On Terrorism and Ideology

By Mustafa Rasheed

The following essay briefly addresses the ideological roots of terrorism and juxtaposes the current “War on Terrorism” mainly in the Middle East and North Africa with the American political scare of communism during the Cold War, “The Red Menace”. The following essay is a continuation of a series of essays I wrote for Dr. Eric Montgomery’s Introduction to Peace and Conflict class at Wayne State University.

Aside for technical revisions, there has been no substantial revision from the paper. I wish to thank Dr. Eric Montgomery, Ph. D and Cultural Anthropologist at Wayne State University. The opinions and any errors herein are, of course, solely mine.


For many Americans, September 11th, 2001 seemed to be the start of the West’s “War on Terrorism”. Terrorism, however, has been a part of American history long before the 9/11 Attacks. Not only has it existed in the United States, terrorism has caused turmoil in societies long before the inception of the United States. According to David Barash and Charles Webel’s Peace and Conflict Studies: Third Edition, “The term terrorism derives originally from the French Revolution” (Barash & Webel 75). Until now, many political theorists and security experts have sought to define terrorism. Barash and Webel define terrorism as,”…a premeditated, usually politically motivated,  use, or threatened use, of violence, in order to induce a state of terror in its immediate victims, usually for the purpose of influencing another, less reachable audience, such as a government. Such victims may include civilian noncombatants but are not necessarily limited to them” (Barash & Webel 73). As humanity enters the 21st century, the world has already witnessed the first traces of “global terrorism” in “The Red Menace”. According to McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare” by Landon Storrs, “The second Red Scare refers to the fear of communism that permeated American politics, culture, and society from the late 1940s through the 1950s, during the opening phases of the Cold War with the Soviet Union”. Now, humanity is tackling the dangers of extremist, religiously-motivated organizations such as “al-Qaeda” and “ISIS/ISIL”. Although the “Red Menace” and the “War on Terrorism” are both rooted in political and extremist ideology, the current “War on Terrorism” serves as much more potent and influential source of violence around the world, even after the death of Osama Bin Laden and the departure of Nouri al-Maliki’s leadership in Iraq.

“The Red Menace” and the West’s “War on Terrorism” are similar in that they are both rooted in political and extremist ideology. Political and extremist ideology, not mainstream religious scholarly justification, is what motivates “Islamic terrorism”. Robert Pape, a professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, reports on his analysis of terrorism in his book, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, that there is “little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism or any one of the world’s religions…. Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider being their homeland”. Similarly, with respect to “The Red Menace”, Professor Landon Storrs at the University of Iowa writes, “The second Red Scare refers to the fear of communism that permeated American politics, culture, and society from the late 1940s through the 1950s, during the opening phases of the Cold War with the Soviet Union”. The definitions reflect that both of these phases in “global terrorism” were not rooted in religion. They also represent the power of ideology and how societies are empowered behind a vision or idea that they can relate to. Ideologies are especially infectious to societies especially if those communities are oppressed. “The Red Menace” was prominent in the United States, where the population was generally healthy. “The War on Terrorism” is more potent because ideologies that invoke terrorism find their breeding grounds in countries that are less developed and educated. Thus, radicalization will continue to persist in places like the Middle East and North Africa unless those countries seek to stabilize, educate, and develop their country.

While “The Red Menace” and the “War on Terrorism” are similar in their origins, the “War on Terrorism” represents a more dangerous and difficult war to win. As “The Red Menace” was a politically paranoid phase of US politics, it didn’t carry the more violent nature of terrorism that is present in extremist fundamentalist groups in the Middle East and North Africa. The “War on Terrorism” involves combatting an outpouring of violent and unethical methods used by terrorists such as suicide bombings and arson. In addition, “The Red Menace” was particularly concerned with suspected communists who promoted the type of communism practiced by other countries. However, the “War on Terrorism” while primarily focused on the Middle East and North Africa, Barash and Webel allude to the fear that is cultivated by “Islamic terrorists”. They write, “…because terrorists are not manifested in the government of a particular country, against which a declaration of war could be declared, or which could ever be clearly defeated, such a ‘war’ can never be definitively won”. As organized terrorists can never truly be defeated, they serve as a greatly enhanced version of “The Red Menace” that ended as more and more countries abandoned communism.

As the “War on Terrorism” drags on, many figureheads have surfaced as a part of the conflict. Most notably, Osama Bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 Attacks, and Nouri Al-Malaki, the former Prime Minister of Iraq. Bin Laden contributes to how the similarity between “The Red Menace” and “The War on Terrorism” make the latter more potent. Al-Malaki contributes to how “ISIS/ISIL” emerged out of neglect and oppression that was never present during “The Red Menace”. Bin Laden’s attacks on 9/11 empowered anti-US ideologies across the oppressed Muslim homeland and encouraged them to act in defiance to America. Emerging and empowering ideologies were the same factors that made Americans scared of communism. Bin Laden’s twisted ideologies were more dangerous as he orchestrated attacks on the US and networked ideologies that are still adhered to by groups like ISIS and Boko Haram after his death. Nouri Al-Malaki, according to the abstract of Dylan O’Driscoll’s Autonomy Impaired: Centralisation, Authoritarianism and the Failing Iraqi State, did his utmost to limit the power of both Kurds and Sunnis”. Al-Maliki’s actions illustrate a vile relationship between government and society that was never witnessed in “The Red Menace”. The similarities and differences between these two phases in history should serve as a warning to peaceful nations of the severity of leaving the anger and oppression in the “War on Terrorism” unchecked for it could lead to an even more potent phase of terrorism in the future that could kill even more of humanity.

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