Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa once said, 'We have wondered why it was that Dr. Savimbi's Unita in Angola and the Contras in Nicaragua were "freedom fighters," lionized especially by President Reagan's White House and the conservative right wing of the United States of America, whereas our liberation movements such as the Pan-African Congress were invariably castigated as terrorist movements.' Dr. Savimbi is a freedom fighter and Nelson Mandela is a terrorist. Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Movement (PLO) is a terrorist movement, but the Shah of Iran is a statesman. Mandela is a statesman, but so is Saddam Hussein. Hezbollah is a terrorist movement, and Iran supports terrorism, but Arafat is a statesman. The Contras are freedom fighters, and Syria is on the list of states supporting terrorism. Osama Bin Laden is a freedom fighter and Arafat is a terrorist, again. General Musharraf is a statesman, but Saddam now supports terrorist movements. The Irish Republican Army is a terrorist movement, the Taliban are statesmen, but Bin Laden is now a terrorist. Arafat is a statesman, again, but the Taliban are terrorists. Ariel Sharon and the king of Saudi Arabia are statesmen, while Hezbollah is still a terrorist movement. For those of us who get our news from the mainstream media like CNN and the BBC, it is difficult enough to keep track of the shifting and often contradictory images and sound bites used to describe complex political events, so how, in such a climate, can we ever learn to think critically about terrorism?
One way is to engage in closer, comparative study of events. In my secondary social studies methods courses, I do a unit about primary sources that emphasizes critical thinking. We begin by reading several news reports about a botched Israeli commando raid in southern Lebanon on 23 February 1999, which resulted in several Israeli casualties. Using the Nexis/Lexis database, we found four different reports filed within hours of the initial incident, and we studied the language each used to describe the incident. Israeli radio reported that its soldiers were on an 'initiated operational activity,' and that they were killed 'in exchanges of fire with terrorists.' Radio Lebanon reported that 'Islamic Resistance units' had 'intercepted' an 'Israeli commando force' inside southern Lebanon. The Chinese state news service described the incident as an 'Israeli commando unit' trying to 'penetrate the areas' in southern Lebanon, but that they were met by 'strong resistance' from 'Lebanese guerrillas.' The Boston Globe reported that the Israeli casualties resulted from 'clashes' with 'pro-Iranian Hezbollah guerrillas.' Through further research we learn that Hezbollah was indeed resisting an illegal military occupation of southern Lebanon, from which the Israelis withdrew in May 2000.
Palestine is an important case study for critical thinking about terrorism. The Israelis consistently depict as 'terrorism' all Palestinian resistance to an illegal military occupation. The use of the word 'terrorism' to describe a bombing of a cafe in an Israeli town may be accurate, but it gets more difficult to apply the term when the targets of such attacks are military, and it is even less credible to describe as terrorism the Palestinian resistance against Israeli tanks and bulldozers rolling over their homes. The Palestinians have an internationally recognized right to resist the Israeli occupation of their land and the destruction of their homes, as well as Israeli attacks upon ambulances and journalists, the massacring of families such as those in Sabra and Shatila, and the imprisonment of young men without charges. In this context, Israel is practicing 'state terrorism,' although the news media never make that distinction. Left unqualified in this way, 'terrorism' becomes a politically charged term. When the American media use this term to portray opponents of American allies, they do a grave injustice to the English language, and a greater injustice to the cause of diplomacy including any measures that can be enacted to end ongoing conflict in Palestine.
We need to think critically about how it is, for example, that the state of Israel, which has a long and well-documented history of aggression against Palestine, has come to be seen as the main victim of terrorism. Critical thinking can involve the need to look at the purposes served by such reversals, and who gets to define 'terrorism' and what is left out of that definition. Terrorism is often a self-serving intellectual construct that is hidden from view by its incessant politicized use. Most recently, its meaning has been hijacked by the United States, which began to use the word regularly in the 1970s to describe various forms of Third World nationalism, and Israel, which has insisted on defining Palestinians as terrorists for resisting the occupation. In the so-called 'information age' power is in words and images. What we are seeing in the world now is the aggressors framing their victims as 'terrorists.' But for the purposes of critical thinking, we need to sometimes separate the realities on the ground from the way we talk about things, otherwise we may contribute to propagandizing ourselves by normalizing definitions and concepts that actually have no agreed upon meaning.
Since 11 September 2001, the naming and blaming game has gotten quite absurd. After President Bush declared a 'war on terrorism,' whatever that is, every two-bit dictator and repressive regime around the world wanted to reign in its opposition under the rubric of 'fighting terrorism.' In addition to accepting the assumption that anything happening in the world today against the US or its allies are acts of terrorism, various governments, friend or foe, began taking advantage of this to disguise their own agendas of violating the human rights of people within their borders. In China, for example, the government has taken to describing nationalists in its ongoing ethnic and religious conflicts in the northern territories as 'terrorists,' making sure the point is taken by stressing that they are allied with Alqaeda. The Philippine government, which has long been struggling with religious and ethnic nationalism in its southern islands, quickly joined the 'war on terrorism' by inviting U.S. commandos into a region that has seen American imperial intervention since the nineteenth century. Regional geopolitical problems become linked to a perceived 'global threat' of 'terrorism.' One could extend this observation back to the Cold War, when any form of Third World nationalism promoting a leftist agenda was termed 'terrorism' by the Americans, and the Soviet Union was the main 'sponsor of terrorism.' Meanwhile, American-backed terrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere became freedom fighters. Further back, one could trace a legacy of 'bandits' and 'pirates,' the 'terrorists' of the nineteenth century. Zooming forward to the present, we find most recently that the enemies of America and Israel, such as Libya and Syria--themselves designated as states supporting terrorism--have labelled as 'terrorists' any and all who resist their oligarchic kleptocracies, bringing the concept to full circle in its gloriously tragic absurdity.
In addition to justifying the self-serving policies and explaining the aggressive actions of state power, terrorism serves other purposes. America has always needed an 'evil other' in opposition to its good self. The 'evil other' in history has taken on many names and shapes, from despots, pirates, and bandits, to communists and terrorists. In Western civilization, which is ferociously dichotomous, there has always been a necessity to define through opposition, and, therefore, a 'terrorist' or some other nefarious character--real or imagined--has actually become necessary for the maintenance of a Western self-image. This can be traced back to the Crusades, and carried forward through the Enlightenment, the Age of Imperialism, and into the twentieth century. In this framework, Muslims are not singled out as terrorists, because other peoples at other times have suffered the same labelling, which always serves the power interest of the time and place. Of course, the question can be asked as to why people so readily accept an image of Muslim terrorists today. This has a lot to do with the legacy of the Crusades in the Christian West and several decades of anti-Arab propaganda on behalf of Israel in America.
What is really going on, then, is a form of self-definition by using the other as a proxy. So, for instance, with Machiavelli the image of 'oriental despotism' was central to the method in his celebrated treatise on politics. The Medieval Catholic Church used images of 'Muslim depravity' as a way to define the purity of Christianity. Enlightenment secularists like Voltaire used negative constructs of Islam as a way to discredit religion in general. During the Victorian era, when Europeans were uptight about sexuality, artists and painters discovered the Turkish harem and the seraglio as an imaginary space for desire and lust that they could vent through art. The distance of the 'other' allowed a certain degree of acceptance toward public nudity in those times, since it was not 'our' nudity, it was that of those barbarous and depraved Turks. In this and many other ways, Islam has real utility. The list is long and interesting, but the theme remains the same: Western civilization, in the foundational moments of modernity, constructed its self-image in the opposing mirror of Islam as the eternal other. This was not based on any reality of Islam the way Muslims lived it at the time, which didn't matter. What mattered was that there was this other civilization out there that most people were aware of but which few really took the time to learn about, and that this mysterious other could be selfishly pressed into service toward a variety of cultural and political ends. Once one begins to think critically about Western history, Islam turns up everywhere as a proxy to work out internal dilemmas. Violence plays a central role in this self-definition. Western civilization has had an unbelievably violent heritage, one hundred million people killed in the twentieth century alone, but it cannot come to grips with that legacy. So, instead, we see a projecting of Western guilt and insecurity about violence onto others, which in many cases turn out to be Muslim 'terrorists.'
Of course, some people have tried to offer definitions of terrorism that are more substantive or definitive. One potential definition centers around the deceptively simple idea of 'killing or intimidating civilians for political or military gain.' However, that definition is dangerous, since one could then point to the terror bombing of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the terror bombing of Dresden, or the terror bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia, to name just a few of the more well-known episodes. One could also mention the American sponsorship of various dictatorships and torture regimes in the Third World, which terrorize their own people to make way for 'progress' and 'development.' Thus, the above, more reasonable, definition of terrorism is not pursued or promoted, as it is more useful to the wielders of state power to maintain a fuzzy, unclear, ever-shifting, self-serving definition, and sell it hard and daily via the corporate media, from which most alternative and critical voices are excluded.
Furedi, F. (1994). The new ideology of imperialism: Renewing the moral imperative. London: Pluto Press.
Hentsch, T. (1992). Imagining the Middle East. Montreal: Black Rose Books.
Herman, E. and O'Sullivan, G. (1989). The 'terrorism' industry: The experts and institutions that shape our view of terror. New York: Pantheon Books.
Kincheloe, J. L. and Steinberg, S. R. (Eds.), The miseducation of the West: How schools and media distort our understanding of the Islamic world. Westport, CT.: Praeger Publishers.
Progler, Y. (2008). Necessary terrorists: The politics of knowledge and scholarship. Penang, Malaysia: Citizens International.
[The foregoing essay was written by Yusef Progler and was previously published under the title 'Terrorism: Western definitions since 9/11' in J. L. Kincheloe and D. Weil (Eds.), Critical thinking and learning: An encyclopedia for parents and teachers (Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, pp. 427-431). It has been slightly edited for reprinting on TV Multiversity. Some of the points in this essay are drawn from his extended essay, 'The Utility of Islamic Imagery in the West.']