Nieman Fellow Discusses Terrorism

The prevalence of religion in America may protect us from the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism, according to the Boston Globe’s London bureau chief Chares M. Sennott.

In a forum at Kennedy School of Government (KSG) yesterday, Sennott drew on his experience as a reporter covering the Middle East to discuss the different approaches America and Europe take in confronting terrorism and the lessons that can be gleaned from both.

“We have a lot to learn from Europe,” said Sennott, who is a Fellow this year at the Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. He noted that England, which has a long history of imperialism, understands the dangers inherent in that power better than America. “But Europe,” Sennott added, “also has a lot to learn from us.”

In front of a 40-person audience, Sennott compared the events of Sept. 11 and the July 7 bombings in London. “The two events are quantitatively different,” Sennott said. He went on to explain that on Sept. 11, foreign terrorists came to America with the intention of carrying out an attack while the London bombings were perpetrated by second-generation British Muslims who felt disconnected from Britain.

“Why haven’t we seen a homegrown terrorists cell in the United States?” Sennott asked.

According to Sennott, the answer to this question is American mind’s focus on religion.

“America is a very religious place,” Sennott said. “In a collective sense, the dialogue in America includes the word ‘God’...I think that might be, unconsciously, one of our best defenses against terrorism.”

Sennott cautioned that American-born Islamic terrorists still pose a real threat, but he said he believed that the America’s religious dialogue “acts like a retardant foam that snuffs out fire.”

When he first described this theory, Sennott noted aloud the looks of skepticism on some faces in the audience, which was composed of Harvard affiliates and local residents. Sennott went on to flesh out his claim.

“My time in the Middle East tells me they look at things in a vertical way,” he said. Sennott explained that unlike in America, which is divided horizontally among the left and the right, religious Muslims in the Middle East feel a stronger affinity to members of different faiths in the Western world than non-observant Muslims.

While American Christians might not agree with their Muslim counterparts, according to Sennott, “there’s a core in the American dialogue where they’d at least talk about it.” This combats the kind of isolation felt by the London bombers, he said.

Director of the KSG’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy Alex S. Jones questioned Sennott on whether terrorism is caused by fundamentalist Islam’s primary concern with secularism or with Western culture at large. Sennott agreed that cultural differences are a motivating factor for terrorists, but said that especially on an individual level, Muslims are more likely to engage in dialogue with the Western world if both parties are similarly religious.

Sennott said his theory about the lack of home-grown terrorists in America is still a work in progress. “I don’t know how I feel about it,” he said.

He will continue to explore these ideas during his time as a Nieman Fellow, a mid-career hiatus to Harvard during which he is also taking classes at the University and seminars on journalism from the Nieman Foundation.

Even after the initial skepticism Sennott noted, several audience members were keen to continue the discussion after the forum wrapped up.

“We need to look at the Middle East differently through the prism of our own faith,” Sennott said. “Let’s get smart. Let’s start asking the questions that resonate with a lot of people.”