CFP: The Figure of the Terrorist in Literature, Film and Media

University of Zurich
November 8 - 9, 2019
Stichtag: 15.07.2019

In their pioneering 1996 study Terror and Taboo, cultural anthropologists Joseba Zulaika and William Douglass point out a curious paradox in the contemporary preoccupation – or, rather, obsession – with terrorism: whereas the topic of terrorism has been ubiquitous in Western public discourse since the late twentieth century, the voices of terrorists themselves are usually silenced. Zulaika and Douglass explain this by suggesting that the terrorist is “the paradigm of inhuman bestiality, the quintessential proscribed or tabooed figure of our times.”

To say that there is such a thing as a “terrorism taboo” is not to say that terrorism is not talked about. Quite the opposite is true: quoting Michel Foucault’s well-known phrase, we may, in fact, speak of a “veritable discursive explosion” surrounding the subject of terror, which the events of 11 September 2001 have propelled to the forefront of political action and media attention. What is taboo, then, is not the topic of terrorism as such; it is the political subjectivity of the perpetrator of terrorism, for “the very attempt to ‘know’ how the terrorist thinks or lives can be deemed an abomination.”

According to political scientist Richard Jackson, the tabooing of terrorists not only affects debates about actual perpetrators of politically motivated violence, but also fictional representations in literature and film, where terrorists tend to be “dehumanized, demonized, and most importantly, depoliticized.” He adds: “In all the thousands of popular and literary novels, all the newspaper columns and news reports, all the movies and television shows and even in many academic books and articles, terrorists are virtually always depicted in stereotypical terms and as caricatures of what we imagine terrorists to be – fanatical, extremist, aggressive, hateful, dysfunctional, damaged.”

Using this sweeping – and deliberately provocative – statement as a starting point, the international conference The Figure of the Terrorist will be the first to approach the “tabooing” of the terrorist from an interdisciplinary and historically comparative perspective. Does the “‘condemnation imperative’” to which terrorism is subjected preclude an empathetic identification with the perpetrator and his or her agenda?

Call for abstracts

We seek proposals from scholars across the fields of literary, film, media, cultural and postcolonial studies, history, international relations or any other related discipline addressing the following aspects and themes:

►  Specificity of medium and genre: how do the distinct discursive functions, limitations and possibilities of fiction, film (documentary, thriller, comedy, etc.), newspaper or news reports shape the ways in which these forms construct the figure of the terrorist? And what is the specific potential of imaginative representations of terrorists – as opposed to factual ones?

►  Intermediality: in what ways do fictional accounts engage with academic, popular or political discourses around terrorism, e.g., Marie-Castille Mention-Scharr’s Heaven Will Wait? How do representations of the figure of the terrorist change from one medium to another, e.g., Mohsin Hamid’s and Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist?

►  Empathy for the terrorist: how does a particular work seek to elicit or prevent reader/audience empathy for the terrorist, and what narrative strategies does it employ to invite identification with the perpetrators and/or victims of political violence?

►  Accounts that move beyond the immediate post-9/11 context – for instance, by looking at the more recent phenomenon of ISIS-inspired political violence. What new narratives are currently emerging around radicalization, youth, politics, Western recruits and non-violent extremists?

►  The aftermath of the “War on Terror” in media, literature and film: how do the cultural reverberations of this ongoing cycle of violence relate to the discursive response to 9/11?

►  A comparative view on earlier forms of terrorism and their representations: to what extent does the notion of the terrorist as a tabooed figure apply to previous manifestations of terrorism, such as the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Algeria, right-wing extremism or organizations like the Baader-Meinhof group?

►  Non-Western perspectives on the figure of the terrorist: how is the terrorism taboo deployed, altered, avoided or undermined in texts from and about other cultural contexts, e.g., Abu Assad’s Paradise Now (Palestine) or Mahi Binebine’s and Nabil Ayouch’s Horses of God (Morocco)?

►  Gender and the figure of the terrorists: are female terrorists more “tabooed” than their male counterparts, e.g., Gille Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers or Ziad Doueiri’s The Attack?

►  Representations that question the very category of “terrorist” or problematize its use in Western discourse, e.g., Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire.

Please send a 400-word abstract and a short bio note to the conference organizers Michael C. Frank (Literary Studies, University of Zurich, Switzerland) and Maria Flood (Film Studies, University of Keele, UK):
michael.frank [AT]
m.flood [AT]
For more information, see the conference webpage:

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