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Stanford Humanities Center International Visitor Richard English discusses the evolution of terrorism studies


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Historian Richard English, an International Visitor at the Stanford Humanities Center, discusses the evolving landscape of terrorism studies.
Scholar Richard English studies Irish and British history and politics. A historian and a professor of politics, English’s current research centers on terrorism and political violence.
English is the author of seven books, including the award-winning publications Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA (2003) and Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland (2006). He is currently at work on about his latest book project, Does Terrorism Work? A History.
The Director of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV), at the University of St Andrews, English is in residence at the Stanford Humanities Center as an International Visitor during the spring 2014 quarter.
Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) nominated English for the International Visitor fellowship and during his time at Stanford he is giving lectures at CISAC and participating in seminars with Stanford students.
English talked to Patricia Blessing, the Executive Officer for the International Visitors Program about how the history of nationalism in Ireland relates to the study of terrorism and the importance of viewing terrorism through a historical lens.

How has the study of terrorism developed in the last twenty years? 

The most decisive shift is the one that followed 9/11, with the explosion of U.S. -based research on the subject.  Prior to 2001, the academic study of terrorism had been far less extensive, and had been much less dominated by American scholarship. Now, the debate has its centre of gravity firmly in the U.S.: large-scale funding emerged anew, universities newly adopted a strategic interest in the field, a fresh generation of students warmed to it, and some established scholars opted into the debate. Much of that has been very positive indeed. There is far more work being done, some of it brilliant (much of the latter at Stanford!).  
Some observers might feel that this new centre of gravity has loaded the approach towards the kinds of methodological preferences evident in U.S. Political Science Departments, and there is some truth in that. So quantitative work has often dominated, sometimes at the expense of more historically rooted analyses.   And there has been an unfortunate tendency for there to emerge a dialogue gap between the U.S. and some other academic traditions.  
What we need now, I would argue, is for a pluralistic approach in disciplinary terms (History, Political Science, International Relations, Economics, Psychology, Philosophy, Anthropology, and much else across the campus), and for the differing understandings prioritized in different national traditions to listen to each other in a more sustained fashion than they sometimes do.

Nowadays, public opinion tends to associate terrorism with Islam. Can you describe how such assumptions have an impact on your own work, and on the study of terrorism as a global phenomenon in general? 

Understandably, if regrettably, the post-9/11 focus on terrorism research has been heavily located in the study of Islamist violence.  This has also had a secondary dynamic, whereby research on three inter-linked issues (al-Qaida, Afghanistan, Iraq) has grown vastly, perhaps out of proportion to requirements in scholarly terms.  Now much good work has been done, and the topic is clearly very important. But is has fueled a disproportionate sense that Islam is necessarily associated with terrorism, together with a sometimes crude assumption about the relationship between the religion and the political struggles. That connection is there at times, but it tends to be subtle and complex rather than mechanical or necessary.
In terms of my own work (which began with the study of Irish nationalist violence) there has been a paradoxical development: pre-9/11, U.S. and other non-Irish or non-U.K. interest tended to lie with those who had a commitment to understanding the Irish issues themselves; post-9/11, the question of why serious terrorism arises, how it relates to questions of state legitimacy or economics, how such violence ends, and so forth has become more generalized. So the particular Irish story has taken on something of a global resonance. 

Could you briefly outline your academic trajectory, and describe the factors that brought you to the study of terrorism?

When I was a History Undergraduate at Oxford I was interested in the problem that nationalism presented for the Marxist left. I wanted a case study through which to assess this and (partly because of having been born in Belfast, partly because of the richness of the sources) I chose Ireland. I then studied for my doctorate with Professor Charles Townshend, working on the 1920s/1930s IRA and their relationship with Marxism.  That became my first book (Radicals and the Republic, Oxford University Press, 1994).  I moved to work at Queen's University, Belfast, in 1989, and developed my interests in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), but also in Irish nationalism and its relationship to the more serious issues of nationalism, the state, and political legitimacy.
The modern-day IRA were going through a massive shift during these years, effectively bringing their war to an end. I interviewed many of their personnel (as well as their opponents) and wrote a study of the modern-day IRA (Armed Struggle, Oxford University Press, 2003).  The Irish setting was great: sources were all around me, and the scholarly atmosphere was dynamic.
In 2011 I was offered the Directorship of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews (the oldest such Centre in Europe) and thought that there would be opportunities there for developing the wider aspects of my work on terrorism and political violence, and also to try to ensure that some of the issues relating to full and open international debate in this field might be supported.

How does your own work on the history of nationalism in Ireland relate to the study of terrorism?

In many cases, what we study when we study terrorism is really a symptom of a major problem between nationalism and the existing state.  This is true of so many key cases (Israel/Palestine, the Spanish/Basque conflict, Ireland, but now in different ways also in Iraq).  What I want to do is to study terrorism as something organically linked to these wider world-historical forces (nationalism, the state, serious religious culture) rather than as something separate from them.  In my view, too few scholars of terrorism read widely enough on nationalism or on the state as such.

The historical roots of terrorism are an important part of your work. How has this affected the way in which you study terrorism? How is the study of terrorism today related to the study of war?

I see terrorism as a sub-species of war: that is how terrorists and (increasingly) their state opponents see it, and there is some validity to that analysis.  The central argument of so many terrorists is essentially Clausewitzean: to make the war more painful for your opponent than it would be for them to give you what they want.  I also think that if we were more honest about the terrorizing dynamics at the heart of so much that sates do in orthodox war (that much of that violence is terrorizing violence aimed at using psychological processes to produce political results) then we might be less glib and casual about our own states’ wars, past and future.
On history, I think that too few historians have tended to opt to study terrorism as their main subject (even post-9/11, it is more common for Political Science than for History Departments to focus on it).   This seems a pity. Most of the major terrorist crises have complex and constraining historical roots. And a deeper understanding of (say) Afghan or Iraqi history would have made certain counter-terrorist ventures less clumsy.

Listen to Richard English talk about terrorism below.