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Review of The History of Terrorism From Antiquity to Al Qaeda

  • Aziz Huq
Published: December 30, 2007

*Cross-posted from History News Network

There are nineteen definitions of “terrorism” in federal law today.  International accord on the metes and boundaries of “terrorism” has proved as elusive, with governments lining up along predictable divisions. When is violence against civilians justified and therefore exempt from censure? Agreement is beyond consensus.  Perhaps terrorism is inevitably fraught with taxonomical difficulties.

How then to write a history of the term, let alone “the” history?   How to maneuver the moral and definitional obstacles looming before any effort to describe and categorize political violence?  How many scholars possess the expertise in military history, comparative politics, or sociology—to say nothing of ethics—to embark on a unified text?  To date, social scientists who specialize in studying terrorism, such as the Radcliffe Institute’s Louise Richardson and RAND’s Bruce Hoffman, have confined their historical overview to a sole chapter.  Even then, there has been little accord on how far to drop the plumb line. 

Richardson’s What Terrorists Want begins with the Sicarii, or Zealots, who challenged the Roman Empire in turn-of-the-millennium Palestine, the eleventh century Assassin sect of Shia Islam, and the Thugees of the Indian subcontinent.  Reasonably enough, Hoffman’s Inside Terrorism begins with the first invocation of political “terror” during the French Revolution.  And probably the best monographic treatment of terrorism’s historical arc, Matthew Carr’s The Infernal Machine, opens with Norodnaya Volya, a political opponent of the later Russian empire. 

Gérald Chaliand at least is no stranger to large topics, having previously written single texts on diasporas, guerrillas, the Mongol Empire, and Kurds.  The strategy he and co-author Arnaud Blin adopt in response to the methodological, scope, and ethical challenges of a historical survey, is to collect experts so as to fill the gaps in their own knowledge.  Since this is a collection with nine of the seventeen essays penned by either one or other of the editors, the reader is left to assume that they believe their knowledge sweeps much of the field already.  The essays’ authors, with two exceptions, are French, and likely largely unfamiliar to an English-language readership following the terrorism literature; the two exceptions hail from Israel and Singapore respectively.  The book, therefore, presents an opportunity not only to secure a bird’s-eye eye of a complex and contested historical subject.  It also is an opportunity to view that topic momentarily estranged from the preoccupations that naturally fill the American field. 

Unfortunately, the essays that Chaliand and Blin have assembled do not seize these opportunities in ways that enrich the present American debate to the extent that they could.  The will to completeness yields frustrating and partial results.  

One problem is a preoccupation with classification that prove less illuminating than exhausting.  Ariel Merari’s opening essay thus dwells on an effort to parse out the different kinds of coups, insurgencies, “Leninist Revolutions,” and guerrilla wars, before turning to a taxonomy of terrorism’s impacts.  The chapter adds scant value to Charles Tilly’s pithy analysis of terrorism as a political strategy of “asymmetrical deployment of threats and violence against enemies using means that fall outside the forms of political struggle routinely operating within some current regime” (and Tilly’s essay, entitled Terror, Terrorism, Terrorists, is both briefer and more elegant). 

By contrast, other essays suggest that the editors have reached no satisfactory conclusion as to taxonomic dilemmas.  In a chapter seemingly drafted to bridge the book’s accounts of classical movements and modern terrorism, Chaliand and Blin lump together Caesar’s assassins, the Mongol Conquests (encore?), and the Counter-Reformation.  Quite what unites these disparate topics—except for the use of violence to affect some kind of structural change from inside or outside a regime—remains unclear.  How they add up to a lineage for terrorism remains equally opaque.   

Another unsolved dilemma is the distortion that flows from compression.  Philippe Migaux maps “The Roots of Islamic Radicalism” in a single chapter that in effect echoes and reinforces Samuel Huntington’s tired and wrong-headed notion of civilizational clash:  Imperial expansion strategies during the Umayyid and Abassid  caliphates become mere filial anticipations of the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda.  The weight of hindsight erases distinctions between what today are personal aspirations and the complex and shifting imperial agendas of centuries ago.  Migaux completes his story by dwelling on the extraordinary bloody recent history of Algeria, where the doctrines of “takfir”—the excommunication of less-than-perfect co-religionists—reached a sanguineous zenith that is atypical even for modern Islamism.  While Algeria is of particular salience to a French readership, its centrality in the trajectory of modern Islamism is more debatable.  

Unsurprisingly given this breakneck pace, little is made of extant debates on the wellsprings of political violence, even when these debates are relatively well-limned.  Hence, in light of the fons et origio of use of “terror” to connote a specific political phenomenon, as well as the authors’ national provenance, some debate of the historiography of the French Revolution might be expected.  Do the authors agree with the “thesis of circumstance,” which holds that the Terror sprung from a nationalist response to external aggression and internal sedition?  Or do they follow François Furet (who is quoted in passing) in taking the Terror as the necessary result of a tendency to violence built into the Revolution from its earliest days?   The text is not clear.    

What does find its way into the text repeatedly, however, is the notion that terrorism can be “morally justified.”  That phrase bafflingly pops up in Chaliand and Blin’s discussion of the Terror.  Earlier, Merari claims that “terrorism may be correctly described as an illegal form of warfare, but characterizing it as a immoral one is meaningless,” and that any moral code “is a product of people’s needs, perceptions, and convenience.”   This large and surprising claim is not justified by the text, and is not necessary to any discernable thesis of the book.

Indeed, faced with a topic so fraught with historiographic uncertainty and contemporary heat, can any responsible analyst suspend all ethical judgment?  Does agnosticism about the value of terrorists’ multitudinous aims across history necessitate a monasticism of values?  Or does it rather signal a resistance to engagement with the complicated motives of those who resort to violence.  A decision not to assess with care and discernment not only articulated justifications from the terrorists, but also the human toll they aim to vindicate?  I am not convinced that Chaliand and Blin, or their collaborators, have yet given a wholly convincing answer to these hard questions.