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Studies 14 December, 2017

What defines Terrorism? The Identity of the Victim or that of the Victimizer?

Azmi Bishara

General Director and Member of the Board of Directors of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. Dr. Bishara is a researcher and writer with numerous books and publications on political thought, social theory and philosophy, as well as some literary works. He taught philosophy and cultural studies at Birzeit University from 1986 to 1996, and was involved in the establishment of research centers in Palestine including the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy (Muwatin) and the Mada al-Carmel Center for Applied Social Research. In 2007 he was forced to go into exile after being prosecuted by Israel. In 2002 he won the Ibn Rushd Prize for Freedom of Thought, and in 2003 the Global Exchange Human Rights Award. He received his doctorate in philosophy in 1986 at Humboldt University in Berlin, having previously completed his master’s degree there in 1984.

Dr. Bishara has published hundreds of papers and studies in academic journals in various languages. His best-known publications include: On the Arab Question: An Introduction to an Arab Democratic Manifesto; Civil Society: A Critical Study; Religion and Secularity in Historical Context (two parts in three volumes); On Revolution and Revolutionary Potential; Is There a Coptic Issue in Egypt?; To be an Arab in our Times; The Army and Politics: Theoretical Problems and Arab Models; Essay on Freedom; Sect, Sectarianism and Imagined Sects; What is Salafism?; and The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Daesh): A General Framework and Critical Contribution to Understanding the Phenomenon. Some of these books have become seminal works in their field.

He also produced a series of three books documenting the Arab revolutions that broke out in 2011: The Glorious Tunisian Revolution; Syria: The Painful Road to Freedom; and Egypt’s Revolution (two volumes). These books deal with the causes and stages of the revolutions in Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt. These books are a rich contribution to the field of contemporary history thanks to their combination of documentation and narration of the day-to-day details of these revolutions and sharp analysis making connections between the social, economic and political backgrounds of each individual revolution.

Creating two alleged camps

No great analytical effort is required to illustrate the widespread use of the terms “terrorism” and “counterterrorism” in today’s world. These terms dominate every major news broadcast and international summit. Various states around the world have prioritized combatting terrorism to the point where they use “counterterrorism” as a determining factor of their international relations, at least ostensibly. Today, “terrorism” is bandied about as a catch-all to prop up demagoguery and advance political platforms in electoral democracies while it is used to justify government suppression by non-democratic regimes.

The outcome of this unexamined, passive acceptance of these terms as they appear in literature is their instrumentalist use to smear political opponents. Like a talisman, “terrorism” is an accusation that can be employed to silence political opposition. In one fell swoop, the accused is designated as a target for the “war on terror”, a conflict with no defined enemy, aims or objectives typical in war. Countries and political movements across the globe have given up on trying to explain these difficulties. Instead, they capitulate and try to demonstrate to the leader of the “war on terror”— generally, the United States—that they are meeting its standards. For its part, the United States has been able to transform the mantra of “counterterrorism”, with all the implicit premises and the myths surrounding it into its own doctrine.

Perhaps the most problematic aspects of the “War on Terror” are connected to its ambiguity: unbounded by space and time, and with an ill-defined enemy, the “War on Terror” is an oxymoron. Even the supposed ringleaders of this effort do not take it seriously, and never actually hold the “War on Terror” accountable to the norms which define the rules of engagement in a conventional war. Some of the norms that have been jettisoned include the avoidance of indiscriminate shelling of cities and the appropriate treatment of prisoners of war. Instead, the captives taken in the war on terror are vilified more than any other criminal. Yet, the problematic aspects of this war go further. In fact, the war on terror is inherently counterproductive and self-sustaining: for every terrorist it eliminates, a new crop of terrorists is sown.


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