Humility and Assertiveness in ‘the age of suicide terrorism [as] a brave new world’; or, the Poverty of Critique and the Politics of Innocence.

This post is a call for self-reflection and humility among academic authors who essay critical comments on the political currents of our day. I argue that we need to highlight the dangers of claiming political innocence and be aware of the shortcomings in purportedly critical comment. Such dangers repose insidiously within the hegemonic currents of Western intellectualism.

The following questions frame my reflections . . .

Why use the term ‘Sacrificial Devotion’ rather than ‘Suicide Bomber’ or ‘Suicide Terror(ism/ist)’? What is at stake in the shift in vocabulary? Is it simply a shift in vocabulary? Is it a simple case of replacing the latter terms with the former?

I think not.

I want to invoke a space or tension within which to think through this term and its attendant concepts, discourses, ethics and responsibilities. This space/tension is framed by my reading of Michael Roberts’ intentions in mobilizing the term and my reading of the thought practice, if you will, behind two statements that signed off an email we all recently received from one of the members of the group: ‘In my humble opinion, the age of suicide terrorism is a brave new world. We have to be assertive enough to stand by what we see as the best way of making sense of it all.’ As such this post is also an invitation to dialogue and blog-participation extended to the author of these comments.

In a nutshell, my responses to the email statements – for now – are as follows: firstly, the ‘humility’ that is invoked to characterize the ‘opinion’ itself, and by extension the personal space from which the ‘opinion’ emanates, is, I believe, radically undone by the enormity of the opinion itself. I fail to see how an opinion that assumes the power, right and privilege to name an ‘age’ could ever be characterized as humble. To name an ‘age’ is to definitively frame an historical reality. To decide when an ‘age’ begins, what characterizes it, who its chief players are, who its villains, victims and heroes are, etc – in short, to ‘name an age’ – is precisely the very opposite of humility: it is to claim to understand clearly the dynamic complexity of an historical situation or moment and assume the power to reduce it to a name, a label, a static truth.

Secondly, to frame the content of this opinion – this age ‘as’ the brave new world of suicide terrorism – as ‘personal’, is again radically undone by even the most cursory and disinterested glance at any mainstream western newspaper, not to mention the significant majority of the work done by academics in the new field of ‘Terrorism Studies’. Far from being a ‘personal’ opinion, this characterization of the contemporary moment as ‘the age of suicide terrorism’ is by and large the dominant interpretation of the contemporary historical moment.

Thirdly, given what the content of the opinion is, the exhortation to be ‘assertive enough to stand by what we see as the best way of making sense of it all’ is precisely the very problem that needs to be overcome. This exhortation is effectively nothing more than the call for an uncritical adoption of the very terms of what Roberts refers to as the ‘propaganda war.’ In light of the content of the opinion, this exhortation is problematic for me because it disavows a particular politics under the guise of necessity. Why is it that we need to be ‘assertive enough’? Why is it that all we can do is ‘stand by what we see as the best way of making sense of it all’? Who is the ‘we’ here?

The combination of the two claims serves to present and simultaneously disavow (twice) a particular politics. The framing of the claims as humble and personal works to insulate the claims from critique: it is, after all, a personal opinion. To exhort ‘us’ to ‘stand by’ our reading is essentially to foreclose on the very staples of critical thought: critique, dialogue, response, revision, reflexivity, etc. It is to straightjacket critical thinking and critical analysis within the binary logic of an ‘us’ and a ‘them’: critical thinking here becomes the choosing of sides, the choosing of who the we is, with the corresponding threat to others that they be either ‘with us or against us.’

Ultimately, the effect here is the production of innocence: for the politics behind the claims and for the subject(s) who espouses them, in short, for ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘ours’. After all, it is the ‘age of suicide terrorism’, is it not?. ‘We’ are not responsible for its conditions of possibility. ‘We’, however, have a responsibility to assume the courage to shoulder the burden and ‘be assertive enough to stand by what we see as the best way of making sense of it all.’ What exactly does ‘being assertive enough’ involve? An endless ‘war on terror’? A world and future in which ‘you are either with us or against us’? Is that the ‘brave new world’? Virulent politics, indeed!

The seminar that gave birth to our group sought to consciously work through the term ‘Sacrificial Devotion’. It invited us to begin to think through our research, its objects/subjects and our methodologies in light of the conceptual/perceptual shift implied by the mobilization of this term. In the ‘statement of intent’ for the Adelaide seminar, and again in his first post on this site, Roberts made clear to us the reasons he has for seeking to mobilize this term. As I understand matters, he seeks to mobilize this term as a rubric precisely because it draws attention to the ‘cultural ingredients’, the ‘meaningful world’ from which and through which ‘perpetrators’ (I prefer agents) of ‘zealous action’ arise. This is a conscious refusal, he says, to participate in the contemporary ‘propaganda war’ through which the terms ‘Suicide Bomber’ and ‘Suicide Terror(ism/ist)’ are deployed in order to de-legitimize ‘the goals of Islamic radicals who pursue their goals through what they themselves call ‘martyrdom operations.’ All sides in ‘most conflicts’, he says, have been guilty of operations that ‘terrorize civilian populations.’

At stake here in the deployment of this term, it seems to me, is the problem of how to engage with what Roberts refers to as ‘selfless zeal’. The problem, he argues, is that ‘Liberal humanism, the dominant ideology within [western] academic corridors, has struggled to engage with such zeal, especially when it is associated with nationalist goals and religious fundamentalism in settings beyond the West.’ The problem is ‘the individualist epistemology embedded within the secularised Christian universe.’ A focus on ‘selfless zeal’ and the cultural coordinates through which it manifests as intelligible will also force us to consider the notion that ‘different cultural conceptions of personhood animate the zealous activists’ of different cultures, religions and political and economic programs and discourses. Such an approach will encourage our thinking and work to move beyond the simple, self-serving rhetoric of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ politics.

I am invoking the two email statements as part of the tension I want to establish for us to think through ‘Sacrificial Devotion’ because I think it is a perfect example of why we should pursue critical self-reflexivity. What I want to argue is the other side of the coin, so to speak, to Roberts’ call that we consider the ‘cultural ingredients’ from which sacrificial agents become intelligible, is important. The ‘we’ to whom these emailed statements were addressed are by and large academics and/or researchers of one sort or another, in a variety of academic disciplines, across a wide range of academic institutions that span the globe. As such we have specific training and responsibilities that I believe are under threat precisely by the kind of thinking that these emailed statements are invoking and calling for. The courage we need, I argue, is the courage to look closely at the positions from which we speak, the conceptual apparatuses through which we speak, the cultural/political contexts and imperatives that are embedded in these positions. We cannot pretend that we occupy an ideologically neutral and objective place when we speak; nor can we afford to simply and uncritically adopt an interpellated space on either side of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ binary. We must critically analyze the very processes/discourses/practices that interpellate an ‘us’. It is not enough to seek out the ‘cultural ingredients’ from which an agent of ‘selfless zeal’ emerges, we need to simultaneously expose our own ‘cultural ingredients’ to the very same analysis and critique.

I, for one, refuse to accept the reduction of the role and work of an academic, intellectual, critical thinker/researcher, and/or teacher to the hyper-educated, well funded, securely privileged role of a status quo mouthpiece, regardless of who occupies the throne. To do as the statements I have quoted suggest, to mobilize ‘our humble opinions’ in the modality of being ‘assertive enough’, is to present one’s self and one’s opinions as the innocently simple reaction to a self-evidently threatening external reality: a manoeuvre that disavows the particular politics behind such claims and opinions; that masks this politics, in a double movement, behind a screen of so-called truth and the inviolable space of personal opinion. As academics we mount, present and offer – as the result of extensive research – critical readings and arguments: we do not mobilize or speak that which is merely our opinions.

In what follows I want to briefly argue why this distinction is important precisely at this point in time and why it is an important aspect of adopting ‘Sacrificial Devotion’ as a rubric for our work. The orthodox version of ‘the age of suicide terrorism’ narrative locates its genesis in the facts of the events that transpired on the 11th of September 2001 in N.Y.C: the attack and destruction of the WTC Twin Towers ending in the deaths of approx. 3,000 people at the hands of extremists who deliberately flew passenger planes into the two towers. The events of September 11 2001 generated a wide range of academic responses from around the world, and I want to briefly look at two of them. The first is Slavoj Zizek’s contribution ‘Welcome to the desert of the real’ (2001). This is a short text that condemns the attacks and refuses to engage with the situation in terms of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, ‘good’ versus ‘evil’. Even in the midst of the chaos engendered by the attacks – the piece I am referring to appeared days after the attack on the towers – Zizek repudiates the use of binaries as useful to any interpretative framework.

In this text, Zizek responds to what he perceives as the dominant abstract interpretation of the event – which insisted that the illusion of US safety had been shattered – by making a call for reflection: a call to consciously inhabit the ‘space’ between this event and its interpretation. Zizek insisted that this reflection encompass an understanding of the events of 11 September that allows for a critical re-interpretation of the relationship the United States has developed with the rest of the world over the latter half of the twentieth century. To that end he emphatically demands that we understand that: ‘It is not that reality entered our image: the image entered and shattered . . . the symbolic co-ordinates which determine what we experience as reality’ (2001). The political response to this event, for Zizek, would depend on which of two approaches the US administration would take up: either the ‘Americans decide to fortify further their ‘sphere’ [the symbolic co-ordinates that determine reality], or . . . [they] finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen separating [them] from the Outside World accepting its arrival into the Real World, making the long-overdue move from “A thing like this should not happen HERE!” to “A thing like this should not happen ANYWHERE!”’ (2001).

At stake in the difference between these alternatives is the interpretative matrix through which Americans will symbolize/narrativize the events of 11 September. Zizek claims that the fantasmatic screen separates ‘Americans’ from the ‘outside world’ (2001). In this sense, then, this screen is effectively that which defines an ‘us’; that which designates an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’; that which marks the boundary where an ‘us’ ends and a ‘they’ begins. It is that which constitutes (produces) the very border within which a national imaginary operates. This is not a physical or material border, it is an ideological one, a border constructed and maintained by an ideological fantasy: homogeneity, sameness (liberal humanism?). This fantasmatic screen is the interpretative matrix through which a ‘we’ is both constructed and constructs, symbolizes and narrativizes its reality; an interpretative matrix through which this ‘we’ determines particular events and their interpretations as part of its national narrative of history and—in a circular motion of justification— constitutes both the truth of the nation and the truth of the national narratives. It is that which determines reality, truth and conceptions of being and personhood. Is this not analogous to what Roberts refers to as ‘the cultural ingredients’?

The call to inhabit the space between the ‘event’ and its ‘interpretation’ is essentially a call to short circuit this process, to pause the somewhat automatic act of interpretation (justification) and consciously examine this ideological fantasy, to place under scrutiny this interpretative matrix and to critically evaluate the symbolic co-ordinates that determine and maintain this fantasmatic screen. It is this kind of critical reflection that is precisely that which being ‘assertive enough’ forecloses. It is this kind of critical reflection that I want to argue we need and is implied in the shift to the use of ‘Sacrificial Devotion’. The process of this critical reflection necessarily involves a close and critical evaluation of the terms (language) with which we approach this event as event, through which an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ is identified and positioned.

The second response to September 11 I want to briefly look at is Susan Buck-Morss’ Thinking Past Terror (2003), a text where she argues ‘that the global violence initiated by September 11 has had an impact generally on perception and expression – on seeing and speaking’ (63). ‘Language’ she says, ‘the tool of thought, and image – the tool of cognitive perception, are being appropriated today by discourses of power in a very particular way, one that negates their usefulness for critical practices of theory’ (63). An appropriation, she argues, that places us in an intolerable position: one where we are ‘subjected to the common paranoid vision of violence and counter-violence,’ (28) and thereby, arguably, ‘forced by both sides to acquiesce in the killing of innocent civilians’ (27).

The critical task I am arguing is necessarily involved in the shift to the use of the term ‘Sacrificial Devotion’ – and I would argue is necessary period – is not one of constructing a new third-space from which to accurately see the truth of world events. It is a task that requires the conscious and reflexive exposure to re-articulation of the particularities of the dominant perception that coordinates our relationship to the world: namely the notion of an inside (us) and an outside (them). The task, as Buck-Morss understands it, is to reject the logic of violence and counter violence by taking ‘on the challenge of thinking past terror in order to engage a global public that rejects both forms of violence, terrorist and counter-terrorist alike’ (4). This critical task requires that we repudiate the binary logic deployed to define and represent the ‘situation’ (the age) in which the world presently finds itself. It means more than being ‘assertive enough to stand by what we see as the best way of making sense of it all.’ It means to mobilize ‘double critiques’: ‘to think Kissinger and Pinochet together as criminals against humanity, to think the US school of the Americas together with the al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan as terrorist training groups.’ (Buck-Morss, 2003: 30)

For Roberts it means exploring the ‘cultural ingredients’, the cultural context in which and through which these acts of ‘selfless zeal’ emerge and are rendered intelligible. For Buck-Morss this task involves Western thinkers – across the academic spectrum – actively engaging with Islamic theorists, whose work, she says, ‘changes the parameters of the theoretical discussion [of modernity] set by the West’ (44) precisely because it is not ‘derivative of Western discourse.’ (44) For Zizek it means exposing the fantasmatic screen to critique. For me, it means all of these simultaneously. Rather than a double critique, I propose that we think in terms of multiple interdisciplinary critiques, enacted from different points, and in the context of an active dialogue that takes the notion of a double critique as its point of departure, not its destination.

To my mind this task requires that we reject the double blackmail of the truth of the hegemonic binaries (violence and counter-violence, terrorism and counter-terrorism, the ideologies of liberal humanist-capitalist democracy and fundamentalist religion) through a critique whose opening gesture is an act of critical self-reflexivity. Buck-Morss states that the critical task that is required of us as theorists, given the contemporary state of affairs, involves ‘the recognition of cultural domination as [being] just as important as, and perhaps even as the condition of possibility of, political and economic domination’ (103). ‘The politics of this method’ she says ‘is radical, not liberal, because it holds ideas accountable for social practice and uses legitimating values of power against power itself’ (95).

The dominant category of thought in the west since the Enlightenment has been the ‘subject’ or ‘individual’. Those of us who have grown to maturity in the secular-Christian-liberal humanist west have been taught that we are born as individuals; that by this right of birth we have a set of inalienable rights that encompass both civil and political issues. Moreover, we learn that our societies are founded on and are a reflection of this very principle and therefore, that our societies are committed to providing spheres of personal freedoms such as speech, association, conscience and religion. The zero point of these liberties and rights is our very existence: we have them by virtue of our material existence in the world. We are born as unique, autonomous and rational individuals who are then responsible for our actions. The very same period of western history has also borne witness to the deaths of millions of human beings, more often than not in the name of this very principle. Clearly, the ‘we’ that is invoked by liberal humanism does not encompass ‘every’ human being.

Following Foucault, I want to argue that the critical task involves understanding that power does not affect already existing individuals from a location that is external to that individual. Power functions to produce us as individuals, who are then responsible for our actions; it does this by determining the ‘truth’ of human beings, by establishing codified norms that determine our behaviour, that determine what an authentic human being is. Discourses produce and reproduce classes of acceptable and unacceptable subjective behaviour, and therefore subjects, that are deployed through the dissemination of images, categories and knowledge(s) that produce and reproduce these very ‘truths’ and require of us, in order to be subjects, that we embody the terms of the discourse.

This means that contrary to the liberal humanist legitimating claim that its formulations proceed from the fact of the existence of the individual, the individual itself, the ‘subject’, is in fact the product of that very discourse. The shift in perception that is required in the movement from the term ‘suicide bomber’ to the term ‘sacrificial devotion’ involves the crossing of what amounts to, in western public discourse, seemingly impenetrable terrain. To negotiate this shift we need to engage with what Foucault calls the ‘politics of truth’, to investigate the politics of particular relations of power that circumscribe, always in advance, what will and will not, for instance, count as ‘sacrifice’ and as ‘devotion’. While the term ‘sacrificial devotion’ is infinitely preferable to that of ‘suicide bomber’, I cannot help but wonder at the continued inability of western culture at large to render these subjects intelligible as ‘martyrs’. It is not simply that different determinations of personhood are at stake or invoked by these individuals. These determinations, produced in terms of competing representations of reality, deploy particular subject positions that anchor and generate significance for these particular understandings of reality. A reality that liberal humanist ideology positions itself against as either having overcome in itself and/or needing to overcome in the world at large, precisely in the name of the future (freedom/salvation) of the world. I would like to argue that what is effectively also at stake in these interpretative frameworks are differing conceptions of ‘persecution’, ‘innocence’ and ‘salvation’: in short, I am arguing that what is at stake is the question of how we mobilize suffering and sacrifice in the generation of community.

If we are to question the inability of Liberal Humanist ideology to engage adequately with particular acts of sacrifice, we must start by questioning the power relations deployed by liberal humanist ideology that regulate what does and does not count as ‘commitment’, what does and does not count as ‘persecution’ and therefore what is determined as the ‘extreme’ forms of these notions. We must also question the implications of these notions of commitment and persecution for ‘religion’: in terms of liberal humanist ideology, this means questioning the de-politicisation of religion; it means questioning the secularised Christian West’s ‘politics of salvation’ and the correlative ‘politics of innocence’.

At stake here is how to interpret self-sacrifice as an act generative of an ethical community: the relationship between human action and community as a relation between representation and truth. Christian religious discourses and the political discourses of western nation-states share an interpretive matrix that reads self-sacrifice metonymically as the act of the collective community. That is to say, the heroic self-sacrificial intention is a confession – in the face of extreme persecution – that registers in an economy of signification that idealizes this confession as both generative of and the example par excellence of the core values that this community embodies. This approach has historically all too easily become a ‘discursive procedure of absolution’ (Badiou, 2007) that serves to structurally disavow – and at times legitimate – the multiple instances of contemporary and historical violence for which these communities are directly or indirectly responsible.

What we need to do is not be ‘assertive enough to stand by what we see as the best way to make sense of it all’. What we need to do is to place into question the security of a collective ‘we’ by calling an ‘us’ to account and to responsibility for the very conditions that have enabled the generation of ‘our’ community through sustained violence on ‘others’. More often than not it is precisely these conditions that are presented as evidence that this ‘we’ is the incontestably civilised and modern world.


Badiou, A. (2007) The Century, Polity, UK.

Buck-Morss, S. (2003) Thinking Past Terror, Verso, New York.

Zizek, S. (2001) ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’


4 Responses to “CONCEPTUALIZING SACRIFICIAL DEVOTION I: Critical Reflections”

  1. nickappleby Says:

    Unfortunately, I believe that it is important that we partake in the propaganda war and call acts of sucide terrorism exactly that. Terrorists use propaganda very effectively and it is has entered into the very heart of British government (as I found out yesterday through some very poor judgements on behalf of Tony Blair that allowed political Islamists into positions of civil servant power – which explains alot, especially in terms of some BBC reportage of late). The only way to defeat terrorism is to fight it with propaganda and that can be the propaganda of silence (i.e. ignoring it). It is impossible to win the war on terror by using the military, police and intelligence services, which will at best contain terrorism and but most likely increase acts of terrorism as groups are forced underground and stereo-profiling extends to communities rather than members.

    However, I do feel that the term sacrificial devotion has a much wider context and usefulness and that it can include acts of sacrifice in the name of religion that do not have to lead to acts of suicide terrorism – for example, a mother sacrificing herself by placing herself between a bullet and her son – is a form of sacrificial devotion without it being a suicide terrorism incident as would be a person killing themselves through pacifist resistence.

    I have always preferred to use the term ‘religiously justified terrorism’ for the likes of suicide bombers but this also includes all al Qaeda, HAMAS, Hizb’allah, Black Tiger (note I make a distinction in LTTE’s case between different sections) etc. operations. ‘Religiously justified’ means that religion is used afterwards as a means of justifying the act. This is very important because the act itself might not have had anything to do with the person’s religious beliefs. There seems to be a lot of confusion in the West about this important aspect.

    Alot of cases that claim to be justified by religion were not committed because of religion – there are a whole host of other reasons why someone straps a bomb to themselves; these include revenge, pure hatred of the enemy, loss of hope, frustration, peer pressure, family ‘tradition (i.e. another family member has done similar and they wish to follow in their footsteps) and so forth. Religion, in the majority of cases has very little to do with the decision but is often used to justify the act and can be the thing that tips the scales towards action.

    This said, there are instances, such as with the Black Tigers in the LTTE where religion does play a large role but it is not an exclusive role. Black Tigers who have been captured before committing suicide or have defected and decided not to go ahead have said that peer pressure was a strong factor in their recruitment. However, despite being classified as a Marxist and hence secular group, there is clearly a religious dimension to the LTTE that is often over-looked by other scholars in the field. Myself, and Michael Roberts have both challenged this idea that the Tamil cause is purely secular and have provided a host of evidence that religion has played a large part in the conflict. In fact, the conflict may not have even happened had Buddhism not been made the state religion – the straw that broke the donkey’s back. This said the likes of Paul Wilkinson have been very resistant to the notion of religion playing a part in the Sri Lankan conflict.

    To conclude, I feel it is important that we actively take part in the propaganda war against terrorism, not to do so is merely providing greater ammunition and justification for terrorism. I feel that the term ”sacrificial devotion’ has a much wider connotation than simply suicide terrorism and should be kept and used. I feel that ‘religiously justified terrorism’ is a better term to use when discussing the religious aspect of terrorism.

    Nick Appleby

  2. Cheers for the response. Many apologies for the delay in my reply.

    As i understand it your response has two main thrusts. The first concerns the ‘propaganda war’. The second concerns the link between ‘religion’ and ‘terrorism’. Regarding propaganda I agree with the wording of your first sentence: I also believe it is “unfortunate” that you think we need to actively take part in a “propaganda war”. I’ll assume that the ‘we’ you invoke here is the same ‘we’ I invoked in my post: academic critical thinkers/researchers.

    A chief characteristic of ‘propaganda’, as i understand the concept, is its overtly biased and/or misleading nature, so to actively partake in the ‘propaganda war’ would suggest that we actively subordinate the imperatives of critical thinking/research (our fundamental task) to the logic and dictates of a ‘propaganda war’. This has a number of problematic consequences, one of which is the disappearance of ‘critical thinking’. In his post on this blog Jackson draws attention to the new journal CTS. One of the reasons he outlines for this new ‘critical’ approach to Terrorism Studies is to provide an academic forum/space within which the field’s “uncritical reproduction of certain myths about terrorism and its close relationship with state counter-terrorism” can be thought through. Therefore the ‘critical’ tag that is added to the field designates a practice that ‘directly challenges the field in regards to its knowledge and research practices, its ideological commitments, its research ethics, its relationship to political power and its normative agenda.’ It seems to me that your response is precisely about closing down these options for research.

    Who decides the content of the ‘propaganda’? If you make ‘propaganda’ a positive, even desirable practice, then what counts as ‘propaganda’?

    The main consequence of your belief that it is important that we partake in the propaganda war is that it does away with precisely that which renders CTS ‘critical’: reflexivity. A ‘propaganda war’ is always already delimited by – and functions according to – an us vs. them logic. The issues are far more complex than simple us vs. them logic allows and this complexity gets lost in the imperatives of fighting a ‘propaganda war’. Your belief, it seems to me, is all about closing down thinking: you seem to want to doom us to ‘uncritical reproduction’. Why is it that you think it is ‘important that we partake in the propaganda war’? More to the point, why is it that you think this is ‘unfortunate’? What is the link between ‘unfortunate’ and ‘important’ that you are making? Most important of all however, how does not participating in the ‘propaganda war’ provide ‘greater ammunition and justification for terrorism’? This is an extraordinary claim and I am interested to know how you justify this claim. In your argument any attempt to reflexively think through this field of research, which necessarily involves challenging ‘the field in regards to its knowledge and research practices, its ideological commitments, its research ethics, its relationship to political power and its normative agenda’, aides and abets ‘terrorism’. Instead, you argue, we should actively partake in, and produce, propaganda. ‘Propaganda’ is the very antithesis of ‘critical thinking’. Your response and the vision of academic research and critical thinking it conjures up blackmails critical thinking out of existence because the options for the academic position your belief offers are untenable: ‘apparatchik’ or ‘terrorist’. This all sounds very “Stalinist/McCarthyist” to me.

    Regarding the second thrust of your response, i have a few questions.

    What is your understanding of religion here?

    What constitutes a “case”, “act” of “terrorism” that IS committed because of religion?

    What criteria are you using to distinguish between acts committed for/because of religion and those not?

    If ‘religiously justified terrorism’ is a preferable term because “the act itself might not have have anything to do with the person’s religious beliefs” and because “in the majority of cases [religion] has very little to do with the decision but is often used to justify the act’, THEN how can religion ALSO be ” the thing that tips the scales towards action”?

    What is the relation between religion and violence?

    Between belief, faith and action?

    What is an example of a “person killing themselves through pacifist resistance’? What is the relation here between “pacifism”, resistance”, “violence” and “persecution”?

    The term “religiously justified terrorism” seems to me to completely undo that which Roberts has in mind when mobilizing “sacrificial devotion” as a rubric for thinking through these acts.

  3. nickappleby Says:

    Alot to cover in a reply.

    Firstly, I would say that contributing to the propaganda war does not exclude you from being critical. In fact it is very difficult not to be critical when the propaganda war has all but been lost. However, my meaning which may not have come across clearly is that you can be critical without justifying or apologising for terrorism. One of the means of doing this is to call terrorism when it clearly is terrorism.

    The definition of terrorism is actually very simple but has become clouded by lots of organisations seeking to use definition to further their own interests and hide their activities.

    Terrorism is the deliberate use of violence or credible threat of violence to create fear in gaining a political objective.

    Terrorism should be viewed more as a tool than an ideology – the ‘ism’ being a throw back to its original usage from the French revolution. Governments, departments, and indivduals can all employ terrorism in their activities. ‘One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter’ – should include tagged to the end – ‘who uses terrorism.’ The threat of war by one state to another is also an act of terrorism, as are Russia’s recent comments to the Ukraine that they will need to target their missiles at the Ukraine if they develop a defence against them (very strange logic at work there).

    Another way to contribute to the propaganda war is to provide balanced arguments. Yes be critical of the Government but also be critical of the terrorists. A group of people blow themselves up on the London tube, then don’t blame the Government’s foreign policy for the action – blame the terrorists because they are the people carrying out the act of violence. You can still be critical of the Government’s foreign policy but you need to make sure that people fully understand that there are alternative methods to violence to protest against the government and that terrorism is unacceptable. Be critical of Israel but also be critical of Palestinian terrorists – ‘Would you fire a missile if a tank had crushed your home?’ can just as easily be, ‘Would you use a tank if someone had fired a missile at you?’ – would it not be better to say that the situation perpetuates itself because both sides feel justified in using excessive violence to push their political aims and grievances.

    No matter what you publish or say, no matter what you teach – it can all be used as propaganda and in academia it is more likely that it IS propaganda of a sorts. After all you are trying to convince someone that your argument is correct. It all depends whether you take Bernays’ definition of propaganda or you take propaganda’s definition (what we do is teaching and advertisement – what Nazi Germany does is propaganda).

    Definition of religion – I should throw that question back like a Buddhist monk I once interviewed and ask what your definition of religion is. However, for me the definition, like terrorism, is very clear but the term gathers a lot of political baggage due to the activities of religious groups.

    Religion is that which is concerned with what happens after you die. Hence Buddhism is a religion but Confucianism is not.

    There are VERY few cases of religious terrorism. In fact I am struggling to think of a single case that is not biblical and hence doubtful in origin because it was caused by God. The closest I can think of is forced conversion that possibly has the combined religious and political aspects required – ie the conversion is genuinely for a religious belief but also has a political dimension – such as the forced conversion and expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain (C14-15). Witch burning has the violence, fear and religion aspect but arguably lacks the political aspect (there may be a case for political gender struggle).

    I think you have to call it religious violence when it comes to witch burning and sacrifice and not call it religious terrorism because there is arguably no political aspect. If you open the word terrorism by removing the political aspect then you will have to include street rape, domestic violence, and violent crime as acts of terrorism – it then comes down to how you want to define the level of political activity, all these could be construed as being political and about power balances but we create an illusion of the social that forms a collective ‘reality’ and at the present time the collective majority recognises that the political is concerned with government whether we as individuals or smaller collectives believe that to be correct or not. However, we run the risk of discussing this aspect for a very long time – people have been arguing about what is politics for centuries and there is still no definite answer. For me, I feel that we need to recognise that there is dispute but go with how the majority of people personally define the term (I know several people who would be cringing at me saying that – like voting on whether Pluto should be called a planet – but as Ramakrishna reportedly hinted at, ‘the world is an illusion but so am I’).

    >>>”What is an example of a “person killing themselves through pacifist resistance’? What is the relation here between “pacifism”, resistance”, “violence” and “persecution”?”<<>”If ‘religiously justified terrorism’ is a preferable term because “the act itself might not have have anything to do with the person’s religious beliefs” and because “in the majority of cases [religion] has very little to do with the decision but is often used to justify the act’, THEN how can religion ALSO be ” the thing that tips the scales towards action”?”<<

    The intent is not the religious justification – they are not killing themselves because they believe they will go to paradise etc. They are killing themselves for other reasons – their resistance is usually territorial or to right a sense of being wronged. The fact that someone then tells you that this cause of action is justified in your religion when perhaps that was the thing holding you back, releases your constraints and tips the balance into action. The religious aspect is used to justify the righteousness of your action that is caused by a different grievance.

    While I am replying, I should clarify something in my initial post. Religion in the Sri Lankan conflict is only a more important aspect of the conflict than given credence for two reasons:
    1) the thing that turned violent protest into terrorism was the bill that made Buddhism the official religion of Sri Lanka
    2) the use of terminology such as martyrdom and the use of religious rhetoric
    My main arguments about religion and terrorism remain and I am guilty of over-emphasising the importance of religion in Sri Lanka to try and compensate for its lack of acknowledgement. In my original paper, I did make this clear and referred to point (2) in relation to the terminology of religiously justified terrorism.

    I hope this clarifies alot of my initial post. I strongly believe that you can partake in the propaganda war and still remain critical of government. It is similar to being critical of democracy but still supporting it as being better than current alternatives. You can be critical of government but recognise that it is still better than what the terrorists want to instigate.

    Religion is alot more than ritual and symbolism. These do not define religion but are used in relation to religion. Religion is about what happens after you die – any other definition will exclude some things as being not religious and others as being religious – for example football fans on the terraces are often referred to as being a form of religion because of their symbolism, fanatical devotion (sometimes willing to fight for the pride of their club), and ritual chanting and belief in doing things in a certain way will bring their team good luck – but this is simply not the case, there is no notion of afterlife and many fans have a religion that deals with afterlife such as Christianity, Islam etc.


  4. nickappleby Says:

    oh it seems that I have messed up a quotation and reply about pacifist resistance –

    I think it is easy to give examples – Buddhist monks in Tibet against Chinese invasion, people in WWI prepared to be shot or arrested rather than fight, etc. I recommend a book called the ‘Quiet Battle’ (if you can get a copy), if you want to explore this further.

    I think the term sacrificial devotion can also be used to describe Jain saints who starve themselves to death rather than harm anything living.

    I believe I understand where the term is going in terms of you can sacrifice yourself to show your devotion to your country or to your spouse even. However, I think that the use of the term in trying to prevent being involved in the propaganda war, is in itself part of the propaganda war and it is too broad a term in that it includes alot more than just suicide bombers.


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