In the post-9/11 world, few issues have received more attention than the question of what exactly it is that turns seemingly ordinary people into terrorists. Why would anybody strap on a suicide vest or plant a bomb on an airliner? Eleven years after the Twin Towers fell, one might think that there would be answers to these critically important questions. This is not so. Preoccupied with utilitarian, rational interpretations of violence and driven by the desire to generate insights that could be translated into policy, much of the extant terrorism studies literature conceptualises the terrorist phenomenon in a distinctly static and one- dimensional manner that fails to address what violence signifies and expresses and, by extension, what the terrorist is. Yet, as Christopher Coker emphasised in Waging War without Warriors? The Changing Culture of Military Conflict (2002), expressive violence is not only aimed at an enemy but is also the fruit of a worldview and a way of life.
Terrorist’s Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning moves beyond this limited focus by offering a nuanced analysis that is at once philosophical, psychological, political and historical. For Roger Griffin, terrorism is, above all, the product of a fear of loss of meaning combined with the conviction that the world must be remade in a new image if meaning is to be saved. This restoration of meaning is specific to a particular historic period that, in turn, sets the parameters for understanding modern terrorism: it has to be understood within the context of the threats to meaning posed by modernism itself. Yet Terrorist’s Creed does not zoom in on al-Qaeda and the “Islamist threat”. Rather, it examines the quest for meaning and its role in the inspiration, nurturing and realisation of terrorism and the terrorist through the ages and offers a framework whereby we can make sense of what have traditionally been described as “senseless acts”. In a subtle way the reader is left with the conclusion that terrorism is here to stay - unless, of course, a transcendent, universal meaning is somehow revealed to all.
Griffin’s work makes an important contribution to the field that will be appreciated by those who are both dedicated and literate enough to pick their way through its densely packed chapters. The nature of the topic and its practical implications should not be limited to a select group comfortable and familiar with the highly specialised style of writing that Griffin employs. In these times in which the study of terrorism is so central to the public interest, it is vital for such theoretically and conceptually sound research to be communicated in an accessible manner so as to reach an audience beyond academia’s ivory towers.
Terrorist’s Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning
By Roger Griffin. Palgrave Macmillan, 280pp, £25.00
Published 19 September 2012