Submitted by: Amanda Jarrett

Research Topic: To explore theory and discourse in its application to the war on terror in order to understand its effects on the perception of the Middle East.

Research Question: In what ways has literature on the war of terror influenced the way the Middle East is perceived by the West?


The purpose of this literature review comes in three parts. The first aspect acknowledges the empirical knowledge of terrorism in terms of its definition, forms, and its motives. This portion will also address how literature about terrorism has been written and how it is problematic in spreading a narrative that does not reflect reality. The second aspect addresses the different theories and discourses that have been discussed within the various readings: civilizational discourse, Orientalism, genderization, tabloid terror, and Just War theory. Subjects that addressed in this discussion include the usage of media as a tool for terror and narrative, the liberation of women, strategies of terrorists, and perception of Islam. Lastly, the third aspect of this literature review addresses foreign policy by the United States and the West in their declaration of the war on terror after the most infamous terrorist attacks in September 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center.

Literature Review:

Yves Winter in his article “Critical Theory, the War on Terror and the Limits of Civilization” reviews three different works which includes “Holy Terror” by Terry Eagleton, “Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left” by Susan Buck-Morss, and Defending Ideals: War, Democracy and Political Struggles” by Drucilla Cornell. Eagleton argued that in the center of every civilization there is violence integrated there through terror, even within democratic institutions. Buck-Morss argued against Western discourse, advocating for Islamism to be considered a legitimate form of “anti-modern reactionary force” (209). Cornellargued that ideals are indispensable to domestic and foreign policies (212).

Bill Calcutt’s article “Just War Theory and the War on Terror” mentioned how the advancements made in the modern world, improved technology and communication along with economic interdependence, the need for tradition war is unnecessary. He also describes that in a more interconnected world, terrorism has been a catalyst for the securitization of states. Calcutt debates the conflict between Just War theory and threats outside of the traditional state system and their legitimacy. Domenico Tosini’s article “The Autonomy of Law in the War on Terror: A Contribution from Social Systems Theory” adds to the discussion of legitimacy of non-state actions, such as terrorist groups. Instead of focusing on strategy of both the state and terrorist groups like Calcutt, Tosini draws attention to the law of autonomy in the international system. He states that it is under siege with these new threats to the state system and states having to adjust the terms of international law in order to effectively address them.

Maryam Khalid’s book “Gender, Orientalism, and the ‘War on Terror:’ Representation, Discourse, and Intervention in Global Politics” discusses the narrative and perception of the world their the eyes of the West in regards to the United States rhetoric and approach to the war on terror. Khalid states that there are issues with how international politics are conducted in regards to privileging meanings and identities produced by the West. She also talks about how the war on terror is orientalist in nature based on how it racializes and genderizes the ‘Other.’ The real threat of terrorism, more specifically a group like al-Qaeda, is it challenge to not only the United States’ physical reality but also their “discursive identity” (Khalid, 152). Lila Abu-Lughod’s article “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others” also addresses gender by diving into the contrasting imagery of how the United States portrays Muslim women and the actual reality of women. She details the history and significance of being veiled in Muslim society, inherently opposing Western perception and rejecting the West’s mission to ‘liberate’ Muslim women. Abu-Lughod discusses how the burqa is not used as a form of oppression but instead is a symbol of modesty and respect.

Charles Townshend’s book “Terrorism: a Very Short Introduction” investigates the origins of terrorology as well as its historical relationship with the state. Additionally, he specifically contests the isolation of Islamic terrorism and fundamentalism from other religious extremists. More specifically, the author challenges the notion that terrorism is the enemy of liberalism by providing a case study of Algeria. Terrorism ended up playing an important part in the revolution during the war of independence in Algeria, which eventually lead to the state’s liberation (92). This contradicts the narrative the West is perpetuating about terrorism. Zachary Lockman’s book “Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism” addresses the original construction of the term Orientalism and its history by referring to discussions that other theorists have had, such as Gibbs, Lewis, and Huntington. Within Lockman, there is a examines Lewis’s explanation of why Islam is unable to adapt to Western institutions, hating the West due to feelings of humiliation and inferiority.  Francois Debrix’s book “Tabloid Terror: War, Culture, and Geopolitics” discusses how the media influences rhetoric within society and perception of reality. He mainly describes the scenes after the September 11, 2001 attacks and investigates the differences between primal scenes of terror and tabloid culture. He also discusses how tabloids have been a major influencer for geopolitical discourse.


As for the first aspect of discussion, Townshend traces the origin of the term terrorismall the way back to the Crusaders. In a more modern sense, he states that terrorism as a political concept got its name “from the actions of the holders of state power,” linking the escalation of terrorism terminology with the French Reign of Terror (Townshend, 25). Within the literature of terrorism, there seems to be a differentiation between terrorist attacks that occurred before September 11, 2001 and after. Neumann explicitly refers to this difference referring to each category as old’ and ‘new’ terrorism. He defines old terrorism as more traditional in the sense that terrorists’ mainly completed calculated acts of violence whereas new terrorism addresses newer channels in a violent arsenal such as biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons (Neuman, 1). Neumann is the only source to place definitions on these differences, whereas other sources defined terrorism generally. One definition that seemed the most applicable to today’s usage of media and technological advancements is that terrorism is “the use of violence to create fear in the larger audience in order to create change in that larger audience” (Calcutt, 114).

In addition to these definitions of terrorism, Townshend lists different types of terrorism such as state-sponsored terror, revolutionary terror, and religious terror. State-sponsored terrorism is when a state has funded, trained, and/or armed a sub-state group in order to incite social or political conflict, where this occurs within their own borders or not (Townshend, 32). An example of this would be the United States’ backing of Afghan rebels during the Soviet-Afghan War. Revolutionary terror is what states label movements that are seen as a threat to their power and autonomy. In addition, this label is used by the state as a way to delegitimize movements of resistance against the state and make the terrorists moral outlaws (Townshend, 25). Religious terrorism can be defined as “having aims and motivations reflecting a predominant religious character or influence” (Townshend, 97). This form of terrorism is the most emphasized in the war on terror discourse, ignoring other reasons behind terrorist objectives.  Calcutt is the only source to specifically list the different kinds of strategic objectives of terror. This list includes: drawing international attention to an ideology or grievance, to humiliate a superior power, to build prestige, to retaliate due to a personal loss, to recruit others, or to inspire others who feel marginalized within their own community to perform similar acts of terror (Calcutt, 114). Lockman shadows Calcutt’s sentiments by explaining how the usage of the term terrorism legitimizes the reality of the struggles that marginalized groups go through by their state (Lockman, 224). Using the term ‘terrorism’ deflects the motives and the context behind the decisions to commit acts of terror and minimizing the actuality of a group’s grievance and aspirations, such as the actions of the PLO against Israel in the 1960s.

For the second aspect, there will be a discussion about civilizational discourse, Orientalism, genderization, tabloid terror, and Just War theory. Winter interrogates Eagleton’s civilizational discourse. Eagleton starts off by choosing a different way to define terrorism. He says that terror is not related to fear but is instead related to violence, which is at the center of every civilization. Based on this, there seems to be a two-sides to civilizational discourse. Eagleton shows that terrorism is integrated within civilization and society, though it is still being perceived as a violent disruptor of Western civilization. Eagleton, Winter explains, continuously describes Islam and fundamentalism as the same concept as well as regularly placing them on the outside of Western civilization (Winter, 208).

Apart from civilizational discourse, Orientalism plays a major role in the war on terror and the relationship between the West and Islam. Lockman discusses Huntington’s clash of civilizations theory and civilizational fault lines. This discussion leads back to the distinct conflict between Islam and Latin Christendom and the negative depictions and narratives that are spun about one another, though mainly by the West. Due to economic threats from the East, Europe took their superiority complex and applied it to images of the Middle East, creating a contrasting image to themselves, displaying the ‘Other’ as barbaric and arbitrary. Lockman examines theorists such as Gibbs and Lewis and how they describe the reason why the Islamic civilization is unable to make the transition. Gibbs attributes their inability to adjust to medieval Islamic thought and their rejection of Greek rationalist thought, which perpetuates image that Islam is irrational (Lockman, 110-1). Lewis argues that Islam cannot modernize due to its inability to interact with Western connotations of liberal secularism (Lewis, 59). Due to this outcome, the failure to modernize has led to Islamism and terrorism thus supporting Huntington’s claims (Lockman, 251).

Buck-Morss contests the postcolonial discourse and Western narrative by saying that there should be a challenge to Western political and social norms, a form of modernity that is not derived by European enlightenment and Western terms, and a changed perception of Islamism. She argues for the legitimacy of Islamism as mode of contestation of Western norms. Buck-Morss demonstrates Orientalist thought by comparing the two images that America has in Islam, one good and the other bad. The good perspective still does not accept Islam as it is by suggesting that it has crucial potential in the eyes of the Frankfurt School. The bad perspective displays Islam as dogmatic and potentially oppressive (Buck-Morss, 211). Using these perspectives, there is a extenuation of the Oriental narrative. This leads to the West’s inability to look at the deeper issues that caused the development of terrorism in the Middle East.

In addition, Khalid addresses how the war on terror is Orientalist in nature, exploring how it racializes and genderizes the ‘Other’ in order to spread United States foreign policy. More specifically, “The al Qaeda attacks threatened not only the US as a physical place but also its discursive identity” (Khalid, 152). The US pushed a hypermasculine identity of themselves as a way of reinforcing a “powerful, benevolent, moral, civilized, and masculine” self (Khalid, 83). Identifying as such allows for the US to further itself from the construction of the barbaric identity of the ‘Other.’ Through this othering, Abu-Lughod addresses how the West perceives Muslim women as unfree and that it is their job to liberate them. She begins by saying how the West prioritized its accumulation of knowledge of the Middle East on religious beliefs and Islam’s treatment of women instead of seeking to understand the deeper issues that lie in the development of repressive regimes and the involvement of the United States. It this framework that deems that a women can only be liberated if she is not veiled. If a women is wearing a burqa or hijab, it is assumed by the West that she is oppressed and lacks agency. An example that Abu-Lughod gave was of an article that The Guardian wrote about Dr. Suheila Siddiqi. They represented her as someone who ‘stood up to the Taliban’ because she did not wear a burqa (Abu-Lughod, 786). Not only was there a narrative of needing to liberate the ‘other,’ but also a savior complex. The West interprets that a free women is a liberated, secularized women and that they needed to free Muslim women from their constraining, religious bonds.

The next discourse to be discussed is referred to as tabloid terror. Debrix discusses the immediate impact of imagery. With the images of the planes flying into the World Trade Center, these images were immediate and impactful on how the West sees terrorism. As media coverage continued in the days following, the images and footage from the September 11, 2001 repeatedly flashed on the screens. This forever engrained an association between Islam and terrorism, disallowing for another less negative narrative pertaining to Islam to take root in the minds of Americans as well as United States’ foreign policy. Following this form of media rhetoric, tabloid geopolitics can be used to anchor insecurity in international politics around the idea of ‘otherness’ (Debrix, 11). Apart from this side of media, there is also the theory of abjection. Abjection entails a fascination and rejection of something at the same time. The fixation on a threat or terror “seems to ‘emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside’ and that must be ‘ejected beyond the tolerable or the thinkable’” (Debrix, 72). This theory draws attention to the repercussions of tabloid geopolitical discourse through cultural, social, and ideological aspects.

To address the last portion of the second aspect as well as drawing in the third aspect about foreign policy, there will be a discussion of Tosini’s autonomy of law in application to the war on terror and Calcutt’s Just War theory and counterterrorism strategy. Tosini discusses that with the current autonomy of law, law is seen as binary–legal or illegal. This can become an issue when aspects of a situation clash with the legal autonomy. This binary structure faces two risks: political and legal. The political risk is coming from armed organizations outside of the state system because of the threat they pose due to their autonomy outside of the state system. In the case of the Middle East, the political risk is al-Qaeda because they are challenging states and their “monopoly of violence” (Tosini, 128). The state system privileges the security of state sovereignty. The legal risk addresses the suggestion of suspending some constraints provided by rule of law in order to “effectively deal with emergencies of actual or potential attacks” (Tosini,116). Tosini also discusses how states have made it a primary focus to keep the efficiency of  the autonomy of law in favor of states and out of the hands of terrorism in order to protect their sovereignty, deriving from the initial binary system of legal and illegal. In addition, Calcutt debates the accuracy and effectiveness of war methodology in response to terrorism in the contemporary world. With terrorist networks being independent from the state system and humanitarian violations, they tend to fall outside the bounds of international law which typically influence how armed conflicts are patrolled. He says that when states respond to terrorism in a warlike manner, they end up damaging their foundational social bonds that allow the state to maintain a peaceful society (Calcutt, 119). With states concerned for their protection from non-state actors, the modern state has increasingly expanded their capacity to surveil their citizens. In this type of environment, security is prioritized over the liberties of citizens. The Just War theory addresses the “moral justification for state-sanctioned killing” (Calcutt, 111). This typically addresses a war-like situation between states, though it is difficult to reach a common agreement on the legitimacy of various armed conflicts that are outside of international law. The approach of states in the war on terror is to have leverage over the terror. They want to intimidate terror by undertaking actions that will demand the attention of the rest of the international community by taking on high profile locations or individuals (Calcutt, 114).

Lastly, Calcutt discusses the issues with United States counterterrorism and strategies to improve it. When the United States declared the war on terror, they decided to scale up their retaliation. Instead confronting al-Qaeda as an individual threat, the United States launched an expansive global war against Islamic fundamentalism (Calcutt, 115). This relates back to Orientalist thought in how the West has a continuous desire to project their own rationality and notions of compliance and justice upon the rest of the world, which is filled with differentiating civilizations. The application of the war paradigm after September 11, 2001 became counterproductive in their efforts to combat terrorism. Calcutt suggests avoiding war-like strategies to combat terrorism. One suggestion is to deprive terrorist of their media outlet by not providing immediate media coverage, which will disincentivize terrorist’s goal to intimidate the public.

In conclusion, the theories and discourses of terrorism is perpetuated by a global system that privileges both the state and the West. Terrorology, Orientalist thought and strategic theory conceive a negative connotations of non-state actors, Islam, and the Middle East.