The Paris Attacks, Religious Identites and Failed National Narratives

Akil Awan writes for The National Interest on the Charlie Hebdo attacks, radical religion, and the failed promise of the French Republic's national narrative:  

The masked gunmen who assaulted the Charlie Hebdo offices in a hail of automatic gunfire, leaving twelve people dead in their wake, were heard proclaiming, "we have avenged the Prophet Muhammad." Amateur footage also revealed the killers invoking God with the Arabic phrase, “Allahu Akbar”—an otherwise-innocuous, everyday religious utterance, but one that is frequently usurped as the jihadists’ battle cry, in pointed attempts to consecrate their brutal violence.

What should we make of the killers’ sanctimonious declarations that they were in fact acting in defense of their holy figure—a reference to the magazine’s irreverent and controversial depictions of the Muslim prophet?

How might we reconcile their claim that they were exacting vengeance on behalf of all Muslims for these apparent affronts, when at least two of their victims were also Muslims?

Both Ahmed Merabet, the police officer callously executed at point-blank range on the pavement outside the offices, and Mustapha Ourrad, Charlie Hebdo’s copy editor, shared the faith of their killers.

Perhaps most importantly, how should we react to their self-righteous assertions to be the supreme moral arbiters of Muslim religious sensitivities and sanctities?

A good start would be to treat their self-aggrandizing claims with the ridicule that they deserve.

One inescapable and glaring incongruity with the claims of these “religious avengers” is just how religiously illiterate the vast majority of these individuals actually are. This is particularly true of Western Muslims, who have been lured to fight for ISIS, or who have carried out attacks at home. Most are not particularly religious prior to their involvement with violence, being raised in largely secular households, with only a rudimentary grasp of their parental faith.

Nevertheless, one of the stubborn enduring myths surrounding jihadist terrorism has been the preeminence of religion over other motivations, and it is easy to understand why this might be the case. Many of these individuals themselves employ starkly religious language, and invoke religious texts that promise “other-worldly” rewards as compensation for “this-worldly” sacrifice, including the guarantee of eternal Paradise, and most famously, the lascivious offering of seventy-two heavenly virgins.

But, crucially, in many of these instances, we have to be aware of the post-hoc attribution of religious meaning and validation to their acts. To put it differently, religion does not provide the initial motive, but it does provide the motif or stamp of approval. Take the example of a young man who wants to go to Syria to fight for any reason that is not explicitly religious. It is not enough to just fight and even die like a jihadi, but to be accepted by that community (and indeed not to end up beheaded as a member of a rival group), you need to walk, talk and behave like one of them, too. The highly stylized “martyrdom testaments” suicide bombers record prior to their deaths are a very good example of this sort of conformity—it is no accident they all look and sound pretty much the same.

One recent telling example of this sort of religiosity tacked on at the end is the case of Mohammed Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar, two young British men from Birmingham who were jailed for travelling to Syria to join and fight alongside a jihadist group in 2013, in response to what they saw as their religious duty. But it was the reading material they purchased to accompany them on their trip, the books, Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies, which are most revealing about their lack of religious literacy and motivation.

And this characterization appears to hold equally true for the violent men who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices. The Kouachi brothers, as orphaned children of Algerian immigrants, were raised in foster care, and certainly not as pious Muslims. Rather, as the French newspaper Libération reported back in 2005, Cherif led a decidedly nondevout and hedonistic lifestyle—smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol, listening to gangster rap and having numerous girlfriends. Indeed, during his trial in 2008 for helping to transport jihadist fighters from France to Iraq, Cherif’s lawyer described his client as an “occasional Muslim.”

Now, this is not to exonerate religion in any sense. Religion has historically been responsible for a great deal of violence, and religious texts and doctrines often appear to condone death and destruction. However, unlike believers, academics tend to understand religion as a product of social, economic, political and other factors that offer solutions to something.

So what does religion offer a solution to, in the case of Europe’s jihadists?

Read on here

Posted on Tuesday, January 13, 2015 at 12:56AM by Registered CommenterAkil Awan | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

O'Loughlin to present @RoyalHolloway on Javier Marias, language and betrayal, 13 January

Posted on Monday, December 22, 2014 at 04:03PM by Registered CommenterAdministrator | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Media, War & Conflict #WW1Centenary issue (and video abstracts)

The journal Media, War & Conflict has published a special issue marking the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. The articles explore the role of media in the war's memorialisation. The issue was guest edited by Sarah Maltby, convenor of the War and Media Network and a new editor on the MWC staff. Read Sarah's brief introduction to the special issue here.

The special issue contains the journal's first video abstract. This is for 'The last post: British press representations of veterans of the Great War' by Nick Webber and Paul Long from the University of Birmingham. Alongside the typical 200 word abstract, the authors have uploaded a video talking us through the ideas behind the article. These video abstracts are likely to become more common, and we would be grateful for any feedback to S.Maltby@sussex.ac.uk. Thanks to Nick and Paul for being willing to put themselves up first.

Posted on Tuesday, December 16, 2014 at 12:50PM by Registered CommenterAdministrator | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Akil Awan to speak at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office on Jihadist Narratives in a Turbulent Middle East and North Africa

Akil Awan will be speaking next week, 12 December 2014 at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Royal United Services Institute one day conference on Jihadist Narratives in a Turbulent MENA Region at Whitehall. Organised by the FCO's National Security Research Group and Middle East and North Africa Research Group, the conference will look at how jihadist narratives have evolved in recent years in response to events in the MENA region, with leading experts in the field discussing recent trends before suggesting implications for policymakers.

To attend, please RSVP to Simon.Staffell@fco.gov.uk & Marie.Haynesperks@fco.gov.uk


Welcome address: Simon Gass, Director General Political, FCO 9:00

SESSION ONE: Start, 9:15; End 10:45

Chair and discussant: Laurie Bristow, Director National Security, FCO

1. Simon Staffell: Overview: Jihadist Narratives in a Turbulent Middle East

2. Donald Holbrook: AQ Senior Leaders

Iraq, Syria and Jordan

3. Nelly Lahoud: ISIL

4. Joas Wagemakers: Jordanian Narratives

SESSION TWO: North Africa Start, 11:15; End 12:30

Chair and discussant: Cornelia Sorabji, Head of Research Analysts, FCO

5. Omar Ashour: Libya and Egypt

6. Valentina Bartolucci: Maghreb

7. Jonathan Githens-Mazer: Tunisia

SESSION THREE: Other Regions and Responses Start, 13:30; End 15:00

Chair and discussant: Raffaello Pantucci, Director International Security Studies, RUSI

8. Elisabeth Kendall: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

9. Christopher Anzalone: Shia responses to Jihadist narratives in a turbulent MENA

10. Martha Turnball: Responses from jihadists outside MENA

SESSION FOUR: Implications for Policy and at Home Start, 15:00; End: 16:30

Chair and discussant: Raffaello Pantucci, Director International Security Studies, RUSI

11. Akil Awan: Impact on radicalisation

12. Rachel Briggs: Policy implications

Posted on Friday, December 5, 2014 at 02:23PM by Registered CommenterAkil Awan | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Digital Asset Ecosystems by @tobias_blanke - book launch report

Last night Ben O'Loughlin spoke at the launch for Tobias Blanke's new book, Digital Asset Ecosystems: Rethinking Crowds and Clouds. Tobias is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for E-Research at King's College London.

Tobias argues we inhabit ecosystems best understood through the complementary interaction of clouds (digital platforms, ubiquitous and heavily interlinked) and crowds (humans collaborating, knowingly or not). Clouds and crowds are ‘two sides of the same coin’ (p3). Through this division of labour, value is produced – cultural, social, economic but primarily network value. This means rethinking what digital assets are. They are not files, objects or items with content; they are connectors whose value depends on them being circulated and consumed through networks.

The research task that follows, for those of us in political communication as well as in digital humanities and big data research, is to follow the assets. Tobias writes, ‘how digital assets integrate in digital networks in their life cycle, how they move from place to place and from system to system, and how they pass through the hands of ‘dedicated communities’’ (p8, italics added) This is similar to Arjun Appadurai’s approach to cultural economy in tribal societies: follow objects and the meaning they have to their holders/consumers as they pass from person to person. The difference between passing a sacred artifact or gift around then and passing a campaign strategy document around today is that today network effects kick in. The circuit of connectivity around the object is open, unknowable in advance, and difficult to control without harsh rights management techniques. The NPCU has tracked and theorised how these assets become meaningful and valuable, for instance through Chadwick’s work on Obama's campaign videos or O’Loughlin’s work on jihadist videos.

But a conceptual problem becomes apparent in a digital ecosystem. Is meaning – and therefore ascription of value -- only generated by humans? Tobias shows this might not be the case. The semantic web or web 3.0 allows computers to evaluate how an object/asset is valuable qua what it can do and what functions it can help with within digital networks. The result is we find a mix of computers calculating link-ability in big data and use-ability in networks, and humans calculating qualitatively; somehow these join together – clouds and crowds perform ongoing co-evaluation operations. In this way, digital assets are continually valued, assessed, integrated; their value is ongoing-ly produced and affirmed or diminished.

This leads to a conception of rational, strategic action: harness and deploy this interplay of clouds and crowds to generate things of value, i.e. that connect, sell, connect, sell. Tobias discusses the case of Amazon’s Mechanical Turks and other free, voluntary or cheap labour. The book explores the political economy of digital ecosystems and offers a fresh understanding of value, labour, property and other classic concepts in a way that moves on from the open source debates of the 1990s and 2000s. All of this leads naturally to questions of open data. Most clouds are privately owned and owners like Amazon and Apple are strategic about how to open or close them in ways that maximize network value. Most citizens are not so strategic and lack the resources to create their own clouds. Could we have public service clouds? Not when trust in the state is so low, after the actions of the NSA and GCHQ. But what does public even mean anymore? Is it necessarily synonymous with the state? And what prospects are there for public demand for open data to be generated and them realized? Given that our political subjectivities and strategies are formed within these digital ecosystems, surely the loop is closed?

The book is well worth a read and shows the virtue of interdisciplinary thinking. As one of the social scientists present noted after the discussion, who knew that computer science had theory?

Posted on Wednesday, November 26, 2014 at 07:51AM by Registered CommenterAdministrator | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Seminar this afternoon on social media engagement and the Olympics

Ben O'Loughlin will present in the weekly seminar of the Department of Criminology & Sociology today at 4pm. His title is 'Tweeting the Olympics: The BBC, Engagement and Influence after London 2012'. Ben will present social media research done by the New Political Communication Unit and the Open University with BBC World during the 2012 Olympics and look ahead to how audience engagement can be conceptualised and measured in a hybrid, multilingual media landscape.

Time: 4pm - 5.30pm

Place: Arts Building G24

Refreshments will be available in the Arts Building Foyer from 3.45pm.

All welcome.

Posted on Wednesday, November 19, 2014 at 10:00AM by Registered CommenterAdministrator | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Mark Pope passes PhD viva

'How Ulster internees are made to talk' - the Sunday Times of 17 October 1971. Mark compared the moral, legal and political arguments around torture in the 1970s to post-9/11 torture debates.We are delighted to announce that Mark Pope passed his PhD viva on 14 November 2014. His examiners, Shani Orgad (LSE) and Vian Bakir (Bangor) commended Mark on an exceptionally well-written thesis that took a bold risk of working across the fields of political theory, media and communication, and critical security studies. Mark was supervised by Ben O'Loughlin and benefited from a period as a guest researcher at the Autonomous University of Barcelona thanks to Mike Jensen and Eva Østergaard-Nielsen. Details of Mark's thesis are below.
Congratulations to Mark. 
Risk-cosmopolitanism: How the UK Government and news media structure the order of security discourse to impede challenges on torture and abuse

This thesis explores UK news discourse on counterterrorism. News discourse on counterterrorism involves representations of history, space and identities in order to frame risks, threats and responses. To gain analytical purchase on this, this research considers the forms of cosmopolitanism that emerge in this context and how they are constructed.   The concept of cosmopolitanism not only provides critical purpose and a benchmark to evaluate how the order of discourse could be different, but it is utilised here as an analytical tool. Recognising diverse interpretations of the concept of cosmopolitanism, a review of academic literature delineates cosmopolitan perspectives pertinent to a study on counterterrorism that are then located in the news discourse.

The first case study centres on discourse surrounding interrogation techniques used in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and adds a comparative perspective for three 21st century case studies on UK complicity in torture, the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Pakistan and the passage of the UK Justice and Security Bill (2012-2013) through parliament.  Through assessment of texts and the use of interviews and ethnographic methods this critical discourse analysis explores the dialectical relations between juridical, academic, governmental and activist fields, denoting strategies employed by key actors.

This study finds that in contemporary discourse risk-based cosmopolitanism is most prominent.  Discussion of transnational and diffuse terrorist threats and counterterrorism measures have reinforced risk discourses and impacted on the cosmopolitanism that has emerged.  A focus on risk has been reflected beyond government and news media fields thereby diminishing concerns for the Other.  Despite the rise of transnationalism, risk discourses are supported through a national pride that has remained constant surrounding security since the 1970s.  Overall, this thesis demonstrates how actors from government and news media fields have influenced political communication, thereby minimising, although not categorically precluding, the imperative for policy change. 
Posted on Sunday, November 16, 2014 at 11:13AM by Registered CommenterAdministrator | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Mark Pope presenting at Media, Persuasion & Human Rights conference

NPCU PhD student Mark Pope will present today at the Media, Persuasion & Human Rights conference at Bangor University, organised by the Political Studies Association (PSA) Media and Politics Group and supported by BBC Monitoring. Mark will present analysis of the struggle to define the discursive terrain in the debate about the 2012-13 Justice and Security Bill. His abstract is below.

Title: ‘The Justice and Security Bill 2012-2013: the battle for a genre’.


The Justice and Security Act that was passed by the UK Parliament in 2013 provided for civil cases involving national security to be heard in closed proceedings.  This Act threatens the principle of open justice by restricting the public scrutiny that civil claims surrounding human rights abuses can provide. In cases related to allegations of UK complicity in torture, the judicial field had previously been a key source of information.  This paper considers how this Bill was deliberated in the UK parliament and the news media and also the potential the legislation has to impact on public debate on human rights and security issues in future.    It draws on a doctoral thesis exploring UK news discourse on counterterrorism. To gain analytical purchase on this, this research considers the forms of cosmopolitanism that emerge in this context and how they are constructed.   The concept of cosmopolitanism not only provides critical purpose and a benchmark to evaluate how the order of discourse could be different, but it is utilised here as an analytical tool. This paper finds that discussion of transnational and diffuse terrorist threats reinforced risk discourses and impacted on the cosmopolitanism that emerged. A focus on risk has diminished concerns for the Other.  This, combined with the capacity of the UK Government to influence the order of discourse and structuring of argumentation surrounding the legislative process, ensured the Bill was passed with minimal amendments.  

Posted on Tuesday, November 11, 2014 at 07:44AM by Registered CommenterAdministrator | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Jamie Bartlett practitioner masterclass, 12 November 4pm


The New Political Communication Unit is to start running practitioner masterclasses each term with professionals working in political communication. Please find details of the first of these below.

NPCU Practitioner Masterclass

Jamie Bartlett

Author of The Dark Net

Jamie Bartlett is the Director of Demos' Centre for the Analysis of Social Media.

Date: 12 November 2014, 16:00 – 18:00

Place: Windsor Building, WIN 0-05

His new book is a revelatory examination of the net's most shocking and unexplored subcultures: trolls and home-pornographers, drug dealers and hackers, political extremists and computer scientists, Bitcoin programmers and self-harmers, libertarians and vigilantes.

Jamie will talk to the New Political Communication Unit about his new book. He will also discuss Demos’ research on digital media and politics and the challenge we face as researchers in this field.

Posted on Friday, October 31, 2014 at 01:47PM by Registered CommenterAdministrator | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

O’Loughlin and Awan address the US Council of Foreign Relations.

This week saw the US Council of Foreign Relations host a prestigious dinner in Atlanta to discuss findings from the New Political Communication’s project on media, religion and conflict, funded by the British Council and partnered with Georgia State University and the Carter Center. The discussion led by Prof Ben O’Loughlin, Dr Akil Awan, Dr Abbas Barzegar, Dr Shawn Powers focused on the ongoing conflict in Syria.

The rise of ISIS this summer has made more tragic the failure to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict in the past three years. It has also sharpened attention on the role of media in conflict. ISIS, opposition groups and the Assad regime try to mobilize support through social media. Westerners see the conflict on TV or the internet and travel to Syria to fight. At the same time, divisions between Sunni, Shia and other ethno-religious groups, magnified by backers from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and other regional powers, point to the importance of religion in the conflict. More precisely, it points to the strategic uses and representations of religion to mobilize actors to perpetuate the violence. Participants in the debate wanted to know, could religion and its mediation be used in the services of peace instead?

The team were keen to unpack the role of religion and its presumed role and its role in conflict resolution. They argued that religious leaders must be religious to be peacebuilders but it is their civic and social capacities that guarantee their effectiveness in peacebuilding. Religiosity is a necessary condition; it provides credibility in societies where religion is the norm or individuals manage their lives through faith. A leader’s civic and social capacities are a sufficient condition. Without those, faith and moral guidance will have no effect on the political and social processes driving violence. These conclusions are only possible by understanding religion as practice, community and institutions as well as discourse or doctrine. The project team also argued that, since peacebuilding is a communicative phenomenon, attention to the role of media in these processes is essential. Policymakers often seek to insert a peacebuilding narrative into a social space from the outside, often with negative unintended consequences. The project -- and a consensus within communication studies -- indicates peacebuilding must work with the grain of existing, trusted media habits and rituals. In short, religious leadership can contribute to peacebuilding not by ‘communicating the right message’ to protagonists but by using positions of credibility to work with and on social and civic relations

However, the team also argued that media, particularly in the social media age, could be highly problematic too, acting as a hindrance to reconciliation and the mitigation of conflict. They employed the case of ISIS in Syria and Iraq today to illustrate the potential social media holds in amplifying or at least overstating the importance of conflict, pointing to a at least three examples of this phenomenon in action:

1) ISIS have proven themselves to be highly proficient in their social media strategies, employing large scale usage of Twitter and other social media platforms to amplify their threat and their potential. Resembling the beating of war drums of marching armies of the past, ISIS advances into Iraq have been presaged by volleys of tweets designed to overwhelm the unfortunate inhabitants caught up in their warpath. Indeed, in the day prior to the fall of Mosul, ISIS using sophisticated social media management tools, tweeted 40,000 times in a single day, as part of their concerted and incredibly media-savvy campaign. We might think of this campaign as part of a very shrewd psychological warfare strategy, not dissimilar to the Mongols who, when besieging cities, would often have their fighters build multiple campfires, so that when the besieged inhabitants looked out upon the plain of campfires, they would overestimate the numbers of warriors camped there.

2) Beheading videos: The recent beheadings of 4 Western journalists was clearly part of a very savvy media strategy; propaganda expertly choreographed to engender fear and outrage in a Western audience. However, perhaps even more shocking than the brutal savagery on display, was the symbiotic relationship with terrorist propaganda exhibited by virtually all media outlets, who in an astounding display of servile compliance, displayed these images prominently in newspaper headlines or breaking news segments. The message imparted to audiences was clear; there was nothing more newsworthy, more deserving of audiences’ attention and moral outrage, happening anywhere else in the world than these particular beheadings. The importance ascribed to these events distorts their actual importance in the overall scale of events in conflict zones, granting them a significance that belies their actual importance, relative to other events taking place.

3) Finally, thanks to social media and ready access to media platforms, the Syria conflict is the most documented conflict in history, with at least one minute of video footage recorded for every minute of the conflict; a staggering proposition by any measure. This glut of information means that every violent act, every grotesque violation of human rights, is now freely available in the public domain, accessible to anyone who wishes to search for it, and for anyone who wishes to use it as motivation for reciprocal retributive violence. This focus on the violence potentially also impinges on the potential for conflict resolution, and reconciliation between communities, once the conflict is eventually over. Whilst truth is a fundamental pre-requisite of post-conflict truth and reconciliation, in a strange way, too much ‘truth’ or at least an inordinate and inescapable focus on the clearly documented violence, thanks to social media, may make reconciliation between estranged communities that much more difficult.

However, in recognising the amplification effect of social media, they also argued that it is important not to throw the baby out with the bath water, and recognise the utility that analysis of social media and big data in particular may hold. The recent Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, for example, was identified by big data analysis tools that used algorithms to scour tens of thousands of social media sites and social networks, a full 9 days prior to the outbreak’s recognition by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Following a similar logic, it may be possible to predict where outbreaks of violence are likely to occur through the mapping of Pre-Conflict using big data analyses. It may be possible to offer early interventions at these critical violent flashpoints to resolve or mitigate conflict.

The project is ongoing and the team will be publishing a range of outputs over the next few months, including policy briefing papers in addition to academic articles.


Posted on Friday, October 24, 2014 at 01:42PM by Registered CommenterAkil Awan | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint