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Religion and Society

The 'Fourth Option' in Three Stages

Strategies of terror /4. Behind an apparent unity of intentions, the world organises its defence against terrorist attacks in line with the following fundamental options: protection, prevention, and 'total war' (in particular the American approach). But faced with the scarce results and in order to really aim at the extinction of terrorism, it is necessary to addressanother possibility. This requires changes in mentality. Thus first of all a war of perception and ideas in line with the approach outlined here by a great French expert on military strategy.

The fight against terrorism has become the principal concern of the Western states and at a wider level of a large number of states in the world. However, despite the appearances of unity of action against the threat of terrorism, the very idea of the struggle against terrorism involves very different concepts. At the present time one can identify three great options in the fight against terrorism. The first involves organising protection against terrorism. The second goes further because it aims to install collective prevention against terrorist acts and in particular against Islamic terrorism. The third option is the American option: total war against terrorism as set out in the document of February 2003 entitled 'National Strategy for Combating Terrorism'. But the total war against terrorism has not produced the results that were envisaged. It is possible to advance a fourth option, which is complex and long. It imposes changes in mentality on everyone, that is to say both on terrorists and their active or passive supporters and on those who fight against terrorism, and also on those who hope to remain extraneous to the conflict. It assumes that questions will be asked about the future situation that will be pursued in the fight against terrorism. How can we plan a situation that will allow it to be said that the struggle against Islamic terrorism no longer has a reason to exist because such terrorism no longer exists or exists only in a marginal way? This situation can be defined with reference to certain important points:


first of all the extinction of the Al-Qaeda network, not through the elimination of its members, who go on replacing themselves, but by ensuring that it loses legitimacy in the eyes of its supporters and is no longer able to recruit new followers;


subsequently, a renewal of Islam, notwithstanding what the Islamophobes think, based upon an internal reform, that is to say upon a spiritual maturation of believers themselves towards greater personal fulfilment in faith;


the stabilisation of the political and economic situation of Muslim countries, many of which encounter difficulty in reforming themselves as regards the ills that are present amongst them: poverty, inequality in the distribution of wealth, autocracy masked as democracy, etc.;


lastly the regularisation of the situation of immigrant citizens or workers of the Muslim faith in Western countries.


These four points require a spirit of reform both on the part of the rulers of the Islamic countries and the populations that take Islam as a point of reference, on the one hand, and on the part of Western leaders as regards their way of addressing the problems of international politics in connection with the Muslim world and communitarianism within their own nations, on the other. Naturally, it is not possible here to explore all the contexts and elements of a strategy for the extinction of terrorism. Some have already been applied at an international or European level or in some individual countries. I will confine myself here, therefore, to emphasising an axis of action that has been ignored but which is nonetheless extremely important. It depends on the perceptions of both parties and on the attitudes and forms of behaviour that derive from those perceptions. In short, how can we achieve a change in the social representations induced by contemporary terrorism and by the situation that derives from them psychologically? Given that this aspect has never been clearly indicated it appears important to analyse it more deeply.



Islamic terrorism is based upon that part of Arab and Muslim public opinion which believes that the West is imposing its way of life on the rest of the world and keeps the Muslim world dependent upon its decisions, thereby crushing its specific identity. This view, which contains some truth, is the point of departure for the credit enjoyed by Bin Laden amongst the populations of the Muslim faith. He restores to them a certain pride in the face of American arrogance and Western arrogance in general. From this fact it follows that if the legitimacy sought after by terrorist networks is based upon some elements of Islamic doctrine and 'the just struggle against American imperialism', their credibility depends upon social representations that they have awakened, amplified and exploited. A social representation is 'a system of interpretation that regulates our relationship with the world and other people that directs and organises social behaviour and communications'. This is knowledge of common perception, at times of an ingenuous character, that constitutes a way of interpreting and thinking about our daily reality, which organises experience and regulates behaviour. 'This form of knowledge includes elements of information, of cognition, of ideology, of norms, belief, values, attitudes, opinions, images, etc.'. Social representation thus constitutes a 'vision of the world'. The central core of Muslim public opinion lays emphasis on the underlying idea of a dominion by the Western world of the other peoples of the planet. 'Man has always exercised a will to dominate his neighbour, the example of Cain and Abel, the fathers of mankind, is a perfect expression of thisFrom the simplest plots to powerful hierarchies, everything has been carried out because of a simple fact: gain power and conserve it by subordinating the poor and other 'inferior' classesEurope in particular produces and continue to produce these strugglesWe should never forget that Europe was built upon an idea of the classification of races in which Jews and Muslims were considered inferior castesIn this way on peoples was imposed a culture and a vision of the world that allowed a minority to control a majority'. These social representation evolve on the basis of events and the way in which these events are experienced. Islamic terrorism and the reactions that it generates within different cultural groups are at the origin of numerous phenomena that generate conflict, such as racism, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, and exclusion in general. Since 2001 we have witnessed an ideological escalation both on the part of Islamists and on the part of their opponents, Jewish extremists, and Islamophobes. This reinforces prejudices and stereotypes which involve social representations that are increasingly simplistic both amongst the Muslim populations and on the part of Islamophobes. We should not, however, forget that a good number of the rulers of Muslim countries carry on the war against terrorism and that they are supported in this by a part of their public opinion. This is the case of Egypt which is fighting against the influence of the Muslim Brothers.



The war against terrorism is, therefore, first of all a war of perceptions and ideas. The stages that lead to its extinction are of a psychological kind: modifying the social representations of the parties involved. In this difficult pathway towards a situation involving the extinction of terrorism, it is possible to identify three thresholds or intermediate situations which have to be reached: a threshold of dissonance that involves changes in behaviour and attitudes; a threshold of resonance with the objectives of the international community on the part of a portion of public opinion that was previously favourable to terrorism; and a threshold of consonance, that is to say adherence to the fight against terrorism and rejection of the ideology of violent action.


The first stage will consist, therefore, of establishing situations of dissonance. A situation of dissonance is the moment when the system of representation of the conflict that each party imposes on its active or passive supporters is called into question, with the introduction of a state of malaise and disquiet, that is to say a dissonance to be resolved. The concept of cognitive dissonance was developed by an American scholar, Léon Festinger, in the 1950s. The basic postulate is that every human being in general aspires to eliminate the contradictory thoughts or forms of behaviour that are present within him. The appearance of situations of dissonance creates privileged moments in which the masks of propaganda fall and a new perception of the facts is introduced. In the majority of cases these are unleashed by an unusual event that involves public opinion, directly, or its chiefs, indirectly, declaring: 'enough is enough, we doubt the credibility of what you want us to believe and the efficacy of the policy that is implemented'. To give an example, Al-Qaeda has adapted a strategy that can strongly prejudice its future to attack Muslim countries whose powers practice a policy of secularity or which simply refuse to base the foundations of their legitimacy on the shari´a. The choice of Al-Qaeda, or of one or two of the terrorist groups that are affiliated to it to varying degrees, to engage in a grave attack such as that perpetrated in Amman on 9 November, hitting the population without making a distinction between Western citizens and Muslims, can lead to a cognitive dissonance in populations that hitherto have been favourable, to varying degrees, to the objectives pursued by Al-Qaeda, even though these objectives are not very clear.


But although it is possible to be satisfied with security measures and one does not want to opt for a total war, how is it possible to create situations of cognitive dissonance which lead a part of public opinion to ask itself about its vision of the problem, whether it is favourable to or against Al-Qaeda? First of all, it is possible to act on behaviour. It was for this reason that Tony Blair, after the attacks which threw London into mourning in July 2005, decided to forbid calls to holy war and incitements to hatred. This decision, which was contrary to the policy of tolerance that had been observed up to that point in relation to Islamists and followed very probably by surveillance of the activities of preachers, tended to introduce a situation of dissonance between those who up to that moment had had the habit of considering incitements to Jihad as normal. Another situation of dissonance could have been created by the creation of the French Council of Muslim Worship. After three years of dialogue, this body was formed by Nicolas Sarkozy. Even though a large number of difficulties remain to be solved, this new body was a recognition by the Muslim reality in France of the need to give voice to a majority that up to that moment had been silent. Unfortunately, the disagreements raised by the UOIF and by the candidates for the presidency have not allowed the creation of a consensus that could have had a notable influence on Muslim public opinion in France. Lastly, Ariel Sharon chose Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, and this involved the creation of a cognitive dissonance both amongst Palestinian notables and within Palestinian public opinion.



The second stage will aim to achieve the threshold of resonance. A threshold of resonance is achieved when within one of the parties that directly nourish the conflict, or is favourable to carrying it on, or at least is favourable to the aims pursued by those who nourish it, a part of public opinion of the leadership enters into resonance with the policy for resolution, that is to say believes that it is necessary to end the conflict, even though the objectives of those who have nourished that conflict have not be achieved. In order to clarify and give a precise example of the case of Islamic terrorism, this means, for example, that a part of the Iraqi population should begin to demonstrate against the acts of terrorism that make the country a place of bloodshed every day, or that some countries that hitherto have refused to co-operate in the struggle against Islamic terrorism take measures in this direction or, to finish, that the Muslim citizens of Western countries that attend fundamentalist mosques desert them, reject speeches against the West, and no longer make donations to the war chests of terrorist networks. There could also be a majority of Americans who believe that the policy of their President is leading to an impasse and who openly demonstrate against it following the example of what happened at the end of the American intervention in Vietnam.



The third stage, lastly, will be the achievement of a threshold of consonance. The threshold of consonance is achieved when many of the parties involved in the conflict enter into consonance with the policy for resolution proposed, adhere to it and promote it so that it meets with success. This moment does not mean the end of violence and terrorist actions but these are by now condemned by a majority of the parts involved taken as a whole. The threshold of consonance is the product of a correlation of changes in attitudes and behaviour: the rejection of violence becomes an attractive approach, also for the leaders of opinion who previously supported terrorist actions; a part of the populations that support one of the parties involved enters into dissonance with the attitudes imposed and provides information by which to neutralise the networks of the protagonists of violence; a part of the leaders of opinion who were previously favourable, to varying degrees, to the objectives pursued by violent action expresses its disapproval of the activities carried out by terrorism; the protagonists of violence no longer find active or passive support from the population that is favourable to their lines of argument; and the actions of violence provoke only reactions of opposition and are counterproductive as regards the objectives pursued by the protagonists of violence.


To conclude, the war on terrorism that centres around policy-style and military intervention is not sufficient and does not produce the expected solutions. It does not allow the creation of conditions for the end of terrorism. It is indispensable to create in parallel the conditions for a return of security. These are achieved through a change in the social representations of the parties involved taken as a whole. The problem is a complex one, the solutions local, but the concept can only be global.