Making sense of terror attacks anthropologically

Published: November 17, 2015

The problems of terrorism and extremism are unintended consequences of ill-thought out and exploitative foreign and domestic policies; years of violent intervention and exclusion. PHOTO: REUTERS

On the evening of November 13, 2015, Paris suffered the worst terrorist attack in modern European history, killing over 120 people. The scale and sheer barbarity of the attacks is unprecedented. The French society is in trauma. The world is in shock.

Paris, still reeling from the aftermath of the deadly Charlie Hebdo attack earlier this year, will no longer be the same city. From holding vigils to changing Facebook display pictures in French flag colours, the attacks have prompted an exceptional display of solidarity with the victims by the global community.

The western leaders have been quick in showing support for Paris, calling it an attack on western values and their way of life. Some saw it as a specific reaction to French involvement against ISIS in the Syrian conflict.

Whatever the motivations for the attack were, what happens now?

What do these attacks mean for Europe?

Will it be a game-changer for European foreign policies? What would be a wise response?

In order to effectively address the threat of terrorism, it is vital to pause, rethink and reengage with the issue. I believe nothing can help us understand the phenomena of terror attacks better than an anthropological approach, grounded in human-centred ideas. For it tells us to understand events in a holistic manner, for it underscores the root cause over symptom.

Using this insight, it is crucial to engage with the root factors that drive radicalisation and extremism. Terror attacks, like physical pain, are symptoms of an underlying, deeper problem which remains largely invisible. A painkiller may help suppress the pain but the cause remains untreated and so the pain may recur.

We need an anti-biotic that will eliminate the germs completely.

Terrorism is a violent protest against years of oppression and brutal imperialism. It is a reaction to western dominance and supremacy, articulated by the idea of ‘whiteman’s burden’ and fuelled by forces of deprivation and isolation. Unless we understand and acknowledge these real underlying causes, we will never be able to effectively defeat the haunting reality of terrorism.

The root causes of alienation and deprivation in the non-western world can be traced back to colonial history. Many of the issues and challenges we face today have their roots in imperial conquest. From the Americas to the Asian and African continents, colonial expansion brought Europeans and their institutions around the world. Pre-existing systems and societies were reorganised and sometimes destroyed. The institutions established during colonialism exhibited over-time effects and continue to influence development outcomes.

For instance, European colonisers made extensive use of slave labour to gain from the lucrative production of sugar plantations in Cuba, Barbados and Jamaica. While these economies enjoyed high per capita income, the distribution of wealth and human capital was extremely unequal. The greater inequality in wealth (resulting from sugar profits and human capital disparity between black slaves and whites) contributed to institutions that protected the privileges of elites and restricted opportunities for the vast majority of population. That inequality persists to date, exacerbated by present-day neoliberal policies.

Neoliberalism which emerged as a western ideology in the 80s was in many ways an extension of colonial legacies referred to as neo-colonialism. Neoliberal policies were aggressively and often violently forced on the postcolonial world by the western powers such as the United States and Britain.

These have had profound implications not just for development of local economies but more indicatively in driving events such as the current European refugee crisis.

A key reason why people want to go to the north to Europe and America is to escape poverty. Here, the western powers have a very visible hand in the catastrophe. For many years, international financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank have forced African and Latin American economies to accept neoliberal economic and political reform. The infamous Structural Adjustment Programs as part of neoliberal reform slashed growth rates in non-western parts of the world particularly Africa, Latin America and South Asia. Not only do neoliberal policies have an inconsistent record on growth but more importantly they have worsened income inequality.

Inequality in the advanced, capitalist countries is perhaps the greatest economic challenge at present, unequivocally attributed to the capitalist ideology.

The rising inequality driven by neoliberal policies has contributed to increasing polarisation in society. The great financial crisis of 2008, seen as a failure of neoliberalism, further widened the divide in the wake of fewer economic opportunities. Fears of immigration increased as competition over scarce opportunities intensified. Ethnic minorities and immigrants suffered disproportionately from the recession and rising income inequality, completely excluded from the fortunes of capitalism. In this context of heightened discrimination and exclusion, young people from marginalised minority groups are desperate for alternatives. The ever-increasing sense of alienation and deprivation make them exceedingly vulnerable to more compelling narratives offered by jihadist groups. This breeds radicalisation which ultimately increases the risk of terrorist activity.

Who is to blame for all of this? Radical fundamentalists or the process which produces them?

The process of exclusion has been exacerbated by religious and cultural racism against Muslims. The terror attacks of 9/11 sparked an outburst of anti-Muslim prejudice in the western world. The attack on Charlie Hebdo reinforced stereotypes against Muslims across Europe, fuelling further alienation. The latest terror attacks will significantly contribute to stigmatisation of Muslim communities in Europe and polarisation in western societies. With growing Islamophobia, the resounding issues of deprivation, disillusionment and inequality gain resonance, the very causes of radicalisation.

Many of the present-day problems in the western world are fruits of their own labour.

Who started the Iraq war?

How did neoliberalism become a hegemonic discourse that has come to dominate the world?

Did the terrorist monsters descend out of nowhere to destroy western values and civilisation?

Or are certain groups driven prone to radical forces through exclusionary policies?

The problems of terrorism and extremism are unintended consequences of ill-thought out and exploitative foreign and domestic policies; years of violent intervention and exclusion. They are manifestations of protest against imposition of a certain way of life and disregard of indigenous lifestyles.

In order to tackle them, we are going to need to abandon the very forces which feed them. Blaming exposure to extremist ideology as the main cause of young people’s involvement in terrorism will not work. The governments’ anti-extremist strategies will undermine trust and alienate pupils and hence, will be counterproductive.

In order to mitigate the threat of terrorism, the governments will need to address the root causes of radicalisation such as income inequality and social exclusion. They will need to manage the pervasive issue of Islamophobia and violent discrimination. The fight against terrorism must be pursued in an inclusive manner that reflects national and cultural solidarity across all ethnic and religious groups. Stepping up the air strikes or leading a ‘merciless’ military fight against assailants will not help. It is time to rethink, reimagine and redefine the counter strategy!

Hamza Siddiq

Hamza Siddiq

The author teaches global politics and international development for the University of London International Programme. He tweets as @hamzasiddiqkhan (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.