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Interview with Dr. David C. Rapoport

professor rapoport


avid C. Rapoport, founding editor of the journal on Terrorism and Political Violence, has been the pioneering expert on the scholarship on terrorism since the 1970s. An Emeritus Professor of Political Science from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Rapoport has taught classes both in terrorism and religion and has written numerous books and articles on these two subjects. One such article that speaks of both subjects and in which he coined a theory is “The Four Waves of Modern Terror.” Shortly after retiring his professorship in 1996, Rapoport also founded UCLA’s Center for the Study of Religion.

In response to the ongoing international news on religious extremism, Religio had a chance to sit down with Dr. Rapoport to discuss his work and passion on the intersecting issues of terrorism and religion and what we can expect to see in the future.

Religio Magazine: As a doctor and professor in political science, what made you want to study/focus your work on terrorism?

David Rapoport: It was an accident. I was a political theorist who had gone to England to work on my doctoral dissertation. Praetorianism—i.e. systems where governments came to and lose power normally through military coups. I became friends with a Canadian student who was impressed with my work, and a few years later wanted me to do a series of lectures on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation which would be later published as a book. What do you want me to talk about, I asked? Something you have not published yet he said.  I was interested in assassination because in the ancient world when the military seized power it always assassinated the existing ruler but in the modern one most were allowed to leave the country. I focused on examining the justification for assassination embedded in the Western tradition of political theory.

By the fourth lecture, I ran out of material after noting that terrorists changed the justification for assassination. It was not necessary to refer to the victim’s misdeeds but simply that he was a member of the system you wanted to overturn. Since the Quebec Liberation Organization in Canada had taken two hostages and then assassinated one, I decided to finish the series of lectures by explaining how modern terrorism emerged. Once I did that, the media wouldn’t let me go because nobody was talking about terrorism at that time (this happened in 1971). This is how I got involved with terrorism.

In the same period I was involved in a weekly seminar of faculty members organized through the Hillel Foundation. I was irritated by the way the famous sociologist Max Weber had confused the notion of charisma in the Bible, misunderstanding still prevails because Weber had so much influence on the way contemporaries use the term. Also when I was discussing Machiavelli in my political theory course I was struck by his remark that the “greatest” political leader in history was “Moses…others who have founded kingdoms will be worthy of admiration; and if their particular actions and methods are examined, they will not appear so different from those of Moses, although he had so great a Master.”

I then looked at all of Machiavelli’s work and was amazed to discover that he did not discuss Moses; nor did anyone else in the history of political theory! I then wrote an article on his political achievements “Moses, Charisma and Covenant” which I submitted to the American Political Science Review, It was rejected because the Bible was not considered an appropriate political source. At the same time I delivered the paper at Claremont College and the Editor of the Western Political Quarterly who attended the session wanted me to publish it in his journal, and would he get four scholars from different fields to publish their comments on the paper. They were very appreciative.

Then I organized a seminar called, “Politics in the Bible.” People have very different views of the Bible and very different kinds of knowledge about it. I wanted to make sure people were talking to each other, even those who didn’t believe in God and those who did. So we decided to focus on trying to understand what the text was trying to tell us, not whether or not the text was true or not. No one was allowed to cite a secondary source. I would give the class a series of questions such as gender relations, the use of violence, sibling problems, leadership, etc. and how things of that sort changed as the nature of Israel’s society changed. A student would try to answer questions assigned in a paper, which the seminar discussed in the next meeting. The author would then get the chance to revise that paper and his/her grade would be based on the revision.

Basically the intention was to create a class in which everybody was trying to help each other. I found that students were so interested in what they were doing that when I went out to get some coffee during the seminar break, nobody followed me. They would all keep talking about the text. It was my favorite course and it didn’t matter if the students were all freshmen or it was a graduate seminar I kept learning each time I taught and continued teaching it for 15 years after I retired in 1996. When I retired I was asked to establish UCLA’s Center for the Study of Religion and chaired the program for religion majors for five years.

One of the more interesting things I discovered in the Bible course is that it contains the first description of a terrorist campaign, i.e, the 10 plagues launched against the Egyptian Pharaoh in order to free Israel., If you look at the various plagues and the reactions to them, it’s clear that each one has a particular purpose. i.e. creating a constituency for Moses and then alienating the Pharaoh’s various constituencies. At the end, of course, Pharaoh is so isolated he wants Israel to go. If you look at the pattern of a successful terrorist campaign you will see that it is associated with gaining and separating constituencies.

RM: You were saying that you have used the Bible in regards to writing your articles. Do you use the Bible just for your research or do you have any other interests?

DR: I continued my interest in terrorism and religion and perhaps my most well known piece written before 9/11 “The Four Waves of Modern Terror.” This article discussed modern terror which had a global focus as to the earlier versions which was restricted to a particular place, usually a country. In the modern form, a number of groups existed at the same period of time in various countries and different continents striking similar targets and using similar tactics and functions in the form of waves.

The 1st or Anarchist Wave started in 1879 and lasted about 40 years. The main tactic was assassination. The 2nd or Anti-Colonial Wave prevailed in 1920s-1960s, roughly about 40 years. Its purpose was to free overseas territories imperial powers held. The targets were largely military forces and police, though obviously civilians were hit. The 3rd or New Left Wave began in the 1960s; its purpose was to create a new egalitarian world .The wave was an aspect of the Cold War; the Soviets  supported it and the West was the principal enemy. The distinctive tactics were hostage taking and hijacking airplanes, largely for taking hostages. The wave lasted about 40 years.

Then there was the Religious Wave, which began in 1979 and is still with us. If it follows its predecessors, it will be over in the 2020s, but you can’t assume that history always repeats itself. If history does repeat itself, then we may get a fifth one in the 2020s, though, what that is, no one can possibly know right now. No body anticipated any of these waves before they occurred. They were products of major global political transformations surprises that created the hope necessary for people to engage in terrorism.

RM: With all the different terrorism that goes on in the Middle East, do you think it is more based on religion or on politics, where religion is the scapegoat?

DR: Religious terrorists employ certain themes from their religions to justify violence.  But it is not an interpretation that most members of that religion believe is appropriate. Martyrdom is a theme for example in both Christianity and Islam. But the Christian martyr is one who affirms his commitment in a dangerous situation and accepts the punishment that could be avoided if he refuses to do so. In the first terrorist group in Russia 1/5 of the members were children of the clergy.

When put on trial they affirmed their commitment as the earlier Christians did, and became a martyr. Muslims believe in “self martyrdom” which happens when you die in battle supporting your religion. Since the 1980s the self-martyrdom idea has led some Muslims to engage in “suicide bombing.” But when Muslims go to trial unlike Christians they plead innocence: We have experienced Christian terrorism during the 4th wave in this country but no example of suicide bombing. Jewish religious terror in Israel did not involve suicide bombing.

Even though terrorists are influenced by some themes in their religion, that does not mean everybody that most people in that religion interprets those theme in the same way.

RM: Again, in recent terrorist events that go on around the world, what responsibility do you believe religious leaders have?

DR: I certainly believe that religious leaders have to get involved in the struggle to point out how their religion is being perverted. In some countries, like Egypt, clerics have been successful in convincing terrorist prisoners to abandon their beliefs.

RM: In what way can the youth respond to terrorist acts and what kind of effective movement can they move towards decreasing terrorism?

DR: I really haven’t thought about whether the youth have a special role in responding to terrorist activity. But it is true that the youth are the major source of recruitment for terrorist organizations. They usually come from universities, are from the better classes where confidence in one’s capacities are greatest. What can the young people do to discourage them? I suppose one thing is to tell them the hope that makes terrorism possible has always dissipated in time when the difficulty of small groups becomes evident. Perhaps the more young people talk about the issue, the more significance it will have.

RM: Do you believe that there will ever be a time when terrorism no longer exists, where we can have world peace?

DR: We may change its characteristics but I don’t think we are going to get rid of it unless the modern world changes in a way that I cannot visualize. It’s difficult to predict the future and things do disappear in some form. I don’t think that it is disappearing but I think it could be considerably reduced in time.

RM: Can you further explain what you think people can actively do to promote and obtain peace, despite the violence that plagues our society today?

DR: If you look at the history of terrorism, it seems clear the propensity to over-react to a terrorist deed creates numerous problems that make the situation much worse. Our decision to invade Iraq after 9/11 is one of many examples. There was no evidence that Iraq was involved or had the weapons of mass destruction we claimed would be given to terrorists. To carry out the invasion we withdrew troops from Afghanistan just as we were on the edge of victory there and got immersed in a struggle that generated hostility to the U.S. throughout the Islamic world. Many allies abandoned us because of the decision.

Israel over-reacted to a plot against an Israeli diplomat in London, blamed the act of the PLO which Israel knew was not involved, and invaded Lebanon to force the PLO out. But in the process Hezbollah, a much more effective and deadly terrorist group was created and Israeli troops were forced to remain in Lebanon for some two decades. The Great War or World War I was precipitated by over-reaction to the assassination of the Austrian Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand. Over-reaction is manifested in the willingness to torture terrorist suspects, a practice that goes back to the 1880s and create prisons like Guantanamo. I could go on and on and on with different examples but we have no more time.

Religio Mag
Written by Religio Mag

2 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    March 03, 2015

    Calling the 10 plagues against Pharoah as “the first terrorist campaign” is a bit farfetched.


  2. Avatar
    March 03, 2015

    Hey I had him when i went to UCLA! Brilliant man, excellent instructor


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