Nb. this article is a response to an incident that occurred whilst I was attending Occidental College in Los Angeles between August 2014 and May 2015
This week’s post is a little different to what I usually publish, but an issue caught my attention a few days ago that I feel is worthy of a deeper analysis. The Occidental community does a fantastic job of raising awareness about a plethora of important social justice issues and I feel it to be a warm and welcoming environment for the discussion of matters relating to race, gender, identity and religion. For this reason, I was even more shocked to see a flagrantly Islamophobic piece of graffiti daubed on the quad, in full view of anybody leaving the marketplace. The graffiti in question was a not-so-original phrase commonly seen in the comments of YouTube videos or leaving the mouths of ideologues like Bill Maher and Bill O’Reilly; “not all Muslim’s are terrorists, but most terrorists are Muslim.”
This statement is problematic on a number of levels and reveals that startling levels of ignorance can be fostered in even the most liberal environments. For one, it is a factually incorrect statement. Numerous non-Muslim terrorist groups, some with many thousands of members, are currently active worldwide and Islamist terrorism itself is a relatively new phenomenon, only reaching global prominence in the last few decades. A quick look at the U.S Department of State’s list of designated foreign terrorist organizations, easily available on their website, reveals numerous non-Islamic groups deemed terrorist organizations by the U.S government. 31% of the groups listed are not Islamist groups, and the list is misleading as many of the Islamist groups listed are splinters from other groups or national wings of larger Islamist organizations.
Amongs the 18 non-Islamist terrorist organizations listed, five are secular groups based in Muslim majority countries, such as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Abu Nidal group. Some organizations on the list are fundamentalist groups from other religions such as the Kahane Chai, an Israeli Jewish extremist organization banned from the Knesset for inciting racial hatred. The majority of others are communist insurgencies like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), the leftist guerrilla group that has been fighting a civil war in Colombia since the mid-1960s and the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. However, the state department list has been widely criticized by intellectuals like Noam Chomsky for its arbitrary nature, and a number of prominent terrorist groups, most notably the Lord’s Resistance Army who have terrorized Uganda for over four decades, are absent.
At a talk at Google Cambridge, Chomsky challenged the U.S designation of terrorist organizations, arguing that “the executive branch of the government simply determines you’re a terrorist. I put you on the list. No review. No judicial review. No defense. It’s just an executive act of an authoritarian state.” This is one fundamental flaw with the use of the term terrorist; as the now rather cliche term goes ‘one man’s terrorist is another mans freedom fighter’. To understand the implications of describing a person or a group as terrorists, it is important to understand a little of the history of the term.
The Evolution of the Term*
Terrorism is a politically loaded phrase, useful for inciting emotional responses like fear and patriotism, but rather imprecise as a critical term. The rise of the modern media machine, which often simplifies complex issues under the byword ‘terrorism’ due to the constraints of airtime or print space, has contributed to a general lack of understanding about what terrorism is. Bruce Hoffman, author of Inside Terrorism, argues that “terrorism, in its most widely accepted contemporary usage of the term, is fundamentally and inherently political. It is also ineluctably about power; the pursuit of power, the acquisition of power, and the use of power to achieve political change.” Popular use of the term has changed frequently over the last two centuries, mirroring the constantly evolving political environments in which acts of terror are perpetrated.
The term was originally popularized in the aftermath of the French Revolution, where it was used to describe the regime de la terreur of 1793-94, where massive violence was directed by the state at the French public as a means of gaining and maintaining political control. In light of this it is perhaps slightly ironic that our contemporary use of the term usually refers to revolutionary or non-governmental activity, and state terrorism, when the term is used, is almost always put in inverted commas. Since the French Revolution a number of groups and individuals have contributed to the evolution of our modern understanding of terrorism. Italian revolutionary Carlo Pisacane coined the phrase “propaganda of the deed”, in which he argued that violence was necessary to both draw attention to a cause and to educate and rally the masses behind revolution. This has arguably formed part of the bedrock of our modern conception of terrorism, and his theory has been put into practice by countless groups since his death in 1857.
Between then and now, the popular use of the term terrorism has evolved to reflect the political environment in which it has been used. Up until the First World War it became attributed to revolutionary groups and independence movements; the Irish Republican Brotherhood led coordinated bomb attacks on the London Underground in the late 19th century, and nationalist agitators in the former Hapsburg and Ottoman dominated territories like Armenia, Bosnia and Macedonia frequently employed terror tactics like assassinations and bomb attacks. It was a member of the nationalist group Mlada Bosna, or Young Bosnians, who assassinated the Hapsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand, sparking the Great War.
By the 1930s the meaning of terrorism changed again, becoming associated less with revolutionary violence directed against state actors and more with the practices of mass repression by totalitarian governments against their own citizens; namely Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. In Italy and Germany their emerged state-sanctioned street gangs who led political brawls and persecuted Jews, communists and other so-called enemies of the state; violence was endorsed by the state and terrorism somewhat regained its original meaning. In contemporary times, authoritarian governments have employed similar tactics; governments across South America have engaged non-state death squads to terrorize their populations into complicity, but these tactics are more commonly referred to as ‘state terror’ rather than terrorism, as the latter is now more commonly associated with non-governmental groups.
In the post-WW2 era terrorism regained its revolutionary connotations; groups battling for independence from imperial domination, in countries as diverse as Kenya, Cyprus and Algeria, employed terror tactics in their struggles, and sympathetic observers coined the term ‘freedom fighters’, deemed a more appropriate appellation for those participating in what were often viewed as morally justified acts of terror.
With the rising tensions between the USSR and the USA during the Cold War era, books like Claire Sterling’s The Terror Network informed a receptive U.S government that seemingly disparate terrorist acts across the world were in fact part of an elaborate Soviet conspiracy to bring down the ‘free world’; in the 1990s, despite the collapse of the USSR, this idea remained prevalent with the emergence of the phrase ‘narco-terrorism’, which asserted that there was a relationship between terrorism and the narcotics trade, largely in Latin America. The term was used by Western government’s to demonize the FARC in Colombia, despite the fact that the government backed paramilitary groups were far more involved in the cocaine trade, and posed a far larger terror threat to civilian populations than the guerrillas.
In the 1980s the CIA covertly funded and armed the group that would become al-Qaeda to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, ironically creating the organization that would orchestrate the most notorious terrorist attack of all time. Over the course of the 1990s, the term terrorism began to be increasingly tied to Islamist movements, spurred by the extreme violence purveyed by groups like the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria. However, it was the events of September 11th 2001, and the ideological crusade initiated by George W. Bush that inextricably tied Islamism with terrorism in the modern understanding of the phrase.
The Promotion of Irrational Fear
Through a brief overview of the history of terrorism, I have attempted to show the fluidity of its usage and the way political situations have shaped the way it has been deployed at specific historical junctures. If we return to the offensive graffiti which instigated me to write this article, the ridiculousness of the statement becomes apparent. When the writer states “most terrorists are Muslim” it is unclear what they are even referring to: state terrorism? Narco-terrorism? Freedom Fighters? In fact, the lack of clarity in the statement reveals the basic truth behind it; the writer’s own ignorant Islamophobia, no doubt informed by the skewed media presentation of the U.S ‘war on terror’.
In the context of the ‘war on terror’ it has become convenient for politicians to conflate Islam and terrorism, as revolutionary Islamist groups have been one of the primary targets of U.S military campaigns since 9/11. A look at the actual statistics suggests a different reality. According to the FBI database, only 6% of terror attacks in the United States since 1980 have been carried out by Islamic extremists, fewer than the 7% that were committed by Jewish extremists, and the 42% carried out by Latinos. The statistics are similar in Europe; a study by Europol found that only 0.4% of terrorist attacks between 2006 and 2008 in EU countries could be attributed to Islamist groups; the overwhelming majority were perpetrated by separatist groups like the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) who seek to establish an independent state in the Basque region of Spain.
It is no accident that terrorism and Islam continue to be presented as synonymous in the media. The surge of fanatical patriotism sparked by 9/11 was adeptly harnessed by the Bush administration in the aftermath of the attacks. Major news outlets, eager to cash in on people’s new found fear of all things Islam, went to great lengths to dig up stories about Islamic extremism, often with very limited understandings of either Islam or terrorism. Even respectable publications fell back on the essentialist, racist stereotypes that had penetrated Western understandings of the Muslim world since the 19th century, promoting images of bearded flag-burning fanatics and their silent, veiled wives as the legitimate image of a religion of over a billion people. Texts like Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations have promoted the popular idea that Islam poses some existential threat to the very existence of the ‘free world’, but as the statistics prove American’s are far more likely to be victims of Latino terrorism than Islamic.
With the constant barrage of images of shocking violence occurring around the world, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the simplistic worldview purveyed by the media. However, to halt the cycle of fear and hatred it is crucial that people look beyond the news and investigate the complex reality, and understanding the problematic nature of the term ‘terrorism’ is an important prerequisite. As a blogger on Princeton’s anti-Islamophobia blog Loon Watch points out; “you don’t live in constant fear of radicalized Latinos… even though they commit seven times more acts of terrorism than Muslims in America.” Islamist terrorism is a global problem and people are rightly concerned – however the proximity of the threat to the United States remains exaggerated and is drawing a wedge between an alienated minority and the rest of the American people.
Originally posted at http://www.occidentalweekly.com on April 10th 2015
*The information in this section is largely taken from Bruce Hoffman’s book Inside Terrorism
Danios; All terrorists are Muslim, apart from the 95% that aren’t – http://www.loonwatch.com/2010/01/terrorism-in-europe/
Danios; Europol Report: All terrorists are Muslim, apart from the 99.6% that aren’t – http://www.loonwatch.com/2010/01/not-all-terrorists-are-muslims/
Hoffman, Bruce; Inside Terrorism, New York: Columbia University Press (2006)
Noam Chomsky lecture at Google Cambridge – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3PwG4UoJ0Y
U.S Department of State Bureau of Counterterrorism; Foreign Terrorist Organisations – http://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/123085.htm