The Way of the Terrorist: Reflections on Terrorism’s Relationship to Modernity

October 22, 2010

The issue of terrorism has been a major conundrum for historians and social sciences, who have tried to grasp the social and ideological motivations behind the recent recrudescence of this radical phenomenon. On Friday, 15 October 2010 the Department of History hosted a highly stimulating lecture by Professor Roger Griffin, Oxford Brookes University, UK, which approached this issue from an innovative perspective, tackling the relationship between terrorism and modernity. 

Professor Griffin started by pointing out that there was a natural tendency to assume that terrorism, especially Islamist terrorism, is a form of barbarism belonging to an earlier irrational age, a rebellion of ’fundamentalist’ against modernity, or an expression of nihilistic hatred of the world. Arguing that the prevailing tendency to "medicalize" terrorism as a pathological form of behavior prevents a genuine understanding of this controversial phenomenon, Roger Griffin suggested that most forms of terrorism since the 19th century which have a utopian rather than pragmatic goal are to be understood at least in part as the expression of a profound bid to destroy the existing system with an alternative modernity. Surveying the dynamics of Russian nihilism, the lone wolf terrorism of the Unabomber and McVeigh, and Islamist violence, Griffin constructed the thesis that some terrorism is in part an attempt to restore a lost nomos, a sacred canopy of total meaning threatened or destroyed by modernity, the expression of a quest for transcendence that is more important than the individual’s own life.

The lecture was followed by a vivid debate of CEU students and faculty, moderated by Constantin Iordachi, Head, Department of History. The main issues addressed were the heuristic utility and limitations of ideal types models of modern terrorism for understanding concrete, historical case studies; the usage of terrorism as a marketing strategy for promoting radical political ideas; the relationship between terrorism and violence; the distinction between acts of vengeance, motivated by personal reasons, and acts of terrorism, motivated by ideological reasoning; and the identification of alternative, constructive ways to solve the 'contradictions of modernity' and better human societies, without recourse to violence.

Roger Griffin is Professor in Modern History at Oxford Brookes University, UK, where he gives courses on fascism, modernism, and terrorism, and has written on a wide range of political, cultural, and socio-psychological phenomena relating to generic fascism and right-wing extremism. His more than 100 publications in these subjects include the two monographs The Nature of Fascism (Pinter, 1991), Modernism and Fascism. The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler (Palgrave, 2007), and the collection of essays A Fascist Century (Palgrave, 2008). He also edited the anthologies of primary and secondary sources Fascism (OUP, 1995), International Fascism. Theories, Causes and the New Consensus (Arnold, 1998); and (with Matthew Feldman) the 5 volumes of Critical Concepts in Political Science: Fascism (Routledge, 2003). He is now working on the volume Modernism and Terrorism for his series Modernism and… (Palgrave).