Hamline News


Making Sense of Senseless Violence

Last November, after terrorist attacks in Paris and other parts of the world, Hamline professor Jillian Peterson organized a multidisciplinary panel discussion to examine what appeared to be senseless acts of violence. If we fail to understand the root causes of terrorism, panelists pointed out, we cannot adequately address it. Hamline magazine asked the panelists to summarize their talks.

To contribute to the conversation, send an email to magazine@hamline.edu.



By Mark Berkson, chair of the Religion Department

The terrorist attacks in Paris (and San Bernardino, Calif.; Tunisia; Mali; or anywhere that extremists with weapons have slaughtered innocent human beings) seem senseless. The utter indifference to human life and the brutality and fanaticism that characterize groups like ISIL, Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram should always be shocking and alien to us.

At the same time, in an academic community, we have the responsibility to try to make sense of the senseless, to understand as much as possible what factors gave rise to groups like these. Only when we understand how these extremist groups arose and gained a following can we formulate a strategy to eliminate them as far as possible.

Since I teach Islam, I’m often asked, “Why are Muslims so violent?” This is a wrong, misguided question. The right question would be, “How and why did these groups arise in these particular places in this particular historical moment?” If we focus on ISIL, for example, we can see that the group, which began as Al Qaeda in Iraq, would not exist if not for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Another factor involves Sunni-Shia tensions that were exacerbated due to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s poor decisions in post-war Iraq. Yet another key factor is the Syrian civil war, which produced chaos and division that the group was able to exploit and turn into territorial gains.

As we look more deeply at groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, we can see how a puritanical, harsh form of Islam came to have influence in parts of the world that had known centuries of moderate, tolerant forms of Islam. That story includes the role of Saudi Arabians who export their rigid, puritanical Wahhabi Islam throughout the world (financed, in part, by U.S. petrodollars). We must also remember that the Taliban, which sheltered Al Qaeda, arose with U.S. financing and support in the context of anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan during the 1980s. The story is complex and multi-layered, so we should avoid any simple explanation.

Violent extremists represent a minuscule fraction of Muslims worldwide. If we add together all of the militant Muslim extremists from the various terrorist organizations, the highest estimates would bring us to a number that is approximately .02 percent of the population of Muslims in the world. The vast majority of victims of their violence are Muslims. If these terrorist groups collectively vanished from the earth, nobody would be more relieved than the overwhelming majority of Muslims who simply want to live in peace. Leaders in the Islamic world have consistently condemned these groups in the strongest possible words (although many Americans don’t know this because most media coverage focuses on the violence). These leaders include the Grand Mufti of Egypt; the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which said that ISIL’s violent actions “contradict the values of Islam”; and the Arab League, which called for its 22 member nations to fight ISIL “militarily and politically.”

The motivations of many of the people who join these extremist groups are only nominally about Islam. Many aren’t particularly religious and don’t know much at all about Islam. These alienated young men join such groups for power, adventure, or respect (like others join street gangs). Many are recruited through the skillful use of social media.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that Islam, like all religions, is a remarkably diverse tradition. We must keep in mind that differences within religions are as great as, if not greater than, the differences among them. We should never let the violent extremists represent an entire religion.

Throughout history and across the globe, an astronomically greater number of Muslims has been influenced by the Sufi mystical tradition than by extremism. The Sufi path is characterized by love and service. It’s a form of religion that can play an important role in combating the evil done in religion’s name. This gentle, tolerant, spiritual form of Islam can be exemplified by remarkable people like Shaykh Muhammad Naqib ur Rehman (known as Pir Sa’ab), a Sufi leader from Pakistan who visited Hamline University last year. His shrine of Eidgah Sharif does charitable work, fights poverty and hunger, participates in interfaith dialogue, promotes nonviolence, and provides free education for girls. Pir Sa’ab speaks throughout Pakistan to condemn terrorism and promote an Islam based on love—even speaking in areas with significant Taliban activity despite receiving numerous death threats. Pir Sa’ab says, “Sufism works on the human heart to make it soft so that in the times of atrocities and harshness, the response becomes love—all-embracing and all-encompassing love and forgiveness—not hatred.”

The major conflict of our time is not between Islam and the West, but within Islam itself (in fact, within all religions). It’s between the best of religion and the worst. Religion at its worst is about creating and defending boundaries, divisions between “us and them,” “the saved and the damned.” Extremists are obsessed with identifying unbelievers, heretics, and blasphemers. Such a worldview often justifies or gives rise to violence.

Religion at its best is about dissolving boundaries, revealing a oneness that underlies and connects all of the diverse manifestations of creation. In fact, if there is one concept that is most important in Islam, it is tawhid, oneness. It refers to the oneness of God, which also means the oneness of all creation, and thus the oneness of humanity. Sufis show us a way of seeing past all divisions, encouraging us to put aside our labels and banners. The great Sufi poet Rumi describes it in these words: “Only love. Only the holder the flag fits into. No flag.”


By Sam Imbo, professor of philosophy and interim associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts

Paris, London, and New York are synonymous with culture, sophistication, and high finance. Now, however, these cities have become known for something else—terrorist attacks. Sadly, so have Madrid, Benghazi, and San Bernardino, Calif.

In November 2015, terrorists stormed a concert hall, set off explosions at a stadium, and shot diners at cafés and restaurants in Paris. In total, 130 people died and hundreds more were injured in the series of coordinated attacks.

These and other acts of terrorism, even though they may occur far away, still hit us close to home. Calculated, yet senseless, such violence evokes feelings too strong for us to handle alone. We need to be with others, to reaffirm the human connection. We also need to stand together against demagogues, opportunists, and cynics wishing to exploit tragedy to stoke xenophobic and nativist sentiments.

In recent years, some have pointed to acts of terrorism around the world as reason to fear religion, particularly Islam. While it is true that the perpetrators of these acts of violence employ religion as their justification, it’s dangerous and unfair to make the lazy inference that religion is the cause of this violence. People of faith, particularly Muslims, are injured greatly by public ignorance and uncritical acceptance of erroneous depictions of their beliefs.

In his paper “The Familiar Stranger: An Aspect of Urban Anonymity,” social psychologist Stanley Milgram provides a way to think about the plight of Muslims in America when he speaks of the strangers with whom we regularly cross paths yet know nothing about due to lack of interaction. The truth is that Muslims are not strangers in America; they have a long history in this country. When those who belong are treated like strangers in their own land, however, it can lead to severe political implications.

Alienation can be addressed at two levels: the personal and the institutional. One way to address the familiar stranger phenomenon is for all of us to cultivate meaningful relationships with fellow citizens we may not understand. Reading about, talking with, and listening to those of a different culture, religion, or political persuasion can improve our personal knowledge.

The harder work is to address institutional structures that result in people feeling like strangers in their own land. For those who doubt that institutional barriers exist, consider whether American civil society allows room for substantive discussion and civil disagreement across racial, class, religious, and cultural differences. In our political discourse, are there real consequences for defending positions that are xenophobic, racist, or sexist?

Many of us go about our busy lives without pausing to reflect on these deeper questions until tragedy jolts us awake. However, all of us might benefit if difficult discussions such as these did not arise only in times of tragedy.


By Leila DeVriese, chair and associate professor of global studies and director of Middle East studies

In the hours following the November 13, 2015, attacks on Paris, people around the world shared their reactions to the horrific events using various social media platforms. A discursive sense-making process shaped the nature, tone, and content of these online conversations.

In the first few hours, as reports of the events were still unfolding, Facebook profiles, as well as national landmarks and monuments worldwide (from Egypt’s pyramids to New York’s Empire State Building), were adopting the colors of the French flag in solidarity with the people of Paris.

Fewer than 12 hours later, a different narrative—reaffirming that the scourge of terrorism is indiscriminate and global in reach—was emerging as many people reminded us of similar terrorist attacks in Baghdad, Beirut, Lagos, Nairobi, and other cities that had often gone underreported by Western mass media in 2015. Among the most memorable social media posts were graphs indicating that more than 90 percent of the victims of terrorism in 2015 were of Muslim and/or Arab origin.

Soon, it became abundantly clear that this was not an “East vs. West” or “us vs. them” scenario. This transformation of public discourse within a few short hours highlights the diffusive, discursive, and global influence of social media.

Such valuable data, however, did little to temper the knee-jerk reaction by xenophobes and far-right politicians in Europe and the United States, who exploited the attacks to fan the flames of Islamophobia and further their own anti-immigration agendas. Many politicians and pundits alike were quick to draw false connections between migration and terror, disregarding any distinction between violent extremism and peaceful Islam or Muslims.

Some may argue that the media is somewhat, if not equally, complicit in sustaining heated political rhetoric surrounding Islam. According to Dalia Mogahed, a former adviser to President Obama, co-author of the book Who Speaks for Islam?, and director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, D.C., the media ignores not the silent minority, but the silenced majority. She argues that, while the overwhelming majority of Muslims reject the proclamations of terrorist groups like ISIL and denounce them as un-Islamic, mainstream media continues to propagate a more sensationalist and divisive narrative of “us vs. them.”

Ironically, the anti-Muslim backlash that spread through Europe and the U.S. was exactly the type of response terrorist groups like ISIL are banking on. ISIL sees this stigmatization of Muslims in the West as the perfect recruitment tool and has built an army of thousands of foreign fighters—many of them from Europe—by tapping into a reservoir of marginalized youth. Here’s where a deeper understanding of ISIL’s ideology and motivation becomes imperative to counteracting its destructiveness and reach.

In order to validate its claim as the new caliphate, ISIL needs to control land. The caliph’s legitimacy hinges on his ability to enforce ISIL’s extreme and distorted interpretation of Sharia, and the caliphate can only do that if ISIL can maintain its territorial conquests. ISIL is not interested in pushing its way into European territory; it has set its sights solely on Arab lands. Without land and Muslim populations on which their version of Sharia can be administered, a caliph is effectively delegitimized and stripped of credibility, jurisdiction, and authority to lead, thus rendering ISIL leaderless and vulnerable to internal fissions and implosion. Subsequently, in order to maintain and expand its territorial control, ISIL’s very survival rests on recruiting more foreign fighters and expanding its volunteer army.

Many of ISIL’s marketing and recruitment campaigns play on the sentiments of isolation and disenfranchisement felt by youth in some parts of Europe or the U.S. So, when politicians and mainstream media respond to terrorist attacks like those in Paris by perpetuating anti-Muslim or xenophobic rhetoric, they are playing directly into the hands of violent extremists.

The final lesson to take away from the recent terrorist attacks around the world lies in the power of language and naming. Whether we use ISIL (Islamic State in the Levant), ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), or IS (Islamic State), all three terms are aspirational in that the terrorist group neither represents Islam nor is it a state. They may aspire to and claim to represent both, but that is far from the truth. In using their terminology, governments and people are legitimizing them and lending credibility and validation to their aspirational claims. Moreover, all three acronyms contribute to confusion and a conflation of the terms “Islam,” “Muslims,” and “Islamists,” which are respectively very different concepts.

Recently, President Obama remarked that “ISIL is not Islamic … and [is] certainly not a state.” Muslim scholars around the world agree and have been very vocal in their denunciation of the group. Instead, we should follow the example of the Muslim and Arab world and use the Arabic term “Daesh,” an acronym for al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. “Daesh” can also be used as a derogatory term referring to “a bigot who imposes his view on others.”


By Sarah Greenman, assistant professor of criminal justice

Define, quantify, and prevent. That is how a criminologist approaches an incident, whether it’s a local crime or an international terrorist event like the recent attacks in Paris and Beirut.

Terrorism, as defined by The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), is an “intentional act of violence or threat of violence by a non-state actor.” It must include at least two of the following criteria:

  1. The violent act was aimed at attaining a political, economic, religious, or social goal;
  2. The violent act included evidence of an intention to coerce, intimidate, or convey some other message to a larger audience (or audiences) other than the immediate victims; and
  3. The violent act was outside the precepts of International Humanitarian Law.

Between 1970 and 2014, more than 100 people were killed on a particular day in a particular country 176 times, according to START. Until 2013, 4.2 mass fatality terrorist events happened per year on average. In 2014, that number spiked, with 26 mass fatality events occurring in eight countries.

When responding to terrorism, there is a tension between safety and freedom. We give up some individual freedoms for greater societal safety. How much freedom we should give up and why we should give up that freedom are matters for debate. For criminologists, the answers to these questions depend on why we think terrorism occurs. For example, are people who commit terroristic acts rational, or do they have strain in their lives?

Criminological theory and research suggest that when responding to terrorism, it is important to avoid alienating people. Research has found that if there is a lack of community or trust due to suspicion of others, crime will likely increase. Crime also increases when people do not believe in the legitimacy of the police.

With these and other findings, we as a society have the power to make decisions that will work to prevent events such as those in Paris and Beirut while maintaining freedom.


By Serena King, associate professor of psychology

Recent terrorist attacks and events that have caused suffering around the world have affected the lives and psyches of so many. When terrorist events such as those in Paris occur, we are understandably frightened, shocked, and confused. After we come to grips with our feelings about the human toll these attacks can take, both physically and emotionally, we can benefit from enlisting compassion for all people, groups, religions, and regions involved—including ourselves. This can allow us to more clearly see the suffering that extends beyond those directly affected by the attacks and open our hearts and minds to the global issues that the attacks are embedded in as we seek to make sense out of the senseless violence.

Although the science of psychology cannot effectively predict acts of violence, it does allow us to identify possible motives that drive terrorism, including a need to feel important, anger, prejudice, resentment, lack of empathy, rigid and all-or-nothing thinking, a misguided approach to making political change, and group dynamics.

When terrorist attacks occur, we need productive ways to cope with feelings of shock, fear, and grief. The American Psychological Association offers several suggestions, such as unplugging from the news, understanding the infrequency of terrorist attacks, and building strong interpersonal support networks.

Psychological research tells us that extending ourselves as citizens of the world through altruistic social acts can be another powerful mechanism for coping with events that evoke horror and helplessness. Positive action driven by compassion and goodness can boost our moods, give us a sense of control and greater emotional equanimity, and impact our communities.

In these times of global sadness, uncertainty, and upheaval, I offer two actions you can take to make a difference in your life and in the lives of others:

  1. Try to identify your own biases with regard to a particular subject. Be open to political or historical information that could change your way of thinking.
  2. Take action that is driven by compassion and altruism.



By Mira Reinberg, Instructor of Modern Languages and Literatures

The November 13, 2015, terrorist attacks were so resoundingly brutal precisely because they struck in the core of a place representing the cultural ideals of universality, solidarity, and progress—the city of Paris. These values, considered as the fundamental principles of Western culture, are, however, rooted in a historical reality that is as complex as our current reality. The relationship between France and the Muslim world has a long and tortuous history.

In 1789, the French Revolution launched monumental changes in the French state. In addition to toppling the monarchy, revolutionaries stripped the church and the clergy of many of their long-standing powers of decree, hold on education, censorship, arrest, and exile.

Over the next century, these reforms fluctuated according to the regime until 1905, when the government of the Third Republic enacted the law of secularism, effectively establishing the separation of church and state. The law was based on the principle of the neutrality of the state, freedom of religious exercise, and limitation on public power related to the church. In order to ground the law and ensure its endurance, the law prohibited the display of religious symbols in the public sphere, including schools, public institutions, and hospitals.

The strictness of the law stemmed from the endeavor of French society to dismantle the restrictions of their own religion—Catholicism. The current, apparently harsh, law against the wearing of headscarves in public institutions is integral to the same regulations the French apply to Christians (although Muslims claim, often justifiably, that there is more tolerance of non-Muslim symbols).

French colonization began in 1830 with the city of Algiers, capital of Algeria. France then established Morocco and Tunisia as protectorates. Independence was reached in 1955-56 for the latter two countries; whereas Algeria, considered a proper colony of France, gained independence in 1962.

The impositions on religious customs and changes in land management and ownership, as well as restrictions on civil rights, culminated in mid-20th century uprisings and brutal efforts to suppress them. The turmoil caused political upheaval in France, where the experience of World War II was only beginning to be examined, but where there was much support for the more than a million French non-Muslim residents (the Pieds noirs, or “black-footed”) who had lived in Algeria for generations and had benefited from the unequal access to its resources.

Starting in the 1970s, North African immigrants began to immigrate to France, where there was an urgent need for manual labor in the boom of the post-war economy. The Muslim population today is estimated at 5 million.

The integration of the Muslim newcomers has been fraught with difficulties. Although many have become part of French society and economy, many second-generation Muslims have been relegated to suburban housing projects, assigned to inferior schools, and discriminated against in the workplace.

These circumstances can help to explain the frustration that has been fomented and exploited by extremists who enlist support for violent actions against the West’s involvement in the Muslim Middle East and rely on the conflicted identity of young Muslims in modern France.