By Aiman Reyaz, New Age Islam
16 July 2012
Despite years of effort (and wars), one cannot satisfactorily define a terrorist. It is probably a task that is estimated to be more difficult than the positive identification of the Higgs boson particle.
The word “terrorism” was first popularised during the French Revolution. Unlike its contemporary usage, at that time terrorism had a decidedly positive connotation. The ‘régime de la terreur’ (Reign of Terror) of 1793-94 – from which the English word came – was adopted as a means to establish order during the transient anarchical period of turmoil and upheaval that followed the uprisings of 1789. Ironically, terrorism in its original context was closely associated with the ideals of virtue and democracy.
On the eve of the First World War, terrorism retained its revolutionary connotations. By the 1930s, the meaning of “terrorism” had changed. It was now used less to refer to revolutionary movements and violence directed against governments and their leaders and more to describe the practices of mass repression employed by totalitarian states and dictatorial leaders against their own citizens.
Following the Second World War, the pendulum shifted again and the meaning of “terrorism” regained the revolutionary connotations with which it is most commonly associated today. During the late 1960s and 70s, terrorism continued to be viewed within a revolutionary context. However, this usage expanded to include nationalist and ethnic separatist groups outside a colonial or neocolonial framework as well as radical, entirely motivated organizations.
Difficult to Define
Not surprisingly, as the meaning and usage of the word have changed several times to accommodate the political vernacular and discourse of each successive era, terrorism has proved increasingly mysterious in the face of attempts to construct one consistent definition.
Terrorist organizations almost without exception now select names for themselves that consciously shirk the word “terrorism” in any of its forms. Instead these groups actively seek to evoke feelings of freedom, liberation, self-defence, “pure” or righteous vengeance etc.
What all these examples suggest is that terrorists clearly do not see or regard themselves as others do. Terrorists perceive themselves as reluctant warriors, motivated by desperation–and lacking any viable alternative–to violence against a repressive state, a predatory rival ethnic or nationalist group, or an unresponsive international order.
This perceived characteristic of self-denial also differentiates the terrorist from other types of political extremists as well as from people similarly involved in illegal, violent avocations. For example, a communist or a revolutionary would likely readily accept and admit that he is in fact a communist or a revolutionary. The terrorist, by contrast, will never acknowledge that he is a terrorist and moreover will go to great lengths to evade and obscure any such inference or connection.
The terrorist will always argue that it is society or that government or the socioeconomic “system” and its laws that are the real “terrorists”, and moreover that if it were not for this oppression, he would not have felt the need to defend either himself or the population he claims to represent.
Terrorism is Subjective
At least on one point then everyone agrees: that “terrorism” is a pejorative term. It is a word with intrinsically negative connotations that is generally applied to one’s enemies and opponents, or to those with whom one disagrees and would otherwise prefer to ignore.
Brian Jenkins has written: “What is called terrorism thus seems to depend on one’s point of view. Use of the term implies a moral judgement; and if one party can successfully attach the label ‘terrorist’ to its opponent, then it has indirectly persuaded others to adopt its moral viewpoint.”
Hence the decision to call someone or label some organization “terrorist” becomes almost unavoidably subjective, depending largely on whether one sympathises with or oppresses the person or group or cause concerned. If one identifies with the victim of the violence, for example, then the act is terrorism. If, however, one identifies with the perpetrator, the violent act is regarded in a more sympathetic, if not positive light, and it is not terrorism.
In conclusion it can be said that terrorism is ineluctably political in aims and motives; it is violent or threatens violence; it is designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions and is perpetrated by a sub-national group or non-state entity.
According to Gerard Chaliand: “As an international phenomenon, terrorism is more of a galling nuisance than a truly destabilizing force, except for its psychological impact. Terrorism is the price—ultimately, a rather modest one—paid by the West, and especially the United States, for its hegemony. The trick, if one has the political acumen to learn it, is to avoid fuelling it while claiming to fight it.”
Generally speaking, any movement with a certain degree of social substance practices terrorism as a pressure tactic in order to squeeze concession and a negotiated solution from the state. In the case of militant Islamism, the characteristic that sets it apart from all other movements, past and present, is that it has nothing to negotiate. The truth is that its fight is to the death.
(Part 2 will deal with Militant Islamism.)