled out. The reason why in my view Durkheim theory is most appropriate is because; it does not take into account the social economic stratification of people as a vital point. As we know, terrorism encompasses all classes of people. This means that a terrorist can come from any race, social class, nationality or any education background so long as the social structures within where the people live are changing in a manner that concerned people are no longer able to adapt to the broken structures. Similarly, Mead’s Self, Mind and society seems appropriate for explaining the causes of terrorism as it considers a person’s interaction with the society and their self-reflection concerning those interactions. This means that, the decision to become a terrorist or not is a factor of identities created by the self and the society.
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