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The new frontiers of terrorism
From ideological terrorism to proximity terrorism
- Languages: it

We republish the article by Khaled Fouad Allam, a friend of Eutopia recently passed away, on the occasion of the attacks in Paris of 13th November.


Political violence is always the product of historical and sociocultural contexts that change over time. 1970s terrorism had a characteristic vertical structure with a leader, a head, who acted in a context marked by the Cold War and the East/West conflict – some examples of this are the Red Brigades in Italy, the Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany or the Japanese Red Army and the Israel-Palestine conflict.


Today, the terrorism that claims Islam as its political matrix is extremely devastating not just because of its characteristic horizontal structure, which makes it difficult to penetrate, but also for its extremely destabilising power.




  • The kind of terrorism used by Islamic terrorists is 'proximity terrorism' which has one single objective: to weaken our democratic societies
  • The burning questions of twenty-first century Islam have accompanied the history of the Arab-Islamic world since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1924
  • The wars that came after 1989 were characterised by the birth of symbolic frontiers and ethnic conflict


I call this kind of terrorism 'proximity terrorism'. Whatever the cost, the strategy of this kind of terrorism has one single objective: to further weaken our societies and break down the social cohesion that characterises democracies today in their relations with cultural diversity.


The Paris attacks of 7 January marked a significant historical passage. They revealed that the conflicts and political violence generated by the problematic reality of political Islam question the world view and the definition of political order of a society increasingly characterised by the coexistence of multiple social identities and heterogeneous cultures within a given territory – the national perimeter but also I would say the continental perimeter, because the issue concerns Europe as a whole as well as many other areas.


Why have we got to this point? This is barbarism that goes beyond barbarism. It is post-medieval, post-modern, it is at the same time able to short-circuit entire cultures by means of the sophisticated use of electronic communication and cruelly kill by decapitating or cold murdering those who do not share the same world view.


The burning questions of twenty-first century Islam – the caliphate question and the question of the relation between sharia law and state law – are questions that have accompanied the history of the Arab-Islamic world since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1924.


It is not by chance, for instance, that upon the foundation of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1929, one of the main tenets of the organisation was that of fighting for the reconstruction of a caliphate that was to be no longer Ottoman but Arab.


This new terrorism is in part the product of a profound change in European societies. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 did not have the sole meaning of putting an end to the Soviet bloc and reunifying the Eastern and Western parts into a single Europe.


In the wake of the Cold War, it completely changed the paradigms through which the why and the how of political violence were in some sense perceived and defined. Prior to 1989, wars and political violence were motivated by one postulate: the achievement of a certain form of universalism through the pursuit of equality and freedom.


Even the wars of decolonisation – such as for example the Algerian War – invoked this fundamental paradigm symbolised by the French Revolution. The war for equality as a step to achieving universalism has in some sense accompanied great part of the history of conflict in the twentieth century.


The wars that came after 1989 and that pushed us into the twenty-first century, on the other hand, are to be read in a different key, through a different paradigm: that of the birth of symbolic frontiers and ethnic conflict. Whether it be the former Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s and the Rwandan Civil War, or again the violence between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat, our interpretation and analysis of these conflicts is essentially based on what I call the 'ethnicisation' of social relations.


Such 'ethnicisation' has the effect of building symbolic frontiers that invade the level of interpersonal relations as well as certain micro-territories such as the banlieues, the peripheries and the urban belts of the great metropolises.


In the 1990s we witnessed a significant passage – a religious substitution – which brought Islam, more specifically in its current version of political Islam, at the centre of international debate.


Languages, cultures, and religions have become the markers of a counterculture, a counter-society, of parallel worlds that are the breeding grounds for this new terrorism of proximity. And in the banlieues, certain areas connect via the Internet with a state, Isis, which seems to come out of our cartoons or videogames.


Different from a territorial frontier, the symbolic frontier participates in globalisation but cannot be its antidote. It is its obscure evil which makes the world today more gloomy and anxious and casts a shadow over the two logics of living together: freedom and equality.


Translated by Teresa O’Connell


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