Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

Terrorism as Ritual Process and Cultural Trauma: A Performative Analysis of ISIS’s Attacks in Europe

Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

Terrorism as Ritual Process and Cultural Trauma: A Performative Analysis of ISIS’s Attacks in Europe

Article excerpt

1Why studying the performative aspects? Terrorism as social drama

So far, the cultural aspects of terrorism have been studied almost exclusively by the sociology of religion. A minor attention has been paid to the cultural definition of the collective identity and memory of the countries targeted by terrorists. Nevertheless, terrorist attacks play a significant role in the redefinition of collective identities, both for the victims, the terrorist operators and the larger global audience.

Then, it cannot be properly understood without enquiring its cultural background, development, justification, representation. Before all, terrorism is communication: it targets public symbols, it uses media and symbols of identification to produce fear and affiliation, it produces frames of interpretation to constrain reality, it relates to rituals, ideology and religiosity.

In this paper we will approach terrorism through the connected theoretical lenses of social drama and cultural trauma. The first approach corresponds to the very famous theory on the performative aspects of social conflicts introduced by Victor Turner (1982). After the British anthropologist, social drama takes the form of an interruption of the customary relationship between the social contract and collective identity of a community, deriving from 'a sequence of social interactions of a conflictive, competitive, or agonistic type' (Turner, 1982: 33). The social effect of this fracture is distrust and moral panic. Therefore, the targeted social groups need to react by producing and legitimating a public interpretation of the events. Turner suggests that this process follows four phases: the breach, the crisis, the rituals of redress, and the final moment of reintegration or schism. In our hypothesis, in the case of Paris attacks these four phases correspond to:

1. The attacks of January and November 2015;

2. The crisis of legitimation following the events;

3. The civil rituals performed to repair and redress the fracture;

4. The acts of public definition of the war against ISIS.

To study the period of crisis, we will focus on the media coverage of the November attacks in Paris. We made this choice for their global relevance in the definition of a new terrorist era, after September 11. The corpus is represented by all the articles published by Le Monde, Le Figaro and Le Parisien in the first10 days following the attacks (i.e. 14th-23th November 2015). This time lapse covers the peak of attention following the attacks and the first week after the Presidential address of the 16th November.

As concerns civil rituals, we will focus on the Republican March held in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo killings, on the 11th of January 2015. They represent one of the most interesting examples of civil rituals held in Western countries in the last decades.

Finally, concerning the moment of public definition of the conflict, we will analyse the speech pronounced by Francois Hollande on November 16th 2015. It provided an official public interpretation of the Paris attacks, it justified the implementation of domestic urgency measures and it asked for the legitimation of a growing engagement of France in international war conflicts against ISIS.

As regards the concept of cultural trauma, it has been developed in the last years by a group of influential durkhemian sociologists. It can be defined as the process of redefinition of collective memory and collective identity that 'occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways' (Alexander et al., 2004:1).

Studying an historical phenomenon in terms of cultural trauma means focussing on the processes of definition of the actors involved (perpetrators, victims, other actors involved), the nature of suffering and victimhood, the extent of audiences (Alexander, 2003) and their relationships with victims. …

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