Inventing Terrorism | Lisa Stampnitzky | VOICES

Aug 2016

Stampnitzky 20160801The recent attacks in Nice and Munich placed Europe on high alert resulting in experts once again asking about the continent’s Muslim population. Saad Sayeed spoke with political science professor, Lisa Stampnitzky, for Tanqeed. Dr. Stampnitzky is a professor at The University of Sheffield  and an award-winning author of Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented “Terrorism.” 

Saad Sayeed for TQ: With the recent attacks in Nice and Munich, as well as Brussels and Paris last year, questions are again being asked about Muslims in Europe. i.e  Islam is being identified as the cause of terrorism and nations are asking what to do with muslims both within and outside their borders. Could you elaborate on this discourse?

Lisa Stampnitzky: As you say, Islam and Muslims are being identified as the “cause” of terrorism.  In part, this is the result of the way that “terrorism” is defined, and which sorts of events are and are not defined as “terrorism,” with attacks perpetrated by Muslims being more likely to be labeled as “terrorism” than attacks perpetrated by non-Muslims.  One result of this discourse, as you note, is that “Muslims” have themselves been identified as a problem, and we are now seeing greater willingness to view all Muslims as a problem, and the emergence of policy “solutions” targeting the Muslims population in Europe.

TQ: There is also some debate about Europe itself and what kind of identities are being constructed and marginalized within its borders. Should we be looking more at Europe than Islam when examining these attacks?

Dr. Stampnitzky: Rather than asking whether we ought to look at Europe OR Islam, I would suggest that we ought to be looking at the relation(s) between the two.  One of the most unfortunate discourses coming out of the recent attacks in Europe has been the assertion that “Islam” and “Europe” are somehow opposed (as in the pernicious and flawed “clash of civilizations” discourse), when this is both empirically and historically false.  Similarly, we now hear assumptions that Muslims are not properly a part of Europe, and assumptions that European Muslims must be “migrants” or outsiders, even when their families have been living in Europe for generations.

There are of course important questions to be asked about, as you put it, the construction and marginalization of European Muslim identities. I agree that looking to the actual conditions of incorporation and exclusion of European Muslims is likely to yield more insight, rather than an appeal to some essentialized notion of “Islam” as a cause.

TQ: We know the overwhelming percentage of attackers are male and the Munich assailant was an admirer of Anders Breivik. Where does the question of masculinity fit into an examination of terrorism?

Dr. Stampnitzky: Unfortunately, the role of masculinity in terrorism and other forms of mass violence has been largely neglected in the mainstream media and political discourse. As scholars such as Lisa Wade, Tristran Bridges, and Brittney Cooper, have argued, we need to pay more attention to the relation of masculinity to violence.   It is not only that the majority of acts of mass violence are committed by men.  There is also a formative relationship between masculinity and violence, where not only are certain forms of violence glorified as (positively) masculine in the mass culture, but where violence also comes to seem a way for men to reassert their masculinity when it is threatened.

TQ: Given the fragmentary nature of ISIS and the way its recruits seem to operate without a centralized command or even contact with an organizational structure, is there an issue of identity amongst Muslims in the West that it is appealing to?

Dr. Stampnitzky: I’m not entirely certain what you’re asking here. Certainly, ISIS seems to be putting forth a discourse (which is, ironically, mirrored by many on the American and European right-wing) in which “Islam” and the “West” are not only mutually exclusive identities, but also in opposition to one another (see ISIS’s calls to eliminate the so-called “gray zone”).   When European nations enact policies and discourses that seem to affirm these claims, excluding Muslims from membership in European society, it only makes sense that this would make some European Muslims more receptive to ISIS’s claims.

TQ: Some of the responses by European governments have been quite troubling. What implications will these have for democracy in Europe, particularly for minority populations?

Dr. Stampnitzky: It’s hard to predict, but policies which target entire minority populations for increased surveillance are likely to lead to negative outcomes, both in terms of increased alienation among European Muslims, and increased racism and Islamophobia among the non-Muslim population.

TQ: There is a strong tendency to attribute all acts of violence to ISIS and lump them together as an attack on Europe or the West, and western civilization. How would you respond to this characterization?

Dr. Stampnitzky: This response is both wrong, and dangerous, for reasons I outline in my other replies.

TQ: Your book deals with the question of how terrorism experts have turned terrorism into the “dominant framework” for talking about political violence. How does this reorient the way we understand political violence?

Dr. Stampnitzky: I argue in my book that “terrorism” is not a neutral label for political violence, but is rather socially and historically constructed in ways that have significant implications. One of these is that there is a tendency to understand (acts which are labeled as) “terrorism” as caused by some form of essentialized identity, rather than emerging from particular social, historical, and political circumstances. However, without such an understanding, we are unlikely to be able to develop productive responses to political violence.  Instead, we are tempted to play into the hands of those (including ISIS) who wish to heighten the imagined opposition between “Islamic” and “Western” cultures.

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