Terrorism, Conspiracism, and Apocalypticism,

Be sure to also visit the Social Movement Study Network's Terrorism & Social Movements Study Guide:
What Policymakers, Journalists, Students, and All of Us Need to Know

Jeff Goodwin

Goodwin was interviewed by the SMSN in August 2013: 

Sociologist Jeff Goodwin notes that the Boston bombings were “very early on framed as terrorism even when we knew so little about the incident and what motivated those” who  carried out the act. He noticed that President Obama was quick to use the term terrorism in the early stages of the investigation, when at a similar stage of police work “it was not used to describe the mass shootings” in Newtown, Connecticut and the movie theatre shootings in Littleton, Colorado. “There have been some really heinous mass murders in public settings recently that are not accurately framed as terrorism,” says Goodwin, who adds that the term itself is part of a contentious debate within the government and the academy.

When it became clear the perpetrators were “likely Chechnyan and Muslim,” says Goodwin, “it was as if it was suddenly OK to call them terrorists and speculate about their political motivations—even though to this day it is not clear what their principle grievances” were all about.

“We learned from the media that the Tsarnaev brothers were alienated, disgruntled, and unfulfilled,” says Goodwin, who cautions “my goodness, if everyone who is alienated, disgruntled, and unfulfilled in the United States started setting off bombs it would be a much more bloody place to live.”

Goodwin, who has written about social movements, politics, protestors, and revolutionaries, suggests that for terrorists, it is “more than just the psychological or personal problems that they may have,” because their actions are deeply embedded in the “the process of defining or understanding other ethnic or national groups as appropriate targets for violence…especially when these people are seen as complicit in evildoing.”

In certain kinds of conflicts “civilians or noncombatants are seen as enemies owing to the nature of the conflict; there is no attempt to divide people defined in ethnic or nationalist terms” into soldiers and civilians. “This is not unrelated to ideology, states Goodwin, “but it usually comes out of real and enduring conflicts. When a situational opportunity arises in such settings” you sometimes "see people committing indiscriminate acts of violence."

John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed

Who Speaks For Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think

Book reviewed by Mustafa Gurbuz on the scholarly Mobilizing Ideas blogsite

Does personal piety correlate with radical views?

Based on the Gallup’s World Poll, which is the largest global study of its kind, Esposito and Mogahed respond in negative. The authors call 7% of the Poll respondents as “radical” due to their view that 9/11 attacks are completely justified. Looking at this small minority more closely, Esposito and Mogahed aim to shed light on dynamics of radicalization ( see Chapter 4). They remind us the fact that many of 9/11 hijackers themselves exhibited behaviors hardly practiced by a religious/devout Muslim. A number of them, for example, drank heavily and frequented strip clubs and porn shops. The Gallup data indicates that large majorities of those with radical views and moderate views (94% and 90%, respectively) say that religion is an important part of their daily lives. Similarly, no significant difference exists between radicals and moderates in mosque attendance.

Esposito and Mogahed suggest looking at political radicalization instead of piety: “The real difference between those who condone terrorist acts and all others is about politics, not piety” (p. 74). The authors give examples from radicals’ views/perspectives on colonization and American Empire.

How then could we explain ever-increasing combination of religious rhetoric and political radicalism? “As our data clearly demonstrate,” Esposito and Mogahed write,

...religion is the dominant ideology in today’s Arab and Muslim world, just as secular Arab nationalism was in the days of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Palestinian Liberation Organization–from its inception, a staunchly secular group– used secular Palestinian nationalism in its rhetoric to justify acts of violence and to recruit. Just as Arab Nationalism was used in the 1960s, today religion is used to justify extremism and terrorism (p. 74).

Hank Johnston and Eitan Y. Alimi

"Primary Frameworks, Keying and the Dynamics of Contentious Politics:
The Islamization of the Chechen and Palestinian National Movements."
In Political Studies, Volume 60Issue 3pages 603–620October 2012.


Expanding on McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly's approach to the study of contentious episodes, we develop a conceptual framework to analyze front-stage politics in the light of back-stage cultural and interpretative processes, drawing upon the Chechen and the Palestinian national movements. We elaborate on Goffman's original notion of ‘primary frameworks’ to capture the influence of fundamental cultural templates, and his concept of ‘keying processes’ to capture the way primary frameworks are reworked in the dynamics of political contention.

We then identify three central components of primary frameworks, namely, collective identity (the subject), what the subject does (the verb) and who or what is the object of those actions (the object). This article identifies the primary frameworks and keying processes of Chechens and Palestinians with relation to Russia and Israel, respectively. It then traces how they are played out in the heat of political contention as changes in the structure of political opportunities and threats unfold, and how they combine to drive a process of Islamization. We conclude by discussing how the subject–verb–object triplet of primary frameworks helps specify the dynamic interpretative work in political contention.

Carol Mason

In her book Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-Life Politics, Carol Mason traces how abortion is increasingly portrayed in the US as a sign that society is out of control and careening toward destruction. Mason was interviewed by the SMSN in August 2013: 

From the 1960s, when the fight against abortion was seen overtly as “America’s Armageddon” by Catholic conservatives such as L. Brent Bozell, to the 1990s when antigovernment conspiracies and “pro-life” militancy converged in the actions of gunmen and bombers who killed physicians and clinic workers, apocalypticism has shaped various factions of the antiabortion movement, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly. As recently as 2009 we see how antiabortion apocalypticism can manifest in murderous ways: Dr. George Tiller’s assassin, Scott Roeder, was ensconced in both the militia and “pro-life” movements in the 1990s.  But more often antiabortion apocalypticism operates as an implicit assumption that abortion indicates a world gone terribly wrong, and the fact that women obtain abortions is seen as a revelation that we are all in a fight between good and evil, regardless of whether we see that “clash of absolutes” in religious or secular terms.

Consequently, even when actual abortion rates have dropped and there are more restrictions on abortion than ever before (this side of outlawing it), “pro-life” people still see the conflict in absolute terms, as a matter of defeating pure evil. With this apocalyptic all-or-nothing thinking comes a sense of urgency and a compulsion to act. It’s not just that a person may have strong convictions about terminating pregnancies; “pro-life” apocalypticism demands that “if you think abortion is murder, act like it.

I see apocalypticism as a cultural narrative that spans a variety of religions and denominations within religions.  Moreover, unlike theological doctrine, apocalypticism has become increasingly secularized in US culture. Inspired by everything from the War on Terror to global warming, doomsday scenarios constitute our entertainment and news media. The blockbuster movie line-up for the summer of 2013 features lots of apocalyptic scenarios: World War Z, Pacific Rim, The World’s End. Our airways are filled with concerns over weather-related disasters such as hurricane Katrina of 2005 and the northeast “frankenstorm” of 2012 as well as reports of ecological havoc wrought by resource extraction – earthquakes caused by “fracking” for gas; water contamination, sludge floods, and mountain devastation by careless coal companies; wildlife, food sources, and marine ecosystems imperiled by oil spills.  We are fed apocalyptic scenarios for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

The result is a world in which we choose whether to be passive consumers of apocalyptic fears or to respond to the apocalyptic scenarios in ways that benefit us.  What shifts us from being a consumer of the apocalyptic narratives in our culture to being a producer of them is a question pertinent to the study of a whole range of political actors whose apocalyptic beliefs inspired them to reject passivity and engage in criminal activity.

David Neiwert

On right-wing violence: http://crooksandliars.com/taxonomy/term/3952

David Neiwert, "Ho Hum. Another Right-Wing Terrorist, Another Media Yawn," Crooks and Liars, May 07, 2013,

Stephen O'Leary

O’Leary’s theory of millennial rhetoric narrows in on how people who have become swept up in apocalyptic expectation manage concepts of time, authority, and evil (1994). O’Leary contends that the:

…mythic narrative of Apocalypse can be used to justify the existence of evil on a cosmic scale by pointing to the promised restoration of an earthly Kingdom of God, while individual experience of evil is itself [a sign and a] proof…that the cosmic drama of evil is nearing its resolution.

When apocalyptic beliefs demonize an “Other,” O’Leary writes that this flows from a literalist understanding of how the forces of good and evil function in a society and the specific interpretation of exactly how and when God exercises ultimate judgment (1994).

According to O'Leary:

The problem is not the mythological character of Revelation; rather, it is that any interpretation of the [apocalyptic] myth (whether by skeptics or by dogmatists) that reduces it to literal and factual content inevitably distorts the deliberately metaphorical language of prophecy.

O’Leary labels this a tragic interpretation of apocalyptic prophecy, and says only a comedic interpretation can challenge this by helping people accept the cosmic irony involved in the possibility that God’s judgment of good and evil has already occurred, is occurring even now, and is always about to occur, thus making calendar dates and specific timetables quite indefinite and essentially unknowable (O’Leary 1994, pp. 20, 42, 84, 220).

An important distinction between secularized generic conspiracism and the type of apocalyptic conspiracism found more often among the devoutly religious has been outlined by O’Leary. Generic conspiracism “strives to provide a spatial self–definition of the true community as set apart from the evils” seen in the scapegoated “Other,” writes O’Leary. Apocalyptic conspiracism, however “locates the problem of evil in time and looks forward to its imminent resolution” by God, while warning that “evil must grow in power until the appointed time” (O’Leary 1994, p. 6).


Jessica Stern

Jessica Stern is the author of Terror in the Name of God, and Academic Director of the Program on Terrorism and the Law at Harvard Law School. Stern was interviewd by the SMSN in August 2013: 

“Five myths about who becomes a terrorist” 

(First published in the Washington Post)

  • 1. Most terrorists are spoiled rich kids.
  • 2. Al-Qaeda members come from repressive countries in the Middle East.
  • 3. Al-Qaeda is made up of religious zealots.
  • 4. Terrorists are motivated by a strong belief in their cause.
  • 5. The typical terrorist recruit is an alienated loner.

Read More Here

Jessica Stern, a scholar who has authored several books on terrorism said that the “pressure on reporting was so high I felt some sympathy for the media and the government officials, it was an unusual kind of incident for the US. She notes that in Israel, “they pride themselves on their resilience and getting right back to work to not allow terrorist strikes to incapacitate society. But this was different because they weren’t suicide bombers; in fact they were still running around with bombs.” Stern seldom watches television, but the day of the Boston bombings “I was glued to the TV.”

Having interviewed scores of terrorists for her book Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, Stern found they shared a sense of humiliation attributed to some outside force. Especially with Lone Wolves, she sees individual psychological factors as playing an important role. Yet she suggests that there is generally “a complex mix of psychological, ideological, and sociological factors.” Stern observes that in conducting her research:

“I try to find out who joins a terrorist group and why? Especially, how hard do you have to push a person to kill noncombatants?  It is easier to recruit terrorists in countries at war, but in countries not at war, recruiters need to provide a more compelling reason for a person to become a terrorist. And in the United States you have to push a person really hard because here sociological and ideological grievances are not widespread. In America there is more likely to be a strong personal motive in addition to ideology.

According to Stern, “some people really want to be terrorists, and almost any ideology is good enough;” and these ideologies can be rooted in political or religious beliefs. “Then there are people for whom something awful really has to happen right in front of their eyes” creating a gut-wrenching experience” that transforms them.

The problem for analysis, says Stern, is that the reality is not so neat and it has multiple overlapping circles that need to be considered.

More Background on Apocalypticism

Norman Cohn

Cohn, Norman. [1957] 1970. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, revised and expanded. New York: Oxford University Press.

_______. [1967] 1996. Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. London: Serif.

_______. 1993. Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Michael Barkun

Barkun, Michael, ed. 1996. Millennialism and Violence, Cass Series on Political Violence. London: Frank Cass.  

_______. [1994] 1997. Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement, revised. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.  

_______. 1974. Disaster and the Millennium. New Haven: Yale University Press.  

_______. 2003. A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Berkeley: Univ. of California.  

Christian Zionism

By the 1990s there was another growing theo–political movement known as Christian Zionism, which today is embraced by many in the Christian Right as well as a number of conservative Republican politicians, at least in terms of political rhetoric. This movement mobilizes conservative Christians to support the most hard line political forces in Israel regarding Palestinian demands for control of land.

Christian Zionism can easily spill over into religious bigotry against Muslims. Within Christian Zionism, there are those who tie the religion of Islam to the forces of Satan building an earthly End Times army to battle Godly Christians for control of the planet. As an example, Boyer points to Hal Lindsey’s prophecy novel, Blood Moon, published in 1996. In the novel, “Israel, in retaliation for a planned nuclear attack by an Arab extremist, launches a massive thermonuclear assault on the entire Arab world. Genocide, in short, becomes the ultimate means of prophetic fulfillment.” In Christian bookstores it is easy to find books linking Muslims to Satanic plots of deception, including books portraying Islam as the false religion of the Antichrist.

Popular Christian fundamentalist author Tim LaHaye began his career writing books exposing the sinister conspiracy of liberals promoting secular humanism, immorality, and subversion. LaHaye then linked up with Jerry B. Jenkins to create the Left Behind series of Christian apocalyptic novels, which have sold more than 70 million copies.

Gershom Gorenberg

Gershom Gorenberg, a journalist and scholar working in Israel, blasts the Left Behind authors because they:

=== promote conspiracy theories; they demonize proponents of arms control, ecumenicalism, abortion rights and everyone else disliked by the Christian right; and they justify assassination as a political tool. Their anti–Jewishness is exceeded by their anti–Catholicism. Most basically, they reject the very idea of open, democratic debate. In the world of Left Behind, there exists a single truth, based on a purportedly literal reading of Scripture; anyone who disagrees with that truth is deceived or evil.”

The main villain of the Left Behind series of books, Gorenberg notes, is “Nicolae Carpathia, the man who turned the United Nations into a one–world government with himself as dictator,” on behalf of Satan. In fact, Carpathia is the dreaded Antichrist. LaHaye also publishes a newsletter on the possible fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.

A significant publication describing the connection between apocalyptic prophecy and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is the glossy magazine Midnight Call: The Prophetic Voice for the Endtimes. Promotional mailings have included letters headlined: “The Prophetic Return to Israel;” “Islam, Israel and the USA;” and “Revealing the Hidden Truth about the Middle East.” The latter is an advertisement for the book Saddam’s Mystery Babylon: Revealing the Hidden Agenda of the most Sinister Entity in the Bible.

Paul Boyer

Boyer elaborates on this fixation on Saddam Hussein:

===Anticipating George W. Bush, prophecy writers in the late 20th century also quickly zeroed in on Saddam Hussein. If not the Antichrist himself, they suggested, Saddam could well be a forerunner of the Evil One. In full–page newspaper advertisements during the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the organization Jews for Jesus declared that Saddam “represents the spirit of Antichrist about which the Bible warns us…

Boyer, Paul S. 1992. When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap/Harvard University Press.

_______. 2003. "John Darby Meets Saddam Hussein: Foreign Policy and Bible Prophecy," Chronicle of Higher Education, supplement, February 14, pp. B 10-B11.

Brenda Brasher

Brasher, Brenda E. 1998. Godly Women: Fundamentalism and Female Power. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

_______. 2000. “From Revelation to The X-Files: An Autopsy of Millennialism in American Popular Culture,” Semeia Vol. 82: 281-95, Summer.

_______. E. 2001. “When Your Friend is Your Enemy: American Christian Fundamentalists and Israel at the New Millennium,” in Millennial Visions: Essays on Twentieth-Century Millenarianism, ed. Martha F. Lee. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Bigotry, Subversion Panics, Patriots, and Pundits

Other scholars have examined how apocalypticism in the Christian Right functioned during the Presidential administration of George W. Bush, especially after 9/11.

While bashing Arabs and Muslims as possible agents of the Antichrist is common in this sector of Christian fundamentalism, special warnings are issued against global peace efforts by the European Union and the United Nations, seen as part of the Antichrist’s plan for a “New World Order” and one–world government.

There is a national network of individuals and groups with access to the major commercial media that produce and circulate claims about Islam, Muslims living in the United States, and incidents involving antisemitism. In an alarming number of cases, individuals and groups have produced dubious claims against Muslims that range from biased to alarmist to demonstrably false. No similar network with access to the major commercial media exists to produce and circulate biased claims about Judaism or Jews living in the United States.


Gorenberg, The End of Days.

Aziz and Berlet “Culture, Religion, Apocalypse, and Middle East Foreign Policy;” Berlet, “U.S. Christian Evangelicals Raise the Stakes.”

Paul S. Boyer, “When U.S. Foreign Policy Meets Biblical Prophecy,” Alternet, February 19, 2003, http://www.alternet.org/story/15221/when_u.s._foreign_policy_meets_biblical_prophecy?page=entire%2C2.

Chip Berlet, “The World According to Tim LaHaye: A Series,” Talk2Action.org, part one of eight begins at http://www.talk2action.org/story/2006/6/26/122744/780.

Gershom Gorenberg, book review of the Left Behind twelve volume series, “ by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Tyndale House Publishing, The American Prospect, September 3, 2002, http://prospect.org/article/book–review–0. More information on LaHaye and conspiracy theories is at http://www.researchforprogress.us/conspiracism/lahaye.html.

Berlet, “The World According to Tim LaHaye”.

Promotional mailings from Midnight Call, received in postal mail and filed at Political Research Associates.

Boyer, “When U.S. Foreign Policy Meets Biblical Prophecy.”

Martin, “The Christian Right and American Foreign Policy;” Matthew Rothschild, “Bush’s Messiah Complex,” The Progressive, February 2003, 8–10, www.progressive.org/feb03/comm0203.html; Andrew Austin, “Faith Matters: George Bush and Providence,” online essay, November 22, 2003; http://www.researchforprogress.us/archive/austin–2003; Bill Berkowitz, “Bush’s Faith–Filled Life,” online column, Working for Change, November 5, 2003, accessed November 22, 2003, http://www.workingforchange.com/article.cfm?ItemID=15937, now offline, copy archived at http://www.researchforprogress.us/archive/berkowitz–2003–01.html.


Selected Works by Chip Berlet

Berlet, Chip and Matthew N. Lyons. 2000. Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. New York: Guilford.

Berlet, Chip and Nikhil Aziz. 2004. “Culture, Religion, Apocalypse, and Middle East Foreign Policy.” IRC Right Web, Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center online at <http://rightweb.irc-online.org/analysis/2003/0312apocalypse.php> (July 4, 2004).

Berlet, Chip. (1998). Y2K and Millennial Pinball: How Y2K Shapes Survivalism in the US Christian Right, Patriot and Armed Militia Movements, and Far Right. Paper, symposium, Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, December.

_______. 1998a. “Dances with Devils: How Apocalyptic and Millennialist Themes Influence Right Wing Scapegoating and Conspiracism,” The Public Eye 12(2 & 3), (Fall) Double Issue, 1-22. Revised version available online at http://www.publiceye.org/apocalyptic/Dances_with_Devils_1.html.

_______. 1998b. Y2K and Millennial Pinball: How Y2K Shapes Survivalism in the US Christian Right, Patriot and Armed Militia Movements, and Far Right. Paper, symposium, Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, December.

_______. 1999. “Jack Boots, Black Helicopters, and Secret Elites: Millennial Frames in Right Wing Conspiracism.” Paper presented at the conference on New World Orders: Millennialism in the Western Hemisphere, Center for Millennial Studies, Boston University, November 6-9.

_______. 2000. “Apocalypse.” In Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements. Richard A. Landes, ed., (Berkshire Reference Works; Routledge encyclopedias of religion and society). New York: Routledge.

_______. 2001. “Apocalypse.” In Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism. Brenda Brasher, ed., (Berkshire Reference Works; Routledge encyclopedias of religion and society). New York: Routledge.

_______. 2004 “Anti-Masonic Conspiracy Theories: A Narrative Form of Demonization and Scapegoating.” In Arturo de Hoyos and S. Brent Morris, eds., Freemasonry in Context: History, Ritual, Controversy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.





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