Dead evil?

Terrorist obituaries: some early research reflections

Terrorists – or, better, those who are widely portrayed as ‘terrorist’ – are remembered in a multiplicity of ways after their death. In murals and in music, in slogans and speeches, on t-shirts and online, in fiction and in film. All of these ‘memory works’ recreate the past for some purpose, including, variously, to describe, explain, obituarise, demonise, glorify, or mourn their protagonists’ life, death, and violences.

These mnemonic practices are important – socially, politically, culturally, and perhaps economically – for at least four reasons.

Memory matters

First, they help frame the meaning of violent acts and violent actors. Consider the difference, for instance, between rebel songs which celebrate heroic martyrs, on the one hand. And, on the other, media coverage of female suicide bombers which tends to feminise its subjects via emphasis on their private lives, familial relations, and physical appearance.

Second, memories of dead ‘terrorists’ help to establish collective identities, including by positing moral distance between self and other. Descriptions of bin Laden cowering behind women at the moment of his killing, for instance, contrasted perfectly with celebrations of his courageous, masculine, killers standing as metonyms for the United States.

Third, they present an important site for (re)producing and contesting broader socio-political dynamics. The glut of cartoons mocking suicide bombers’ expectations of heavenly virgins, for instance, vividly demonstrate and perpetuate orientalist and Islamophobic discourse.

And, fourth, people seem to care, in that there is genuine public and political investment within diverse attempts to remember different ‘terrorists’. Repeated dispute around memorials commemorating IRA and UVF members in Belfast, for instance, provides but one continuing example of the importance of ethical as well as political questions around how – and, indeed, whether – ‘we’ should remember ‘terrorists’.

From present to past; from us to them

As a first step in a larger project exploring these constructions of dead evil and their significance, I have begun researching published ‘terrorist’ obituaries within recognized news media in the UK and beyond. Exploring these obituaries will, I hope, expand an existing sociological literature on the obituary and its place in collective memory. It will also help to build on and perhaps bridge two recent conversations within ‘critical’ terrorism research.

The first of these conversations focuses on how the threat of terrorism is socially constructed in political or media discourse and beyond. This literature has mushroomed in recent years, but its focus on articulations of present and/or future threat has not been matched by exploration of the importance and specificity of memories of dangers which are now past.

The second is a body of work on the commemoration of terrorism’s victims in diverse memory practices, from official ceremonies through to vernacular projects such as memorial websites. Where much of this – also largely interdisciplinary – literature focuses on performances of innocence, grief and trauma, less research has, again, been done on the work done by memory around figures of abjection where such articulations are often denied or heavily policed.

Research challenges

Although obituaries offer an interesting place from which to start such an analysis, they present methodological challenges worth mentioning. First, the pool of candidates sufficiently well known to merit their own obituaries in national media is relatively small. Although many of us will be familiar with several so-called ‘terrorist’ groups, there simply aren’t that many individual ‘terrorists’ out there whose lives have been (seen to be) dramatic or significant enough for obituarisation. Second, many of the world’s most (in)famous ‘terrorists’ are – bluntly – still alive! The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski; Shining Path’s Abimael Guzman; Abdullah Ocalan of the PKK; Aum Shinrikyo’s Shoko Asahara, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; Ayman Al-Zawahiri and many others would seem likely candidates for obituarisation at some future point, but not yet!

Third many of the most prominent individuals who have been deemed or explicitly labelled ‘terrorist’ by their opponents or others became famous for other activities, whether Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat or Menachem Begin. Such individuals fit uneasily with my focus on the remembrance of seemingly abject individuals, given they are remembered not (only, or even primarily) as ‘terrorist’. Similar reasons have led me not to investigate any of the more obvious ‘state terrorism’ candidates, who are more frequently remembered and at times commemorated as heads of state or similar; whether Stalin, Pol Pot, the Taliban’s Mullah Omar, or others. Finally, and potentially surprising, the obituarisation of those we condemn seems to be a relatively contemporary phenomenon, such that historical figures who retain contemporary name recognition such as Ulrike Meinhof don’t seem to have been widely obituarised at their death. This, of course, limits the historical reach of this stage of my research – and speaks to the growing prominence of ‘terrorism’ from the mid-late twentieth century onwards – but it also poses interesting questions about transformations in social memory in this context, and perhaps also beyond.

So, I return now to analysis of the obituarisation of George Habash as, ‘one of the most important Palestinian militant leaders’ (BBC), or ‘Terrorism’s Christian Godfather’; and of the ‘Terrorist leader‘ (The Independent) and ‘The Most Wanted Face of Terrorism’ (New York Times): Osama bin Laden. I’ll return to update this when I have more to report!

Lee Jarvis, 25 January 2018


Reflecting on reflecting on terrorism after Manchester

Lee Jarvis

Since news broke of Monday’s awful attack at the Manchester arena, I’ve received lots of invitations for interviews from media outlets. Given that I work on terrorism and counter-terrorism, this isn’t particularly unusual. Events such as this are clearly newsworthy, and raise lots of questions for publics and policymakers alike.

Usually I say yes to such requests. There is – I think – a responsibility on those of us fortunate to spend our time writing and teaching to try to communicate our thoughts beyond the university; perhaps especially when that topic has immediate public interest. There are also, of course, professional reasons – or motivations – for reaching out to as wide an audience as possible. And – if I’m being honest – it’s also flattering to get asked to do these things, even if deep down I know the media has to fill airtime somehow.

Yet, while I usually say yes, I also tend to end up a little disappointed with my efforts.

Often this is because I’m invited to speak about something ill-understood, or still unfolding; I remember, clearly, being pressed on al Qaeda in the aftermath of Anders Breivik’s 2011 attack in Norway. More than this, though, the types of question I tend to get asked are often not those I’m best placed to answer. This might be because my knowledge is limited: although I write on terrorism, I don’t really work on issues around intelligence gathering, policing, or related topics which recur after such events. Or, because I have no relevant training to draw on: how can I attempt to say anything worthwhile to those upset by witnessing such events, much less to victims or families caught up in them? Or, sometimes it is because I’m sceptical about the premises behind particular questions – for instance when I am asked about the ‘radicalisation’ of terrorist suspects.

What I tend to do as a starting point, then, is attempt to build three arguments into my answers, almost whatever the event. First, let’s be patient and find out a little more before rushing to judge an event ‘terrorist’, much less ‘Islamist’, ‘evil’, or the work of a specific organisation. Second, let’s not over-react and meet harm and violence with more harm and violence – military, communal, or discursive. And, third, although it’s really difficult to do, it’s important that we try to keep the threat of terrorism (at least in the UK) in context.

When I do manage this – and I have had some great discussions with some really interesting journalists – my disappointment tends to make way for something closer to (but not as strong as) worry. It’s easy to see how my stock answer is a long way from the platitudes that swamp social and broadcast media after an attack – many of which are obviously well-meaning. And, it’s not difficult, either, to see how my starting point could be seen as insensitive, unsympathetic, irreverent, apologetic, unpatriotic, disloyal, a distraction, or worse. (Although I’m far more concerned about appearing disrespectful than unpatriotic).

So, when news broke about Monday’s attack, I decided to respond by writing something initially, and see where that took me. This would give me space to articulate my thoughts more clearly, and to respond on terrain I’d set myself. I therefore wrote a short piece on the immediate response to the attack which focused on the suspension of electoral campaigning and inevitable appeals for political and public unity. The argument I tried to make was that these responses worked to reinforce a particular opposition between terrorism and the political, imagining the latter as a space of non-violent, consensual activity (in fact, looking back, I didn’t make the argument quite as concisely as this!). This is not a stunningly original argument, but it is important, I think, to explore how events are given meaning and to consider the work that such meaning-making practices do.

And yet, the thing is, after doing this – I felt worse than normal!

The more I followed subsequent coverage of the events, the more it felt as though I’d got my terrain wrong. Perhaps it was too soon to try to think through such questions. And perhaps my response did indeed trivialise – despite my caveats – the targeting and death of, amongst others, children in what would be a devastating event for many families. So, I didn’t do anything to publicise my blog, and I fell back to just following unfolding events on my computer.

And, that’s where I’m at now, really.

I do think it’s important that the news vacuum after attacks such as in Manchester isn’t simply filled with (what are often disparagingly called) ‘terrorism experts’ speculating on strategy, intelligence, terrorism threat levels, and the shoring up of national security. In fact, I think the invisibility of other types of scholar and other types of scholarship at such moments works to re-produce the especial importance of particular research agendas and their connections to ineffective, indeed often harmful, forms of politics and policy.

Perhaps more controversially, I also think it can be important to do something other, or more, than express sympathy for the victims of such attacks, however well-meaning such expressions might be. (Although, I’m aware, of course, that this piece might itself seem a self-absorbed distraction).

I’m sure I’ll say yes, again, in the future. In fact, I have things I’d like to say now about the UK’s response to the attack, not least with the raising of threat levels and militarisation of Britain’s streets (although my concerns about appearing irreverent would no doubt resurface). I guess, in the meantime, I’m really only left with questions (none of which, again, are startlingly original): Who gets to decide what can and can’t be discussed after horrific events? Whose interests are served by such discursive rules and constraints? When is it appropriate to pursue different sorts of question, or to move beyond expressions of grief or sympathy? What responsibility do different types of research(er) have after such events? And, how might I experience such constraints (which I have – let’s be clear – only, really, assumed) should I want to speak from a position less privileged than my own?

24 May 2017


Boundary-drawing in Tales told by Handmaids, Presidents and (briefly) Prime Ministers

Lee Jarvis

The excesses and absurdities of Donald Trump’s first few days in office have left many of us groping for appropriate ways to make sense of, and respond to, a President of the United States – the President of the United States of America – explicitly defending torture, signing executive orders to facilitate the building of ‘a contiguous, physical wall or other similarly secure, contiguous, and impassable physical barrier’ on the US-Mexico border, taking action against abortion, and introducing a new travel ban whose targets include anyone arriving to the US from the Muslim-majority countries of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. Confronted with these actions, several commentators have turned to dystopian fictions – especially George Orwell’s 1984 – to make sense of this administration’s eager marriage of executive and discursive power, evident, most egregiously, in Kellyanne Conway’s almost-impressively straight-faced invocation of ‘alternative facts’.

One dystopian resource mentioned in at least one such effort is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: a work of ‘speculative fiction’ exploring the intersection of gendered, classed and (less explicitly) racialised hierarchies. In Atwood’s tale, political power becomes most clearly manifest in the regimented control of women’s bodies that marks the emergence of a new social order following a ‘catastrophe, when they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency’ (Atwood 1996: 182-183). As Atwood’s (1996: 183) narrator – Offred (literally, ‘Of Fred’) – explains:

They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time. Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control. …That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.

And, as Offred continues, initial bemusement, perhaps even acquiescence, gradually gave way to a normalization of intrusive security powers in the name of ‘our’ collective security from an ambiguous and, indeed, slowly-vanishing threat:

Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said. The roadblocks began to appear, and Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful. They said that new elections would be held, but that it would take some time to prepare for them. The thing to do, they said, was to continue on as usual (ibid).

Atwood’s novel, I think, sheds useful light on two key dynamics that have marked counter-terrorism developments in the last week or so. The first of these dynamics is a temporal one, and relates to the importance of claims to exceptionality in the construction, justification and acceptance of often-significant security measures. Terrorist attacks (in the recent past) or threats (in an imminent future) are frequently represented as a radical interruption of normality: as an exceptional break from the quotidian banality of everyday social and political life. There is no more obvious example of this than 9/11 which was widely written as a dividing point between (secure) past and (dangerous) future. As then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice (cited in Jarvis 2009: 64) put it less than a month after those attacks – attacks, indeed, that were also invoked by President Trump in his signing of his ‘extreme vetting’ Executive Order:

September 11th was one of those rare dates that forever divides history into distinct categories of before and after. Everyone will remember what he or she was doing on September 11th. It was a day when the dark and impossible became a horrific reality for our country and for the world. We commonly hear the refrain that everything changed on September 11th. In many ways that is true.

A similarly exceptional logic does much of the work needed for the sense of urgency underpinning President Trump’s #muslimban. As the President recently tweeted, doing nothing in the current situation is simply not an option: ‘Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW’. This is because, as outlined at the CIA headquarters:

We have to get rid of ISIS. Have to get rid of ISIS. We have no choice. …This is a level of evil that we haven’t seen. And you’re going to go to it, and you’re going to do a phenomenal job. But we’re going to end it. It’s time. It’s time right now to end it (my emphasis).

What should not, however, be missed in these claims of radical temporal discontinuity confronting both the American public and – in Atwood’s novel, Offred – is that they dovetail with a seemingly antithetical argument that the exceptional response to exceptional circumstances is also – at the same time – representative of normality. Things are returning – or, at least, things will return – to the way they previously were, in the past, as long as we accept these temporary security measures (which might turn out to be rather more than temporary). President Trump’s accompanying statement to his Executive Order on ‘extreme vetting’, for instance, highlighted continuities both with enduring American values (more on these below) and with the actions of his immediate predecessor:

America is a proud nation of immigrants and we will continue to show compassion to those fleeing oppression, but we will do so while protecting our own citizens and border. America has always been the land of the free and home of the brave. We will keep it free and keep it safe, as the media knows, but refuses to say. My policy is similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months (my emphasis).

The second dynamic pointed to by Atwood is that these claims to various pasts, presents and futures which underpin the politics of security also rely upon specific identity claims. The past which we have either now left (because of the logic of emergency) or to which we may return (if we accept the logic of emergency and its consequences) is, of course, our past. It is ‘we’ who have either moved away from or toward a (mythical, imaginary) version of ourselves characterised by particular principles, norms or ways of life.

The problem, however, is that identity claims are inherently contestable, as we have seen with the critiquing of Trump’s travel ban by other Americans including Republican lawmakers, and former Presidents and Vice Presidents, all of whom have articulated equally powerful claims to ‘the American’ self-identity and its values. Identities are contingent, rather than essential: they come into being through practices and performances that, amongst other things, posit distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’. That is why efforts to shore up the self so frequently run into opposition from those who would story – and secure – the self rather differently. As Senator Charles Schumer put it, so powerfully:

…tears are running down the cheeks of the Statue of Liberty tonight as a grand tradition of America, welcoming immigrants, that has existed since America was founded has been stomped upon

Those within the United States seeking to maintain a coherent distinction between ‘us’ and ‘our values’ so threatened by ‘them’ might benefit, once more, from a flick through The Handmaid’s Tale. Everyone able to do so – and some that are coerced to do so – flaunts the new administration’s rationale and rules in some way or other, transgressing norms relating to speech, sex and beyond. Even so authoritarian, so hierarchical, a regime as Gilead fails to maintain its strict sense of self-identity, however severe and spectacular the punishments for would-be or forced-to-be miscreants.

Defenders of American borders and values might also, however, take heed from recent developments across the Atlantic – and the apparent collapse of the United Kingdom’s new counter-extremism bill. The continuing failure of the British government to define this bill’s object – extremism – and its subject – ‘British values’ – offers as good a cautionary note as any about the limitations of boundary-drawing in the name of national security. As this experience shows, the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is far less certain, and far less fixed, than populist appeals to new threats would have us believe. Notions of ‘British values’ – as with notions of ‘American values’ – strain, and ultimately collapse, under attempts to pin down and secure them from external threats; whether those attempts involve the construction of tighter definitions, higher walls, or new immigration regimes.

Initially published here on 30 January 2017


How to ban a terrorist organisation

Lee Jarvis and Tim Legrand

On 16 December 2016, the United Kingdom banned National Action: a far-right extremist organisation that had risen to prominence for its glorification of Nazi atrocities and of the killing of Jo Cox MP in June 2016. The banning of National Action involved the Home Secretary laying an order before Parliament on Monday 12 December – under the Terrorism Act 2000 – and subsequent debates in each of the UK’s Houses of Parliament. This brought the total number of groups listed under the UK’s proscription regime to 85, including organisations banned under previous legislation in relation to Northern Ireland. The consequences of proscription are significant, and include criminalising membership of, and support for, those organisations.

Over the past couple of years, we have been researching how politicians, as members of the legislature, debate the government’s efforts to add new organisations to this list of banned groups. These debates are important, we feel, because they say something about the nature of contemporary security politics (illustrating how threats are identified, prioritised, and responded to), and because they tell us something, too, about the politics of democracy and parliament in the contemporary period. An early article from this work argued that these debates are significant moments in the (re)production of (here, British) national identity. Forthcoming articles take this further, exploring the importance of specific questions within these debates, and arguing that the debates might be thought of as a form of political ritual, rather than a decision-making process in any meaningful sense.

The following draws on this research to tease out ten key features of last week’s two Parliamentary debates that led to the banning of National Action. Each of these features were predictable from a reading of equivalent debates going back across the 16 years since the passage of the Terrorism Act: hence the ritualistic nature of the proscription regime. We present them, therefore, as a set of ten guidelines on how one might go about banning terrorist organisations. The glibness of this presentation is is not, of course, in any sense an argument that National Action and the activities of its members are not deeply unpleasant. Nor is it to trivialise the violences this organisation appears to have revelled in, nor even to argue that there is anything untoward or problematic in the use of proscription in this case (although the power’s efficacy as a counter-terrorism tool is certainly contestable). Rather, it is an effort to take these debates seriously because the politics and performances of security in democratic states such as the UK matters, we think, a great deal. Both debates – and all of the previous ones – can be accessed directly via Hansard. See here for the House of Commons (HoC) debate, and here for the House of Lords (HoL) debate.

  1. Establish a clear demarcation between self and other

The two recent debates in the UK Parliament are saturated by a distinction between National Action, on the one hand, and the UK self (variously embodied by the government, by Parliament, or the nation more broadly), on the other. The former is ‘racist’, ‘neo-Nazi’, and irresponsible in its ‘endorsing [of] violence against ethnic minorities’ (Ben Wallace, HoC). It ‘rejects democracy’ (Baronness Williams, HoL) and follows a ‘warped, demented ideology’ (Jim Shannon, HoC) which is ‘virulently racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic (Lord Rosser, HoL).

‘We’, on the other hand, embody a cautious and responsible political process in which ‘the Home Secretary exercises her power to proscribe only after thoroughly reviewing the available evidence on an organisation’ and therefore with ‘great care and after careful consideration of the particular case’ (Ben Wallace, HoC). Our ‘core [British] values’ (Ben Wallace, HoC) stand, then, in direct contrast to this group – which ‘is clearly a terrorist organisation’ (Louise Haigh, HoC) – whose ‘appalling words’ (Richard Arkless, HoC), infringe upon ‘the right of free speech for the rest of us’ (Baroness Hamwee, HoL).

  1. Situate Parliament’s actions in wider socio-political context

This might involve invocation of (presumed) public support for a particular proscription decision – ‘People will welcome this move today’ (Luciana Berger, HoC). Or, alternatively, praising the counter-terrorism work of the security services, police and other security professionals: ‘I visited the Metropolitan police’s counter-terrorism unit and saw at first hand the difficult work it does to detect terror threats’ (Diane Abbott, HoC); a unit, indeed, who ‘day after day, day and night, work so hard to keep us safe’ (Keith Vaz, HoC).

  1. Emphasise the threat posed by the (soon-to-be) proscribed group

This can be done directly – ‘Anyone who seeks to glorify the Nazis is a threat to this country and our values’ (Ben Wallace, HoC) – and – ‘this far-right group is a genuine threat to our domestic security’ (Diane Abbott, HoC). Or it can be done indirectly, for instance with a nod toward necessarily secret information: ‘I cannot expand on the intelligence behind this particular decision’ (Ben Wallace, HoC), and ‘noble Lords will appreciate, I am unable to comment on specific intelligence (Baroness Williams, HoL). The soon-to-be proscribed group might be sizeable, possessing ‘a number of branches’ despite being ‘relatively small’, and its threat may be growing, such that ‘Since early 2016, National Action has become more active’ (Ben Wallace, HoC). The vulnerability of its potential victims, moreover, – not least potentially ‘impressionable young people’ (Diane Abbott, HoC) – might also be emphasised, given that we are dealing here with ‘the lowest of the low and those who threaten the very democratic process that we [Parliamentarians] are privileged to be part of’ (Jim Shannon, HoC).

  1. Draw upon historical analogies…

Easy, in this case, given this organisation’s apparently explicit support for Nazi atrocities.

  1. … and construct equivalences with other contemporary threats or moral panics

National Action’s use of the Internet should be acknowledged ‘for what is a kind of grooming’ (Ben Wallace, HoC). Debating its proscription, moreover, offers opportunity to discuss other concerns such as ‘Dissident Republicans [who] have access to Semtex’ (Jim Shannon, HoC).

  1. Sprinkle the debate with appropriate tropes

This might help to demonise the organisation and its ‘evil tentacles’ (Keith Vaz, HoC) – as the latest incarnation of terrorism’s ‘scourge’, the ideology of ‘which has become a cancer’ (Diane Abbott, Hoc). Alternatively, but as helpfully, employ rhetorical flourishes to demonstrate the need for steadfastness in a most difficult set of circumstances, perhaps by noting that ‘we cannot give an inch’ to groups like National Action (Diane Abbott, HoC).

  1. Clarify the value of proscription as a counter-terrorism tool

This is another mainstay of Parliamentary discussion around the addition of new organisations to the UK’s list, with often near-verbatim accounts of proscription’s value stretching across these debates. So, as is normally the case, we saw proscription this week being described as performing multiple functions, including ‘halt[ing] fundraising and recruitment’ (Ben Wallace, HoC) enabling the police to carry out disruptive action’ (Ben Wallace, HoC) and ‘send[ing] a strong message that we will not tolerate terrorist activity here’ (Baronness Williams, HoL).

  1. If in opposition, be explicit in providing full support for the executive’s actions

As Diane Abbott (HoC), put it – using language entirely characteristic of these debates regardless of party political allegiance: ‘The Opposition welcome this order proscribing the new Nazi group National Action and give it our full support’. Fellow Labour MP Keith Vaz (HoC) similarly noted, ‘I welcome the decision to ban this group’, as did Richard Arkless (HoC) from the SNP: ‘We in the SNP support this organisation’s being added to the proscribed list’. If in government, in contrast, don’t forget to thank the opposition for their support: ‘I am grateful to the Labour party…for their support’ (Ben Wallace, HoC).

  1. Use the debate to ask tangentially related questions

Common here is the fate of ostensibly similar organisations who might be equally deserving of listing, such that ‘Will my hon. Friend tell the House whether any other groups similar to this particularly unpleasant group are near to having the same sort of decision made about them by the government?’ (Nicholas Soames, HoC). More directed interventions point instead toward specific organisations: ‘I also want to take this opportunity to call on the government to give time to debate the proscription of Britain First’ (Louise Haigh, HoC). Equally common – for those concerned about the effects of specific proscription decisions upon particular communities are questions about the de-listing of organisations already on the UK’s list (a notoriously difficult process): ‘Have there been any deproscriptions since the last time the House passed an order proscribing an organisation in July?’ (Keith Vaz, HoC).

  1. Proceed to the end of the debate and pass the motion

Having discussed proscription’s value, having asked questions of the executive, and having elaborated on the threat posed by the specific organisation in question, move (fairly swiftly) to add it to the list of banned groups. In the UK, at least, Parliament always approves orders to add organisations to this list. This is so even in the case of multiple organisations which must be added in their entirety, given that proscription orders cannot be altered. It is even the case, indeed, where specific legislators are explicit in their lack of knowledge about soon-to-be proscribed organisations, including in those cases where they lack access to the information required to question the government’s decision.

Initially published on LSE Politics & Policy, 23 December, 2016


When is a terrorist not a ‘terrorist’?

Lee Jarvis

On Wednesday 23 November 2016, a British man – Thomas Mair – was given a whole life sentence for the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox. Jo Cox was, apparently, seen by Mair as symptomatic of those liberal apologists for multiculturalism; his determination to kill her purportedly stoked by a fascination with Nazism, as well as the febrile climate that surrounded the run-up to the British referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union. According to eye-witnesses, as reported by the Guardian, Mair killed Cox while shouting: “Britain first, keep Britain independent, Britain will always come first”, and, finally, “This is for Britain.”

The aftermath of Jo Cox’s murder and (more recently) Mair’s conviction has seen much debate around important questions of responsibility, in particular. Was Mair’s responsibility diminished by any mental health problems he may have been suffering, was an early such concern. As was the role of some of the deeply unpleasant propaganda associated with the referendum’s ‘leave campaign’ – not least Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster.

A more recent question still, however, focused on the apparent judicial and media hesitation to name Thomas Mair what – for many – he so clearly is: a terrorist. Some of these concerns focused on the use of scare quotes in media reporting of his trial and conviction, such that Mair’s description as a ‘terrorist’ might be seen by readers either as a quotation or as implying some level of ambiguity. Others have asked why Mair was charged with murder, rather than under a counter-terrorism offence. Underpinning much of this debate has been a fear – or an accusation – of double standards: a concern that similar circumspection is frequently not forthcoming when the violent actors are non-white, or – especially – when they are Muslim. In this view, mainstream media, and other parts of the establishment, are seen to be more cautious to describe the violences of right-wing, homophobic, racist or simply white actors as terrorist than they are when discussing the actions and motivations of others.

Questions such as these draw upon a long history of contestation around the meaning and the application of the term ‘terrorism’ (bear with me on the scare quotes). This is a term that has been around for over two hundred years, yet continues to evade all attempts to definitively pin it down. Despite their efforts, academics, international organisations, and even individual governments have really struggled to establish a single, universal meaning for this most important and powerful of contemporary terms.

Reasons for this failure (if it is, indeed, a failure) are multiple, but include: the term’s negative connotations which make objectivity in its use difficult (no-one, really, describes themself as a terrorist today); historical changes in the meaning and use of this word (it is only, really, from the mid-twentieth century onwards that the term has been primarily used to describe non-state violences against ‘innocent’ targets); the sheer diversity of violences that we might describe as terrorist (types of group; types of motive; types of strategy, etc.); and the intrusion of political interests, such that the term is routinely used to demonise one’s opponents. Margaret Thatcher in 1987, for instance, famously said of Nelson Mandela’s group, the ANC: ‘The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation … Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land’. Six years later Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize.

With these difficulties in mind, and returning to Mair’s killing of Jo Cox, there are – I think – four questions we need to answer to decide where we sit on the labelling of his actions. These questions are as follows:

Question 1: Does terrorism have a specific, definable meaning (or a core essence) that we might be able to pin down and perhaps even agree upon?

Question 2: If terrorism does have such a meaning, what is it? What are its main characteristics?

Question 3: Given questions one and two, does Mair’s violence fit with the main characteristics of terrorism?

Question 4: Has the term terrorism been used appropriately by the media and others in describing Mair’s violence? Or, put slightly differently, is there inconsistency in the use of this term to describe Mair’s violence vis-à-vis the violences of others?


If we answer yes to question one then we can move straight on to question two and begin attempting to pin down the meaning of terrorism. This won’t be easy – one academic book identified over 250 different definitions of this word – but it might not be impossible as lots of important words are similarly difficult to define (war; democracy; freedom; security; culture; love, etc., etc.).

Once we feel we have arrived at a satisfactory definition of terrorism – which might include characteristics such as ‘violence’; ‘a political motive’; ‘a non-state perpetrator’; ‘a communicative function’ or, indeed, others, then we move on to question three. Here we must begin the evaluative task of deciding whether Mair’s violence does indeed fit the definition we have constructed. If we find that it does, then we might proceed to question four and begin thinking about inconsistencies in the use of the term. Here, our aim might be to expose hypocrisy or hidden agendas that work in the interests of some to allow the naming of similar violences in different ways. Something similar to this is frequently found in academic work on ‘state terrorism’, much of which seeks to explore why governments are so keen to describe violences which appear – effectively – identical in quite different ways when they are conducted by governments or non-governmental actors.

There is, however, another route we might take that would involve answering ‘no’ to question one. We might, for instance, say that ‘terrorism’ (here come the scare quotes) is nothing more than a label that is applied to certain acts which – in the process of being labelled ‘terrorist’ – become terrorist. In other words, the naming of a particular killing or bombing as ‘terrorist’ is, here, what makes it a terrorist act: the language that we use creates the world around us, rather than represents or reflects it.

If we decided to pursue this type of approach, then questions two and three become rather less important for us, and we can proceed straight on to question four. However, rather than seeking to identify errors or hypocrisies in the labelling of violences – or the labelling of Mair’s violence, more specifically – the task now would be to think through what it is that makes some violences describable as ‘terrorist’? And, at the same time, what it is that prevents others being described in this way? Whether Mair should or should not have been described as a ‘terrorist’, here, is far less important than how he came not to be described thus, and what this might say about the coherence of broader arguments or discourses around terrorist violence. The use of scare quotes, or the decision to try him with particular offences might then, have been neither correct nor incorrect. But these were decisions and it is those decisions which should be questioned, and the grounds upon which they might have been made identified, queried, and perhaps destabilised. This questions might rely upon a slightly different understanding of the purposes and nature of critique than that underpinning some of the above. But they offer, I suspect, a different way of engaging with the politics of language in such difficult circumstances.

Originally posted here, 24 November 2016.


Research project on British [Muslim] Values: Participants wanted

Volunteers are sought for a new research project titled – British [Muslim] Values: Conflict or Convergence? – hosted at the University of East Anglia. The project will focus on what ‘British values’ means to different Muslim individuals and communities in Eastern England, with its major research questions including:

  • How do different Muslim communities in Eastern England understand the term ‘British values’?
  • How does political or media discussion of ‘British values’ impact on Muslims in the UK?
  • How do ‘British values’ relate to Islam and/or Muslim identity.

As part of this project, we are now recruiting eight people to produce, edit and screen short autobiographical films (approximately 10 minutes in length) engaging with the above themes. Two filmmakers will be selected for each of the following places: Norwich, Ipswich, Luton, and Bedford.


Benefits to participants

Successful participants will be given control over the content and style of their film, and will benefit from the following:

  • Training in filmmaking and editing from our project partners: BBC Voices.
  • Training in research design and research ethics from academics at the University of East Anglia
  • Access to the technology needed to produce and edit the films.
  • Opportunities to screen their film and to discuss it in focus group situations.
  • Named credit for the final film, and permission to re-screen it as desired.
  • Experience of working in a team of experienced researchers at the University of East Anglia.


The selected eight individuals will each be financially remunerated to a total of £300 for their time and expertise upon delivery of the final, edited, film to the researchers. Successful applicants will be asked to deliver their films to the research team by 1 January 2017.The film-makers will also be provided with funding for travel to scheduled meetings with the UEA researchers and BBC Voices.


How to apply

Interested individuals are invited to apply for this opportunity by sending the following to Dr. Lee Jarvis (contact details below) before 5pm on 17 October 2016: [*** Please note this deadline has been extended from 30 September *** ]


  • Why my film (maximum 500 words): A brief description of the proposed focus, style and locations of your film.
  • Why me (maximum 500 words): A brief description of why you are interested in taking part in the project, and any relevant or interesting background.


Please be aware that successful and unsuccessful applications may be used – in anonymised form – for subsequent academic activities relating to the project. Applying signals your consent to this.


Further information

  • We are keen to recruit participants from a variety of demographic backgrounds, including in relation to gender, age, ethnic identity.
  • No experience of film-making or research is required.
  • British [Muslim] Values is an academic research project. Outputs and findings from the project – including the films – will be shared with academic, policy and public audiences.
  • The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, under the Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research, reference: AH/N008340/1
  • The project has ethical approval from the University of East Anglia, and will be conducted according to the university’s research ethics guidelines.
  • The research team is made up of: Dr. Lee Jarvis (School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies), Professor Lee Marsden (School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies) and Dr. Eylem Atakav (School of Film, Television and Media Studies). Further details on all of the researchers is available via the University of East Anglia website.


Contact Details

To apply to take part in this project, or for any further information, please contact Dr. Lee Jarvis at the following:

Dr. Lee Jarvis



Postal address: Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies

Faculty of Arts and Humanities

University of East Anglia

Norwich Research Park

Norwich, UK




Anjem Choudary’s conviction and the politics of counter-terrorism

We learned on Tuesday (16 August) that Anjem Choudary – frequently described as a ‘radical cleric’ or ‘hate preacher’ – has been convicted under Section 12 of the Terrorism Act 2000 for inviting support for Islamic State (IS): a banned organisation within the United Kingdom. Choudary has enjoyed a considerable media profile in the United Kingdom and beyond for a number of years now, and was a key figure in other – also banned – groups: Islam4UK and al-Muhajiroun. Critics of Choudary have long-argued for his centrality in perpetuating a climate in which extremism and terrorism can flourish, with his ‘followers’ including the two killers of Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May 2003.

Choudary’s conviction is, I think, an important one as it allows us an opportunity to reflect on four key issues relating to contemporary counter-terrorism powers. The first of these issues is the process by which groups such as Islamic State find themselves on the UK’s list of banned organisations: a process known as proscription. The contents of such lists vary considerably between countries, and, indeed, over time. There are currently eighty groups on the UK’s list of proscribed organisations, for instance; a figure which compares with 60 foreign terrorist organisations listed in the United States, 54 in Canada, and 20 in Australia. Interestingly only 13 groups are proscribed – or banned – in all four of these countries.

Although surprisingly little academic research has been done on proscription beyond a relatively bounded set of questions relating to ethics and effectiveness, the power is an important one not least because it is used to delimit and police the boundaries of what is politically acceptable within a particular territory. As we have seen illustrated in Choudary’s case, the proscription of an organisation makes it a criminal offence to belong to or invite support for a group. But the power also triggers a range of additional offences including in relation to wearing clothing or carrying articles in public ‘which arouse reasonable suspicion that an individual is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation’ (Home Office, 2011). Advocates of proscription argue that the power plays a vital deterrent role in countering terrorism and that it may, in addition, help disrupt terrorist activities. It is also widely seen to have important symbolic value: delegitimizing the actions of particular organisations, and may contribute to international cooperation within and beyond counter-terrorism efforts.

Critics of proscription, in contrast, argue that the power suffers from considerable problems of designation, politics, legitimacy and effectiveness. Amongst other things, the power runs up against: the challenge of identifying a terrorist group and its members, given that contemporary terrorist groups are frequently amorphous and evolving; dangers of external pressure being applied – from other countries, for instance – in order that particular groups are added to proscribed lists for reasons unrelated to terrorism; potential intrusions on fundamental freedoms of speech and assembly; limited democratic accountability given that proscription decisions are often made on (often understandably) secret intelligence; and, a questionable record of effectiveness in reducing terrorist violence. It is clear, in Choudary’s case, that the power has been successfully employed to secure the conviction of an individual responsible for considerable consternation amongst police, security, and indeed many Muslim, communities for some time. Questions over proscription’s broader effectiveness, however, arguably remain.

A second issue raised by news of Choudary’s conviction is that it spotlights the importance of precursor or inchoate offences within contemporary counter-terrorism regimes. Such offences – which relate to those preliminary or preparatory activities required for a crime to take place – are not unique to counter-terrorism. There are, however, as Stuart Macdonald (2015: 132) points out, a particularly large range of these within the United Kingdom’s current counter-terrorist framework, relating, for instance, to:

  • Membership of a proscribed organisation (Terrorism Act 2000, section 11)
  • Support for a proscribed organisation (Terrorism Act 2000, section 12)
  • Fund-raising for terrorist purposes (Terrorism Act 2000, section 15)
  • Use or possession of money or other property for terrorist purposes (Terrorism Act 2000, section 16)
  • Failure to disclose information which might assist in preventing an act of terrorism (Terrorism Act 2000, section 38B)
  • Possession of an article for terrorist purposes (Terrorism Act 2000, section 57)
  • Collecting information or possessing a document likely to be useful to a terrorist (Terrorism Act 2000, section 58)
  • Inciting terrorism overseas (Terrorism Act 2000, section 59)
  • Encouragement of terrorism (Terrorism Act 2006, section 1)
  • Dissemination of terrorist publications (Terrorism Act 2006, section 2)
  • Preparation of terrorist acts (Terrorism Act 2006, section 5)
  • Training for terrorism (Terrorism Act 2006, section 6)
  • Attendance at a place used for terrorist training (Terrorism Act 2006, section 8).

In the case of Choudary’s conviction, his previous successes in avoiding serious criminal charges no doubt highlights the value of such offences for those charged with countering terrorism. At the same time – even if we are satisfied by this conviction – we might want to use these events as an opportunity to note, and perhaps even to reflect on, the scope of such offences. This is, not least, when we take into consideration the broad understanding of terrorism within the relevant legislation, and the problems of designation noted above. Indeed, such offences become – potentially – breathtakingly broad, as Stuart Macdonald (2015: 134) continues in his analysis of inchoate offences around terrorism more broadly:

‘it is an offence for an individual (D1) to intentionally encourage someone else (D2) to intentionally encourage someone else (D3) to cause someone else (D4) to publish a statement which indirectly encourages someone else (D5) to instigate someone else (D6) to commit an act of terrorism. What is more, D1 is guilty of this offence even if his initial encouragement never reached D2, as long as his act was capable of providing encouragement’

A third feature of this story is the taken-for-granted notion of ‘radicalisation’ within discussion around Choudary’s importance within contemporary terrorism in the UK and beyond. Much of the media commentary on his conviction has pointed to his role in ‘radicalising’ – usually – young, male, Muslims; often using the term as a straightforward description of the process through which an individual journeys toward terrorism, as, for instance, here or here. The problem here is that the term is anything but a straightforward one, and many researchers on ‘terrorism’ (itself a notoriously contested term) reject it because the concept: is an entirely new idea that wasn’t used to describe, for example, republican or loyalist violences in the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’; is not supported by any significant body of academic research; de-emphasises both individual agency and structural contexts such as foreign policy in the causes of terrorism, placing focus squarely on ‘vulnerable’ individuals and/or religion; simplifies and homogenises what is likely to be a complex, multi-directional and variable process guiding any individual’s movement toward ‘terrorism’; and, has been widely used to justify early forms of intervention in the lives of – typically – young men.

These problems do not, of course, mean that Choudary had no ro