Historical story

Beatrice de Graaf wins brand new Stevin Prize

Historian Beatrice de Graaf of Utrecht University is one of the winners of the Stevin Prize, a prize from science financier NWO for research with a high social impact. She receives the prize for her contribution to the fight against terrorism. What can we as a society learn from her insights?

The Stevin Prize is a new national valorisation prize. NWO and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science created it. It is high time that scientists were no longer rewarded only for remarkable scientific achievements, but also for successfully using their knowledge for the benefit of society, they believe.

Perhaps for this reason, the prize money consists of 2.5 million euros, as with the existing Spinoza Prizes for remarkable scientific research. Two Stevin Prizes will be awarded each year. In addition to De Graaf, virologist Marion Koopmans is also among the winners this year.

The jury appreciated de Graaf's fresh insights into the ways in which terrorist movements operate and how we can best respond to them. By linking historical knowledge about terrorism with what we know about contemporary terrorism, new insights arise. In this way it makes an important contribution to safety. There is, of course, a need for this at a time when we are increasingly startled by terrorist attacks worldwide.

De Graaf does not limit himself to explaining some dry theory. For example, she and her team are developing an app that teachers in primary and secondary education can use to talk about terrorist attacks in the classroom and advise authorities on how best to combat terrorism. She also contributed to the establishment of the Centre for Terrorism and Counterterrorism in Leiden.

Moreover, because she can quickly and clearly show outsiders the essence of a certain problem, and can explain things clearly and fascinatingly, she is able to put her scientific insights into words for a larger audience.

But how exactly do we as a society benefit from her insights? What lessons does the terrorism expert have for us when it comes to interpreting terrorism and ways to counter it? NEMO Kennislink interviewed de Graaf.

How does it feel to be one of the first Dutch scientists to ever receive the Stevin Prize?

“I am both very relieved and happy. As a scientist, it is always a puzzle to find out how you can collect funding to guarantee the continuity of your research. This is how my ERC research will end next year. With the premium, we don't have to worry about this for the time being and we can focus all the better on the investigation itself:learning lessons about terrorism from history that we can use to better understand contemporary terrorism."

What is the most important lesson we can learn about terrorism if we look at history?

“That is not one lesson, there are several. The first is perhaps disappointing:terrorism has so many faces and manifestations that there is not one comprehensive theory with which you can interpret or predict it. As public administrator Mirko Noordegraaf says:it is a super wicked problem and if you mess with the wrong part, it can have very serious consequences.”

Does this mean there is no end in sight for the Islamic fundamentalist terrorism that affects both the West and other parts of the world?

“Not that either. The history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries teaches us that terrorist movements come and go. We are currently in the so-called fourth wave:a form of religious fundamentalist terrorism that took root in the 1980s. These movements want to create a welfare state on earth and, in the jihadist form, implement religious regulations such as Sharia. Before that, we were dealing with anarchist terrorism, which started in the late nineteenth century, respectively, anti-colonial terrorism and far-left terrorism. Those movements took about forty years each.”

“At the same time, we see that terrorism keeps coming back, albeit in a different form. So even if fundamentalist-Muslim terrorism and other forms of religious terrorism were to be extinguished, we would most likely not be freed from terrorism. In fact, some experts believe they are already seeing the emergence of a fifth wave, starting with the attack by Anders Behring Breivik in July 2011. This involves terrorism based on the so-called Eigen Volk ideology or extreme national terrorism.”

Should we just endure all that terrorism?

"Certainly not. The past also teaches us that although terrorism seems unavoidable, there are recognizable action-reaction patterns. In other words, the way the government and other social forces deal with it influences the intensity and impact of the violence.”

You regularly attend consultations held by the police and other government bodies to prevent terrorist attacks in the Netherlands. To what extent does effective anti-terrorism policy sometimes clash with the rule of law?

“It is often difficult for the government to maneuver. More surveillance of civilians helps you target people who want to play an attack. But you also don't want to undermine the rule of law.”

“There is also a fear that already vulnerable groups will be further marginalized by stricter supervision, such as Dutch people with an Islamic background and a second passport. You do not want that for those citizens, but that is not necessarily useful from the point of view of combating terrorism. Terrorist organizations recruit precisely from these groups of people. Young people who do not feel that they belong in the Netherlands, for example.”

Speaking of those young people, social studies teachers sometimes find it difficult to discuss terrorism in the classroom, because that can be sensitive to Muslim young people. How can we create some involvement among young people?

“At the request of teachers, I have created an education app together with the municipality of Utrecht and pedagogues and information experts from Utrecht University, which helps teachers with this. In doing so, we work with a common definition of terrorism:'threatening, preparing or committing serious violence aimed at people for ideological motives with the aim of effecting social changes or influencing political decision-making'. point out that what is a terrorist to one person may be a freedom fighter to another. We link knowledge transfer to the principle that you can look at things from different perspectives.”

“At the same time, there is a certain framework for the lessons:the parliamentary democracy that we have here. Which therefore offer other, peaceful ways to express your dissatisfaction. So you don't literally have to screw up your future and that of others.”

Terrorist organizations often enjoy all the media attention their actions get because they stay in the picture, you once said on television. Can journalists do things differently to prevent the risk of attacks?

"Yes. We see the same with reporting on terrorist attacks as with reporting on suicide:there is often a copycat effect, one attack serves as an example for new ones. For that reason, some media do not, or only to a limited extent, discuss the method used by the suicide bomber. They can also do this in the event of terrorist attacks, by not revealing too many details. French and Norwegian newspapers, for example, try to name the perpetrator as little as possible and specifically the victims.”

Do you already know what you want to use Stevinpremie for?

“I would like to use the premium to further expand the class app I mentioned earlier. In addition, my interest in terrorism has sparked a new fascination, namely how we humans deal with death:from denial to embracing. And which factors play a role in this. More knowledge about this may help us better understand – and prevent – ​​the actions of people who deliberately kill themselves at the expense of others.”

In this free lecture by the University of the Netherlands, de Graaf tells more about the advantages that ignoring terrorists as much as possible can have.