- Reviewed by
For some twenty years, Roger Griffin has been at the forefront of research into fascism as a generic ideology. By way of declaring my longstanding interest, for nearly half of that time we worked closely together; in 2004, we published the five-volume Fascism: Critical Concepts, and in 2008, A Fascist Century appeared, my edited selection of his essays. What made his theorizing so groundbreaking was his forensic search for the lowest common denominator of fascist belief—crucially, as empirically propounded in fascists’ own words. In treating fascist ideology with “methodological empathy”—exemplified by his 1995 anthology Fascism, assembling cognate excerpts from some two hundred leading ideologues—Griffin could “heuristically” characterize fascist ideology as a form of revolutionary praxis that, at its core, emphasized a regenerative ultra-nationalism which was totalitarian in ambition and “third way” in politico-economic structure; that is, one distinct from communism and liberalism. [End Page 594]
Griffin’s most recent study attempts “to demystify terrorism” in much the same way (6), now training his lens upon the “non-instrumental rationales, the symbolic, existential, metapolitical motivations of terrorist acts” (7). A motivation for this shift in focus is suggested later, where Griffin argues that 9/11 “terrified ontologically,” meaning that “[a]cademics (myself included) hastily retrained to be able to contribute to the updating and reprogramming of the SatNav systems provided by the human sciences” (158) to address the “emotional pandemic” (2) ignited by contemporary terrorism. Space permits three straightforward criticisms raised in response, deriving from the observation that not all terrorists—quite few, in fact, in the long-established and, here, roundly-neglected literature on the subject—are like Griffin’s fictional model, Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden from Fight Club. Contra the utopian visions Griffin projects onto terrorists of every time and place since the beginning of recorded history, baser motives like hatred or self-interest, let alone mental illness, more often than not act as radicalizing agents for terrorism. Yet you would scarcely suspect that reading Terrorist’s Creed; here, terrorists tend to be rendered as mildly endearing Bond villains.
Accordingly, underpinning his panoramic theorizing is an essentialism initially denied in strenuous terms and yet, especially in later chapters, quite difficult to miss:
The most modern terrorist’s outlook on reality is generated by the same faculty for mythopoeia and sacralization that enables an objectively meaningless reality to be sacralized, that came into being when human consciousness first emerged into reflexivity, and the resulting knowledge of death and intimation of absurdity demanded a sacred canopy of magic and faith to be collectively constructed to protect life from the chill winds of nihilism…. [To] study terrorism is to study the extreme product of this instinct for self-preservation.(201)
Dozens of similar passages insist upon the banal shibboleth that we (referring implicitly to contemporary western Europeans) live in a “post-religious age” (202). From this assured perspective, enlightened humanity knows that the world’s major religions are merely hybrid products of a “mazeway resynthesis” that “contributed decisively” to the formation of every human sacred canopy, or “nomoi,” in history—“namely Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Judiaism, Christianity, and Islam” (51). Given the centrality of this theme, it is treated with remarkable superficiality. For example, tellingly, religion is defined en passant in one sentence near the end of the book (160), while the apparently more nettlesome definition of terrorism is exhaustively traversed in an introductory two pages (11–12). In sum, through a process of radicalizing self-aggrandizement that Griffin dubs “heroic doubling,” “every act of terrorism has at its heart an ideal to realize, a cause to sacralize, a creed to live out in reality” (200).
For Griffin every act of terrorism is, then, to some degree a “primordial human response to anomy” (54). But then again, so is every kind of religion or ideology for collective groups, or any individual’s intense dedication to Yoga or crochet. Consequently, “a liminoid crisis of extreme alienation from society” thus “becomes the precondition for the fanatic” to carry out “violent symbolic action” (57). Since this...