Open Source Jihad

Problematizing the Academic Discourse on Islamic Terrorism in Contemporary Europe

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Per-Erik Nilsson
Elements in Religion and Violence
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , August
     100 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Per-Erik Nilsson’s volume in the Cambridge Elements series, Open Source Jihad: Problematizing the Academic Discourse on Islamic Terrorism in Contemporary Europe, focuses entirely on parts of contemporary academic discourse and the discursive contents of European Union–level antiterrorism policies. As such, it provides readers with an up-to-date summary of relevant research—with much emphasis placed on the type of discursive critiques signaled by its title. It is published as part of a wider series on religion and violence.

On its official website, Cambridge Elements is described as “a new concept in academic publishing and scholarly communication, combining the best features of books and journals.” Books are published as small and handy paperbacks similar to Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series, in which a peer-reviewed author focuses on a certain topic as a way of concisely summarizing the state of relevant current research. Overall, these Elements are a welcome addition to any library: small and handy, while also packed with scholarly information to an extent that is seldom possible in much shorter journal articles. However, given their apparent purpose of providing a summary of the current state of research, it is curious that this particular element contains no full printed bibliography—a drawback that is easily ameliorated by accessing the Cambridge Elements website.

The volume’s title is intended as a reference to critiques that portray so-called terrorism studies as an “open source for speculation, moralizing, and career opportunities” (2). Nilsson spends a good portion of his book describing these critiques and the conditions and discourses they wish to counter. Most of this is exceedingly relevant for anyone who wishes to engage with contemporary issues of so-called jihadism, Islamic militancy, terrorism, and the like. In a concise and engaging manner, Nilsson successfully summarizes most of the main points raised in a more elaborate manner by other scholars (e.g., the works of Arun Kundnani)—hereby providing readers with a perhaps more accessible and broadly focused primer on related issues.

Among such points are issues related to West-centric essentialism and the exotification of Muslim political actors, a recurring lack of empirical bases and relevant skills among so-called terrorism researchers, and deficient ontological discussions whereby the critical evaluation of concepts used is seldom entertained. In short, it is argued that significant parts of the field of terrorism studies display tendencies for what quoted scholars call “assumptions-based” and “fast food” research—characterized as “quick, cheap, ready-to-hand and nutritionally dubious” (2).

Readers struck by the sniffy tone of such characterizations will most likely be convinced by several chocking examples of how opportunistic careerists have exploited the contemporary fixation on terrorism and Islamic radicalism for dubious reasons. However, in primarily focusing on repeating and summarizing these critiques, Nilsson raises few examples of fruitful alternatives. This is perhaps a line of inquiry that largely lies outside the scope of this particular (explicitly “problematizing”) Cambridge Element—yet readers who are late to this apparently ongoing party of bashing lazy fellow researchers may appreciate a more elaborate discussion on why it is that one should pay them so much attention. Nilsson borrows the terminology of critics that characterize problematically flawed forms of terrorism studies as “mainstream”—yet does not manage to be convincing about how or why they represent such a stream, what exactly it is that they enable, and so on.

In short, readers may have appreciated a more elaborate and problematizing discussion regarding the described critics’ tendencies to talk about their imagined antagonists as if they were representatives of some all-powerful or all-pervasive cultural hegemony. Moreover, formulating a critique that simply restates the assumptions-based dullness of other researchers in order to highlight obvious holes and shortfalls, without offering much in terms of how to fill those same holes, does little in terms of transcending these “fast food” levels of ignorance. Looking at the work undertaken by Brynjar Lia, Darryl Li, Faisal Devji, Thomas Hegghammer, and many others, it seems obvious that research on Muslim militancy and so-called jihadism constitutes a well-developed and largely fruitful field of study, incorporating research that is painstakingly empirical in nature. It contains ample examples of research sophisticated enough to warrant prominent attention in this Element as a counterpoint to the “fast food” variants criticized.

The later portions of the book provide some of the answers and discussions readers may wish for during its first half. In discussing the discursive contents of EU-level policies regarding terrorism and so-called radicalization, Nilsson is able to highlight certain aspects of how the assumptions-based, supposedly commonsense, and largely nonempirical narratives of exotification play into actual discourses of power. For example, it is here discussed how and why certain groups of people are targeted for so-called deradicalization, as well as how Western states avoid addressing the issue of reciprocal violence in their perceived conflict with so-called jihadists. All of this is convincing enough—while also providing much impetus for the above-described critiques of so-called mainstream terrorism studies that Nilsson discusses at the beginning of his book.

Thus, one wonders whether the book would have been more effective if turned around, so that actual power dynamics rather than intra-academic pettiness were the explicit starting point or primary focus. Such editorial questions aside, possible frustrations are nonetheless outshined by the significance of a thorough (and overall enjoyable) summary of where portions of both Western academia and European policymakers stand on the issue they have identified as “Muslim militancy” or “jihadism.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gustav Larsson is a doctoral student in the study of religion at Linnaeus University.

Date of Review: 
April 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Per-Erik Nilsson is Director of the Center for Multidisciplinary Studies at Uppsala University.


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