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date: 22 February 2018

Framing Terrorism

Summary and Keywords

As a discipline, criminology tends to treat terrorism as an objective phenomenon, to be mapped, explained, and managed. Scholars informed by more critical strains of the discipline, however, argue that orthodox criminology is reductive and uncritical. Relying on normative definitions of terrorism, orthodox analyses reproduce assumptions of powerful institutions, thus collaborating and furthering a system of social control marked by increased authoritarianism. Cultural, critical, and constitutive criminologies call for a more politically engaged criminology, which recognizes that power is inherent to knowledge production.

How terrorism is socially constructed and framed is of primary significance, since terrorism is not a given, ontological fact, but rather a power inhered designation. The framing of terrorism through multiple, intersecting, discursive systems impacts radically how we make sense of the world. Cultural discourses (including media representations) intersect with and reinforce other institutional narratives, giving rise to a dominant script, which provides us with a framework for understanding terror.

Examining the cultural and social discourses that constitute this script is not an end point; rather, it is a way into cultural power. It is a means to critically assess cultural myths and ideological frames that are crucial in shaping our perceptions of safety and security, victims and perpetrators, and more. Cultural meanings work their way into our consciousness, engendering a framework for interpreting events and identities, compelling us to understand the world in particular ways, obliging us to consent to real world policies.

Much of the analysis in this vein examines the representation of terrorism and counter-terrorism through Edward Said’s lens of Orientalism. This approach highlights the ways in which terrorism has come to be conflated with Muslim identity, while it also highlights the binary structuring of this “Muslim as terrorist” script, which creates dualistic categories of us versus other, rational versus irrational, modernity versus anti-modernity, and so on. These binaries create essentialized visions of Islam and Muslims as chaotic, violent, and disorderly, who pose an apocalyptic threat to the West. Imagined as Islam’s binary opposite, the West is framed as being perilously at risk from an entire category of people who are discursively transformed into essentialized suspect communities.

These framings come to be institutionalized in the form of anti-terror policies and practices. As an example, the War on Terrorism slogan and the accompanying Orientalist imagery of the Muslim terrorist, was integral to lending legitimacy to international military action, the detentions in Guantanamo Bay, the use of torture, and more, post-9/11. Prevailing framings—dehumanizing and devoid of real context—were the scaffolding on which such policies and practices could be built. Indeed, undergirding the ever-increasing nexus of authoritarian, repressive counter-terrorism measures, is a cultural repertoire of Orientalist meanings that provide the cultural conditions necessary for us to consent to increasing social control. The material and often-brutal consequences of these policies are felt most keenly by those who are caught in the expansive, amorphous category of “Other.” This suffering is largely out of the frame, and instead, we are invited to think of the state response as a logical and necessary step to ensure our safety.

Understanding how abstract discourse comes to be embedded in institutional practice is crucial if criminologists are to take seriously the question of (in)justice. This necessitates resisting the troubling dominant discourses that frame terrorism, and it means that we must reflexively be aware of our own role in perpetuating “knowledge” and a cultural climate within which real people suffer.

Keywords: terrorism, counter-terrorism, cultural criminology, Orientalism, risk, representation, discourse, radicalization


Dominant forms of criminology tend to treat “terrorism” as an objective phenomenon to be mapped, explained, and managed. This positivist approach mirrors criminology’s broad orientation to address crime in general as a fixed category. Scholars informed by more critical strains of the discipline, however, argue that this managerial approach is reductive and uncritical in its use of highly contingent definitions of crime (here “terrorism”). These meanings largely reflect agendas of powerful institutions, and when treated as fixed facts by researchers, criminology reifies and reproduces such “facts,” collaborating and furthering a system of social control marked by increased authoritarianism (Platt, 2014, p. 3).

Cultural, critical, and constitutive criminologies proceed from the premise that there is an inbuilt political dimension to knowledge production within their master discipline (Hayward, 2011, p. 59). These critical voices call for a more politically engaged criminology, which recognizes that power is inherent to knowledge production (Campbell, 2010, p. 112). How crime—and more exactly here, terrorism—is socially constructed and framed is thus of primary significance, since phenomenon such as terrorism are not viewed as given, ontological facts, but rather as power-inhered designations (Turk, 2004).

Work in this vein seeks to show how terrorism is socially created through multiple, intersecting discourses, giving rise to an image of terrorism that has, dominantly in the West, come to be inextricably connected to Muslim identity. Cultural discourses (including media representations) intersect with and reinforce other institutional narratives (as an example, counter-terror discourse), giving rise to a dominant way of interpreting events in the world. This is not viewed as a reflection of an objective reality, but rather as a socially created “script,” which provides us with a framework for understanding “terror” (Campbell, 2010, p. 109). Examining the cultural and social discourses that constitute this script is not an end point, but rather it is a way to examine the role of culture in the operation of power. It is a means to critically assess cultural myths and ideological frames that are crucial in shaping perceptions of safety and security, victims and perpetrators, and more (Valverde, 2006). Cultural meanings work their way into one’s consciousness, engendering a framework for interpreting events and identities, compelling one to understand the world in particular ways, obliging one to consent to real world policies (Klein, 2012; Mythen & Walklate, 2006a; Campbell, 2010; Jackson, 2007).

Culture, Media, Power

While power has traditionally been conceived as something held and wielded from above by elites, more nuanced understandings, drawing, for example, on Foucault’s conception of power, regard it as diffuse, constitutive, and embodied in everyday discourse and practice (Rabinow, 1991). Criminologists influenced by these ideas as well as Gramsci’s concept of “cultural hegemony,” underscore the importance and capacity of symbolic power, particularly at the level of mass media disseminated meanings. Power is not here viewed as a force employed discretely in and through penal institutions, for example, but is instead understood as operating through a nexus of intersecting discursive processes. These include cultural discourses which (re)constitute ideological definitions of crime, which become part of the public psyche and popular culture (Quinney, 1970). Since the media is the principle vehicle for popular views, ideology, and information, it is primarily the way that people come to understand the world (Rothe & Muzzatti, 2004, p. 334). The social construction of crime and crime control through popular culture is thus of enormous consequence, since these images provide frameworks for making sense of “real world” crimes—as well as their control.

Elites, Power, and News Media

The type of relationship between politics, elites, and the media in relation to crime—and here terrorism—is far from straightforward. Some scholars—with a focus on news media and political discourse—suggest a closely aligned government/media, enabling elites to exert control over ideological, cultural messages. Ross (2007, pp. 217–218) explores the critical relationships between journalists, editors, and authorities pointing to the dissemination of misinformation given to reporters by national security agencies, which in concert with selective reporting, self-censorship, editorial discretion, and more, give rise to a dominant set of meanings, reflecting the interests of the powerful.

A number of studies in the United States and United Kingdom in this vein appear to capture the political elite’s effective utilization of the news media. For example, Scott Bonn’s (2011) quantitative analysis of U.S. public opinion leading up to the war in Iraq, showed a direct link between presidential rhetoric (disseminated by news media) and shifts in public support for military action (2011, p. 227). Analyses of New Labour’s political discourse in the United Kingdom by Kettell (2013) similarly showed how agents of that government shaped the context of political debate in order to obtain their objectives: to persuade and mobilize support as well as to undermine, challenge, and call into question opposing arguments (2013, p. 265). His analysis further explored the ways in which the war on terror was framed as a humanitarian effort, “to bring the values of democracy and freedom to people around the world” (2013, p. 268).

These studies are indicative both of the “cultural work” required for the public to consent to social control practices, but they are also suggestive of a state-engineered moral panic. Kramer and Michalowski’s (2006) state-corporate crime theory encapsulates elements of this project as they outline the connections between public opinion and ideological hegemony of the war on terror, with a focus on the invasion of Iraq. In so doing they emphasize the vertical relationship between individual, institutional, and political-economic dimensions, focusing on the top down political-economic and institutional forces in generating cultural influences on individuals (Klein, 2012, p. 91).

The news media’s continual coverage of the events of 9/11, “terror attacks” in Europe, the war on terrorism, ongoing speculation of imminent terrorist threats, and more, are a habitual feature of our news and keep terror firmly in the public’s imagination (Bonn, 2011; Klein, 2012). The repetitious nature of the reporting shores up and helps to stabilize a dominant way of viewing and interpreting events, ensuring that some acts are labeled as terrorism and others are not. As Banks (2011, p. 295), drawing on moral panic theory, reminds us, the news media do not simply reflect reality but play an active role in constructing it. As mass killings occur across the globe, the news media—which frequently rely on government officials and agencies for information and interpretation—are at the vanguard in defining and disseminating which violence is constructed and viewed as terrorism.

As an example, analyzing The New York Times’ coverage of the 2016 truck attack in Nice, which killed 84 people, Jim Naureckas (2016) shows how initial reporting provided no evidence that the suspect, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, was motivated by either politics or religion to commit violence, and yet The Times still labeled the murders as “terrorism.” He writes:

Despite the absence of any evidence of a political motivation, or indeed any motive at all—generally considered to be a key part of any definitions of terrorism—the Times story still referred to the Nice killings as “the third large-scale act of terrorism in France in a year and a half’ … Why is the Times willing to label the Nice deaths “terrorism”—a label that U.S. media do not apply to all acts of mass violence, even ones that have much clearer political motives? In part, they seem to be following the lead of French authorities: “French officials labeled the attack terrorism and cast the episode as the latest in a series that have made France a battlefield in the violent clash between Islamic extremists and the West.”

Naureckas’s analysis points to the direct influence of officials in affecting how an event is covered, but it also critically underscores the function of a cultural identity, as opposed to evidence, which he argues drives the defining process. Indeed, we should be alerted by the fact that there are many other mass killings that are not labeled as “terrorism.” This is particularly so within the United States where mass shootings occur with some regularity. The 2015 mass shooting of nine African Americans at a landmark black Charleston church by a self-proclaimed white supremacist, is illustrative of the function of “identity” in shaping how acts of mass violence are understood.

In the context of the United States, there is no one standard definition of terrorism, though commonly used by law enforcement communities and researchers is the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) definition, which defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” (National Institute of Justice, 2017). Given the relative breadth of this definition, many civil rights activists, in the wake of the Charleston massacre, questioned why this was classified as a “hate crime” as opposed to an act of terror (Gladstone, 2015). Quoting Dean Obeidallah, a Muslim-American commentator, Gladstone writes:

We have a man who intentionally went to a black church, had animus toward black people and assassinated an elected official and eight other people,” he said. “It seems he was motivated by a desire to terrorize and kill black people.”

Butler (2015) argues that the Charleston case is representative of the U.S. media’s overwhelming tendency to cover crimes involving African Americans or Muslims quite differently from those involving white perpetrators. She writes that as suspects, African Americans and Muslims

are quickly characterized as terrorists and thugs (if not always explicitly using the terms), motivated purely by evil intent instead of external injustices. While white suspects are lone wolves—Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley has emphasized that this shooting was an act of just “one hateful person”—violence by black and Muslim people is systemic, demanding response and action from all who share their race or religion.

Ideological frames can be seen to affect the way that violence is interpreted and understood. The current uncritical acceptance and normalization of terrorism as something connected to Islam and Muslim identity points to the operation of pre-existing cultural frameworks, which accord different meanings to violence depending on the identity of the perceived perpetrator. As Mythen and Walklate (2006b, p. 131) point out, an event is not merely shaped by what is happening but also by pre-existing assumptions, underlying cultural values, and political attitudes.

Popular Culture

In order to understand the conflation of terrorism with a cultural identity it is necessary to move beyond analyses which focus on the elite and their use of news media, and to think more broadly about the role of wider cultural narratives in manufacturing dominant meanings (Campbell, 2010). The focus on popular culture, alongside more formal institutional framings, allows for an analysis of the cultural conditions and processes which form the background to prevailing definitions of terrorism as well as the accompanying nexus of counter-terror measures. Klein (2012) argues that this focus is integral if we are to understand the “ideological enlistment” of the public to accept such policies, including (an illegal) war, which come to be substantially normalized culturally (2012, p. 86).

The extent to which we accept counter-terror initiatives aimed largely at Muslim populations is suggestive of the dispersal of power and the inextricable relationship between symbolic and political power (Campbell, 2010, p. 105). As Platt (2014, p. 5) notes in discussing the relationship between power, representation, and penal policies more broadly, “discursive practices” are “as much a part of social control as breaking up crowds or imprisoning offenders.” Interrogating these discourses is a way into understanding the “ideological abuse” (Barthes, 1972, p. 11) of images and narratives which construct and reproduce a dominant framework.

Judith Butler’s (2009) text, Frames of War, usefully showcases this utility of deconstructing such frameworks. Butler draws explicitly on the concept of “framing” to explicate the relationship between social, cultural, and political power in the mobilization (and justification) of military force. In so doing she examines media coverage of war, with a focus on Iraq, to show how such military action is reliant on frames which prevent “us” from recognizing the people killed in Iraq (often referred to as collateral damage) as living fully “grievable” lives. She writes, that those lives cannot be “apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living” (2009, p. 1). Butler’s analysis makes clear that discourse—or framing—is not merely abstract, but has multiple consequences which are both performative and regulatory. In other words, discourse (re)produces and attaches meaning to specific identities (here, us/them), while these meanings help to legitimate a range of social control policies, which for Butler includes unchecked violence against lives made ungrievable by strategic framings.

Fiction, Film, Framing

Images of terrorism and terrorists litter popular culture, featuring as fictionalized themes in films, TV shows, books, cartoons, and more. Since 9/11 Hollywood depictions have proliferated, with the creation of weekly drama shows depicting the evil and horrors of terrorist folk devils. For example, law and order TV serials such as The Shield, Third Watch, and Law and Order regularly depict Muslim terrorists in storylines (Rothe & Muzzatti, 2004, p. 335), while counter-terrorism-themed TV series such as 24, Homeland, Sleeper Cell, and NCIS continually reproduce the Muslim/terrorist equivalency, with the additional theme that “they” are on American soil (Rose, 2016). Frequently demarcated through generalized and reified symbols of Islam, terrorists are overwhelmingly represented as Muslim, driven to violence by religion.

This trope is repeatedly played out in films. Jack Shaheen’s (2001) systematic analysis of Hollywood’s treatment of Arab Muslims—pre-dating 9/11—indicated that with few exceptions nearly all of the 900 films examined depicted the same stereotypical images; specifically, Arab Muslims as violent hate figures intent on harming Westerners, especially Americans. Shaheen argues that this systematic narrative, unfailing in its creation and reduction of Muslims to a mass of faceless, human-less people, gives rise to Orientalist stereotypes which pervades our psyches. Rose (2016) argues that since 9/11 these representations have gotten worse. He writes:

Old-fashioned Islamophobia is still thriving, as demonstrated by current release London Has Fallen, in which Gerard Butler saves the world from yet another brown-skinned, detonator-happy terrorist with an Arab-sounding name, and dispatches evildoers with lines such as: “Get back to Fuckheadistan, or wherever you’re from.”

However, as Rose makes clear, post-9/11 Hollywood has created an even more troubling narrative which vilifies Arab- and Muslim-Americans in particular, as the terrorist threat is imagined as being ostensibly a domestic threat—“the enemy within.” Quoting Shaheen, Rose encapsulates this representational shift, pointing out that Hollywood has “blended the old stereotypes from ‘over there’ with new stereotypes from ‘over here,’” whereby all Muslim-Americans are imagined as potentially dangerous.

These fictional representations are not viewed as benign entertainment by cultural criminologists, but rather as significant depictions which impact how we interpret real world acts of violence. As Rafter (2007) notes, film is one primary source through which people get their ideas about the nature of crime. Given the underlying semiotic structure of film, which rests on binaries and oppositions with tropes of good/bad, us/them played out, this narrative form encourages a largely simplistic interpretation of the social world (Campbell, 2010, p. 101). As an example, Meeuf’s (2006) examination of action films, describes how melodrama as a narrative has been used as a means to address challenges to American identity. Through well-rehearsed motifs of good and bad, American identity is habitually represented as morally righteous, emphasizing America’s essential goodness through a node of American exceptionalism. Common to these narratives is the conquest of good over evil, whereby the American protagonist engages in retributive violence, which is already legitimated by a discourse of the immoral Other.

Alex Campbell’s (2010) analysis of film focuses more specifically on how filmic representations of the Muslim Other contribute to the “terrorism/counter-terrorism” script. With a focus on the 1998 movie, The Siege, she argues that the film, despite first impressions, recapitulates a set of Orientalist meanings as the Muslims depicted fall outside the frame of human. At the same time, an abstract, idealized version of American democracy is showcased, under siege from the Muslim terrorist who is positioned as a persistent threat (2010, p. 101). The (re)produced script contributes to a framework in which extreme (fictional and real world) extralegal and violent strategies are made reasonable as the image of the Muslim, “whose suffering and humanness is obliterated through representational absences” (2010, p. 100).

The problem of terrorism is defined in films such as The Siege but so, too, are the solutions to address terror. The equivalency made between Muslims and terrorist violence in fiction, for instance, helps to make the proffered repressive counter-terror “solutions” seem sensible and inevitable. These fictional forms provide a non-linear script to help us decode the world around us, helping us to make sense of events and to impose a sense of how to restore order (Valverde, 2006, p. 59). Fictional frames thus work into our consciousness, insidiously compelling us to understand the world and identities within it in a particular way as the audience integrates fictional frames of reference, which establish a lens for seeing the “real world.” Discourses, including fictional forms, are never neutral in their effects but are always an exercise in social power. Specifically, here, in relation to terror, the power to ascribe right from wrong, reasonable from unreasonableness (Jackson, 2007, p. 355).

Intersections: The Stabilization of Meaning

Cultural criminology emphasizes that socially constructed meanings are always open to derailment, specifically by competing, subversive articulations which seek to undermine dominant frames. Indeed, cultural meaning is considered to be a central site of political struggle. Widespread anti-war protests across the United States and Europe in response to the invasion of Iraq, for example, demonstrate that discourse is not totalizing. Yet the current equivalency of Muslim identity with terrorism demonstrates that under certain institutional and cultural conditions collective meanings can become devastatingly stabilized (Bourdieu, 1991). Here, the repetitious nature of the discourse across institutional planes fixes in place a set of preferred meanings. Political rhetoric meshes with popular fiction framings; the language of “the war on terror,” as an example, “interplaying with popular fictions of chaos and restored order, violence and resolution” (Campbell, 2010, p. 99). These discourses, argues Ahmed (2014, p. 361) are not abstract but become embodied in structure and are thus capable of causing targeted subjects harm. The construction of Muslims as a threat to security in fiction, for instance, help to justify and normalize political discourse which seeks to erode universal rights, civil liberties, and human rights, while normalizing torture, international military action, and more.

Deconstructing the Script: Frames of Terror

Isolating a set of institutional narratives and practices to understand the effects of discourse can be useful in showcasing their performative and regulatory character. However, in order to understand how meaning becomes culturally stabilized, it is critical to appreciate the intersection of discourses as top-down narratives circulate and (re)inforce cultural depictions. Common to these differing types of discursive forms are a range of signifying practices, which draw upon a repertoire of established terrorism imagery. Indeed, there is a contemporary way to think about and to talk about terrorism that is neither essential nor inevitable, but nonetheless appears to us as the only way to imagine terror. This dominant “script” has given rise to familiar protagonists, which “make sense” culturally precisely because the script resonates with already-familiar storylines, which have helped to facilitate the conflation of terror with Muslim identity.


Edward Said’s (1970) concept of Orientalism has been employed by scholars to show how longstanding understandings of Muslim and Arab identities in the West have enabled the contemporary equivalence of terrorism with Islam to take hold. Said’s work traces the historical representations of the “East” by the “West,” which he asserts have overwhelmingly represented Arab culture as exotic, irrational, uncivilized, and at times despotic. In spite of the enormous heterogeneity of Muslim identity (Spalek, 2004), these depictions collectively engender a narrowly drawn and monolithic image of a collective identity. As a result, a singular—negative—identity emerges as being representative of a highly diverse population, as differences within are erased, and differences between the East and West are imagined and grossly exaggerated.

The contemporary caricatures of Islam which abound in popular culture, reify Muslims as they are portrayed as a uniform entity, synonymous with terrorism and religious fundamentalism. Imagined as an unchanging identity, Muslims, frozen in time, are depicted as being compelled to violence and destruction by essential forces. Violence is rarely cast as being in response to policies and actions of the West, but rather as self-originating actions, expressions of essential dangerousness (Said, 1997). Fundamental to Said’s work is the idea that in creating an image of the East, the West simultaneously creates a vision of itself as the East’s binary opposite. The Orientalist project thus establishes contrasting visions of the East and West, producing dualisms of us/other, rational/irrational, modernity/anti-modernity, and so on. These binaries create essentialized visions of Islam and Muslims as chaotic, violent, and disorderly, who pose an apocalyptic threat to the ordered, civilized West. In this dualism the West is framed as being perilously at risk from an entire category of people who are discursively transformed into a group that is always already thought to be dangerous.

Drawing on the lens of Orientalism, Mooney and Young (2005) describe how these binaries have become foundational to the rhetoric of the war on terror: rational/irrational, justified/hysterical, focused/wanton, response/provocation, defensive/offensive, generating security/inspiring terror, modernity/anti-modernity. These dualisms create a vision of the East as inherently disorderly and violent, and becomes the grounds and legitimation for the war on terror as they are turned into a group that demands to be protected against. These dualisms allow entire regions and nation states to be turned into pariah status—labeled deviant and terroristic, “an axis of evil”—an enemy that can be grown or shrunk to fit (Mythen & Walklate, 2006a, p. 390). The longstanding discursive construction of the monstrous Other enables, in times of crises, the dualistic meanings to intensify (Mythen & Walklate, 2006a). The body of the Muslim is already a figure of danger—and thus appears as a natural enemy protagonist in the terrorism script.

The binary framework valorizes a battle between Muslims and the West which is set up as inevitable and natural. These pre-existing binary frames make it easy for Al-Qaeda and more recently ISIL to fit into the narrative, a natural progression as these groups are casually connected in a signifying chain to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the insurgency in Iraq, the civil war in Syria, and more. The linguistic linking of these groups and conflicts obliterates context and history, but turns the “Islamic enemy” into an overwhelming foe. Orientalism frames who are the victims, and as Mythen and Walklate point out, while there are innumerable victims of terror, many terror acts receive scant attention (2006a, p. 388). This is especially so when the victims are Muslim—either at the hands of Western states or are victims, for example, of ISIL violence.

Following the attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the slogan “Je suis Charlie” emerged. Shared over and over again, the eventual hashtag was deemed to embody a set of values in opposition to terrorism (Devichand, 2016). Similar slogans have since appeared—“We are Paris, we are Brussels”—embodying the familiar George Bush proclamation that you’re “either with us or against us.” Media and social media responses to similar attacks in Beirut, Baghdad, Ankara, and more have been markedly different. Comparing the reactions to the attacks in Paris and Beirut, for example, Anna Miller (2015) argues that:

Although the terrorist group behind the attacks in Paris and Beirut was the same, the Western media narrative has been vastly different. In Paris, ISIS attacked the city’s progressive youth, massacring dozens enjoying their night out at a concert, a soccer game, and a restaurant. In Beirut, ISIS struck a “Hezbollah stronghold” in the “southern suburbs of Beirut,” a poor, majority Shia area often characterized as a bastion of terrorism in the region. The attack was portrayed as little more than strategic punishment for Hezbollah’s ongoing involvement in the Syrian civil war and support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The brutal reality that Muslims are more likely to be victims of both extremists and Western aggression (Deardon, 2016) does little to problematize the binary frames of us/them, victim/perpetrator. Instead, with references to organizations such as Hezbollah (already labeled a terrorist organization by the West), we are invited to view violence as endemic to the Islamic world, an integral part of their culture that discursively lessens the significance and impact of devastating violence. The violence on European soil, through the prism of Orientalism, neatly fits analysis that these attacks represent a direct assault on Western values and ways of life. As news and social media accounts of individual victims in the West are widespread, accounts of Muslim victims killed in non-Western places are ordinarily absent, and if the violence is alluded to, is constructed by a discourse which undercuts individuality and autonomous existence (Ahmed, 2014).

The New Terrorism

At the heart of Orientalism is a cultural category—the Muslim Other—which is bound to imageries of dangerousness and terror through systems of repetitive representation. Through a sustained othering discourse, Islam is constructed as Other, as the antithesis of Western society, and indeed as a threat to the fabric of Western life (Silverman & Thomas, 2012, p. 286). With protagonists of terror thus drawn, Mythen and Walklate (2006a) contend that since 9/11, in particular, terrorism linked to extremist Muslim organizations has been imagined as presenting a new type of globalized threat. They write: “The ‘new terrorism’—as dubbed by government and security experts—has seeped into the political language and public discourse, intensifying the feeling that we are living in risky times” (2006, p. 379). Elsewhere they point out that the new terrorism thesis has become popular currency amongst journalists and politicians, whilst within security studies there is an assumption that terrorism has changed markedly in the last decade (Mythen & Walklate, 2006b, pp. 125–126). While the Orientalist conflation of Muslims with terrorism is not new, the largescale attack on Western soil has shifted and invigorated Orientalist meanings as post-9/11 discourse focuses on “the Muslim enemy within.”

Differentiated from other labeled terrorist organizations, such as the IRA and ETA, the “new terrorism” is constructed as more amorphous and pernicious, the new enemy as more apocalyptic and dangerous, ready to strike on Western turf (Burnett & Whyte, 2005, p. 5). Muslim terror is thus imagined as being fundamentally distinct from the operation of traditional terrorist groups, and this has instituted new ways of talking about terrorism (Mythen & Walklate, 2006b, p. 125), which relies heavily on Orientalist assumptions. The slogan “Global War on Terror” encapsulates this binary framework, as Ahmed (2014, p. 360) posits, the refrain embraces the expression of a polarizing vision of the world, “which pits modernity against backwardness, civilization against barbarism, and freedom against oppression.” Constructed is a dystopian vision of a clash between two radically different worlds, which is valorized as the defining battle of the ages.

The construct of the “new terrorism” has been so reified, argues Rothe and Muzzatti (2004, p. 335), that it circulates as a necessary truth. The narrative has been (re)established to the extent that when an event involving Muslims is involved, it is widely immediately interpreted as an expression of this new brand of terror, which aims to violently transform all things “we” stand for, while they are understood as only standing for “apocalyptic nihilism” (Rothe & Muzzatti, 2004). These catastrophic imageries, devoid of historical and political context, also contribute the idea that new terrorism is less amenable to traditional forms of social control (Burnett & Whyte, 2005; Ahmed, 2014). The unpredictability of the Muslim terrorist in this construction, unsullied by reason (Campbell, 2010, p. 104), makes terrorism appear as a persistent risk.

Risk Society and Fear

The concept of “risk” has usefully been deployed by some scholars to explore how our hyper awareness of terrorism has taken root. Furedi (2007), drawing on Beck (1992), for example, argues that there has been a cultural shift, more broadly, which encourages us to make sense of everyday life through the lens of risk. With an increasing preoccupation with the future and for our (individual and collective) safety across late modern societies, the risk society has emerged, which has given rise to a pervasive risk-consciousness (Giddens & Pierson, 1998, p. 209). From our health to the environment, experts are at the heart of delineating the boundaries of risk, which are, suggests Stanley Cohen (2002, p. 16 quoted in Furedi, 2007) “now absorbed into a wider culture of insecurity, victimization and fear.” Individuals in this type of risk society come to be preoccupied with protecting against social “bads,” based on avoidance and risk management.

This ongoing preoccupation with risk has given way to what Furedi (2007) refers to as a “culture of fear.” Fear, for Furedi, is not a purely individual, psychological state but is a collective feeling, mediated through cultural norms, which set the emotional standards of a society. Fear is not felt randomly, then, but is socially constructed and manipulated, as “fear entrepreneurs” instruct us on what we ought to fear, how we ought to fear it, and how we should feel when confronted with a threat (Furedi, 2007). Fear thus occurs at a social level, produced through intersecting narratives of risk as what we should fear, and what is risky, settle as cultural “facts.” The focus on risk and its management has helped to create, in the terms of moral panic theory, “folk devils” (Cohen, 2002). The construction of the new terrorist as folk devil fits well into the risk-paradigm, as the “high consequence” (but low probability) of terrorism has become part of the collectivized risk consciousness (Mythen & Walklate, 2006a, p. 387).

Mythen and Walklate’s (2006a, 2006b) analysis of the risk society and the manufacturing of terrorism has been especially illuminating in demonstrating how the construction of new terrorism has been amplified and advanced through the discourse of risk. Drawing on Foucault’s concept of governmentality, and, implicitly, moral panic theory, they explore the ways in which risk is rendered intelligible and thinkable through the trope of terror. They note “that understandings of terrorism are being discursively shaped by the agencies involved in risk definition. Forms of knowledge are being manufactured and circulated by an institutional matric, involving the state, politicians, security experts and the media” (2006, p. 389). At the center of risk and its management is the body of the “new terrorist,” the Islamic extremist. Driven by a narrative of fear we are invited to regard this type of violence as incomprehensible, senseless, and beyond meaning (Furedi, 2007), it is dramatized as possessing greater potential for harm, as catastrophic imaginaries are diffused through cultural and social representations.

The discourse of terror-risk has disciplinary effects as a particular way of viewing terror is (re)produced. Risk works as a “moral technology,” regimenting and cajoling populations to think and to act in particularized ways (Mythen & Walklate, 2006a, p. 385). For example, despite the higher prevalence of right-wing extremism in the United States, (Huang, 2016), the majority of Americans cite terrorism connected to Islamic fundamentalists as posing the biggest threat to the nation (Smeltz & Friedhoff, 2016), indicating the efficacy of risk discourse over direct experiences of threat. Indeed, the public is bombarded with constant reminders that a new type of risk has emerged. The global quality of new terrorism as well as the catastrophic nature of consequences which are repeatedly showcased, make this frame especially effective (Mythen & Walklate, 2006a, p. 386). The state plays a central role in dramatizing risk (Walklate & Mythen, 2008, p. 217), as fear becomes institutionalized through the issuing of warnings and risk-management advice (Carver, 2014).

The constant production of media stories related to terrorism and anti-terrorism alongside official warning systems remind the population of the threat. Since their introduction, the threat level in the United States and United Kingdom have fluctuated between medium and the highest levels of threat. Such risk meters, argues Carver (2014), do little to provide real information about the likelihood of terrorism, but constantly remind the population of phantom threats without providing evidence of their existence, thus continuing the crisis. As a result, we are encouraged to view everyday places and experiences as risky, as they become connected to terror. The onslaught of notifications of things to be wary of as we use public transportation, travel overseas, and more are depicted as potentially perilous, and make the government-circulated safety tips seem urgent and necessary (Rothe & Muzzatti, 2004, pp. 337–338).

Cultural identity is at the heart of both fictional and real-life risk assessments, and as a result, all Muslims are rendered “risk repositories” by virtue of appearing to share some or other of the characteristics of the “typical terrorist” (Mythen & Walklate, 2006b, p. 126). The institutionalization of culturally based risk assessments are predicated on such a “suspect class,” and are grounds for a nexus of social control policies and practices (Aradau & van Munster, 2009). The specter of the Muslim terrorist, however, has also become grounds for everyday routine safekeeping strategies, as members of the public, encouraged to notice and report the unusual, internalize advice to be wary and vigilant (Mythen & Walklate, 2006b, p. 133). “Flying while Muslim,” for example, is likely to encourage extra attention from security authorities, but innumerable accounts have emerged of members of the public “alerting” flight and security personnel on the basis of perceived “risky” behavior of other travelers. Talking in Arabic, wearing a headscarf, reading a book on Syrian art, texting in Arabic, and so forth, have all been cited as reasons for suspicion, as Muslim travelers are ejected from planes, perceived as a risk by members of the public by virtue of just being a Muslim (Khaleeli, 2016). Vigilance and risk are not based on suspicious behavior, then, but rather based on the perceived identity of the “suspect,” and illustrates the efficacy of this frame which has led to the internalization of paranoia and the unleashing of fear.

Frames of “Self”: Militarism and American Exceptionalism

The construction of “new terror” as a potent threat helps impede a critique against counter-terror initiatives, as they are imagined as being fundamentally necessary to manage the terror risk (Mythen & Walklate, 2006a, p. 392). Klein (2012) identifies other long term ideological frames at work, which have similarly helped to silence criticism. In the context of the United States, in particular, the frames of militarization and patriotism, driven by a discourse of American exceptionalism, have been pivotal in making counter-terror measurements—including war—seem inevitable and even desirable. America’s image of itself, as constructed through both popular and official narratives, is that of the world’s policeman, a nation chosen by God. Through tropes of good and evil the United States is imagined as being uniquely placed to guarantee peace and stability (Landy, 2004, p. 97), and to provide leadership to the weak, backward, wayward rest of the world (Klein, 2012, p. 91).

The effectiveness of the exceptionalism discourse is evident when one considers how the long history of the United States’ involvement in social and cultural conflicts across the globe is viewed. Turk (2004, p. 272) argues that despite that involvement taking the form of assassinations, bombings, and massacres, the violence has been downplayed or completely repressed. The binary structure of American exceptionalism (a righteous “us” and a transgressive “them”) allows for the (re)constitution of America as the guardian of liberty, regardless of the ever-changing face of the enemy, and regardless of the methods it uses. The substitution of enemies is enabled by this established hegemonic frame, as new foes take the place of old ones. In relation to the contemporary terrorist enemy, exceptionalism is (re)constructed through a frame which valorizes a battle between Christianity and Islam, with the United States imagined as receiving the special protection of God (Klein, 2012, p. 96).

The use of violence, through this frame, is also imagined in binary terms as force by America and its allies is imagined as fair, reasoned, and justified. Salter (2014) explores how a wider cultural commitment to “militarization” has led to an acceptance that the use of force and threat of violence is the most appropriate and efficacious means to solve problems (2014, p. 163). America’s “weapons fetish” is a feature of popular culture, contends Salter, and imbues military technology such as the drone, with masculine fantasies of control and domination. Salter contends that the willingness to use force is long connected with male honor, and helps to legitimate America’s history of “spreading democracy” with force, as it furthers colonial and imperial agendas (2014, pp. 164–165). Military counter-terrorism reinforces this frame, as signature strikes of military drones are imagined as an instrument of modernity, which, suggests Mooney and Young (2005, p. 120) brings democracy rather than dictatorship, the rule of law rather than oppression, order rather than chaos, equality rather than ethnic rivalry and female subservience, the free market rather than corruption or state subsidy. The Western image of its own violence is a process of sanitization, argues Mooney and Young, as they write:

It is a surgical intervention to root out the sources of violence and—in contemporary neoconservative parlance—to bring about a healthy modern society with all the benefits of democracy, the rule of law, and free markets. Violence is not excessive, it is minimal: the “collateral” damage is low, the very use of the word, collateral, of course, shields us from the torment and suffering that occurs. The strikes are “surgical,” the passion of the killing absolutely minimal: it is a video screen with a cross target—on a made image—physically and mentally distant from the combat.

In a similar vein, Jackson (2007, p. 367) argues that the specialized, bureaucratic, and media language of violence and physical abuse promote this process. “Collateral damage,” “surgical strikes,” “counter-resistance strategies,” “stress and duress techniques,” and so on, sanitize and remove human pain and suffering of its victims from the cultural imagination. The discourse of terrorist violence is the reverse of sanitization, asserts Mooney and Young (2005), as the suicide bomber is depicted as deranged and intimate, seeking to cause maximum destruction in everyday places—the bus, cafes, clubs, checkpoints, concerts, and so on. The immediate proximity of the suicide bomber with improvised killing devices versus heroes with smart bombs plays into dichotomies of violence: beatification/sanitization, humiliation/humanitarian, joy of martyrdom/unemotional, and so on (Mooney & Young, 2005, p. 121).

The brutal reality of Western violence is erased by these frames, as harm is neutralized by not only a discourse of exceptionalism but through the Orientalist construction of the New Terrorist who is understood as a cataclysmic threat. Central to these discursive strategies is the body of the Muslim, who, across institutional planes is deprived of humanizing qualities (Campbell, 2010, p. 107). Dehumanization, contends Ahmed (2015, p. 556), allows the other to be outside of humanity, or on the periphery of humanity. What is left outside of the frame is as significant as what is in. As Campbell (2010) infers, missing from the discourse of the Other is a frame of humanness, which draws attention to the devastating suffering of Muslims who are subject to both Western and extremist violence. Such stories are rarely front page news, passed over as unimportant, and thus mostly absent, outside of the frame (Butler, 2004). When violence perpetrated by the other is represented, context and history are routinely discounted. Both in fiction and in real life, the focus is on the humanness of Westerners as we view tragedies up close in New York, London, Paris, Brussels. Meanwhile, the devastating suffering experienced in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and so on is viewed from afar, imagined as having little to do with the Western world, effectively effacing the circumstances under which terrorism flourishes (Butler, 2004).

Discourse and Policy

Institutionalizing Dehumanization

Bare Life and Sovereign Power

These framings are not without profound consequence, and scholars in this area focus attention on the ways in which these collective meanings come to be institutionalized in the form of counter-terror policies and practices (Ahmed, 2015; Campbell, 2010; Klein, 2012; Aradau & van Munster, 2009). Indeed, prevailing framings—dehumanizing and devoid of real context—are the scaffolding on which such policies and practices are rested and legitimated. Campbell (2010) draws on Giorgio Agamben’s (1995, 2005) concepts of homo sacer /bare life and the state of exception to unpack the effects of this dehumanizing discourse, in particular, the way it leads to the exercise of unchecked sovereign power, as well as its legitimation. For Agamben (1995), the deployment of sovereign power emerges precisely when legal structure is suspended, giving rise to the “state of exception.” The protagonist outside of law, and who is the target of such extralegal exceptions, is for Agamben homo sacer—or bare life. Homo sacer is life that is stripped of value, rights, and citizenship as they are reduced to biological minimum life. De-realized through privation of rights, homo sacer enters a suspended zone, exiled from political existence and human community. In contrast, qualified life—constituted through membership into political and national communities—is a meaningful and thinking subject (Agamben, 1995, p. 131).

The terrorism script, argues Campbell (2010, p. 107), helps to create a contemporary homo sacer, in the form of the Muslim. Cultural imageries, she suggests, in assigning a chain of Orientalist meanings to the body of the Muslim Other, reduce it discursively to bare life, a life that does not account as life (2010, p. 100). Rendered outside of the frames of human, in part through representational absences, the Muslim’s de-realization (a human who is not quite human), contrasts with Western life—always qualified life—which is imagined as rational and embroiled in political and national life. These established cultural protagonists are essential to the real-life deployment of sovereign power, which strip away the rights and legal protections of homo sacer. The labeling of Muslims as “enemy combatants,” for example, essentially strips the subject of citizenship and legal protections (Rothe & Muzzatti, 2004, p. 345), enabling the deployment of sovereign power in the form of Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, migration camps, surveillance practices, and so on (Aradau & van Muster, 2009, p. 688).

For the public to accept and tolerate this violence, homo sacer must appear to necessitate it, and this is managed, claims Campbell (2010), by the rendering of Muslims to bare life through fictional frames, which help to (re)create a general clause for the real world detainment, treatment, and torture of Muslims. Dangerousness does not need to be proved, for it is understood to be an essential part of Muslim identity, helping to legitimate the sovereignty exercised through real-life policy” (Campbell, 2010, p. 101). The devastating effects of such policies are largely out of sight, the suffering out of the frame. If it is visible, Campbell continues, it is nullified by a brutalizing, dehumanizing cultural discourse, which makes the violence of these policies seem normal and necessary. Violence and aggression against the Other is sanctioned at the moment it is deployed, and is represented as being the solution to terror as opposed to its foundation (Campbell, 2010, p. 104).

Expressions of sovereign power since 9/11 have been numerous. The massive mobilization of the military, including an expansion of its budget in both the United States and United Kingdom, and a war that contravenes legal conventions has been especially devastating (see Kramer & Michalowski, 2005). Other examples include the emergence of global penal projects (see Rose, 2004; Agamben, 2005; Brown, 2008), the creation of the Patriot Act in the USA, which gave the U.S. administration enormous authority in relation to the law (Mythen & Walklate, 2006, p. 391) as well as numerous versions of counter-terrorism policy in the United Kingdom, including the 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act (see Spalek, 2004), the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act, and more (see Ahmed, 2014; Silverman & Thomas, 2012).

Suspect Communities and Risk Management

Rather than representing extralegal deviations from the norm, exceptions, suggest Aradau and van Munster (2009), have been institutionalized and are thus now constitutive of society and law and order, They contend that the normalization of exceptional laws is symptomatic of the politics of fear infiltrating more and more areas of social life (2009, p. 697). In particular, they note how fear integrates political communities according to friend/enemy, creating homogenous identities that need to be defended (2009, p. 690). This is enabled by a discourse of risk management and the Orientalist construction of the Muslim terrorist, which helps to produce an enemy whose contours are indeterminate yet encompassing. Imageries of terror amplify fear of an entire ethnic and religious group, as well as other minority groups, including asylum seekers, economic migrants, and illegal immigrants (Banks, 2011, p. 303) that are discursively bundled together to form “suspect communities” (Ahmed, 2014).

The creation of “suspect communities” in the current climate of risk, has turned those communities into a “risk-class” that demands to be managed. The pervasive fear that we are in imminent danger is amplified by an expansive understanding of an enemy, which encompasses an entire cultural category. As a result, asserts Mythen and Walklate (2006a, p. 393), entire populations are classified and controlled, as estimations of threat and risk are uncritically accepted, with pre-emptive strikes against would-be aggressors seeming necessary. Increasingly restrictive migration and asylum policies in the United States (Welch & Schuster, 2005, p. 336) and Europe (Aradau & van Munster, 2009, p. 687) are depicted and understood as counter-terror policies, a strategy to keep the enemy out. The frame of radicalization has helped to intensify the notion that “enemies” are everywhere, as well as the understanding that all Muslims are at risk of being radicalized. This frame is exceptionally powerful, argues Arun Kundnani (2014), as it has become a potent vehicle to justify a range of anti-terror preventative strategies, which make Muslim identity legitimate grounds for the formulation of anti-radicalization policy and practice (2014, p. 116).

In addition to the more obvious expressions of direct state power in the form of war and detention, is a slew of legislation that has expanded social control through the criminal justice system on the grounds of managing the radicalization threat. Carver’s (2014) research explores the expansion of extraordinary powers of control through criminal justice, which has effectively led to the normalization of those powers, as it is employed to police “not so extraordinary activity” (p. 419). The result is “control creep,” whereby the state increases its punitive powers by expanding the scope of the criminal justice system (p. 421). The rhetoric of risk management and the normalization of “threat and danger” encourage us to accept increased social control, enabling “temporary laws” following “signal crimes” (such as 9/11) to be turned into permanent ones (pp. 422–424).

Fear of terrorism is much higher than its occurrence, yet its spectral threat has become normalized and has led to numerous pre-crime measures which, in light of the incessant reminders of risk, appear urgent and necessary. Pre-crime measures operate on the pretext of protecting the future, on the basis of contending and managing a risk so as to prevent an action before it has occurred. The precautionary principle on which pre-crime is based, “inspires a focus on worst-case scenarios and feeds into societal anxiety that grants greater significance to unknown threats than known ones” (Lennon, 2015, p. 57). In the context of terror, the threat is determined though the aggregation of characteristics, such as birthplace, skin color, and religion—leading to the incrimination of entire populations (Ahmed, 2014). Targeted for prevention, Muslims, deindividuated and depersonalized, make precautionary measures leveled against them appear warranted. A threat to civilization, the Other is imagined as a ticking time bomb, who should be dealt with on a “what if basis” (Jackson, 2007).

The indiscriminate targeting of entire communities and populations can be discerned through the expanded remit of the criminal law to include activities or associations that are deemed to precede the substantive offense targeted for prevention (Ahmed, 2014, p. 361). Other examples include suspicion-less counter-terror stop and searches in the United Kingdom (Lennon, 2015), the enhancement of surveillance—including the electronic and wireless tapping of “suspects” (Mythen & Walklate, 2006a), as well as the expanded use of biometric technologies targeting certain populations (Woodward, 2001). In the United Kingdom, control orders can be made against any suspected terrorist, whether a U.K. or a non-U.K. national, designed to restrict activity and an individual’s liberty (Ahmed, 2014, p. 362). While the creation of “anti-radicalization” schemes such as “Channel” in the U.K. place schools under legal obligation to report suspicions of extremist behavior to the police (Halliday, 2016). The focus on anti-radicalization projects is habitually only on Muslim extremists, resolidifying the notion that there is something unique about Muslim terrorists (Kundnani, 2014). Indeed, terrorism profiling, in general, is not on the basis of actual behavior (for example, on travel records, Internet searches, financial habits, and so on), but on cultural and ethnic grounds, reinscribing these biased elements into technologies of governance (Aradau & van Munster, 2009, p. 694). In turn, this nexus of social control policies and practices feed fear back into society, as they construct a barbarian enemy that must be civilized or destroyed (Aradau & van Munster, 2009, p. 692).


The script of terror provides critical frames for understanding the world as well as making specific human relations intelligible. These frames are not abstract—remaining in the realm of the symbolic, as Ahmed (2014) asserts, through intersecting policies and institutional practices that have led to enormous material harms. The erosion of civil liberties and human rights for those deemed the (potential) enemy, have been justified by a construction of the Other as well as a discourse of risk management, as the psychological, political, and moral consequences of counter-terrorism are disregarded (p. 361). The Muslim/terrorist equivalence also extends deeply into everyday life, impacting not only support for state-sponsored anti-terror policies, but profoundly shaping the experiences of those caught up in the suspect-community net.

Public opinion surveys in the United States and United Kingdom demonstrate the unfavorable view of Muslims in the West and the widespread acceptance of counter-terror measures leveled against them, including military action (Brown, 2016; Umamaheswar, 2015; Klein, 2012). The recent American presidential race, has brought to the surface a casual racism, where Orientalist frames have been exploited, in particular by Republican candidates who competed in the GOP primary, to target “backlash voters” who were heavily motivated by fear or resentment of minority advancement/encroachment (Brown, 2016). Appeals to monitor mosques, to deport Muslims, to refuse Syrian refugees, to suggestions that the United States should kill the families of ISIS members, and so on, found significant electoral support in the United States. Muslims continue to be discussed as though they are a singular, monolithic category, with less intrinsic worth compared to the qualified lives these policies are presented as seeking to protect. In the United Kingdom, the successful referendum campaign to leave the European Union was helped by dominant discourses of anti-immigration, security, and border control. Since the success of Brexit, there has been a dramatic increase in hate incidents and crimes against Muslims (Jeory, 2016).

Research into the experiences of Muslims in Western nations has consistently revealed the way that everyday Islamophobia structures routine activities. The violent victimization of Muslims and other ethnic groups in the United States, United Kingdom, and France increased exponentially following 9/11, as has verbal harassment and abuse (Spalek, 2004, p. 126; Rothe & Muzzatti, 2004, p. 343; Umamaheswar, 2015, p. 178). Muslim women, in particular, have been targeted since the practice of veiling has come to be a central, Western symbol of Islam. As a result, Muslim women in one study revealed how they have changed their routines, avoiding certain places, out of a perception that they are at an increased risk in terms of their personal security (Spalek, 2002). In France, 26 towns banned Muslim women wearing full-body swimsuits, known as “burkinis,” which appeared to enjoy widespread support from the French public (BBC, 2016). Using language similar to the bans imposed at other locations, the city of Nice sought to bar clothing that “overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks” (Quinn, 2016). Reports and photographs of targeted Muslim women being fined and ordered to remove such attire by policemen, reveal both the efficacy of dominant terrorism frames as well as the everyday harassment of Muslim women, legitimated by state policies in concert with many media depictions.

Research into people’s experiences of the criminal justice system, and in particular, in relation to counter-terror legislation, points to the differential treatment of Muslims as well as the consequential feelings of vulnerability and helplessness (Spalek, 2004; Ahmed, 2015). In Ahmed’s (2015) research, counter-terrorism legislation was perceived as constituting discrimination by research subjects. Ahmed writes, “Perceptions of being profiled, constructed as ‘criminals’ and the lack of due process in counter-terrorism policing led participants to experience emotions of helplessness, vulnerability, and fear, leading participants to describe themselves as ‘victims’ in the ‘war on terror’” (2015, p. 551). The discursive categorization of threat and risk left participants in Ahmed’s research feeling controlled and having their freedom restricted, leading to widespread feelings of victimization and anger (2015, p. 556).

Denigration and Alienation

Ahmed’s research (2014, 2015) points to the potential long-term consequences of Islamophobia and the discourses which undergird it. Specifically, the danger of radicalization as differential treatment from outside the Muslim community contributes to an experience of vulnerability to those within (2015, p. 554). Similarly, Mooney and Young (2005) point out that those living in the West, who are subject to everyday denigration, prejudice, and impoverishment, are likely to be increasingly alienated. A response to the predicament of denigration, they argue—in particular, to the Othering of Orientalist constructions—is a counter-essentialization—in which the Other creates a discourse of its own. As the West creates a discourse of Orientalism to depict the other, those othered create an Occidentalist discourse to reject that which denigrates and humiliates them (Mooney & Young, 2005, p. 116). The Orientalist view of the East as irrational and violent contrasts, then, with the view of the West as lacking in the most important of human virtues. This sort of essentialism, they suggest, doesn’t cause violence but it critically facilitates it (Mooney & Young, 2005, p. 119). The parallel processes of dehumanization, echoes Ahmed (2015, p. 555) and opens up the possibility for radicalization as constructed binaries, which dismiss commonality and solidifies a feeling that Islam itself is under attack. The internalization and enactment of this dichotomy in its extreme interpretation within geopolitics enables groups such as ISIS, suggests Ahmed, as they offer disillusioned Muslims the “opportunity to join such an organization with the promise that acts of terror will eradicate the suffering, pain, and injustices of Muslims around the world (2015, p. 556).

The contribution of Islamophobia and the actions of Western governments in the creation of extremist Muslim groups, are habitually neglected, asserts Kundnani (2014). Instead, there is an overwhelming tendency to focus on the “individual psychological or theological journeys” of young Muslim men by radicalization scholars, who as a result “systematically fail to address the reality of the political conflicts” causing terrorism (Kundnani, 2014, p. 120). In emphasizing personal and ideological indicators of extremism, the root causes of terrorism—which more recently include civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, the torture of Muslim prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and so on—are obfuscated. Ignored are the everyday counter-terror measures that target Western Muslims, which further compound feelings of denigration (Spalek, 2004, p. 125).

Cultural criminologists remind us of the importance of recognizing the enigmatic emotional behavior related to criminality, not through the lens of psychopathology but to understand that emotions “are situationally responsive and socially contingent” (Hayward, 2011, p. 66). Ahmed’s research into the emotional states of anger, helplessness, and vengeance is particularly illuminating, as she considers why some Muslims are vulnerable to radicalization in the face of denigration. In so doing, she cautions against an overly simplistic and reductive understanding of the processes of radicalization, while acknowledging the role of marginalization, victimization, suffering, and negative emotions as being part of the complex process (2015, p. 557).


Subverting the Script

Discourse is not totalizing and meaning is neither fixed nor stable as it is deciphered within polysemic interpretive communities (Campbell, 2010). There are always “plausibility gaps,” ruptures in discourse (Kettell, 2013, p. 265) making meaning volatile and vulnerable to counter-articulations and interpretations. Photographic images of the torture and abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, for example, destabilized the narrative of rational/irrational, thus violating “our Orientalist sense of ourselves” (Mooney & Young, 2005, p. 123). Other attempts to interrupt the terrorism script are not without example. The suffering of those in Guantanamo has been circulated through testimonies of freed prisoners (Rose, 2004), images of terrible suffering in Syria and Iraq are regularly depicted on Western screens. Yet, as Campbell (2010) argues, the potentiality of the meanings of these representation is currently foreclosed by a hegemonic field which limits what can be said and what can be thought. The efficacy of the dominant script to stabilize and concretize meaning, currently nullifies alternative articulations. She writes:

The voice of the Muslim has been historically and contemporarily deauthorized: the Muslim does not speak from a recognizable human subject position: neither human in fiction nor in Guantanamo. Travelling through existing frames, their utterances wither as they are enunciated in a cultural field which silences and deletes.

(Campbell, 2010, p. 112)

Deconstructing and disrupting the script, however, is essential if critical scholars are to engage with terrorism without replicating a troubling discursive system, which ultimately reproduces Orientalist framings. Mythen and Waklate (2006, p. 385) remind us that governance in late modern societies functions through a mix of direct expressions of power and indirect forms of coercion. Bodies of knowledge—in particular here the discursive manufacturing of the Muslim terrorist through a narrative of risk—helps to legitimate direct expressions of power as governance is enabled through the risk management of a population classified as always-already dangerous, an inherent risk to Western lives. Understanding how abstract discourse comes to be embedded in institutional practice is crucial if criminologists are to take seriously the question of (in)justice. This necessitates resisting the troubling dominant discourses which frame terrorism, and it means that as a discipline criminology must be reflexively aware of its own role in perpetuating “knowledge” and a cultural climate within which real people suffer.

Review of the Literature

Criminology and Terrorism

Mainstream Criminology

Since the attacks on 9/11 there has been a proliferation of scholarship on terrorism within criminology (Freilich & LaFree, 2015). Much of the work has focused on the question of whether terrorism should be framed as a crime, and thus whether it should fall under the purview of criminology (Onwudiwe, 2007; Bennett, 2004; Gibbs, 2010). As an example, Gibbs (2010, p. 172) argues that terrorism fits well within the rubric of criminology since the disciplinary focus is on rule making, rule breaking, and the social responses to rule breaking. What is more, criminal justice system agencies are intimately involved in counter-terror initiatives, particularly as international terrorism is understood as being inextricably tied to transnational criminal activity (Bennett, 2004, p. 8). Bennett further claims that there are benefits of framing terrorism as a crime, for academic, criminological research is positioned to explore the cultural foundations, organizational structures, and social processes that underlie criminal and terrorist behavior, allowing for an in-depth understanding that is missing from national intelligence assessments (p. 8).

Indeed, framing terrorism as a crime has led to innumerable attempts to apply a range of criminological theories in an effort to reach that deep level of understanding. For example, Freilich (2014) attempts to understand the extent to which general theories of crime apply to politically-motivated violence, making use of macro-level hypotheses drawn from deprivation, backlash, and social disorganization frameworks—which can’t really tell us much, no? Other approaches call for a comparative perspective (Bennett, 2004), while others attempt to make sense of terror drawing on World Systems Theory (Onwudiwe, 2007), strain theory (Agnew, 2010), routine activity theory, and social learning theory (Hamm, 2007). Quantitative mappings of the prevalence and distribution of terrorism (LaFree, 2010) are considered through the lens of globalization, and the severe social dislocations of radical change (Savelsberg, 2006). While seemingly more critical left realist approaches seek to understand the allure of terrorist organizations, their subcultural structure, as well as the “get tough” policies that may have unintended consequences (Gibbs, 2010, p. 174).

Critical Criminologies

While many of these studies point to the inherent, subjective difficulties in defining “terrorism,” with some drawing on right-wing terror1 examples to explore explanatory frameworks, the dominant figure in these texts is the Muslim terrorist. While not an exhaustive review, this is seemingly representative of normative framings within the discipline, with the majority of work within the United States and United Kingdom focusing on Al-Qaeda, ISIL, and related groups (Freilich, 2014, p. 385). Cultural and critical criminologists argue that such analyses problematically treat the “objects” of terrorism as a given, as something definite to be examined and understood. In so doing, terrorism appears to have “an independent ontological status” (Ahmed, 2014, p. 360), with orthodox criminologists appearing to proceed as indifferent observers.

Examined through a more critical criminological lens, however, brings into sharp relief the question: “What is terrorism?” While terrorism is generally treated as something objective—“You know it when you see it”—more critical traditions provoke more basic, fundamental questions about the nature of crime in general, such as: What counts as crime, the criminal, the victim (Mythen & Walklate, 2006a, p. 380)? The function of these questions is not to come up with definitive definitions, but rather it is to focus attention on the way crime, including terrorism, is socially constructed, its relationship to power, as well as the consequences of prevailing constructions.

Mooney and Young (2005) underscore the institutional factors that shape definitions of terrorism, pointing to the role of academia—in law and the social sciences, in particular—as an objective definition is attempted. And experts—see Lisa Stampinzsky’s Disciplining Terror—note the tautology that exists as politically-inspired violence committed by Western clandestine state agents, as well as the devastating consequences of military action is differentiated from the violence committed by Others. They argue that there is little to objectively distinguish between normal warfare and terrorism, except for the level of power and legitimacy that state agents have over their less-powerful opponents (2005, p. 115). As Turk (2004) similarly argues, the application of the terrorist label is a largely subjective, power-laden designation, reflective of the capacity of certain groups to have their interests institutionalized. When something is ordinarily described as terrorism, Turk continues, it is because some government has been successful in a war of words (p. 272). The word “terrorist,” for example, evokes a very different sort of response than the word “freedom fighter.” But don’t forget that the term emerged during the French revolution and was adopted by the revolutionaries at the time.

The uncritical use of social categories and definitions by orthodox criminologists, all too often, for more critical scholars, leads to a troubling collaboration with a dominant apparatus of social control as the assumptions of the powerful come to be integrated into emerging knowledge (Campbell, 2010, p. 112). As Welch and Schuster (2005) argue, criminology of the Other re-dramatizes the crime, reinforces a disaster mentality, and retreats into intolerance and authoritarianism. The recapitulation of criminal stereotypes reinforces a “them” versus “us” mentality, leading to an undifferentiated fear of crime, terrorism, and non-whites (2005, pp. 334–335).

As part of this critique, there has been a focus on how terrorism is framed more broadly. Terrorism is constructed by and through an identifiable set of discursive practices, not only by academics but also by security officials, media representations, and more (Jackson, 2009). Examining these narratives and considering the multifaceted consequences of these framings is viewed as being pivotal to avoiding replicating a troubling image of terrorism (Campbell, 2010; Ahmed, 2014; Jackson, 2005, 2009; Kundnani, 2014). For instance, exploring how media’s treatment of terrorism simplify, prioritize, and structure the narrative flow of events (Umamaheswar, 2015, p. 179), is critical to understanding how the Muslim terrorist has come to be a contemporary “folk devil.” Moreover, it enables an analysis which examines the effects of this discourse, as highly mediated images of terrorism and terrorists amplify deviance, increasing levels of fear, creating conditions for increased authoritarianism (Rothe & Muzzatti, 2004). All repetition on above.

This type of criminological focus and analysis borrows heavily from other disciplines, including cultural studies, media studies, anthropology, sociolinguistics, and so on. Cultural criminology’s inter-trans disciplinary underpinnings (Schofield, 2004, p. 131) make it especially situated to embark on such an exploration. With a focus on the mass-mediated social, cultural, and political discursive systems which keep terrorism on the collective consciousness, this body of literature critically considers the various consequences of these framings. In particular, it draws attention to the link between discourse and material consequences (Jackson, 2005; Ahmed, 2014), the discourse/policy nexus (Rothe & Muzzatti, 2004; Mythen & Walklate, 2006a; Campbell, 2010), and the legitimation and normalization of an ever-increasing authoritarian state (Kundnani, 2014; Klein, 2012; Ahmed, 2014; Spalek, 2004; Carver, 2014; Silverman & Thomas, 2012; Welch & Schuster, 2005; Aradau & van Munster, 2009).

Further Reading

Ahmed, S. (2014). Constitutive criminology and the “War on Terror.” Critical Criminology, 22, 357–371.Find this resource:

Ahmed, S. (2015). The “emotionalization of the ‘War on Terror’”: Counter-terrorism, fear, risk, insecurity, and helplessness. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 15(5), 545–560.Find this resource:

Aradau, C., & van Munster, R. (2009). Exceptionalism and the “War on Terror”: Criminology meets international relations. British Journal of Criminology, 49, 686–701.Find this resource:

Campbell, A. (2010). Imagining the “War on Terror”: Fiction, film, and framing. In K. J. Hayward & M. Presdee (Eds.), Framing crime: Cultural criminology and the image (pp. 98–114). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Jackson, R. (2005). Writing the War on Terrorism. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.Find this resource:

Jackson, R. (2007). Language, policy, and the construction of a torture culture in the War on Terrorism. Review of International Studies, 33(3), 353–371.Find this resource:

Klein, J. (2012). Towards a cultural criminology of war. Social Justice, 38(3), 86–103.Find this resource:

Kundnani, A. (2014). The Muslims are coming! Islamaphobia, extremism, and the domestic War on Terror. New York: Verso.Find this resource:

Lennon, G. (2015). Precautionary tales: Suspicionless counter-terrorism stop and search. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 15(1), 44–62.Find this resource:

Mooney, J., & Young, J. (2005). Imagining terrorism: Terrorism and anti-terrorism, two ways of doing evil. Social Justice, 32(1), 113–125.Find this resource:

Mythen, G., & Walklate, S. (2006). Criminology and terrorism: Which thesis? Risk society or governmentality? British Journal of Criminology, 46, 379–398.Find this resource:

Mythen, G., & Walklate, S. (2006). Communicating the terrorist threat: Harnessing a culture of fear? Media, Crime, Culture, 2(2), 123–142.Find this resource:

Rothe, D., & Muzzatti, S. (2004). Enemies everywhere: Terrorism, moral panic, and U.S. civil society. Critical Criminology, 12, 327–350.Find this resource:

Shaheen, J. (2001). Reel bad Arabs: How Hollywood vilifies a people. New York: Olive Branch Press.Find this resource:

Silverman, J., & Thomas, L. (2012). I feel your pain: Terrorism, the media, and the politics of response. Crime, Media, Culture, 8(3), 279–295.Find this resource:

Walklate, S., & Mythen, G. (2008). How scared are we? British Journal of Criminology, 48, 209–225.Find this resource:


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Ahmed, S. (2014). Constitutive criminology and the “War on Terror.” Critical Criminology, 22, 357–371.Find this resource:

Ahmed, S. (2015). The “emotionalization of the ‘War on Terror’”: Counter-terrorism, fear, risk, insecurity, and helplessness. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 15(5), 545–560.Find this resource:

Aradau, C., & van Munster, R. (2009). Exceptionalism and the “War on Terror”: Criminology meets international relations. British Journal of Criminology, 49, 686–701.Find this resource:

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Jackson, R. (2007). Language, policy, and the construction of a torture culture in the War on Terrorism. Review of International Studies, 33(3), 353–371.Find this resource:

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Khaleeli, H. (2016, August 8). The perils of flying while Muslim. The Guardian. Retrieved from this resource:

Klein, J. (2012). Towards a cultural criminology of war. Social Justice, 38(3), 86–103.Find this resource:

Kundnani, A. (2014). The Muslims are coming! Islamaphobia, extremism, and the domestic War on Terror. New York: Verso.Find this resource:

Kramer, R. C., & Michalowski, R. J. (2005). War, Aggression and State Crime: A Criminological Analysis of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq. British Journal of Criminology, 45(4).Find this resource:

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(1.) See Mark Hamm’s work as a notable exception.