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Nationalism in Europe

„We have to overcome the connection between nation and democracy.”

Interview with Prof Dr Ulrike Guérot, professor for European Politics and Democracy at Donau-Universität Krems


Has the nation state had its day? And what happens next? Political scientist Prof. Dr Ulrike Guérot outlines a Europe of the future: with strong regions and a democracy. In this interview it is discussed what our life in 2045 in the European Republic might look like and why we are currently in a historical moment.


Prof Dr Guérot – the elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Austria in 2017 outline a trend towards nationalistic thinking and acting. Is this a sign of divisions within these countries or is Europe as a whole falling apart?

I think it is indicative of a rift in European society and not within the single countries. We are being told that we are experiencing a renationalisation, but that is not true. There are large parts of society that cannot be renationalised, that are not susceptible to national and populist arguments. These parts of society exist in Ireland, Great Britain, France and Germany – just everywhere. The media looks at the populist threat and then claims, for instance, that Poland has now become renationalised.

So it is not that simple?

No. I was in Warsaw in October 2017. You cannot say that the whole of Poland is being renationalised. There is a lot of resistance in civil society against the new judicial reforms. The PiS government has the ambition to move the country to the right, but at the same time you have to see that half of the population is fighting back.

So there are two camps in Poland. How can this situation be transferred to the whole of Europe?

My argument is that we are not experiencing a renationalisation, but a politicisation of Europe, which is expressed in a right-left-divide. We can measure the swing to the right in different countries, since it is partly organised transnationally. But we can also see the societal countermovement. It is not the first time in history that we are at a point where we can experience a civil society that has started to organise itself transnationally against burgeoning nationalism. For example, I feel more of an attachment to a Polish woman protesting against abortion laws, than to a German who is a member of Pegida. I think a lot of people feel this way.

How should European civil society deal with this politicisation?

We are experiencing a historic moment in history. Stephan Zweig describes this in a very fitting way: It is the preserve of contemporaneity to understand the great historical movement it is part of. This is because we can only grasp it when the movement is over, and we can look back and maybe say: “Those were the years when the Europeans abolished the nation-state. The mood was a bit uneasy and it scared a lot of people, but in the end, they made it.” To conceptualise this reflection as a historic process is the task of the day. Thus, we must brace ourselves against, to say it in simple terms, a repeat of the film from 100 years ago and thereby become nationalised again.

Why does the desire for nationalisation resurface in history?

There are a lot of sociological and historical theories that attempt to answer this question. The French sociologist Michel Dobry says that when societies come under stress, they go through a regression to the last state of “the normal”. This is exactly what is happening right now: As a society, we suffer stress. Globalisation, modernisation processes, refugees, all of these complex issues are happening too fast and we do not understand them properly. In stressful moments like these, when society is faced with great challenges, it is unable to face them and recoils from conflict. This means that society falls back to the last level of its comfort-zone. And that is why we long for the nice, homely nation-state. Marine Le Pen dreams of the “France profonde” while the “Alternative für Deutschland” dreams of the Federal Republic of Germany before 1989. This so-called regression is a reaction to the inability to respond to the chaos of the crisis by longing for the preceding historical state that seems familiar. An important question is whether we are only falling back to the last level of comfort because of acute societal stress that we can pin down to different causes like, for instance, modernisation, or whether the Euroscepticism of today is anchored in periods before our time. The question is therefore whether there are deep historical streams of “longue durée”, that is societal stratifications and processes, which make the Europe we wish for, the one European democracy, impossible.

Does this mean that some people take refuge in the idea that we are best off in the familiar nation-state?

Indeed, we have the illusion that we were doing really well in the nation-state at some point. This illusion is of course merely nice and homely in hindsight. Every generation has its crisis. That is precisely what makes populism so absurd. Populism fosters the nostalgic idea that at some point in the past, everything was good for everybody, but in fact that has never been the case. Every societal system has its price. It is just not always the same people who pay for the system. That is what we tend to forget when telling the story. In regression, it seems like everything was fancy and nice for everyone in a different system.

“Europe means the overcoming of nation-states. “


In conjunction with Robert Menasse, who received the German Book Prize for his novel “Die Hauptstadt” in 2017, you have written a manifesto for the foundation of a European Republic. This manifesto envisages a federation of regional entities without national ‘in between’ authorities. Hence, the nation-state would have had its day. Many people see you as utopists. How realistic is your idea of the European Republic?

To those people who call Robert Menasse and me utopists, one would have to reply in an analogy that Jean Monnet and Walter Hallstein were also utopists, just like all the others that were thinking about Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. A utopia is always only a utopia until things are just done. During the war, people had a longing for peace, a longing for Europe, and a longing for transnationality. At some point, a Europe was designed that had the overcoming of nation-states as its goal. You have to remember this. Especially nowadays, in a time when we are being told that we are becoming renationalised and that the nation as the only comfort-zone for social safety is indispensable. After all, it must be possible for us to stop figuratively bashing our heads in as nation-states and instead see ourselves as one political unit on this continent. That is why Robert Menasse and I want to convey clearly, from a scientific and artistic standpoint, that Europe means the overcoming of nation-states. In a European Republic, nobody would have to fear losing their identity or becoming a second-class European, because all Europeans would be equal before the law. The regions offer identity, home, decentralised structures and participation, i.e. an identitarian comfort-zone.

It is 2045 and the European Republic has become a reality. What do our lives look like in the European Republic? Are there still countries like Germany and France?

Things never work out the way you think they will. I have tried to reflect on the possibilities through in my book. I have outlined a relatively American political model, in which we have 50 to 55 regions, for example Flanders, Bavaria or Catalonia, which seem rather obvious. These regions would have about eight to 15 million inhabitants and we federalise, à la Montesquieu, small units into one big unit: the European Republic. There would be two senators each per region. Furthermore, as European citizens we would be equal before the law. Thus, we would make good what Stephan Zweig has always said: Europe means no distinction according to nationality.

What does that mean in concrete terms?

It means, for example, that we would have one European employment insurance. If you moved from Paris to Barcelona to work there, that would be insignificant for the portability of your social rights. We would have one European passport, European citizenship, and we would elect the European president directly. In this model we would probably live like the Americans do today: Not everybody who wakes up in California in the morning constantly thinks about how everybody is doing in Alaska. The problem with models like these is that they necessarily draw on what we already know. Apart from that I am sure that democracy will change significantly under the conditions of the internet. This will happen in ways that we cannot even imagine today. Just like you could not imagine flying aeroplanes in 1850, and nowadays it is completely normal. We do not know what leap of innovation we will make in the future and what kinds of repercussions this leap of innovation will have on the way we organise our societal body politic.

Which language do we speak in the European Republic?

All languages will be spoken. We will have to decide on a lingua franca, be it English, Esperanto or Latin. We will probably benefit from GoogleTranslate and work with language recognition systems. It also helps to recall that there are 29 languages and 17 written languages in India and that the Indians, with their much smaller GDP, still have a democracy, one voice and one vote. Language should not be the problem.

“Europe means unity in diversity.”


How can cultural diversity be preserved in the European Republic?

Europe means unity in diversity. That has always been our mantra. The problem in the European discourse is of course that the opponents think that European identity means having to give up your national identity. Nobody wants to disappear in some mishmash. But that is not what it is about. It is about differentiating between normative unity and cultural diversity. We can have normative unity, that is equality before the law, and be culturally different all the same. We are also normatively united in the Federal Republic of today: From Rügen to Freiburg, people elect the Bundestag under the same conditions, get the same unemployment benefits and pay the same taxes, but they are culturally diverse. For example, the people in the Black Forest have that hat with the red bobbles and in Bavaria they have Haxe.

The French President Emmanuel Macron seems to have some ideas about Europe that are quite similar to yours.

With Macron, politics has finally found a real sounding board for new thinking in view of Europe. What Macron says is what we should have done at least five years ago. These ideas have been around for years. Considering the original European ideas of the 1940s and the basic notion that as citizens, we are equal before the law and want decentralised structures, you can see that Macron is neither heretic nor new. But now we should really put these ideas into action! In the interview with Der Spiegel in October 2017, Macron says that we need some new political heroism, and he is right. De Gaulle was a hero, just like Adenauer and Kennedy. Because of all this political correctness and “politics means consensus-mishmash”, we have forgotten that those whom we ex-post judge to be heroes, like Churchill or Willy Brandt, the grand figures, that they were bold enough to do something great in a given situation.

Have you been waiting for someone like Macron to enter politics for the European Republic to become a reality?

Ideas need time until they are ripe and developed, and then the time must come in which the idea can go through the door of history. And indeed, I believe that the idea of a European Republic is ripe. From Victor Hugo over other actors of the 1940s to today. The idea of a European Republic is like a diamond that has been polished In the end, and that is what most people overlook, thinking as such is a process just like sculpting or cutting diamonds. You cut something until it is crystal clear. From time to time, the sculptor has to take a step back and approach the stone again to cut something out of it, too. The thought process is nothing else but, at some point, carving out an idea or a word. And I think we have shaped the idea of the European Republic as much as a diamond. The idea is now visible and clear, and it can go through the door of history. Macron is definitely someone who has opened the door of history, especially with his speeches in Athens on 7th September and in the Sorbonne on 26th September 2017. Now, we can only hope that he will hold it open long enough for others to walk through it Macron’s actions and the time between now, the new German government and the European elections in 2019, which will basically be held at the same time as Brexit, present the historic second in which something will happen. In the best case, the diamond of the European Republic will go through the door. Otherwise something else will happen. But something will happen, because the time is ripe for it. Everybody who is able to think feels it. Also because the notion of “there is no alternative” is no law of history.

What will happen to our rights when we are no longer citizens of a nation-state?

In the long run, human rights and civil rights will have to merge. Nowadays we still separate them from one another. If you are a citizen of a certain state, you have civil rights, for instance in the form of social security. Human rights can only be drawn from the Geneva Convention on Refugees. The theoretical question is: Are there civil rights without states? Philosophers have dealt with this question, for example Etienne Balibar in his book “Egaliberté” from 2012. But we still have not discovered the trick of how to implement the demand to become “global citizens”, or “Weltbürger” as Kant called it. Being a global citizen would mean that everybody has civil rights, without having to belong to a certain state. That is the great theoretical construction site of the 21st Century, and it has become even more massive with the refugee question. For me, the goal for Europeans would be to start thinking about this process and to carry it from Europe out into the world.

If it were not for the great number of people working against it…

That is the risk for the younger generation, that is today’s teenagers and young adults, and one of my great concerns. The question is which part of the youth has the economic driver, that is political and economic functional elites, behind it. You rightly say that the others – the nationalists and populists – are also active. Those that lead the völkisch, racist and renationalisation debates, those people do exist. Nationalism does not fall from the sky, nationalism is made: People talk about it, texts are printed, and libraries are funded to oil the machinery of nationalism once again.

Does that sometimes lead you to question the implementation of the European Republic?

I am divided: On the one hand, I stand for the idea of the Republic, but on the other hand I am a scientist and an analyst and I could cite numerous processes and systemic factors why the idea is difficult to implement. For one thing, the populists do not sleep. Political equality has a price. The Republic will cost money, for instance to finance a European social security system. Who will pay for this? Industry does not necessarily have an interest in a peaceful, social and democratic Europe, if that means higher taxes or the introduction of a European tax on financial transactions. To put it differently: The economic steering elites are quite happy living in a common market and a currency union without European democracy. You could argue that peace has no economic driver, but war does. That is why it is more plausible for those who have the discursive prerogative in terms of money and power to promote nationalism in their own self-interest, rather than to create a social and democratic Europe. To advocate for the common good has lost all economic interest.

Would you interpret the fact that a lot of people nowadays endorse nationalism as a step back in society?

We always think history is linear, but that is not true. History does not always get better and better. History is basically closure and opening – like a heart muscle. At this point, we are definitely in a period of closure after long years of opening. And when people like me were born in 1964 and lived the first 20 or 30 years of their life in a phase of opening, then they will notice the closure phase in a massive way. Now I am thinking: “Oh, suddenly we’re debating abortion again, I thought that was over and done with.” But apparently, and unfortunately, it is not.

Do you think the younger generation has grown up in a phase of closure and that this is the problem? Or could this generation have the energy to change things for exactly this reason?

That is why the younger generation is particularly important. Depending on when the teenagers and young adults of today were born, they have not really experienced much of the opening phase. They were born into the closure phase and that has an impact on their consciousness. If they have no memory of how things used to be, then they will take for granted what they were born into.

Does this mean that we must draw comparisons and critically question the set structures of today?

Yes, it is so important to discern and label systemic processes. In Hungary, for instance, there is no freedom of press anymore, at least not in the sense we know. Orban has been in power since 2008, which means that by now, there is a generation that does not know anything else but the state-controlled press. That you can think and want Europe does not feature in Orban’s discourse anymore, because it is only about Hungary. That is what you call economic dry-out: A discourse is literally dried out, in the sense that certain stories and events are not printed or read anymore. And that is a risk for the younger generation, since with every year that we witness this populism- and nationalism-crisis, this worldview gains ground. With every year there are more people who grow up into this and think it is normal.

In your opinion, what can the younger generation learn from the older generation?

In his book “Die Hauptstadt“, Robert Menasse discusses the term culture. After all, culture is not primarily, for instance, sitting in Paris and eating baguette. Primarily, culture is the ability to transfer learning processes to the next generation. And it does not really matter whether children learn how to bake brown bread or baguette. What is important is that the children are taught how to bake bread. The question for contemporaneity today is whether we, as the heirs of the Enlightenment, are able to transfer the first sentence of the Human Rights Declaration, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” to a generation that has not known war. No nationalism and “no more war” was the founding paradigm of Europe. But now the last contemporary witnesses who experienced Auschwitz are dying. And without contemporary witnesses, can we still transfer the cultural technique, this cultural learning experience of “nationalism is bad and leads to war” as a lesson to the next generation?

“We must find a way
to create transgenerational peace.”


To get back to the European Republic one last time: Which steps do we still have to take so that the idea of the European Republic can become a reality?

What we are trying to do with the European Republic is to create a political system without borders. The real-political space has long ago lost its borders: Aeroplanes, internet, roaming. The only thing that still has a static border is the nation-state. Abolishing the nation-state, that sounds like getting a hammer and start knocking away at France. Men always ask me: But what about football? My answer is: The nation is many things. It is tradition, history, identity. But at the moment it is also the basis for democracy. And when I say I want to overcome the nation-state, that does not mean that we abolish Germany as an idea or as history. We just have to overcome the connection between nation and democracy and create a post-national democracy. The nation has become too small a bed for democracy. The market and the currency are already organised on a European level. But it is possible to widen the bed for democracy beyond the nation-states. To organise democracy on a European level, that is my proposition. We must find a way to create transgenerational peace. We will make Europe democratic, social and decentralised so no one has to wrap up in a national flag to feel better about themselves.


Interview: Lena Kronenbürger

Translation: Charlotte Bander


Prof. Dr Ulrike Guérot
Danube University Krems




The Psychology of Terrorism

“In the light of a certain ideology, terrorists consequently act by all means rationally.”

Prof. Dr Rainer Banse & Michaela Sonnicksen, M. Sc., Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn


42: Mrs Sonnicksen, Prof. Dr Banse – how is terrorism defined in the discipline of psychology?

Michaela Sonnicksen: There is no coherent definition, as it is the case in other disciplines. Terrorism is the end product of a process of radicalization. All people who become radicalised are going through this process, but not all of them make it to the end. Many are radical without ever becoming terrorists; they are organised in groups which aim to hurt others physically with their actions. Terrorism, however, aims for the psychological consequences of using force, to spread fear, rather than aiming for physical harm primarily.
Tyrannicide, coups, or guerrilla actions, however, are an exception from the definition as they have a clear goal: To liberate zones from the enemy. Terrorists, on the other hand, aim to spread fear and hatred. What’s also important to realise: One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

42: And why does someone become a terrorist?

MS: Their motivation can be manifold. There are certain factors that terrorists share: In joining a radical organisation they may experience a feeling of belonging, for instance, or they may develop a whole new identity and receive positive feedback. They also often experience their in-group as being at a disadvantage, and they want to change that.

42: You mentioned before that terrorism is the end product of a process of radicalization. How does it proceed?

MS: There are various models, but the bottom line is that each process comprises certain stages. No one becomes a terrorist from one moment to the next. In most case, they also wouldn’t decide to become a terrorist. It starts with this feeling of being disadvantaged, the growing sense that the own in-group has no chance to move away from its current position. The next stage is to blame others for their situation and to develop aggression towards them. Then, they get caught up in radical circles and adapt that black-and-white worldview.

Rainer Banse: Furthermore, their communication with others is prohibited by the organisation and becomes limited to their own circle. Counterarguments – for instance, that all people are humane – are being cut off. This process of radicalization is used strategically until their members are ready to put on the suicide vest and get going. We actually feel aversion towards that; people don’t want to do it. So it doesn’t just happen spontaneously.

MS: Right. When they are ready, and the process is completed, everything that follows from it is an improvement. Martyrdom and heroism bring about positive feelings. Choosing their own death is experienced as altruistic.

42: Are there certain personality traits in favour of that – for instance, highly exaggerated, is there something like a terrorist gene?

MS: No. Studies have shown that terrorists have one thing in common: They are pretty normal. There is no psychological salience or an accumulation of diseases, no personality traits that occur with increased frequency. Substance abuse is also rather uncommon. Usually, they are also far from suicidal, although this is widely expected. As I said, they hold a firm belief that death will bring about some sort of improvement.

42: Via the media, we almost exclusively learn about young men that become radicalised.

MS: That’s right. It is actually true that many radical people are young, between 20 and 30 years old, but that’s not always the case. In some organisations and especially in Islamist terrorist networks, we would predominantly find men, but it’s surely not always this way. The PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey, for instance, also admit women – so the shares of women and men are almost the same. This particular organisation, however, is politically – not religiously – motivated.

42: In the context of terror prevention, it has been widely discussed if radicalization may be prevented with the aid of higher levels of education. There is not consent, though. Does a low level of education play a role, anyways?

MS: No, that’s not the case. In some groups of origin, the levels of education are actually comparatively high.

42: In other words, about anyone could become a terrorist. Are there preventive measures that may prohibit people from becoming radicalised by terrorist networks?

MS: On the one hand we need to know the individual facts that make someone become radicalised. If we don’t, it’s almost impossible to make assumptions. There is no single solution for all the different types of groups, and they still need to work. Prevention may therefore only be accomplished for singular instances.

RB: It’s also important to consider what a terrorist network actually is. The focus is currently set on Islamist terrorism, especially on the networks we know, like al-Qaida, or ISIS. Both groups recruit terrorist trainees, so to speak, systematically and specifically. In this respect, there’s a structure we should address: If we understand how terrorists find potential suicide attackers, how they recruit them and radicalise them afterwards, then there’s a tool for prevention that may be used to for an active intervention.

42: Terrorism has consequences for both, perpetrator and victims. We are all scared of terrorist attacks. We fear that something could happen to us, to our families, to our friends. Can you explain that fear?

RB: Psychologists draw a thin line between the terms “fear” and “fear as anxiety”, depending on their theoretical background. There is a common distinction between a sort of neurotic fear that is ungrounded and irrational, and fear that is real and that should be experienced in order to secure someone’s safety. Freud made this distinction a long time ago. In reality, the boundaries are fluid which is especially relevant for the notion of terrorism. A terrorist’s major goal is to spread both forms of fear. The term “terror” itself carries that connotation. Usually, this goal is achieved pretty well. In killing only a few people, graphically explicit and randomly, terrorism paves the way to spreading fear and terror among entire populations.

42: Which role do the media play in spreading fear by transmitting the message?

RB: A form of symbiosis is apparent – between the media that leap at the chance to sell a story and terrorists who receive the necessary attention in order to function as well as they do. It’s a really unfortunate development in our media industry. They basically support terrorists as they function as an effective tool to spread fear and terror.

42: Would you also say that we help terrorists to attain their goals in consuming media, by giving in to sensation-mongering?

RB: Consumers of the media have a legitimate need to inform themselves. Emotional content is inherently more interesting. Cases of murder are examined extensively by the press, just like personal tragedies. People are interested in that. But especially with regard to terrorism, when spreading fear is the central part of the agenda, the media platforms have to ask themselves how they want to deal with the audience’s legitimate desire of gaining access to information. On the other hand, they have to avoid operating the terrorist’s business indirectly. It’s really a balancing act.

42: Such a reserved attitude of the press is unusual. Were there situations when they did hold back?

RB: Yes. For instance, with Breivik’s attack in Norway in 2011, the press at least attempted to exercise restraint in refraining from keeping the perpetrator on the front pages for weeks. Although that only worked to some extent, it was the first time the media critically reflected on their own role, and also acted upon that. That path should be followed more strongly in the future. It is also up to the consumer to make the choice to read more complex newspapers. That’s a simple purchase decision. I consider it to be rather the media’s responsibility though.

42: Is terrorism as a topic overrepresented in the media?

RB: I’d say so. And it’s strongly emotionalized. That’s also mirrored in our culture of outrage that is prevalent at the moment. Whenever something happens, it’s a scandal, and there’s a need for someone to be blamed. In Berlin, for instance, journalists started to ask why the Christmas market wasn’t shut-off. This machinery of outrage, this demand for someone, or anyone, to blame really is totally exaggerated at the moment. What’s also alarming: Once an attack happens, they broadcast real-time TV news although there’s nothing to report – nobody knows anything. What you see are helpless journalists at the scenery, endlessly explaining that they know nothing – an aberration that by the way has its roots in the Gulf War. In the 1990s, CNN started to report nonstop although there was nothing to report at all. Especially public television plays a rather inglorious role in that context. In attempting real time reporting, they move little more than hot air, and people become nervous. Actually, patience and proper enquiry would be the more reasonable solution.

42: Apart from the noise in media, do you consider the fear of a terrorist attack irrational?

RB: That’s a tough question to answer. The victims in Berlin had reason to be scared. What’s important is to keep a rational balance. The number of people who have been killed in terrorist attacks over the course of the last years is really low. Nonetheless, societies take measures such as total monitoring of the media, the internet, and telephone traffic to minimise the threats. Compared to other natural causes of death, however, the statistical danger to die in a terrorist attack is just really small.

42: If we are not really endangered from a statistical perspective, how can we fight the sense of fear?

RB: If you’re scared of bigger crowds, or if you want to visit a Christmas market after an attack, it’s worthwhile to envision that the chances of becoming the victim of an attack is substantially lower than the likelihood of being run over by a car and killed on the way to a Christmas market. That risk is much higher, and it is necessary to realise that.

42: Really?

RB: There’s a very famous example: After 9/11 many Americans avoided airplanes as they were scared of skyjacking, so they took the car. Thousands were killed in car accidents. The number of victims that died because of the attack on the World Trade Center had a much deeper impact in the aftermath of the attack as people started to behave irrationally: In their attempt to avoid the danger of flying, they undertook much bigger threats.

42: You mentioned that terrorists are “normal” people. We just heard that we act irrationally because we fear terrorist attacks. How about terrorists: Do they, unlike us, in turn, act rationally?

MS: Yes, they actually do. It is astonishingly easy to have people take extreme actions. Another example of this is obedience to authorities. Terrorists have clear goals, which they aim to enforce most effectively – for instance, to cause numerous casualties. In their particular case, that’s what constitutes rational acting.

42: So we just don’t perceive their actions as being rational?

MS: Pretty much. Certain thought patterns develop over the course of radicalisation. The way they see the world, for example, becomes increasingly dichotomous, black and white. Our group is good, the others are evil, and thus needs be combated at any price. In order to be able to kill a higher number of people, there are also certain strategies – for instance, to dehumanise the victims within a mental frame, so their pain won’t be experienced as such. These processes make it possible for terrorists to commit such terrible crimes in the first place.

RB: It’s also important to see that any kind of terrorism has an ideological superstructure, a manner of constructing the world. The RAF saw capitalism as their concept of the enemy, and they made themselves the advocates of the suppressed working-class. However, the view was way too extreme, and the workers didn’t even support them. Once such a worldview has developed everything that follows is rational and legitimate. The process of turning people into terrorists focuses mainly on building up such an ideology which allows for and enables such extreme actions in the first place. This process is deliberately and strategically produced by demagogues. In the light of a certain ideology, provided that it is accepted, terrorist consequently act by all means rationally.

42: Thus, terrorists resemble each other even if they do not have the same ideologies?

MS: That’s an interesting question. Unfortunately, there’s not enough research present for now. What’s interesting to see is that generally, ideologies are being pursued and that all means available are legitimate to attain respective goals. That’s fundamentally the same. On further parallels, only little research has been done at this point.

RB: But that’s exactly what we’re working on: Especially the psychological factors that make people commit terrorist actions. Our research also isn’t limited to Islamist terrorism but looks at the many different varieties of terrorism. Most research on the topic is being done from a sociologist perspective, and therefore looks at the societal framework. To work out the shared psychological characteristics is our goal as research here has only been done to some extent.

42: The philosopher Judith Butler, who has also done lots of research on the question of ethics, demands that every victim’s life should be equally grievable.  

MS: You mean that individual people should mourn all victims?

42: Right. Are we able to accomplish that psychologically?

MS: That would be a great emotional effort.

RB: And it constitutes a very humanistic perspective. I sense that it draws upon the idea to construct all of humanity as a singular in-group in order to rework the common way of thinking of others as “us” and “them”. The attempt is praiseworthy. And yet it contradicts our tendency to take most interest in the people we care for, and we’re close to. For anyone we don’t know, we feel less compassion, less empathy. From a rational perspective, however, it would be wonderful if we could perceive all people as being equally worthy.

42: Do you think that’s impossible?

RB: Let’s put it like that: Within their rhetoric, the churches have tried proclaiming that we are all a great family, that we are all brothers and sisters, and ergo, related. It’s an attempt to spread common human impulse to support family members further, or at least within the religious community. If taken to the extreme, and applied to the whole world, it would constitute the end of all racial prejudice, all discrimination, something like a humane reality that doesn’t know artificial differences. I do not say that it’s impossible. But it’s not easy either.

42: If we had this reality, would there still be terrorism?

RB: No. Terrorism without an opposing out-group does not exist.

42: Thank you very much for the interview.


Interview: Lara v. Richthofen

Translation: Lara v. Richthofen

Photo: Eva-Lotte Hill


Prof. Dr Banse
Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

M. Sc. Michaela Sonnicksen
Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

Terrorism in History

“As historians, we want to understand why people in certain historical moments regard terrorist actions as legitimate.”

Dr Sebastian Gehrig, University of Oxford

42: Dr Gehrig – how would you, as a historian, define terrorism?

Sebastian Gehrig: That is a difficult question. There are different conceptions. For me, a more recent explanation goes in the right direction which categorises terrorism as a form of political violence and political language. Communication research specialists have been intensively studying how terrorist groups, whether of an ethnic-, left-wing terrorism- or Islamic terrorist nature make use of violence to communicate certain political claims or statements. This depends on which types of attacks are chosen by terrorist groups and how these are prepared and executed.

42: This means terrorists as distributors of a certain message. What are the reactions to such a message?

SG: You must ask questions like: Who feels solicited by terrorism? What kinds of reactions does it provoke in the population? How does the nation proceed? Not only about police-led countermeasures but also in terms of the portrayal of terrorists. What are the measures taken to deny terrorisms legitimacy?

42: In general, would this theoretical approach of communication offer a better understanding, since it does not initially evaluate terrorist acts?

SG: I think so, it is valuable that there is no immediate danger of getting caught up in the logic behind actions of terroristic groups and governing countries. This approach is especially worthwhile from the perspective of a historian reevaluating past events. If we do not want to understand the motivation of the individuals who slip into extremism and devote their lives to the cause of political violence, then there will be no comprehension of the initial reason. As historians, we want to understand why people in certain historical moments regard terrorist actions as legitimate.

42: Your focus of study is left-wing terrorism in Germany during the 1970s. What are reasons for this kind of left-wing terrorism?

SG: Historically, and rightfully so, the answer usually refers to the undigested nationalist- and fascist past of Germany and Italy after World War II. This is what provides the moral indignation and legitimisation for the left-wing radicals who are politically socialised in the late sixties by student protests. After these protests die down and the social support within the radical working class dwindles certain people move towards a more radical mindset. Above anywhere else this happens in northern Italy, in Bologna and Milan but also in West-Berlin and Frankfurt. In Germany and Italy, this would mainly be the Red Army Faction (RAF) and the Red Brigades. In these centres, it is apparent that originally left-wing terrorism used to be a local affair. It was important to a lot of later terrorists to regain the lost momentum of the German student movement of 1986.

42: Why did young people in Germany become violent in the 1970s?

SG: Two things made this possible. On the one hand, the state which is still in parts seen as fascist and the undigested NS-past function as a moral legitimation for carrying out the protest through armed violence. On the other hand, networks play an important role. First, there are the strongly developed West German and Italian networks in the late 1960s which made certain conjunctions to the Middle East possible. The first generation of the RAF travelled to Lebanon to be trained in combat arms so that a new level of radicalism can become a reality. Both reasons, legitimisation and networks, are necessary to explain why in the 1970’s young people slipped into armed violence. It is important to look at the ’86 movement but also keep in mind the local and personal networks. In this way, people could come together who assessed the political situation in Europe in a similar way and together, would slide into radicalism.

42: Did the members of groups like the RAF or the 2 June movement understand their actions as terrorism?

SG: I think that terror groups never see themselves as terrorists. They understand their acts as a political struggle for freedom for a certain cause. The RAF’s self-assessment and 2 June movement are no different, whereas the 2 June movement particularly saw themselves as a militant side-arm of the local scene in the West Berlin environment and not so much as a West German terrorist group. Looking at the RAFs programmatic steps, it becomes distinct that from the start, they had a much higher ideological aspiration and tried to support the struggles for liberation in Third world countries. They saw themselves as a fifth column of the struggle for liberation of the Third World along the tradition of oppositions in the Vietnam war. They also used the language of radical Maoism, modelled after the People’s Republic of China to legitimise why it even is reasonable to apply radical political means in Western Europe during peaceful and stabilised times.

42: If the focus was from the start on a solidarity with the Third World, why was Germany chosen as the target for an attack?

SG: West Germany’s position as an accomplice to the United States and its status as a colonial and a hegemonic power was why the RAF attacked Germany to support the struggles of liberation in the Third World. This becomes clear from the letters of the first generation of the RAF; claiming responsibility. The second and third generation changed their approach to a more inward-looking perspective, which aimed mostly at freeing captured members. The world political aspiration is being kept alive theoretically but looking at the potential, aims and types of action, it becomes apparent that the actual implementation of this ideological agenda becomes less important after the 1972 wave of arrest.

42: Did something like a long-term objective exist?

SG: That is a good question because the left-wing terrorism in the federal republic is mostly unspecified. It remains unclear where the struggle against the perceived fascist regime in Bonn and the imperialist US eventually lead to. The most referenced point can be maybe seen in the early political radicalisation as part of the student movement of 1967-69, in which many varieties of socialist and communist revolution were being discussed. Nevertheless, the RAF never really made clear what their goal as a terrorist group is in the 1970s. This lead to the decrease of support for the RAF not just in the general population but also in their own left-wing, radicalised environment. The lack of straight forward claims as to what they are trying to accomplish is probably one of the biggest weak points of left-wing terrorism at the time.

42: From which social backgrounds were the terrorists recruited?

SG: In general, it is correct and also emblematic for West German left-wing terrorism that especially the leaders of the first generation, were seen as well-off citizens. Interestingly the women were perceived as “daughters”. Their actions were a shock for the Federal German society of the 70s. The only exception would be Andreas Baader who is often attributed a semi-proletarian background. In a kind of “Bürgerschrecknarrativ”, its often portrayed that those young women, especially Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin, were seduced by Baader to become terrorists. This also says a lot about the West German gender discourse of the 1970s. The question is such: Who is regarded as a student during this time in West Germany? We happen to be talking about the time before the social-democratic education expansion, through which more children of workers are able to attend university. The main reason why a big part of the first generation was of a higher social standing can be found in the fact that the university demographic and the student movement mainly consisted of well-off middle class which is mirrored in the composition of the RAF. This applies to the first generation.

42: And the second RAF generation?

SG: After the arson in a department store in Frankfurt in 1986, Baader, Ensslich and Meinhof put more effort into working with children’s homes and thus encountered youth from completely different social environments who then strongly shape the second generation. This is how the social differences between the RAF generations came about.

42: Let’s move from the sociology of the offenders to the sociology of the victims – who were they?

SG: If we look at the first big wave of attacks in 1972, these were geared mainly towards American military bases. On the other hand, in the attack on the Springerhaus in Hamburg most victims were working in production. The working class became a target of one of the RAF’s first attacks. This immediately led to a widespread rejection of the RAF in many social classes. Yet again, structural issues like the selection of their targets and their legitimacy were exposed. The rejection grew the more people become victims. A reason for the general rejection of the RAF was, for example, the many controls implemented by authorities which lead to gunfights with activists, resulting in deaths of policemen.

42: Who was supposed to be targeted?

SG: The intended targets are initially very much symbolic. In 1972 the RAF chose objects like the Springerhaus to attack the seemingly fascist controlled West German press as well as individuals that were understood to be of emblematic importance for the West German state. A known example would be the Schleyer-kidnapping or the tried kidnapping of Judge Günter von Drenkmann in 1974 which ended in him being shot. These examples show how the RAFs ideological reasons are narrowed down rapidly and severely. The RAF moves from symbolic targets, which are rooted in student movements and the left-wing radical development of the late 1960s to a strategic terrorism that specifically targets leaders of the state and financial capitalists. The ideological narrowing of the first to the second generation becomes very apparent.

42: What do you think about the claim that there was a sympathetic attitude among students towards the RAF?

SG: There is a diffused feeling of solidarity with the RAF among leftist radicals until the end of the 1970s. The topics of the protests change, for example, towards the anti-atomic power protests. Participating in such, many activists experience police brutality, whereupon a lot of the affected become radicalised. This leads to alternation of violence on both sides which often is provoked by the Government. The result is a situation in which one might experience violence inflicted through police which leads to a feeling of solidarity with others who have also been mistreated by the Government. Surely one of the most important things, and something the RAF leadership generates very skilfully is to keep a certain feeling of solidarity within their own environment. For example, the idea that left-wing terrorists are being tortured and abused in West German prisons. Even if terrorism is mostly being rejected as a political resource, the staging of RAF prisoners in isolation leads to a basic solidarity. There exists an ambivalent game which the RAF knows how to operate to their advantage. By inviting famous, international visitors like Jean-Paul Satre to visit the leading RAF members in Stammheim, the relationship between the left-wing radical milieu and the RAF is being kept alive. The changes brought upon by the so-called German Autumn in 1977 when an overwhelming majority of the left milieu officially announced that they will no longer support and back the ambivalent solidarity of the left- wing terrorists, but rather denounce terrorism as a political strategy.

42: How would you describe the dominant feeling among the majority movement regarding RAF?

SG: Society was dominated by the feeling of fear. Various waves can be detected in hindsight. Peaks were reached in 1972 with the first wave of attacks and in 1975 with the kidnapping of Lorenz and then a last time in 1977. In general, there is also a certain every-day feeling of living in a threatened society. This means that people got used to regular police controls in cities like Karlsruhe and Bonn. The general feeling of the public is intensified by the political confrontation between the SPD Government and the CDU and then again enhanced by the media who paint a stereotypical image of left-wing terrorists. There exists a growing feeling of fear in the left wing because solidarity with terrorists is being expected by befriended comrades. The most known case in which this forced support ends in a murder would be the exposure of an intelligence service informant, who was lead into an ambush only to be shot. There is a fear of being woken up in the middle of the night, to be asked by a radicalised friend to grant him asylum. The threat of being pulled into the terrorist scene is a common fear.

42: Was there a kind of subcultural “playfulness” with this extremism? A “radical chic” of the RAF which ultimately made the organisation fashionable?

SG: This seems to be the case for the wider milieu in the phase from 1967 to 1970 because there was no way to know yet to what personal and additional consequences the armament would lead to It was not clear that the RAF would ultimately lead to real experiences and exercises of violence. The general romantic association connected to the struggle for independence of Third World countries played an important role in the emergence of terrorism. This romanticisation then influenced the clothing and musical genres of the time. 1968 was a year of protests, pushed further along by the media and ensured a feeling among the radicalised left that there are other likeminded people out there who might be possibly pursuing different political goals but who still dress the same and use a similar political language. This longing for an imagined, inclusive space resembling a struggling Third World country opposed a sometimes boring West German society and was crucial for the begin of terrorism. This thought up connection to the collective lead to many not just being radicalised as an individual but also as part of a group. The effort of some to become the leader within their groups surely added to the advance of radicalism and the downward spiral of political violence.

42: What did the advance of terrorism mean for the young federal republic, especially for the then governing SPD?

SG: Besides the East, left-wing terrorism was one of the main problems of the social-liberal government. The conservative opposition, under the leadership of the CDU, tried from the start to portray the ensuing violence as a consequence of the SPD’s reform policy, thus delegitimising the government behind Willy Brandt (1969-1974). During World War two Brandt was active in the SADP’s underground movement and from then on closely associated with his communist past. The same goes for the then parliamentary party leader Herbert Wehner. Leading SPD personalities were being linked to left-wing terrorism in the public discourse. Additionally, there were accusations that the reform policy of the SPD and the easing of social norms supported left-wing radicalism at least indirectly. The accusations lead the SPD to execute drastic counter-measures, for example meaning the so-called “Radikalenerlass” from 1972. In accordance with the order, individuals who were suspected to be connected to communists were no longer allowed to work as a teacher or in any kind of civil service, which back then included the postal service and train system. The circle of all persons concerned was respectively high. The SPD gave way to the internal pressure with this illiberal legislation. The debate of internal safety concerned from the start, not just the RAF but also the surrounding and probably supporting milieu, which, from a conservative point of view, also includes the SPD government and leading left intellectuals.

42: What ended the era of left-wing terrorism? Is it due to an eventually successful manhunt or were there other reasons?

SG: To attribute the end of left-wing terrorism only to a successful manhunt would not reach far enough. Surely the Federal Bureau Police Office became one of the leading federal polices in western Europe due to their increase of digitalisation. The rapid, statewide countermeasures, which relied on computer technology – the early stages of digital Europe-wide persecution- lead to the capture of many terrorists right after the attacks. The highest officials were arrested relatively quickly after the so-called “Mai-Offensive” of 1972. The government proved its action ability through the arrests. The German Autumn of 1977 also proceeded well since the liberation of the Lufthansa Airplane in Mogadishu happened without causing any civic deaths. A failed release would have been a symbolic disaster for the government and might have lead to a constitutional crisis.

42: If these successful governmental countermeasures did not lead to the end of terrorism, then what did?

SG: In the long term, it was more the rejection of terrorism within the radical left milieu, which lead to a stronger isolation of the RAF in the 1980s. We know today that the RAF became increasingly more dependent on networks from the Middle East and the Stasi in East Germany due to their own networks not being reliable anymore. The experience of terrorism and the triggered governmental countermeasures lead to a general impression by the activists that participating in international struggles exceeds the potential of the left-wing in West Germany. Consequently, left-wing radicalism changed from the 1970s to the 1980s. It became more regional, like local anti nuclear power protests at planned construction sites. Other activists turned into squatters or fled into the countryside. The old idea of needing to revolutionise a small circle first before changing society became more universally believed. Many female activists concentrated mainly on feminism and the women’s movement. These diverse kinds of protests in the mid-1970s lead to a loss of connection to world political issues which used to be the focus in 1968. I believe that this development lead to more of a decline in radicalisation than the successful manhunt implemented by the government.

42: The hunt for terrorists is being seen as a failure in recent history. Are there structural parallels between left-wing terrorism and today’s Islamist terror?

SG: I see the biggest structural similarity in the way terrorism is being approached by society. This diffused feelings that one particular group is being seen as threatening Today, this group consists mainly of Muslim immigrants. The debates of the last months about failed prosecutions through misconduct by the authorities has a lot of parallels to the discourses of the 1970s. In the case of the kidnapping of Hanns Martin Schleyer, the house his kidnappers hid him in was discovered as such by authorities, but this information never reached the police who were thus not able to follow the lead. The way society handled terrorist threats was similar to today, only the subject of worry has changed. And yet terrorism is not seen as an inner-societal threat but more something that comes into the country from the outside, as with the refugee crisis.

42: What lessons can be derived today from the parallels between left-wing terrorism and Islamic terror?

SG: Parallels can be identified through looking at when public debates lead to a radicalisation of society, and governmental actions went too far. It comes down to the questions, which rights news services should have and at what point should basic rights and constitutional limitations be tested in a criminal prosecution. These boundaries were violated in the 1970s which lead to potentially more people being radicalised. The distinction remains that the threat back then was seen to be coming out of society whereas today it is external. In general, the history of left-wing terrorism teaches us that individual and socio-economic reasons have to be regarded when it comes to active terrorists.

42: How do you assess the existence of today’s left-wing terrorism in Germany?

SG: There are resurfacing waves of anonymous left-wing radicals from time to time, especially in Berlin and Hamburg where cars have been set on fire at night. After the RAF was dissolved at the end of the 1990s, there was no terror network left. By now the radical left in Germany occupies themselves, if at all, only with the ideological remnants of the RAF era. Still, there are real repercussions caused by the RAF that we have to address. Last year a security van was raided which can most likely be linked back to the third generation of RAF members. There has never been a general amnesty for left-wing terrorists in the Federal Republic of Germany, so some members of these groups still live in hiding among society.

42: A known former member of the left-wing terrorist organisation Anti-Imperialist Cell publicises radical Islam today. The common link seems to still be anti-imperialism. Is there an explanation for the phenomenon of activists converting to a different cause?

SG: Ideologically, the connection between the radicalised left and Islamic radicalism goes back to the 1970s. For the West German left, this past is unpleasant. After the attack on the Olympic games of 1972, the RAF approved the actions of the attackers publicly. This happens within a context of the radicalised left in western European turning away from Israel after supporting the country through the decades after 1945. The more Israel became an imperial power in the Middle East, especially after the Six-Day War in 1967 and the occupation of West-Jordan and the Gaza Strip, the more the left-wing radical milieu repositions itself. This leads to Israel changing sites through anti-imperialist rhetoric and logic of the time, to become part of Western imperialist powers. It is possible that old left-wing activists are still stuck in this mind-set today and get enthused by Islamic terrorism. Keeping in mind the background of Germany’s historic responsibilities after the Holocaust, the left will have to deal with the results of their strong anti-Zionism of the 1970s for a long time to come. These are debates which influence even today’s party’s politics. The relationship to Israel continues to be ambivalent.

42: Lastly, let’s look a Europe. Can you outline the developments of 1970’s European terrorism?

SG: Looking at death tolls, the 80s and 90s meant the peak of terrorism in Europe. This stands in contrast to how the European society experiences this constant feeling of being threatened today. Because of the attack on the Pan Am Flight 103, 1988 is the year with the highest number of terrorist caused deaths in Europe. The quantity and frequency of terrorist attacks – the ETA in the Basque country, the IRA in Northern Ireland, the RAF in West Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy and beginning in the 1980s, also the Action Directe in France – were higher back then than they are today. This shows how powerful terrorism is when it comes to spreading the feeling of danger, going beyond actual attacks. There was an attack in Spain in 2004 and the attacks in France last year have caused many victims. The attacks in Great Britain last week took many lives, racking up the death toll. In the 1970s and 1980s it was ethnically and politically motivated terrorism that caused fear, be it in Northern Ireland, the Basque country, in Italy, the Federal Republic of Germany or France. This is replaced by few and mostly ignored Islamic attacks in Europe which already happened all the way back in the 1970s and 1980s. Only since 9/11 are these attacks seen as a big threat to public safety.

42: So, it is religious and not secular terrorism which is seen as the prevalent danger today.
SG: You could say that, yes.

42: You already mentioned that religious terrorism is perceived as a threat from the outside. Is the fear of internal European terrorism over?

SG: It became apparent that fears of a resurgence of political violence in Northern Ireland still seem to exist in the light of the Brexit debate. Nevertheless, before July we would not have talked about this fear. Possibly as a debate with Britain but not in an European context. The fact that the French and German press ponder this question would have probably not happened to this extent before Brexit. It is apparent that the potential of a general feeling of danger is not over It all depends on the political situation. The exact opposite example would be the ETA, which a couple of weeks ago, gave up the secret location of their last remaining weapons. In both examples, it can be seen how persistent the phenomenon of political violence in the public debate is and how quickly it can resurface in an open discourse. 

42: Herr Dr Gehrig, thank you very much for this interview.


Interview: Jonas Hermann, Lena Kronenbürger

Translation: Laura Emily Schulze


Dr Sebastian Gehrig
University of Oxford

Terrorism and Islamic Studies

“Fundamentally, the issue revolves around today’s interpretation and application of respective passages in the Koran.”

Prof. Dr Christine Schirrmacher, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

42: Prof. Dr Schirrmacher, what is the relationship between terrorism and Islam?

Christine Schirrmacher: In this context, terrorism means an execution of violence against dissidents justified by a misappropriation of Islamic scripture. Ironically, the violence is directed against Muslims in particular: on a global scale, they – and not as one might assume, non-Muslims, are most often the victims of Islamic terrorism. In addition, I would label the condemnation of Muslims as non-believers by other (extremist) Muslims – the so-called takfir – a form of psychological terrorism. This psychological terrorism results in hatred, contempt, and conflicts, and in extreme cases leads to the killing of those deemed inferior and less religious than oneself. This is exemplified by the activists of the so-called “Islamic State”.

42: Throughout Europe, Islam has become a dominant theme of discussion, especially in the aftermath of terrorist attacks and crimes, Islam frequently becomes the focus of discussion – for example the question of the role of Islam in our society and its risk potential. What strikes you when looking at recent debates?

CS: It is especially striking that discussions about this topic are very agitated and they quickly lose their objectivity. Take, for example, the recent, devastating attack in Berlin during the pre-Christmas period in 2016. The emotionality rapidly inhibits objective, profound analyses and constructive solutions. On the other hand, many reforms that were overdue are pushed by incidents like these – for instance, a discussion about the effects of mosques frequented by radical Imams is now going on. Taking measures after incidents often leads to dramatic measures being taken. It is a well-known fact that some federal states of Germany lack the will to deport those applicants for asylum who have been declined. Some stakeholders vigorously insist on the opinion that north-African countries are not safe countries of origin. Frantic discussions as well as withdrawal reflexes – obstruct constructive solutions. But there are also level-headed stakeholders who remind us of topics that need urgently to be discussed in our society.

42: What kind of topics?

CS: For instance, how can the great number of refugees be more successfully integrated into society than was the case with immigrants from Southern Europe in the 60s? In addition, how can we find a balance between liberty and security in the digital age? What I mean by this, is whether more surveillance is needed in public spaces in order to find those responsible for acts of violence. On the one hand, many people voluntarily reveal a vast amount of personal information on social media, and this information has long been used and passed on for commercial purposes. On the other hand, these people reject the idea of law enforcement agencies compiling and evaluating recordings in order to solve crimes.

42: But these measures only come into effect when people are already willing to go to jihad. In your opinion, what measures are suitable to prevent the radicalization of young Muslims in Europe in the first place?

CS: Investing in school and vocational education is a preventive measure but not an exclusive solution. We should make an effort to ensure that as few young people as possible fall by the wayside. Someone with nothing to lose may in some circumstances be more liable to consider dropping out of society. Among the preventive measures are awareness initiatives and substantial Islamic education that encourages critical thinking and questioning, as well as targeted prevention programs in schools, educational facilities, and youth centres. Role-models from Muslim communities are of particular importance. It would be helpful to work together with local mosques in a constructive way. Participation, appreciation and a strongly pronounced “we” by society – instead of antagonisms like them and us– would be helpful as well.

42: One topic that is often debated when talking about rational measures is the ban of burqas. What do you think about this proposition?

CS: Of course, it is part of European culture to show your face and to make your facial expressions visible. However, banning burqas will certainly not prevent radicalizations. Instead, in some cases, it might lead to the seclusion of affected women. The “problem’s”origin, meaning the doctrine that women pose a threat to society outside of the house and that they should be completely concealed in public, would not change at all. Besides, do we really want the police to be occupied with collecting penalty payments from burqa-wearing women? Instead, we should rather show zero tolerance of those who propagate an image of women that puts them at a legal disadvantage, discriminates against them socially, and, according to the Sure 4,34 [a paragraph in the Koran, author’s note] allows husbands to mete out punishment to their wives if they are “disobedient”. This promotes actions which are criminal offences, and something like this cannot be invoked in Germany. However, a ban of the burqa is, of course, appropriate when it comes to government agencies or attending demonstrations.

42: In the dominant debate about Islam, we naturally talk about “Islamism”. You have addressed the issue in depth. Could you explain what this term means exactly?

CS: Islamism is the politicised version of Islam. Its advocates reject the belief that Islam is to be lived merely as a personal faith. What Islamism teaches is that Islam needs to be enforced in the political-legal realm. Society needs to abide by Islamic values and rule, so that, for instance, the Islamist contraction of marriage is applied instead of the federal contraction of marriage. By contrast, those values deemed “un-Islamic” are to be prohibited and eliminated. Regarding criminal law, this would principally lead to the practice of physical punishment, such as amputations of hands as punishment for theft, or whipping and stoning as a punishment for immoral behaviour and adultery. In addition, the concept of democracy is rejected since this system is considered man-made, rather than of divine origin. 

42: What about the relation of Islamists to jihad?

CS: Islamists support jihad to “defend” Islam, but this can be interpreted very loosely under some circumstances. For some, it is necessary violently to “defend” Islam when caricatures are shown, for others, when people go to a bar or to the beach. In these cases, Islamism rejects democracy, women’s rights, the right to freedom, freedom of worship and equal recognition of dissidents. The Muslim Brotherhood, which was the first, and is nowadays the most considerable Islamist organisation and even considered “moderate”, professed – from the very outset – physical punishments, jihad, and Sharia marriage laws. The marriage law, for instance, allows polygamy, and divorce through repudiation.

42: So, Islamists teach Islamist values and advocate jihad. Nevertheless, in the discussions of the topic, the argument that jihadists act in un-Islamic ways often comes up. What is your stance on this? How religious are Islamist terrorists?

CS: Extremists refer to religion as the engine of their actions, which is not something one can explain away by saying that they have no “real” understanding of religion. We need to acknowledge that for them, it is precisely this. In the final stage of radicalization, which by now proceeds rather quickly, they really believe that they are rendering a service to God and that they are carrying out their duty as religious Muslims by blowing up themselves and as many other people as possible. But we know that many of those who join an extremist movement are not very religious in the beginning. Personal friendships, the warmth and acceptance of a group, and the community are more attractive to them than a particular stance on religion. m Extremism researchers have known for a long time that ultimately, personal factors determine whether someone joins an Islamist group or ends up in the right- or left-wing extremism.

42: What factors play a role in this regard?

CS: What does play a role in being attracted to such groups is a failure in school or work, but also biographical factors such as migration, divorces or death. However, Islamist extremism cannot be explained by simply calling it a phenomenon of social failure. Several of the 9/11 terrorists were studying to become engineers, and thus had a successful professional career ahead of them. Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda successor Aiman az-Zawahiri both grew up in happy homes. It is, therefore, a mistake to assume that social aspects are the only basis or cause for Islamist terrorism. It also revolves around the ideology of martyrdom.

42: What role does the Koran play in this ideology? Does it contain paragraphs that are construed differently by Islamists in contrast to how the rest of the Muslim world interprets these passages?

CS: The Koran contains several requests by Allah to Muhammad asking him to fight and wage war against non-believers. Since the year 622, A.D., he led multiple offensives and defensive wars in Medina. The Koran promises those who fight and are killed “on the way” of God to enter paradise (e.g. Sure 47,4), something which is confirmed and emphasised by the Islamic tradition. The law of Sharia also emphasises the fundamental duty that the Islamic community has toward jihad. The question today is how to deal with these accounts. The majority of Muslims would not read this as an instruction to wage war against t non-Muslims. By contrast, extremists teach a literal interpretation of this verse. Fundamentally, the issue revolves around today’s interpretation and application of respective passages in the Koran.

42: The Bible contains passages that invoke the punishment of blasphemy and homosexuality with the death penalty. Why is it that the Bible is nowadays interpreted differently whereas the Koran is not?

CS: Nowadays, these passages from the Old Testament are all deemed “temporarily” valid by the Christian church, meaning that they were valid for the Israeli people at the time of the Old Testament, but their validity does not transcend time. That means that the Christian church was open for a kind of hermeneutics which differentiated between contextual instructions for certain epochs and timelessly valid commandments. These timelessly valid verses are given expression in the Ten Commandments, which demand the rejection of vengeance and hatred, and respect for all human beings including one’s own enemies. The Koran neither contains this absolute prohibition of violence and vengeance nor the general duty of love of one’s neighbour and enemy.

42: Nonetheless, are there statements in the Koran that contradict Islamist-terrorist actions?

CS: Of course there are passages in the Koran demanding peace among Muslims (Sure 8,1) or peace with the enemy, provided that he keeps peace (Sure 8,61), and also asking for benevolence toward poor people and orphans (e.g. Sure 2,83) or – according to some interpreters, for freedom of worship (Sure 2,256). But there are no paragraphs that generally forbid warfare, combat or vengeance. This means the question is not so much about whether peace-oriented passages do exist than about how to deal with those paragraphs calling for battles, vengeance, and war. What is problematic, though, is that Islamist theology has not yet developed hermeneutics which define such verses (such as Sure 9,29) as invalid in this day and age. Some Islamic scholars are, however, demanding a historicised interpretation – like the Sudanese Islamic scholar Abdullahi an-Na’im. These scholars are persecuted as apostates or heretics; some of them have even been murdered. The established theology of universities and mosques in the Middle East has not yet opened up for such a fundamental theology of peace.

42: Apart from the different interpretations of the scriptures, what are the fundamental differences between Christianity and Islam?

CS: One of the fundamental differences lies in the personality of the respective founders: Muhammad envisioned himself as being sent to the people of Arber: as a mortal human being and last prophet who came in order to correct and eventually proclaim the “primal revelation”, just as it had been proclaimed to Jews and Christians in earlier times. However, this primal revelation was – from the Islamic point of view – a kind of Islam from which the Jews and Christians departed. This is why Islam is seen as the first religion of humankind rather than the last revelation after Judaism and Christianity. Many Muslims believe that the example Muhammad set should be imitated thoroughly, but this bears the problem that Muhammad was a legislator as well as a politician. The essence of Christianity is the message of Jesus, the son of God, who came to free humankind from its sins and to reconcile them with God. The consequences of following him mean acting ethically, directed by the actions of God, and it means turning toward one’s fellow beings. In short, one could say that Islam teaches that human beings need to turn to God through submission, while Christianity teaches that God turns to mankind through his son Jesus. This results in differences in the conception of man and God, and also in relation to the state and the community. 

42: Why is there – compared to Islamic terrorism – barely any terrorism motivated by Christianity?

CS: According to all churches, leading theologians, and Christian movements on a global scale, the prohibition of hatred, contempt and violence against anyone including enemies is fundamental to Christians. Indeed, Christians believe it is their duty to be benevolent to one’s enemies. To justify terrorism with the Christian message would be very difficult regarding this issue. This said, Christian terrorism has happened every now and then – for example in the conflict in Northern Ireland, albeit unanimously condemned. Apart from this, the New Testament calls for the acknowledgement of the state as a peacekeeping power, and not to fight the state. This necessarily excludes an armed fight for “more Christianity” in the state and society. In addition, the New Testament does not define any state territory as the “kingdom of God”. Instead, it strongly argues that the kingdom of God manifests itself in the actions and thoughts of humans and not in the conquering of territory. Nevertheless, one should emphasise the fact that Christian churches needed some time to reconcile with democracy. Christianity went through considerable development in order to achieve the rejection of any kind of violence in the course of its history.

42: As an Islamic scholar you are devoted to the topic of Islam. This is naturally not the case for all of society. For that reason, I am now interested in your experience: What misunderstandings are there in dealing with Islam?  

CS: Whenever an attack takes place, the debate revolves around two extreme claims: on the one hand “Islam is like this” and on the other “this has nothing to do with Islam”. In my opinion, neither of these are correct, nor are they a constructive contribution to the analysis of terrorist incidents. It is important to differentiate between the different kinds of Islam, but this requires some considerable effort and commitment. In my opinion, Islamic groups and organisations must distance themselves more clearly from political – albeit non-violent – forms of Islam, as this would unburden the many democratically-minded Muslims. It would also enable a constructive and critical evaluation of this topic, with leading representatives of Islam in Germany, from mosques and umbrella organisations. We cannot shy away from raising important questions in society, and we should come together to contemplate how we can communicate issues such as a role for women which is compatible with Western values, or a general condemnation of violence in the name of Islam.

42: Prof. Dr Schirrmacher, thank you very much for this interview.


Interview: Eliana Berger

Translation: Leonie Dieske


Prof Dr. Christine Schirrmacher
Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität

Terrorism and Security Studies

“The question, whether ‘the war on terror’ can be won, must be answered with a definite no.”

Prof. Dr Julian Wucherpfennig, Hertie School of Governance

42: Prof. Dr Wucherpfennig, when talking about terrorism nowadays, on the basis of terrorist attacks of the past months, we think about Islamist terrorism. From a scientific perspective, is that proportional to the actual extent of the threat?

Julian Wucherpfennig: No, this perception bears no relation to the actual threat. In two respects: First, the objective threat emanated from the terror in Western Europe is minimal. It is far more likely to drown in one’s own bathtub, to be struck by lightning or to be killed from furniture falling over, than to be killed in a terrorist attack. Secondly, the threat is in no way greater than in the past. Terrorism in a greater extent has existed in Western Europe since the 1960s and 70s, for example through the RAF in German, the ETA in Spain, or the IRA in Ireland. The assumption that there has been more or a new type of terrorism is fundamentally wrong.Looking at statistics from Western Europe, the number of victims of terrorism was higher in the 80s than in recent years. However, Islamic terrorism, at least in the recent past of Western Europe, is relatively new. Islamic terrorism has not come from non-EU citizens to a significant extent – 94% of all terrorists had a European passport. Therefore, there is no stringent evidence that refugees lead to a greater risk of terrorism. If anything, the movement is towards the opposite direction: EU-citizens travel to countries from which streams of refugees flee, train there and come back with planned attacks. Simultaneously another form of terrorism, against Muslims, has arisen as well. This right extremist form of terrorism, however, is often overlooked.

42: Your research focuses mainly on game theoretical und statistical models of explanation. In these models, courses of action are selected by the “actors” based on a cost-benefit-analysis. In what way is it possible to apply this game theoretical approach to international terrorism?

JW: There are some very good approaches with which we can draw conclusions. In general, terrorism as a form of political violence is one of the asymmetrical means; meaning that in principle it is brought on by weak “actors” and is brought against stronger “actors”, for example, states. The two different terrorist strategies have to be distinguished. Two strategies are predominately important for international terrorism: the strategy of provocation and the strategy of attrition. The logic of the provocation is that small or weak groups carry out attacks against bigger targets, states, for example, hoping that a disproportionate reaction, which stands in no way in proportion to the attacks, will follow. Through this disproportionality of retaliation, civilians will be harmed, and the perception of the retaliating country will be beneficial to the terrorist group. The classic example is Al-Qaida and the attacks of 9/11, and the subsequent “War on Terror”, which caused the general public of multiple countries to be infuriated with the USA and the West. This indirectly led to terrorists gaining sympathies. In consequence, Al-Qaida gained in strength and influence. With the second strategy – demoralisation – they succeeded in involving the USA and its allies in lengthy conflicts, which essentially cannot be won. The question, whether “the war on terror” can be won, must be answered with a definite no.

42: We are often reluctant to picture terrorists as rational agents, but why is that the case? And how can the role of ideology be understood in a rational context, where cost-benefit considerations are crucial?

JW: This may be illustrated by the extreme example of suicide bombings. To many, this measure seems utterly absurd and irrational. However, when you consider that an organisation like Hamas, a Sunni Islamist Palestinian group, guarantees a lifelong pension to the suicide bombers’ families or surviving dependents, it then becomes a plausible choice for an altruist looking to take care of their family. From an altruist’s perspective, such an extreme measure becomes rationally comprehensible. Another explanation is the expectation of life after death. When bombers believe that life after death as a martyr has a certain allure because of 72 virgins, for example, this can indeed be attractive. But the increase in suicide bombings can best be understood as a rational life experience which shows that it is an effective means to an end. Groups carrying out suicide attacks were more likely to reach their goals. As a result, other groups then resort to this. Suicidal terrorism is, however, in no way directly linked to Islam as it is an interfaith and ideology-overlapping tactic. During World War Two, many Japanese Kamikaze carried out suicide attacks. For years, the leading group of suicidal terrorists were the “Tamil Tigers” in Sri Lanka, who were Marxist-oriented at times of most severe crises. Thus, there is no link to Islam.

42: The blurring of boundaries we face through globalisation is also reflected in the ways and means of contemporary terrorism. People no longer have to be in the same place to talk to each other and spread knowledge. In this regard, home-grown terrorism is one of the greatest fears in Europe and USA today. Does this change the view of the game-theoretic approach? Does it perhaps create or change options for action by cutting costs?

JW: I would say that the basic influence of new technologies on terrorism is not necessarily obvious. On the one hand, it is certainly the case that costs are lower, and organisation and communication easier. On the other hand, it is also a fact that both of these channels can be used in counter-terrorism strategies so that the net effect is not clear-cut.

42: So it is not a one-sided advantage?

JW: No, because the fundamental logic of terrorism is not at question. The basic mechanisms and calculations do not really change.

42: This leads us on to counter-terrorism. Game theory is always concerned with both sides: In the case of international terrorism, this would be counter-terrorism. How would you describe the challenges and difficulties in the context of game theory?

JW: In principle, counter-terrorism is complex and has to be thought of multidimensionally. But again, one has to keep in mind how big the actual risk one tries to fight is in comparison to the applied means. Studies show, for example, that if USA’s counter-terrorism expenses were actually a benefit, a terrorist attack to the extent of 9/11 would have to happen every few months in order to bring a return. Why is this important? Because money spent on counter-terrorism cannot be invested in the major risks to society, in the healthcare sector, for example. From the perspective of game theory and the strategy of provocation, we learn that it is extremely important to fight terrorists selectively and avoid civil casualties. In this aspect, drones are not necessarily an appropriate instrument in the fight against terrorists. Drones can only eliminate individuals with a limited accuracy within a specific area, which means that innocent civilians can also come to harm. As a result, resentment would grow.

42: … which would be in the terrorists’ interests?

J.W: Exactly.

42: What would be your advice to European governments that currently find themselves confronted with this increased need for the safety of their citizens, and can also feel the rise of right-wing politics?

JW: My advice would certainly be not to play into the terrorists’ hands by exaggerating the objective risk subjectively. Because this is exactly what the terrorists want. Instead of panicking, selective, effective mechanisms should be used to deal with the problem, but always in relation to the objective risks that are actually minimal. The problem of counter-terrorism in politics is complicated by the fact that it always looks bad on politicians when, in the rare instance of a terrorist attack, they are accused of not having implemented sufficient security measures. Instead, it is better if they have rolled out many visible measures they can pride themselves on, even though the risk was relatively small to begin with. The incentive structure for politicians is established in such a way that they are encouraged to overestimate the risks of terrorism and overstate their response.

42: Thank you for the interview.


Interview: Tabea Breternitz

Translation: Franziska Flade / Amir Yousif

Photo: Felix_Broennimann/Pixabay


Prof. Dr Julian Wucherpfennig
Hertie School of Governance


Terrorism and Social Networks

“The most important thing is to coordinate a digital solution on a global level.”

Kyle Matthews, Concordia University

42: Mr Matthews, why is the jihadist propaganda via Social Media so successful?

KM: Nations no longer have a monopoly on violence, and the media have lost the monopoly on information. Extremist messages, like the one ISIS propagates, are easily spread via the internet: „We are fulfilling the prophecy – We are founding a caliphate“.This message distinguishes ISIS from other Islamist organisations. They work on actually realising their goal in Syria and Iraq, and they are creative in their actions, in hijacking hashtags, for instance. Recent examples include the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum. Trending hashtags are used in order to spread their ideology, and they produce well-made parodies which use humorous content to attract followers. This allows them to gain an incredible number of supporters worldwide who propagate their ideology and it creates a strong connection to the culture of young people. That is what makes ISIS immensely strong.

42: The soldiers of ISIS see themselves first and foremost as God’s Warriors. How do they present themselves through Social Media?

KM: They imitate freedom fighters such as Che Guevara, dressed up all in black, with heavy armor – an absolute demonstration of power. Their message is: We are only fighting for the Muslim world. In their videos, they portray their brutality and efficiency as an ultimate force on the battlefield. Music is added to desert scenes with the wind blowing through the landscape which makes it easy to think: „Wow, that’s cool! “. For female recruits, they paint the picture of a romantic hero who is fighting for something bigger in life. A softer side is shown, for example, photos of kittens, according to the motto: „We might be soldiers, but we have a good heart.“ One will also find many photos of child soldiers to show that the whole family is obliged to join the fight. The central message of ISIS is ever-present: Everyone is up against us. It is a religious duty to support us in order to be a good Muslim.

42: Critics say Social Media companies are too passive when trying to stop jihadist propaganda. Is that true?

KM: Yes, I do think so. They are caught in the middle. Social Media platforms refer to the freedom of opinion and underline that they are simply providing services. The more users they have, the more valuable the advertising space they can offer. That is the reason it is so easy to make a new account. Nonetheless, we cannot accept these platforms being used for propaganda. Twitter, for example, is closing down more and more accounts. The CEO, Jack Dorsey, even receives death threats because of it. That is proof that the right decision is being taken. The only problem is: When you shut down a user’s account on one Social Media platform, they pop back up on another one. The governments of France and the US, and also the European Union, put a lot of pressure on these companies – they have a directive: The companies need to become more active! Let us not forget that the targets of terrorist attacks are civilians. It is the government’s duty to protect us from terrorists, which is why they have to have a firm hand in the consultation with Social Media companies. The internet has to turn into an uncomfortable place for terrorists.

42: What kinds of problems do intelligence agencies face regarding the fight against online jihadist propaganda?

KM: Almost every intelligence agency pursues jihadists and their supporters. That is a good starting point, but with every fresh attack, belief in multiculturalism fades. It is not just a security issue. We have to ask ourselves what our long-term goal is: What role do western democracies want to play in the fight against terror? Therefore, we also have to fight them on an ideological level. ISIS-supporters have one motivation. They claim to be representing the right way of life and true religion. The soldiers of ISIS fight other Muslims, the “wrong“ Muslims, and Western culture. To them, there are no alternatives. We have to fight against that notion. If we manage to tackle that, we solve an important problem: Where does someone get their justification from to say they represent the right way of believing?

42: The US State Department is questioning the ideas of extremists on their Social Media accounts. Isn’t that fighting them on an ideological level?

KM: The US has an interesting programme called Think Again, Turn Away. But it is a US government programme which in turn can also be connected to the problems in the Middle East. Furthermore, governments have to take on responsibility, and they need do that for activities on the Internet and on Social Media, too. They have to publically question extremist ideology, publish photographs of the atrocities committed, and give examples of ISIS supporters ending up in prison. That works quite well, but we cannot reach ISIS-supporters with bureaucracy. To really make a difference, nations and organisations have to find role models in Muslim societies. We have to identify young and fresh voices in Muslim communities. Young Sunni Muslims in particular need to have a platform to question the ideas and ideology of ISIS. There have been six Muslim Nobel Prize winners in the past few years. What about them? Right now countries are only funding such efforts. What we need are the artists and creative people with whom we can do advertising and make films. A lot of money is spent on advertising at the Super Bowl. Why can’t we use such clips with celebrities for our purposes? These are the next steps, and at least our governments are starting to think about it. But foundations, philanthropists, and companies have to join, too. Additionally, working with families and relatives of extremists is extremely important. There is a project in Canada working with mothers of radicalised children who died in the Jihad. The early signs of radicalisation and speak about their experiences of when their sons and daughters adopted that mindset.

42: Domestic security spots a problem in Lone Wolves who radicalise over a very short period of time and plan attacks on their own. How are they to deal with those?

KM: Theories claim that individual attacks are part of a bigger strategy – micro-attacks instead of a new 9/11. Lone Wolves are radicalised on the Internet. All of ISIS online videos encourage Muslims to act hatefully and violently. It is a global network of ISIS-supporters that influences individuals. The attacks in Canada in 2014 can be linked back to Lone Wolves. They physically tried to go to the Islamic State but failed. Both of them radicalised themselves over one or two years. They change their names, their habits, they cut all ties with their families. Officials denied them passports. So they focused on planning attacks in their home country instead. Online propaganda has a strong influence on one’s psyche. ISIS uses videos for indoctrination. So we have to focus on deradicalisation: What kind of psychotherapeutic support is sufficient to get people back on track? In Germany, you’re used to working with Neo-Nazis. Various aspects of that work against the Totalitarian ideology can be transferred; one can learn from that. The Canadians have their own strategies. ISIS-supporters were sentenced to Peace Bonds, which is a form of probation. The extremists are under house arrest; they have to wear an ankle monitor; they have no access to mobile phones or the Internet. It’s not hard to realise: there cannot exist communication or coordination with like-minded people if you do not have an Internet connection.

42: How can Western countries optimise their counterterrorism strategies?

KM: It’s about more than just fighting terrorism. ISIS is a mélange of extremism, technology and war crimes in a global network. It is not enough to act on a national level. ISIS is economically well positioned. Revenue is generated by oil fields, ransoms from kidnappings and they have sponsors in the Near East. Saudi Arabia and Qatar fund the opening of schools which support extremist views. They do not support the use of violence, but they do support the ideas behind that, the idea of Muslims being superior. Democracy needs to be fought against because it is against God’s will. I think it would be great if Western countries came together take a stand: We do not support money flowing to our countries for extremist purposes, money coming from nations with a lack of freedom of speech, protection of minorities and religious pluralism. If you could ban that from just one country, you would at least solve a small part of the problem. ISIS does not respect national borders, and Social Media is also working beyond those. We need to adapt to that by using more of our resources and initiating international coordination more efficiently. In the end, the cyber caliphate of ISIS consists of individuals. We have to get through to them. The question remains: What is our final goal? Politicians only think from one electron to the next. However, there has to be the long-run protection of citizens. We need a global cyber strategy to achieve that.

42: What about Data Preservation: Is it a step in the right or the wrong direction?

KM: Each time governments aim to access such data there are protests against it. Liberty rights and privacy are important, but we do not really have a choice in this conflict. Critics are naive. They do not trust their government and protest against it, but they ignore the huge amount of news about religious hate crimes. The defenders of human rights love to point out those crimes, but they never connect it to the ideology of that violence. We are in a time of asymmetrical wars. We fight in a war we do not understand. Masses of terrorists are threatening us with new attacks. We have a right to live. And if we do not change the law, the executive cannot act on it. We cannot protect ourselves from extremists in that case.

42: News broadcasters embed videos and photos when publishing articles. Is that ethically correct?

KM: The media should not present the material out of context. They do what ISIS wants them to: They give them attention and spread their message all over the word. It is an ethical question if the press should take a closer look at what they are doing. When there is an attack, the news has to be brought into context. The media have to inform about Terrorist groups, their goals, their motivation, what they are supporting, what they want to achieve.

42: After the Paris attack in 2015, the hackers of Anonymous declared war on ISIS. Which consequences might that have on the fight against the Jihad?

KM: The hackers of Anonymous revealed some accounts ISIS used on social media and deactivated them. Critics of the hackers say that Anonymous made the work of watching and persecuting ISIS followers and participants harder for intelligence agencies instead of disturbing the extremists. Supporters of these hackers justify any means to stop the most brutal non-state actor in this world. They say we should not allow new technologies to be made into weapons of war for extremists. I can understand the arguments on both sides. Still, the most important thing is to coordinate a digital solution on a global level. We have to limit ISIS’ possibilities to plan an attack. Governments and civil societies have failed to find a solution to this problem for way too long.

42: Thank you very much for the interview.


Interview: Anna Hörter

Translation: Paulin Sander

Photo: Elliott Brown/Flickr


Kyle Matthews,
Executive Director MIGS
Concordia University

The Language of Terrorism

“Our knowledge about weeds, cancer, and evil is mentally transferred onto terrorism.”

Prof. Dr Daniela Pirazzini, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

42: How would you, as a linguist, define terrorism?

Daniela Pirazzini: The term, terrorism’ is derived from the Latin verb terrere which translates to, to frighten’, to scare’, to terrify.’ The term terrorism is nowadays commonly used to designate the committing of violent acts, spreading fear and dread. From a linguistic and discourse analytical point of view, we are only able to define the meaning of the term systematically. Examining how the term is used in a specific time in written and spoken texts of a specific language and culture community – for example the Terreur referring to the terror reign during the French Revolution which claimed thousands of lives. The different aspects of the meaning of a word are always constituted within a verbal discourse based on the conjunction with other words of the text.When we speak of la violence du terrorisme in French and la violenza del terrorismo in Italian for example, one can clearly understand that the connection between Fr. terrorisme/It. terrorismo and Fr. violence/It. violenza categorizes, ‘terrorism’ as an act and not an occurrence or state. Therefore, the meaning of a word – from a linguistic perspective – won’t correspond entirely with the linguistic (in this case of the term, ‘terrorism’) sign of the word.

42: In your research in Italian and French linguistics, you focus on the fairy tale model. What exactly is it?

DP: The fairy tale model is a mostly subconscious pattern of thought which affects our everyday life. Each fairytale model has a persecutor, a victim, and a rescuer. In different situations, for example, at home or at work we think and act based on this mental model. Stephen Karpman, an American psychologist was among the first to identify this model: the basic structure of human interaction corresponds to this triad, which we are familiar with from the classic fairytales. In everyday situations, with family, at work or in politics people tend to take up at least one of these roles. When Donald Trump, for example, claims to, “protect his country from the bad guys” he clearly depicts himself as the rescuer and leaves the role of the victim to America.

42: So, psychological tendencies continue in different structures: What is the purpose of the use of the fairytale model in politics?

DP: I will refer to a well-known example from international politics, which was presented in detail by cognitive linguist George Lakoff. To justify the Gulf War and convince the American population that an intervention in Iraq is necessary, George Bush Sr. used the fairytale model in 1991 as an argumentative technique. It was supposed to support his interest regarding a military strike. He presented Iraqi and the Kuwait people as victims and assigned the role of the persecutor to Saddam Hussein who was threatening the victims and was about to attack them. It was necessary to have a rescuer in the form of a military force, capable of protecting the victims from the aggression of the persecutor. The model served its purpose. Most Americans believed the President and were convinced that it was – how Lakoff described – a “just war.”

42: How could the fairy tale model be applied to the situation in France following the ISIS attacks?

DP: In France, the roles of the rescuer and victim are closely related. Following the terror attacks, France felt as the victim, but also politically legitimised to defend and to save itself. President François Hollande chose in his speech on November the 16th, 2015 the war as the rescuer, meaning a rescuer in the form of a military force, capable of protecting the victim (France) from the aggression of the persecutor (the ISIS terrorists) and to obliterate the persecutor. However, from their point of view, the ISIS terrorists felt themselves as well as victims in need of a rescuer. For them, terrorism takes up the role of rescuer. In a situation where both counterparties see themselves in the same role, it is extremely difficult to find a peaceful solution. It is however also questionable whether the terrorists, considering their differing cultural background, are also marked by the fairy tale model. And if so, do they conceptualise the roles in the same way as we do.

42: So, war could be legitimised by applying the drama triangle/fairy tale-triangle. In what way is it practical to apply the fairytale model in linguistics to terrorism?

DP: This model is especially productive in linguistics because of the varying terms for the roles in each language. A persecutor is described in Italian as a monster, pig, or beast. These designated terms established themselves historically, culturally, and mentally in a specific individual language enable us to gain information about how, for example, a persecutor was seen and perceived in a certain point in time within a language and culture community. The ISIS terrorists, for example, are denoted in modern French as fanatiques. As you can see in a quote of Françoise Hollande’s speech shortly after the attack on Charlie Hebdo: “C’est fanatiques n’ont rien à voir avec la religion musulmane.” We (in Germany) didn’t immediately associate the term fanatiques with terrorists, only the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo created this new firm connection in our minds.

42: Did the concept of terrorists as fanatics change our perception of terrorism?

DP: The conceptual metaphor “terrorists as fanatics” shaped the conception of modern day terrorism. The term “fanatic” implies that rational arguments won’t be heard and therefore communication is impossible. We are dealing with a counterpart (ISIS) who is not willing to discuss. Which presents us with a challenge.

42: As we can’t communicate with them, are we at war with ISIS?

DP: Yes, because what are the constitutive elements within the so-called frame (e.i. in our mental conception) of WAR? One must fight against the enemy. If the enemy is perceived as the absolute evil, then they must be destroyed! The solution is to destroy the enemy, which also means the destruction of evil. In this case, we don’t have the option of a dialogue; all we have left are bombs.

42: The term “fanatics” for ISIS terrorists isn’t as common in the German language. Does it have the same meaning in German as it does in French?

DP: The word combination “to fight terrorism” is more commonly used in German. It evokes associations with war, fighting, loser, and winner. It suggests that terrorism is perceived as the “enemy”. In the Romanic countries, the concept of “evil” is what is first evoked. For example, in expressions, such as éradiquer le terrorisme in French or sradicare il terrorismo in Italian.

42: Which emotions does the word “terrorism” evoke when used?

DP: The German form of the term “Terrorismus”, as well as the French and Italian equivalents, contains the word terror (French terreur and Italian terrore). It evokes the association that terrorism is a scare or a shock: an unexpected sudden happening, a moment of absolute darkness. In my opinion, it is most likely a universal mental connection, not necessarily occurring only in an individual language. When we hear the terms “terrorism” or “terrorist attack” we immediately think of fright, and we start to feel an unexpected fear, which paralyses us and leaves us silenced. To determine more precisely what exactly is meant by the term ‘terrorism’ in a specific time, it is first necessary to understand how the term is used in a specific linguistic community.

42: Let’s take the family of the romance languages as an example. How does this specific community make use of the term “terrorism”?

DP: Looking again at François Hollande’s statements following the terrorist attacks in Paris in which he used the expression “nous éradiquerons le terrorisme” (literally meaning “we will deracinate terrorism”) four times at the end of his speech. Linguistically speaking, éradiquer le terrorisme is a word combination frequently used in Italian. Former Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, for example, spoke of “grande alleanza per sradicare il terrorismo.” The French term of éradiquer and the Italian term of sradicare are closely related to terms such as ‘weeds’ (éradiquer la mouvaise herbe / sradicare l’erbo cattiva), with cancer (éradiquer le cancer / sradicare il cancro) and with ‘evil’. These rather old word relations contribute to the complex mental associations awoken by the usage of éradiquer le terrorisme or sradicare il terrorismo.

42: Based on these mental associations, do you think that the roots of terrorism are extremely hard to rip out?

DP: Not entirely. The mental connections evoking other characteristics of weeds, cancer, and evil are more important. Terrorism spreads as rapidly as weeds or a cancerous growth and destroys everything nearby. Eradicating it is difficult as it grows wildly without any obstructions. Our knowledge about weeds, cancer, and evil is mentally transferred onto terrorism. These mental associations also explain why ISIS-terrorists are referred to as “fanatics” in the modern French and Italian. Fanatics are acting unhindered and out of control.

 42: What actual conclusions can we draw from this knowledge?

DP: For the most part, these mental connections are responsible for the measures we take against ISIS-terrorism: When fighting weeds or cancer the goal is to completely eradicate it. In a war, the goal is to win against the enemy through the military.

42: Values are hidden behind these goals. Which values are defended the hardest by politicians in today’s world?

DP: A core value, which we are taught, is freedom – freedom of speech and freedom of thought. Including many more mental associations with freedom. For example, the Frame of FREEDOM includes tolerance, human rights, human dignity, and democracy. It is conveyed to us that terrorists are trying to take away our freedom, which naturally scares us. 

42: Accordingly, how important is it to find out how terrorists think about freedom?

DP: Yes, it is. We associate freedom of the individual with certain values, rules, and norms. It is the most precious asset that we possess. We will most likely find different values, dictating everyday life within the radicalised culture of ISIS. Therefore, we not only have to know what freedom means in a different cultural context, we also must learn about their core values. Many of us are afraid because the cultural background of the terrorists is unknown to us. 

42: ISIS-terrorists seem so threatening because they are elusive and anonymous. Wouldn’t it be beneficial to give a “face” to these terrorists through linguistic analysis?

DP: The media only depicts one side – ours – and it shows too little of the relevant mental concepts of the terrorists. We know for example that they praise the use of suicide as exploitation, however, we know little about their concept of the frame HUMAN BEING and whether concepts such as freedom, tolerance or dignity are coupled with the concept of “human being”. Cognitive analysis on their language und the basic concepts would be really important, and we may be able to reconstruct their perspective.

42: The American culture is much more similar to our own. Are there any similarities between these two languages when it comes to terrorists?

DP: The similarities aren’t necessarily interesting, however, the differences are. As we can see when we look at the terms of rescuer, victim, and persecutor as they are labelled differently. For example, Bush describes the terrorist based on their acts: “He [Saddam Hussein] subjected the people of Kuwait to unspeakable atrocities – and among those maimed and murdered, innocent children.” François Hollande refers to the ISIS-terrorists as “criminals” and “fanatics” (“ce sont des fanatiques”.)

Generally speaking, the interpretation of reality varies based upon the terms used for rescuer, victim, and persecutor in various communities

42: Thank you for the interview.


Interview: Lena Kronenbürger

Translation: Franziska Flade

Photo: Lena Kronenbürger


Prof. Dr. Daniela Pirazzini
Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

Terrorism and the ‘Western’ World

“We need a milieu movement that can reinforce and give strength to each other’s views.”

Prof. Dr Frank Furedi, University of Kent

42: As a sociologist, would you define terrorism differently after 9/11?

Frank Furedi: I wouldn’t. I think defining terrorism is always problematic because it is difficult to distinguish it from other forms of political violence. I deny that 9/11 was a major singular event, but it has had its impacts on the global environment. We feel insecure. But essentially speaking, the key element of terrorism is to inflict terror – not only on the people you target to kill but also on the population as well, and this distinction is very important. Secondly, it’s about provoking a reaction of the population. That is much more important than the act of terror itself. People should recognise that. But those factors and elements are just as important today as they were in any other historic moment – not just since 9/11.

42: What do you think is the predominant feeling in Western societies after terrorist attacks?

FF: I was involved in a research project three years ago, and it became clear that terrorism is the one threat that governments are more worried about than people. However, there are other threats, such as crime, or immigration, that people are more worried about than governments. I think most people are not very concerned about terrorism. Certainly, not as much as you would expect when reading newspapers. The only time of generalised fear is in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack. 

42: In how far is sensation-mongering an element of this generalised fear?

FF: When you look at history, at the last 150 years, there has been far less sensationalism than you would expect. Although now and again, especially in popular culture, you have all these terrorist related fantasy films and the attempts to award this big danger, there has been an attempt to keep sensation-mongering fairly limited. It is very interesting that in case of a terrorist incident in Europe, there often is a reluctance to blame somebody for it and people are unwilling to go in gung-ho immediately. There is almost a desire not to say who is responsible because the last thing that many people want is for these anxieties to blossom and become more powerful.

42: In which way have different Western societies been dealing with the aftermath of terrorist attacks?

FF: There has been a rough similarity in the way that societies have dealt with it. Primarily because, culturally speaking, most Western societies are pretty similar. They might have different emphases in the way that their police forces are seen and in the way the threats are perceived. Nevertheless, some societies have been better at dealing with it than others – Belgium, for example, had its problems with shootings. The Belgian authorities overreacted to a considerable extent: They became confused and disoriented, cancelled football matches because they panicked. England, on the other hand, reacted quite effectively, when it experienced the bombing in London in July 2007. Its reaction is a classic example of not letting the event change the way you lead your life. There are minor differences, but by and large, there has been an attempt to deal with the consequences of a terrorist attack in a targeted way and then move on as fast as possible – at least on the surface. That is the way it has been perceived, and none of the targeted countries have overreacted too much. There hasn’t been this out of control, anti-social kind of reaction that you would have expected.

42: Do you think the terrorist attacks had the impact the terrorists intended, thus that it changed Western societies?

FF: I think it had a big impact on America. It coincides in any case with the loss of confidence in the American way of life, which happened more or less at the same time, namely in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. At this point, the certainty about the enemy they were fighting was lost, and this brought about insecurity. America had already imagined that it would be terrorised in the ten years previous to 9/11. I think what terrorism in that sense has done, is that it has unravelled that sense of security which was the characteristic feature of the post-war period. It has heightened some previously existing tensions. But it didn’t fundamentally change society. It just made the politicisation of fear an even more prominent element of what has been happening since 9/11. 

42: But security measures such as camera surveillance, for example, have changed society, don’t you think?

FF: Well, we have to remember that camera surveillance has been kicking in beforehand since the surveillance was seen as a quick fix solution to crime, even before 9/11. In the previous decade, there has already been a proliferation of these things, and that has continued. The whole shift towards surveillance and the use of technology, all these things predate 9/11. 9/11 just provided extra resources and more momentum but the event hasn’t changed the quality of the global picture in the West.
42: After terrorist attacks, research finds that there is a trend in politics to become more conservative. What would you say are the factors that lead to this change in politics?

FF: I think there is a change and the change that you identify is due to various factors. One is the continuous erosion of what we still call “the left”. Throughout Europe, the left has become more and more feeble, and even people who call themselves left-wing in the cultural domain, have attitudes that differ immensely from what were classical left-wing ideals. At the same time, you see a decline in the influence of classical conservative and classical liberal parties. They, too, lost their way a bit. I think what you call conservative is Hollande’s reaction after the attacks in Paris, for example I would see this as more of a technocratic sort of reactionary conservative impulses, coming to the surface. This has become a generalised way of governing European societies. But terrorism is only one aspect. There is the failure of multiculturalism, the growing segregation of society, the loss of national identities: What does it mean to be French or what does it mean to be German? These are questions that nobody can answer properly. And I think that all those things have congealed together to create that kind of technocratic, oligarchical response. The way that this has happened is very interesting, but there are many reasons that have been pushing in the same direction.

42: Could you point out some of these reasons for the uncertainty within Europe?  

FF: The key problem is what I call the rapid acceleration of cultural uncertainty. Where nations and societies in Europe don’t know how to give meaning to their experiences, they ask: “What is my community, what is it that defines who we are?” When you don’t have stability, people are looking for all kinds of different directions, and they are not sure about what will happen. In that context, terrorism obviously makes matters more complicated, but it’s the cultural uncertainty that precedes it and defines the European condition at the moment.

42: Is there something that society could actively do to deal with this feeling of insecurity?

FF: One of the most important things is to encourage communities to take more responsibility for their lives, rather than to wait for solutions from the government, the police or the army. Relying on communities to claim more of an active role in the conduct of their affairs is very important. I think we need to raise the level of education and the level of discussion and debate in our societies. This has become extremely thin in recent times. However, I also think we need to go back and be more active in using the legacies of the past. Since the beginnings of the Enlightenment, there have been some very important political gains, like democracy. All the enlightenment values, we have to give them more contemporary meaning instead of just rhetorically repeating them. There is a lot that can be done. But the really important thing is not to wait for another 9/11 but to rebuild our public life, to give it a much greater content and purpose than it is the case at the moment.

42: So, instead of constantly comparing situations now with events in the past, we should learn from the past and stay in the present to tackle current issues?

FF: Yes, I think we should stay in the present because the only problems we can solve are the problems of the present. But there are achievements, insights and experiences that we’ve gained that mustn’t be forgotten and that we need to harness. Particularly, as I said before, it is important to bring enlightenment values to the present. We need to understand that, in historical terms, the quality of our public life today is limited. It is useful to remember that. Not because we want to go back to the past. Public life wasn’t always the way it is now. There were more possibilities, and there was a more fluid and dynamic context.

42: What do you mean by “fluid context”?

FF: There are periods when ideas are thrown up in the air, where things are not simply fixed when people are more open to experimenting with ideas, when they have a genuine climate of debate and argument which everybody learns from and when we talk a little bit more with each other. At the moment, one of my main concerns about public life, universities included, is the way people have isolated themselves to such an extent that they only talk to people like themselves. And when you only talk to people like yourself, you never develop your own ideas because it’s like an echo chamber: You merely hear yourself. However, you don’t have conversations that the society as a whole can learn from.

42: But some people argue that discussions with right-wing populists and people who are xenophobic are pointless…

FF: This is a very defeatist way of looking at it. Because the logic of that statement is that if we disagree with each other, that is the end of the story. Nothing more can be said. Sometimes it is impossible to have a conversation, but that is because some people don’t want to have a discussion. Other times, when you talk to people who have very fixed views, you might not be able to convince them, but at the very least you can unsettle them, you can raise doubts. Other times you can even draw them out – talk to them and convince them. I think it’s very arrogant but also very cowardly to say, “we can’t do this”. A lot of my friends who are academics are scared to debate with people who are not like them. They don’t say that they are scared to debate the topics, but they are prejudiced. They blame the others: “They do not listen; it is all their fault. I’m the angel; I’ve got these sophisticated ideas – and they’re such simple people. How can we have a conversation?” I think it is our job to create conditions for constructive discussions, although we may face obstacles in the process.

42: So we need cooperating people who are willing to engage with public issues.

FF: Yes, because the more of us there are, who can make an effort, who feel confident about engaging with these issues in public, the more it will have a serious impact. Individuals are important, but in the end, we need more than individuals. We need a milieu movement that can reinforce and give strength to each other’s views.

42: Could such a movement prevent young people from becoming radicalised?

FF: I am not even sure if “radical” is the right word for terrorism. I know we use this expression radicalisation, but it is possibly a misnomer. I understand the emergence of terrorism in Western societies as the result of the fragmentation of communities in our midst, the failure of multiculturalism, of public life, and the failure to engage and inspire people. You always have people who have been alienated from the young in particular. In the past, they would have joined a motorcycle gang or taken drugs, something like that. In this situation, however, where alienation is apparent, with an evident and strong cultural element as it is a reaction to Western culture, you may now draw upon Islam, for instance. What is interesting is that when you go on any jihadist website, the music is “ghetto music” and the images are reminiscent of European or American, basically Western subculture that has been recycled and reshaped or reimagined in an Islamist form. What we see is an estrangement or alienation that has existed in the past. Nowadays, culture or communities themselves are much more feeble in pulling people together: This type of alienation has acquired a destructive, misanthropic form and in combination with the prevailing prejudices against Islam, this gives it a global, outwardly political force.

42: Thank you.


Interview: Lena Kronenbürger

Photo: 3dman_eu/Pixabay


Prof. Dr Frank Furedi
University of Kent