Terror: Politicizing a Word

3 years ago ccwa 1

NGO_Terrorism01To be sure, this is not an article on the act of terrorism itself, or at least not directly so. This is a piece on the word terrorism; the phrase itself garners debate and contention over both its definition and designation. So few words have been able to pave their way into the heart of the American psyche as terrorism, to develop an innate ability to incite such widespread panic and disorder. I doubt I’ll find much opposition when I claim that the label “terrorism” is perhaps the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of political rhetoric; to be labeled a terrorist, whether as an individual or a group, is to be met with decisive and powerful aggression, aggression that will be viewed as justified and essential. Consequently, such a powerful rhetorical device will always find itself inevitably politicized. The decision to label an individual or a group of individuals as terrorists has slowly become less of a humanitarian issue based on the action itself and more of a political and diplomatic strategy based on the political policies governing those using the phrase.  The change in trajectory can be traced back to the tragic events of September 11th, 2001.

9/11 was, in a variety of ways, a trigger. For the first time in American history, the war was no longer “over there.” This attack was not conventional warfare, nor was it a logical political maneuver. A civilian attack of such iconographic magnitude radiated an amazing ripple effect. All of a sudden, anti-Americanism was to be taken seriously; these were no longer people in turbans and robes in the desert on the other side of the pond spewing hate speech. These were people, tactical psychopaths to be exact, in our backyard. President George W. Bush noticed the public’s shift in attitude when, only two months later, he decided to invade Afghanistan. The support, domestic and international, was tremendous. The American claim to self-defense was strong and fair. While the politicization of terrorism found its root in 9/11, it did not manifest until 2003, when Bush decided to launch a subsequent invasion of Iraq.

It is not too controversial to think that the Iraq war was a failure. One of the main reasons for starting the war was Saddam’s alleged relationship with Al-Qaeda. Saddam’s “terrorist ties”, the story thrust onto the American people, was enough to garner very high support for the war. In fact, Bush went so far as to explicitly claim, “Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and gases.” Now of course, there were other powerful reasons for the war, such as Saddam’s alleged WMD program (also proven to be false). From the American people’s perspective, however, it should have been clear Saddam had no ties to Al-Qaeda, and this war was to be a falsely justified.  Somehow, it did not matter that the UN had gone into Iraq prior to the invasion on multiple occasions, finding no weapons of mass destruction, a fact later verified by the CIA; it did not matter that the sources claiming a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq were Al Qaeda prisoners who had clear incentives to lie, and who the CIA later deemed “likely fabricators”; and it did not matter that, other than a few mean words thrown into the air, Saddam posed no clear or discernable threat to the United States or its allies. Fact checking and objective reasoning became secondary when looking at those who were given the label of terrorist. Terrorists and their friends were people who could not be reasoned with, and to publicly claim that such an enemy (real or imagined) could be defeated by non-military measures was political suicide.

To be clear, I am not saying terrorists are diplomats. Al-Qaeda was, by all means, a terrorist group whose sole intention was to break American ideologies through the means of mass murder. However, when a group is labeled terrorist or terrorist-affiliate, they are automatically condemned to the same necessary assertive aggression that Al-Qaeda faced. Consequently, my claim is that the “terrorist” label has been, in the post-9/11 world, used as a tool to either garner support when military action is to be used, or to justify military action once it is used. Fast-forward to modern day, and ISIS is the clear recipient of the terrorist title. I’ll make it clear that I do think ISIS is a terrorist group. Myriad news reports can explain why and how they are a terrorist group, so I won’t go into too much detail here. What I want to focus on are two other groups in the Middle East who have been (and have not been) labeled terrorist, and how I think their examples are ones that reveal the role of political motives in deciding whom to label terrorist.

For a while there, as the dust settled after the fierce protests of the Arab Spring, it seemed like the Muslim Brotherhood would be one of the political players to come out on top. Imprisoned harshly and, some would argue, unfairly throughout the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt, the Brotherhood was able to play the relatable underdog very well in the post-Mubarak elections.  However, due to economic negligence and an abuse of authority, the Brotherhood was overthrown in a public-backed military coup only a year later; that’s when the attacks began. As the military started regaining popularity in Egypt, the Brotherhood went back to operating from the shadows. The attacks were severe and wide-ranging, hitting everything from police stations to movie theaters. The Egyptian government cracked down on the Brotherhood, and the group faced severed ties with the rest of the Middle East. Yet, the American government has still not recognized the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. To label a major political force in Egypt a terrorist organization would be to invite pressure, both domestically and internationally, to do something about it. This label cannot be applied since Egypt is one of the US’s most important allies in a historically unstable and unfriendly region. Furthermore, I don’t intend to portray the Egyptian government as the anti-terrorist underdog fighting for democracy; in its own sense, Egyptian President Al-Sisi’s government has also been accused of severe dictatorship, and another argument as to why the US isn’t labeling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization is that it does not want to align itself with a tyrannical government. Regardless of which argument holds more truth, both serve to show how the terrorist label is not a phrase used only when a group violates human rights and commits mass civilian murder, but rather it has evolved into a political tool to be used, and not used, strategically.

While I posit that the Muslim Brotherhood do not get enough attention in American media and political spheres, I would conversely argue that another group gets too much attention: Hamas in Palestine. It is easy to see why Hamas is called a terrorist organization; the group’s motivating factor, as laid out in its constitution, is the swift eradication of Israel, and it has used violent (for such an extremist cause, is their even another way?) means to do so. However, with Hamas too, we find the political influence of the terrorist label. Hamas is not a real threat, either to the US, or to Israel. The terrorist label was used to justify Israel’s brutal attacks on Gaza a few months ago as a means of self-defense against a hostile terrorist neighbor. However, the asymmetry of severity in attacks is very clear; the attacks on Gaza, according to the latest UN estimates, left north of 2000 Palestinians dead, 69% of who were civilians, while Hamas succeeded in killing six Israeli citizens. These numbers are not to suggest that I am “picking a side” or asking the reader to do so. Rather, what I mean to show is that, even if Hamas is the aggressor hell bent on wiping out Israel, they’re failing miserably. The Israeli missile defense system, the world-renowned Iron Dome, is proving to be incredibly effective, while Hamas has been unable to inflict true damage on Israeli soil due to a limited arsenal of outdated weaponry. So, while Hamas may be in its most technical definition, a terrorist group, they do not warrant the panicked and aggressive reaction that other groups might. Essentially, it is important to recognize once the label terrorist is used, a group is automatically considered imminently dangerous, and devastating attacks directed towards schools, hospitals, and mosques become somehow justified. Furthermore, the idea of negotiating with Hamas becomes more absurd if they are considered a viable terrorist threat. Since one side is a terrorist organization, negotiations and diplomacy have become effectively invalid.

As counterintuitive and ironic as it may sound, terrorism is viewed with a certain morose purity by the public; terrorism is the one force major enough to put aside petty politics and diplomatic incentives, the one tragedy heinous enough to create a truly unified rally-around-the-flag effect. But is imperative we realize the fallacy in that perception. It is becoming urgent and necessary for us to change the way we view terrorism as a label and realize that how it is applied has become completely politicized. The consequences of not making this realization as a public have been indeed costly, as the panicked reaction incited by terrorism has led to catastrophic policies that would otherwise have not been tolerated. At its worst and most extreme, people’s panic has even allowed for the continuation and proliferation of the morally bankrupt crimes it sought to prevent.


by Yehia Mekawi

(photo credit: kyotoreview.org, asiasociety.org)