Few people would doubt that terrorism is a major issue of current international affairs. However, the reasons for why it is relevant are contested. One the on side, terrorism scholars, policy makers and security professionals claim that terrorist attacks are threats to national and human security. Consequentially, it is crucial to study the actions and motives of terrorist groups and individuals.
Critical terrorism scholars, on the other hand, rather study the social construction, selective utilisation and political implications of knowledge about terrorism. For instance, according to the START database, terrorist incidents caused 34,676 fatalities in 2016. Road injuries, by contrast, kill around 1.3 million people each year. They are thus responsible for almost 38,000% more deaths than terrorist incidents but it is the latter, which have legitimised increased surveillance, political repression and military strikes in various countries.
So if knowledge of terrorism can be important in justifying policies, mobilising support and sustaining (or challenging) power relations, how can it be studied? Researchers have focused, for good reasons, on the academic literature, policy documents, speeches by decision makers, newspaper articles and TV shows to detect, analyse and de-construct dominant knowledge on terrorism.
In my study, I take a different perspective by analysing terrorism discourses in school textbooks. I do so for two reasons: first, school textbooks are good indicators of dominant political and (at least in democracies) societal discourses. They contain the knowledge deemed as valid and relevant enough to be passed on from one generation to the next. Second, school textbooks have a very wide coverage and privileged access to young people in a crucial phase of their political socialisation. More specifically, my analysis focuses on terrorism discourses as expressed in civics textbooks from Germany, India, Kenya and the USA between 2003 and 2014.
There are several surprising commonalities in the terrorism discourses in these politically and culturally heterogeneous countries: textbooks from all four countries conceive terrorism as a potentially severe threat, but hardly discuss specific actors, their motivations, or the reasons why they are classified as terrorists. In addition, the textbooks establish a (to borrow Helen Dexter’s term) ‘moral hierarchy of violence’. Terrorist violence is unanimously considered as immoral and inappropriate, while the evaluation of other forms of violence (during the Indian independence struggle or in the context of US military campaigns, for example) is more ambivalent.
Consequentially, terrorists are conceived as a ‘phantom menace’: they are a threat and use illegitimate violence, but it is neither sure who (exactly) they are nor whether they have any motives for their actions. This strengthens the functionality of the label terrorism to justify exceptional policies and stigmatise certain groups. In addition, there is a strong association between Islamic states or groups on the one hand and terrorism on the other hand. Other forms of violence, which could well be labelled terrorism, for instance by the German National-Socialist Underground, anti-abortionists in the USA, or ethno-nationalist groups in Kenya and India are hardly an issue.
However, there are also significant differences between the terrorism discourses in all four countries, some of which are quite surprising for a Western scholar. For instance, in the US, terrorism is clearly framed as a national security issue, while Kenyan textbooks portray terrorism as a threat to a specific economic sector; tourism (terrorist attacks ‘scare away visitors’). To a certain degree, Indian textbooks share the Kenyan concern about the economic impacts of terrorism. This potentially reflects the severe economic challenges both countries face when compared to high-income countries like the US or Germany. Further, in US textbooks, the pros and cons of military interventions against terrorist threats are discussed in a rather balanced way, while German and Indian discourses are highly sceptical of (particularly unilateral US) military strikes.
From an analytical and postcolonial perspective, my analysis indicates a hybrid internationalisation of terrorism discourses. On the one hand, there is some convergence towards Western understandings of terrorism as principally immoral, a severe threat and carried out by non-state, predominantly Islamist groups. However, these discourses are recontextualised through specific national and local lenses. Examples include the Kenyan emphasis on tourism or the Indian focus on the Pakistani other. The results are hybrid glocal discourses, which, while having converged towards a Western understanding, are also characterised by distinct national particularities.
 Dexter, Helen (2012): Terrorism and violence: another violence is possible? Critical Studies on Terrorism 5(1): 123
Tobias Ide is Coordinator of the Research Field Peace and Conflict at the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research as was recently a research fellow at the School of Geography, University of Melbourne. He received a PhD in geography from the University of Hamburg and an MA in political science from the University of Leipzig. His work focuses on the dynamics of, representations of, and interactions between environmental change, terrorism and violent conflict.
His article,’Terrorism in the textbook: a comparative analysis of terrorism discourses in Germany, India, Kenya and the United States based on school textbooks’, was published by CRIA here.