Mirroring "terrorism"

Article published on July 30, 2015
Article published on July 30, 2015

[OPINION] “Terrorism” is a signifier used on a daily basis in Europe. Since ISIS is the top threat perceived by European citizens as of July 2015, it may be worth to ask: what does exactly "terrorism" mean? In an emission at the Ministry of Citizenship, a new show meant to question the meaning of certain key words, we debated about it. 

As pointed out by Nader Out, ISIS is a tool of terror and manipulation towards local populations. In spite of it, Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, said in March 2015 that over three thousand Europeans are in Iraq and Syria today and at the end of the year 2015 the amount of Europeans that join ISIS could be around ten thousand people. In fact, recently Valls revealed that “we have never had to face this kind of terrorism in our history”, announcing that five terror attacks have been prevented since January's Charlie Hebdo massacre. Unsurprisingly, according to a Pew Research Center report released on the 14th of July 2015, ISIS is the top threat perceived by European citizens.

However, “the White House was forced to concede the 23rd April 2015 that it killed two innocent hostages – one American, one Italian – in a drone strike that targeted an al-Qaida compound despite officials not knowing precisely who was in the vicinity”. Furthermore, according to Iraq Body Count, the documented civilian deaths from violence in Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion is around 150 thousand, more than 200 thousand including combatants.

What is a terrorist? 

According to a US Army manual, terrorism is “the calculated use of violence against civilians to intimidate, induce fear, often to kill, for some political, religious or other end” (quoted by Best and Nocella, p.6). Accepting this definition while considering both cases, it seems as if terrorism and hypocrisy are much more common than the mainstream media portraits. As Chomsky said, hypocrites are those who apply to others standards that they refuse to accept for themselves.

In this context, it might be interesting to put into question the meaning of the signifier “terrorism”. Why ISIS are terrorists and the US government is not? Both have used “calculated use of violence against civilians to intimidate, induce fear, often to kill, for some political, religious or other end". It might be worth to remember that Gandhi was declared a “terrorist by the British Parliament in 1932, without ever carrying a weapon. Along similar lines, Nelson Mandela could be compared to Gandhi. A Conservative MP, Teddy Taylor, said in the mid-1980s that “Nelson Mandela should be shot”. Margaret Thatcher said that “the ANC is a typical terrorist organisation ... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land”. 

If terror and violence with political or religious aims are on both sides, why is the media not labelling certain politicians or former politicians as “terrorists”. George Bush’s government is responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq. They were sacrificed in the name of “democracy”, but the truth is that only a few American oil corporations profited from the intervention. This does not mean I support ISIS. The polarisation of the debate into two clear-cut poles is very dangerous, since the situation is much more complex than that. It might be a good idea to deepen the discussion about the society we want to live in: do we want to live in a society based on constant war and terror (where some governments, ISIS or other terrorists groups are leading us), or in love and empathy?

Europe and terrorism

Coming back to the situation in Europe, we might wonder what leads European citizens to travel to Syria and join ISIS? Why do they decide to use violence? Considering the huge increase in unemployment, inequality and poverty in Europe is it really a religious conflict or a social and economic conflict? Is Islam really the cause of terrorism in Europe? Isn’t it more likely that violence comes from unfavourable material conditions? Isn’t a narrative West vs Islam being created to justify the domestic conditions (austerity policies: an increase of poverty, inequality and unemployment)? Once the USSR is no longer there, do Capitalist Western governments need another enemy to justify their policies?

ISIS is labelled as an “Islamic terrorist organisation”. Then, why don’t we label certain government interventions (considering the consequences of the Iraq War, for example) as “capitalist terrorist attacks”? Isn't capitalism a religion? You have a god (the market and money), churches (the banks and the financial institutions) and faith (Neoliberalism). David Cameron said recently that “the terrorist threat was not created by the Iraq War ten years ago, and this threat cannot be solved by dealing with the perceived grievances over Western foreign policy, nor can it be dealt with by addressing poverty, dictatorship or instability in the region.” ISIS is not the result of the Iraq War? We can't deal with ISIS by addressing poverty, dictatorship and stopping certain Western governments' interventions? Would acts of terrorism like the Charlie Hebdo attack be possible if we lived in a Europe where there is less unemployment, less inequality and less poverty? Would ISIS be possible if Middle East countries were not constantly receiving interventions from some governments? And, most important, is the answer to war and terror more war and terror? 

Terrorism” and some of these thoughts are the topic of discussion of the first emission of the Ministry of Citizenship, a new show meant to question the meaning of certain key words. Every program is dedicated to one particular signifier. The panel that will participate in the debate is composed by a group of citizens with different backgrounds and nationalities.

The panel for the debate on terrorism was composed by:

-Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop - materialist philosopher

-Mbarak Zaheran, Master student at VUB and former worker at NGO Palestine: Mossawa Center (the Advocacy Center for Palestinian Arab citizens in Israel)

-Gustavo Jacomelli - Master student at VUB and former trainee at the European Commission

-Evdokia Bairampa : Master student if vub and trainee at the European Federation of Journalists

-Caroline Pauwels: philosopher and professor of Media Policy at VUB