Terrorism | a chapter for the Concise Encyclopedia of Comparative Sociology (Brill, 2014)
If one considers, for instance, the country reports on terrorism that are published each year by the US Departmcnt of State, it is clear that the terrorist threat is a preeminent issue for many countries in the world, much more today than in the sixties or the seventies, when it began to appear as a major challenge. Today, Al-Qa’ida, in spite of the death of Ben Laden, and, maybe, the weakness of its position in Pakistan today, is an important organization, with a great number of affiliates and more or less informal allies, for instance in sub Saharan Africa and in the Middle East; countries such as Iran or Syria still appear as state sponsors of terrorism, and chemical, biological or nuclear terrorism are presented as part of a “global challenge”.
Islam is not the only religion connected with terrorism, which has also been carried out, for instance, in the name of Hinduism or in name of a sect, as was the case in Japan with Aum Shinrikyo, which released sarin gas in the Tokyo Subway, killing thirteen people in March 1995. Moreover, religious terrorism is not the only form of the phenomenon, which can also be nationalist, as has often been the case in history, for instance when acting in the name of Irish, Basque, or Palestinian liberation. Terrorism can also appear in rich western countries in connection with extreme left or right ideologies. Examples include the actions of the Red Brigades in Europe and the Weather Underground in the USA in the seventies and eighties; more recently in Norway when Anders Behring Breivk killed 77 persons, most of them young members of a left political party, in July 2011; or in Oklahoma City, where a bombing perpetrated in April 1995 by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, both supporters of “survivalist” militia movements opposed to Federal authority and gun control, killed 165 people.
In many respects, terrorism is an ideal subject for comparative sociology. On one hand, what is referred to as terrorism constitutes a phenomenon which can be defined (even if, as we shall see, this is not easy) and which therefore possesses its own unity from a theoretical point of view. On the other hand, this phenomenon varies in time and space. Comparison therefore enables us to evaluate the differences within a single framework and, in the last resort, it enables us to improve the definition of this framework. For the social sciences, terrorism is a minor subject; it was long considered something dirty and neglected by researchers. There are several explanations for this.
Concise Encyclopedia of Comparative Sociology, Edited by Masamichi Sasaki, Jack Goldstone, Ekkart Zimmermann, Stephen K. Sanderson, Brill, Leiden/Boston, 2014, 680 p.