Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001


Stephen Vertigans and Philip Sutton (2001) 'Back to the Future: 'Islamic Terrorism' and Interpretations of Past and Present'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 6, no. 3, <>

To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary

Received: 15/11/2001      Accepted: 29/11/2001      Published: 30/11/2001


Commentaries on September's acts of terrorism have tended to rely upon secular accounts to explain both the terrorism and the wider, less violent Islamic resurgence. This has meant that the explanatory focus has been upon threats to Muslims, the negative impact of globalization and interrelated modernization and the role of America within global relations and the Middle East in particular. These generalisations are problematic because they fail to explain the broader appeal of Islam, the character and contemporary nature of Islamic movements and in the instance of the terrorists and al-Qa'ida, the relatively wealthy and educated backgrounds of a significant number of the terrorists.

As a corrective, the paper expands the focus to include the awareness of contemporary problems and the historical origins and successes of Islam that are both seen to legitimise the need for a radical form of Islam, interpreted as a comprehensive way of life. This awareness has been significantly aided through contemporary developments in technology, mass communications and transport networks allied to the rapid growth of education across Muslim countries. These factors, rather than diminishing the appeal of religion, as secularists have argued, are instrumental in the Islamic resurgence generally and specifically in facilitating terrorist activity.

Radical Islam, Globalization, Socialization, Double Legitimacy, Historical Interpretation

The suicidal terrorism of 11 September took many by surprise despite previous attacks and warnings of catastrophic acts against America. The fact that these warnings apparently went relatively unheeded, only serves to reinforce the impression that the scale of the attacks was literally 'unthinkable,' either for practical, political or moral reasons. A further complicating factor is the involvement of educated and relatively successful Muslims in terrorist activity, as well as in the wider radical Islamic resurgence, who are providing a new kind of strategic leadership.[1] A reliance on secular accounts of the Islamic resurgence has failed adequately to explore and explain the contemporary nature of this phenomenon. This is not to suggest that there is a generic Islam,[2] a homogeneous radical movement,[3] or a simple causal relationship between radical forms of Islam and terrorism of the kind witnessed in New York, but rather to point to a general lacuna in western, secular, sociological accounts of the appeal of Islam. Unless this appeal is properly understood,[4] the potential for future misunderstanding continues to exist, and in this short 'think-piece', some of the main factors are outlined.

Explanations of the Islamic resurgence generally focus on socio-economic groups that are excluded or threatened by western inspired modernization, interwoven within processes of globalisation.[5] Within this frame of analysis, the attacks on America have tended to be attributed to hatred of America, Israel and the West, with victims seen as scapegoats for the underlying structural problems that the terrorists feel unable to address or even identify. However the view that what happened in September was due to some dispossessed Muslim terrorists becoming radicalised Islamists as a result of their experience of poverty, and lack of education and opportunity, is not borne out by the evidence. A significant number of the terrorists were from relatively wealthy socio-economic backgrounds, and attained high standards of education with reasonable chances of occupational success.[6] However, despite some media coverage of this problem, explanations of the attacks and the wider radical Islamic resurgence are united by an emphasis upon the appeal being based upon negative criteria. In other words it attracts people who are excluded from the benefits of modernization and who act either to secure personal gain, for cultural or economic protection or as revenge for perceived injustices.[7] These factors are not irrelevant to understanding the current situation and have been found in both developing countries and relatively wealthy western economies.

However, the majority of these factors have been present for at least two generations. Certainly involvement in globalization, economic inequalities, 'cultural imperialism' and perceptions of political threat pre-date the contemporary resurgence, as do the American and Israeli policies that arouse intense Muslim anger. It is therefore not just the existence of these long standing factors but shifting perceptions of them that need to be examined, alongside radical interpretations[8] of Islamic history based upon the Koran and hadiths [9] that create a framework for understanding contemporary events and experiences. It is this wide-ranging frame of reference, based upon a perceived period of dominance, when Islam was practised as a way of life and incorporated all spheres of social activities and relations that is important for Islamic radicals. The framework provides the basis to criticise the current global position of Islamic states, but also provides alternative solutions based upon and legitimised by, previous historical Islamic successes when Muslim empires were the leading 'globalising' force. These positive alternatives are often overlooked by social commentators, leading to the repetition of a partial account of the contemporary appeal of radical Islam. The emphasis upon uniting belief and action (a form of 'praxis') means that the subsequent decline of global Islamic influence can be explained with reference to Muslims' failure to practice Islam as a whole way of life. In short, 'the decline of Muslims is not [perceived by radical Islamists as] due to any shortcomings in Islam but to their [Muslims] failure to live up to it.'[10]

Consequently a 'double legitimacy'[11] exists for radicals, which enables former periods of local and global success to be accounted for by the widespread practice and leading influence of Islamic praxis. Conversely, periods of decline in both support and power are explained by the reduction in praxist behaviour. However, the existence of this 'double legitimacy' does not explain the contemporary nature of the Islamic resurgence, because clearly this conflicting ideological and contextual dichotomy has existed for centuries. But nor is the intensified penetration of globalisation solely responsible, though globalisation is generating what Waters[12] refers to as an increasingly globalized cultural regime that raises awareness both of global problems and Islamic alternatives to solve those problems, which in the process, strengthen the 'double legitimacy'.

Thus in order to understand why levels of 'dual awareness' have recently grown, the focus needs to be placed on recent changes in relevant contexts and their effects on socialisation processes. Across the Middle East, North Africa and South East Asia, the role of the media and education have expanded considerably, but this has not led to a weakening of faith, as many secular arguments expected. Arjomand has observed that '...with the development of media of communication, urbanization and the spread of literacy and higher education, religion has flourished: it has not declined'.[13] Within education there has been an increase in the amount of religion taught in both Islamic and secular institutions. For example, in the most secular Middle Eastern country, Turkey, there has been a huge growth in the number of religious schools[14] and this has led to increasing numbers of well educated Muslims, many of whom have been radicalised, being employed, often as teachers, in well paid and influential positions where religious messages are transmitted that challenge state-sponsored secularism. This has longer-term implications for the development of radical forms of Islam.

There are a number of reasons why nation-states have funded or allowed forms of teaching that seem to threaten their existence. Sometimes this has been seen as a way to counter balance perceived external and internal threats such as communism and extreme nationalism. Sakallioglu[15] makes the point in relation to Turkey, and which applies to varying degrees across the region, that the teaching of Islam has also been promoted to restrict the opportunities for non-established radical forms of Islam to gain a foothold. Islam has been sponsored by states with the intention of controlling religious influence and reducing the likelihood of a turn towards radicalism. In reality though, this has meant that states have given support and relative freedom to radical Islamists within education systems and government bodies to disseminate challenging religious messages. Crucially these messages are not simply passively accepted but examined and internalised as core parts of identities by increasingly educated and knowledgeable Muslims. In part this happens because the messages are legitimised by their personal experience and heightened awareness of the international socio-economic and political situation of Islamic states, created by easier accessibility to global communication networks.

The development of these networks has been made possible by changes in production and distribution processes and developments in technology, mass communications and transport networks within and across Muslim countries which has meant that books, newspapers, television and radio and increasingly the Internet are available on a much wider scale. This is helping to raise awareness of connections between local, national and international issues, which contribute to a globalized perspective for a better educated audience, previously uninformed about many of these events and not regularly confronted with images of the actions of Western states within the Middle East and other politically sensitive parts of the world. Islamic radicals around the world are also able to use the different media and other communication sources to transmit information, which has legitimised and strengthened the beliefs of a significant number of their audience.

These cultural forms of globalisation have meant that many Muslims now have access to multiple sources of information that are legitimising radicals' beliefs about the need to follow an activist Islamic way of life which are internalised during socializing processes and are shaped in very different ways from previous generations. This 'dual awareness' of economic, socio-cultural and political problems within global processes and crucially, alternative Islamic solutions rooted in a historical interpretation is fundamental to the contemporary nature of the Islamic resurgence. In the case of al-Qa'ida and the terrorists, it is clear that their actions were only possible through the extensive use of modern technology and communications that enable effective networking, both covert and overt, and would previously have been impossible, across a diverse geographical spread and in relatively isolated locations. As the well-publicized use of videos has shown, al-Qa'ida are able to communicate effectively to a global audience, using some of the same strategies that campaigning media experts such as Greenpeace and contemporary 'new' social movements have become adept at. For these opportunities to be fully realised, the capabilities and cognitive skills of significant members and the role of education within the development process are highly significant factors. And it is not just the contribution of cultural globalization that needs to be examined. For example, the extensive nature of al-Qa'ida's operation requires considerable funding. Bin Laden's resources and the group's abilities to raise funds from international money markets and banking fraud are again making use of the new opportunities created by globalization, in this case anonymous, cross boundary sources that can easily be duplicitously accessed and dispersed.

Structural factors identified by other studies are instrumental in the Islamic resurgence but need to be located within the wider analytical framework suggested here. More generally, the appeal of al- Qa'ida is not unrelated to the wider appeal of other less violent types of radical Islam. We can add to this framework the ending of the Cold War that has brought American actions very much into the foreground but without the counterbalancing policies and interventions of the Soviet Union, which supported non American nations. The demise of communism has effectively eliminated a previously popular source of ideological opposition to the West, with the consequence that many dissatisfied and disillusioned people are looking for alternative sources of beliefs. Paradoxically, it is proving just as easy for both bin Laden and some commentators and politicians, to continue to present a bifurcated world divided into good and evil, as it was with two 'superpowers'.

The war against Russia and the Najibullah government in Afghanistan, the outcome of which contributed to the end of the Cold War, showed the Islamic world what Muslims could achieve when united and practising and in the process raised the profile of those involved, notably bin Laden. This helped radicals to feel proud and raised awareness of radical Islam as a global force. It also brought together thousands of Muslim radicals, trained in military combat, heavily armed, sharing ideas and forging international ideological and strategic links that extended way beyond the Afghan conflict.[16] Bin Laden has acknowledged the importance of lifting the shame of Muslims and combating their previous periods of humiliation, and this partly explains the subsequent resentment when American troops were invited into Saudi Arabia as part of the war against Iraq.

Once the terrorists' actions are examined within this framework their connection to the wider Islamic resurgence can be seen, not in any causal way, but as part of a radical reinterpretation of current events. Within this general resurgence, the actions of the terrorists and al-Qa'ida can be seen as the most extreme interpretation, both of what is required and how to achieve it. Certainly they have formed partly in response to Western actions and perceptions of the threat posed by globalization, but the terrorist acts were also attempts to strengthen pride in Islamic actions and to raise confidence by showing that the oppressors can be effectively attacked and humiliated. Whilst millions of Muslims were repulsed by the actions, others felt compelled to express support for them. Unless the 'War against Terrorism' is widely perceived to be fair and equitable by the vast majority of Muslims and to be directed against terrorists and not Islam, then the dual legitimacy will be strengthened and the appeal of radical Islam will grow.


1 In a very recent visit to Bin Laden's camp in Afghanistan, it was reported that, 'The mojahedin around the man represent most of the Arab nationalities and all ages. Most of them are young men with high academic qualifications. Some are doctors, engineers and teachers who left their families and jobs to join the jihad' (Abdul Bari Atwan, 'Inside Osama's Mountain Lair' in The Guardian, 12/11/01, pp.2-5).

2As Halliday, F. Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (London: I.B.Tauris, 1996, p2) has noted there is no unitary Islam. Mortimer, E. Faith and Power: The Politics of Islam (New York: Random House, 1982, p398) argues that there appears to be, 'not be one Islam but many Islams, because one finds such an enormous variety of Islamic thought and action'. Behaviour ranges from radical Muslims who consider they must practice Islam according to the Shari'ah (Islamic law) and strive to implement where this is not in place. It needs to be stressed that the majority of Muslims are relatively passive in the nature of their beliefs with practice either very limited or concentrated within the private sphere.

3Highlighting the disagreements within this subset, many radical Muslims argue that the Shari'ah has recently only been implemented in Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan. Iranian Muslims however would argue it only applies in Iran. There is also a huge variety in the nature of interpretations between radical groups about the action they consider is necessary to enhance Muslim presence. Many groups undertake peaceful activities towards this goal. The terrorists and al-Qa'ida are very much at the extreme end of this spectrum.

4Whilst there are massive differences in the nature of beliefs, there are similar reasons why radical Islam is growing in appeal across the world

5For example, see Ayubi, N. (1980) "The Political Revival of Islam: The Case of Egypt", International journal of Middle Eastern Studies 12; Berberoglu, B. (ed) (1989), Power and Stability in the Middle East (London: Zed Books Ltd); Dessouki, A. (1982) The Islamic Resurgence: Sources, Dynamics and Implications in the Islamic Resurgence in the Arab World (New York: Praeger); Esposito, J.L. (ed) (1987), Islam in Asia (Oxford: Oxford University Press); Halliday, F. and Alavi, H. (eds) (1988) State and Ideology in the Middle East and Pakistan (Basingstoke: Macmillan Education Ltd); Heper, M. and Israeli, R. (eds) (1984) Islam and Politics in the Modern Middle East (Sydney: Croom Held); Mehmet, O. (1990) Islamic Identity and Development - Studies of the Islamic Periphery (London: Routledge); Moussalli, A.S. (1998) "Globalization and the Nation State in the Arab World" MESA Bulletin 32, 11-14; Taji-Farouki, S. and Poulton, H. (eds) (1997), Muslim Identity and the Balkan State (London: Hurst and Company).

6Consequently they were not necessarily going to face unemployment which tends to be central to many accounts of the appeal of Islam to the educated, see for example, Ayubi, ibid. Mehmet ibid and Mackinlay, J. (28 October 2001) in the Observer, 'Tackling bin Laden: lessons from history', < slam/story/0,1442,582345,00.html>.

7Examples of the majority of media analysis includes both Chomsky and Hitchens discussed in Fuller (2001), < ml> Binyon, M. (13 September 2001) in The Times, 'How Islamic world learnt to hate the US', <,,2001320003- 2001315717,00.html>, Darwish, A. (16 September 2001) in The Independent, 'To many Arabs bitter about the West, this was a kind of justice', <>, Editorial, (11 October 2001) in Washington Post, 'The Arab Paradox', <>? Elliott, M. (4 November 2001) in Time, 'Hate Club: Al_Qaeda's Web of Terror' < /nation/article/0,8599,182746,00.html> and Mackinlay ibid.

8Two of the most prominent globally renowned figures are Mawdudi, S., see for example, Ahmad, K. and Murad, K. (eds) (1986) The Islamic Way of Life (Leicester: The Islamic Foundation) and Qutb, M. (1964) Islam: The Misunderstood Religion (Cairo: Darul Bayan).

9Hadiths are traditions based upon the comments of Muhammed or his companions.

10Kidwai, M.A. (1959) "Foreword" in Nabwi, A. Islam and the World (Lucknow: Academy of Islamic Research, p8).

11Some empirical evidence providing some illuminating examples of the central importance of the 'double legitimacy' for contemporary praxism can be found in Vertigans, S. (1999), The Turkish Paradox: A Case Study of Islamic and Secular Influences on the Socialization of Turkish students Based in Great Britain. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, University of Leeds (1999).

12Waters, M, Globalization. London: Routledge, 1998).

13Arjomand, S.A (1986) "Social Change and Movements of Revitalization in Contemporary Islam" in James Beckford (ed), New Religious Movements and Rapid Social Change (London: SAGE Publications Ltd, p88).

14Aksit, B. (1991) "Islamic Education in Turkey: Medrese Reform in Late Ottoman Times and Imam-Hatip Schools in the Republic" in Tapper, R. (ed) Islam in Modern Turkey (London: I.B.Tauris and Co); Sakallioglu, U.C. (1996) "Parameters and Strategies of Islam-State Interaction in Republican Turkey" International Journal of Middle East Studies 28, pp.231 - 251.


16Rashid, A. (2000) Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia (London, I.B.Tauris) provides an illuminating discussion about these points.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001