The Sociological Aspects of Terrorism

Hoffman defines terrorism as “The threat or use of violence, often against the civilian population, to achieve political or social ends, to intimidate opponents, or publicize grievances” . Terrorism usually originates from problems with interaction between certain groups of people and the societies in which they live. Those problems very often result from difficulties that some people face trying to integrate into the community and adjust to it. Sometimes these people have to struggle against stereotyping or racism, which generates profound hatred inside them against the society that does not accept them. In this paper, some social theories by Marx, Durkheim and Weber will be used to illustrate the process by which people become terrorists and explain the development of large terrorist gangs.

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) is the founder of modern sociology. He is a “Cautiously optimistic about the direction of change of society” . One of his major works is The Division of Labor in Society in which he explains that deviant behavior is a social fact, “a characteristic of societies and not individuals.” Durkheim examines the structure of groups and societies with respect to differences in the suicide rate. He defines two dimensions of those differences: social cohesion and normative regulation.

In terms of social cohesion, suicide rates are high at the extreme ends: egoistic and altruistic. Egoistic suicide happens when there is a severe separation between persons or groups. In other words, egoistic suicide occurs when very little cohesion exists between members of the society; the individual is, thus, particularly isolated. On the other hand, altruistic suicide occurs when there is a high degree of cohesion between individuals. In this case, a person can give up his or her life for the group. The second dimension of difference, normative regulation, also has two extremes: fatalism and anomie. Fatalism results from over-regulation within a society that is controlled by a harsh regime. By contrast, anomie refers to a situation of unlimited and free desires that allows diverse sets of behaviors . By applying those theories to terrorism, we will attempt to explain and understand the development of this phenomenon based on Durkheim’s analysis.

Durkheim’s notion of egoism as a cause of suicide is one possible condition of the development of terrorism. When groups of people isolate themselves from other groups, fanatical nationalism creates an illusion of community. Accordingly, individuals who feel alienated from the rest of the society develop a need to belong to the community and, therefore, may join terrorist groups. The purpose of forming these fanatical groups (racial, religious or political) is to recreate the social bonds that were lost by alienation. Other individuals try to hold onto the beliefs and values of their groups; and those diverse beliefs and values as a whole can lead to terrorism. For example, The Free Officers organization leaded by the Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser in the Egyptian revolution in 1952. Before the 1952 revolution, Egypt was one of the world’s poorest and weakest countries. It was a feudal society that was controlled by the British, the king, king Farouk, and the politicians who harmed the interest of the majority of the Egyptian population. Nasser was a fervent Egyptian nationalist who quickly took action to remove foreign influence from his country. He organized a clandestine group inside the Egyptian army called the Free Officers. After the war against Israel, the Free Officers begun to plan for a revolutionary overthrow the corrupted government. The Free Officers were united by their beliefs to see Egypt freed from British control and more equitable government established.

Fatalism is another concept that Durkheim would use to explain terrorism. In a fatalistic society, a person lives in an extreme, harsh regime; he or she will have to sacrifice aspects of his or her identity in order to avoid being left out from the group or being punished. By contrast, in a non-fatalistic society, one attempts to compromise between the majority view and the individual’s own perspective by balancing and negotiating between the two. As a result, in a fatalistic society, individuals may get together and form groups in order to revolt against the harsh regime that is imposed upon them. This conflict between the over-regulated system and the developing groups is definitely an important component and cause of the process through which terrorism originates. For example, the fatalistic system in the Sultanate of Oman before 1970. “ Keep the dogs hungry, they will follow you.” Such was in essence, the ruling theory of Said bin Taimour, Sultan of Oman, and Muscat, the last feudal monarch of Arabia. Said bin Taimour inherited the remains of an Omani Empire, which included: Oman, Dhofar, and some parts of the Eastern African Coast. Under his rule, everything was forbidden. There were, all over Oman and Dhofar, three primary schools and not a single secondary school. Students who wanted to pursue their studies had to leave the country illegally and start a ling life of exile in the Persian Gulf or Kuwait. The inhabitants of the coast were forbidden to travel inland, and those of the inland valleys could not go to the coast, or even from one valley to another. Reportedly, even wearing eyeglasses was discouraged, and the Sultan meted out punishments to people who appeared in his dreams. No one was safe from the Sultan’s paranoia, even his own son; Qaboos was kept under virtual house arrest at the Sultan’s palace in Dhofar. Therefore, a terrorist group in the southern part of Oman was formed. This group, the Dhofaries, tried to assassinate the Sultan many times to overthrew his suppressed government, however, they had failed. Then, Qaboos staged a coup in 1970 and sent his father to exile in Great Britain (Cheney).

Karl Marx is one of the most important social theorists who devoted most of his life to socialist activism . Marx sees the central core of problems of capitalist societies, which is a system that favors new wants and limitless demands, in the existence of private property and the division of labor, leading to the formation of two antagonistic social classes: the bourgeoisie, people who own the mean of production, and the proletariat or the property less. Marx also believes that the modern state of capitalism is a result of a historical process that took place in different dialectic stages. Marx got strongly influenced in this dialectic notion by the Hegelian notion of dialectic. The dialectic concept means that changes can take place through the accumulation of many small changes that finally add up to a major crisis and social transformation, which is powerful enough to make a social change. Marx agrees with Hegel concerning the logic of historical evolution, but disagrees with him about the spiritual growth. Marx is more materialistic and more concerned with the politics aspects of human history. In addition, in his early writings, Marx underlines the aspects of alienation and ideology of capitalism as a socio-economic system. In order to understand the process of development of terrorism in Marx’s point of view, we will apply some of his revolutionary theories to this phenomenon.

The basic element in capitalism, according to Marx, is the division of labor. The expansion of the division of labor causes the growth of alienation and private property. Marx believes that in capitalist societies, man is alienated from the product of his labor, which means the product, under the conditions of the division of labor and in the world of free market, does not belong to the producer of the product. The labor itself is alienated to man because the production activity appears as a meaningless fraction in the division of labor. Man also alienated from his social life. His relations with other member of society are co modified in function of money. Man also is alienated from himself; he has become a commodity in which he sells his labor. In the end, capitalism will reach a point that the majority of humans is rendered property-less and at the same time, they are producing at unequalled levels. The bourgeoisie, or the people who own the mean of production, will manipulate the political and economic power in the society and destroy all individualities. In other words, in capitalist societies, the accumulation of capital, in bourgeoisie, is the accumulation of misery to the proletariat. When the proletariats recognize the social anarchy of production, they will seize for a political power, thus, terrorist groups may be formed . Nowadays, the bourgeoisie of the advanced capitalist societies is the leader of the world bourgeoisie class and controls, dominates, and manipulates the economic regime of the world as mean maintaining the international economic order. The USA with the toughest bourgeoisie in the world, opposed any demands the developing countries need such as, transfer technology and capital from the advanced parts of the world to the developed parts. For example, when developing countries proposed the creation for an independent fund for assisting developing in introducing substitute technology, the USA opposed it (Aliyev). The bourgeoisie class would do anything to maximize their profit. Thus they would build financial institution to protect their business and to maintain the week economic status of the developing countries. For example, the two pillars of the international economic order, GATT and IMF are institutions that seek the preservation of the capitalist class (bourgeoisie class) economic order and maintain week economic status of the developing countries. As a result, 500,000 Indian peasants hit Bangalore in 1983 to reject the GATT (Pattenden). Besides the rises and formation of terrorist groups, such as, Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaida’s group, in the Middle East against the capitalist society, which is the United States, is another example that can be applied.

“Max Weber envisioned the study of society as the study of modes of action, by which he meant meaningful, purposive behavior” . Weber, unlike Durkheim and Marx, focused in action and meaning, he thought it was important to understand how people gave meaning to their action. He wrote about many topics: the history of religion, bureaucracy organizations, and forms of social inequalities, collective action and organization that arises from status, class inequalities, and types of power and authority. In terms of collective action and organization, Weber defined three elements that effect the distribution of power within a community: Classes, Status, and Parties. In this paper, we will explain how status can lead to the development of terrorism . Status groups are determined by a social estimation of honor and prestige, unlike classes, status groups do not necessarily consist of economically privileged people, but symbolic qualities and a particular life style. The potential of status groups for political power is clear from their characteristic of social closure and their restrictions on access to rewards and privileges to a small circle of chosen ones. Besides, in status, certain social or physical attributes are selected, which are the consequences of ethnic segregation and formation of the caste system. In such societies, members of the low status not only have low economic conditions but also have religious and social disabilities (96-97). In these vicious and unequal societies, terrorist groups are more likely to be found. For example, in India, that caste system is still existed and it is affected by Hindu religion. According to the Hindu view, human beings are divided into four criteria: the highest caste (the Brahmins), who were the thinkers, priests and philosophers; next come the Kshatriyas, who were the warriors; then Vaisyas or traders; finally at the lowest caste was the “untouchable”. This caste, the untouchable, was responsible for doing service jobs like, scavenging and cleaning. Marriage across caste lines was forbidden and the three higher castes were not permitted to deal or mingle the lower caste. The lower castes were exploited to the hilt by the higher castes and many of them worked for the higher castes without any wages. Such suppression made people from the lower caste to do a movement against the other castes. Thus, the Indian peasants from the lowest caste made a movement against the higher castes. This movement took place in 1964 and was called the Naxalbari movement. The movement aimed to end up the class struggle by getting rid of the caste system and frees the lands from the landlords (Banerjee).

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