The Faces of Terrorism: Social and Psychological Dimensions

By Neil J. Smelser | Go to book overview
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Ideological Bases of Terrorist Behavior

EARLIER I asserted that almost all behavior that has been identified as terrorist is associated with extremist social movements based on extremist ideological beliefs. Wilkinson went even further: every internal terrorist movement or group requires an extremist ideology of some kind to nourish, motivate, justify, and mobilize the use of terror violence” (1988, p. 95). There are good social science reasons why such statements, strong as they are, have validity. In this chapter I sketch the anatomy of these beliefs and indicate how knowledge of them adds in our struggle to unravel the phenomenon of terrorism.

I use the concept of ideology comprehensively, and so differ from authors who employ the term to refer to secular political beliefs on the right and left of the political spectrum and distinguish them from religious justifications (Wilkinson, 1987, p. xiii). Without denying the usefulness of distinguishing between secular and religious for other purposes, I employ no such distinction, because I am seeking common vectors in all such belief systems. In this way I hope to bypass a lingering tension in the literature about similarities and differences among belief systems that are associated with terrorism. On one side of the argument, Horowitz (1983) has asserted that it makes no sense to distinguish between left and right ideologies because “terrorism is a unitary phenomenon in practice and in theory” (p. 48). On the other side, Hoffman refers to the differences between right and left (1986) and between religious and secular (1998). Whether one chooses one of these views or the other depends entirely on the analytical purposes one has in mind. Obviously, content matters, for example, if one is seeking to explain the appeal of different ideologies to different groups. However, in this


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The Faces of Terrorism: Social and Psychological Dimensions


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