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Studies 14 December, 2017

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

Azmi Bishara

Azmi Bishara is the General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS). He is also the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. A prominent Arab writer and scholar, Bishara has published numerous books and academic papers in political thought, social theory, and philosophy, in addition to several literary works, including: Civil Society: A Critical Study (1996); On the Arab Question: An Introduction to an Arab Democratic Statement (2007); Religion and Secularism in Historical Context (3 volumes 2011-2013); On Revolution and Susceptibility to Revolution (2012); The Army and Political Power in the Arab Context: Theoretical Problems (2017); Essay on Freedom (2016); Sect, Sectarianism, and Imagined Sects (2017); What is Salafism? (2018); The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Daesh): A General Framework and Critical Contribution to Understanding the Phenomenon (2018); What is Populism? (2019) and Democratic Transition and its Problems: Theoretical Lessons from Arab Experiences (2020). Some of these works have become key references within their respective field.

As part of a wider project chronicling, documenting, and analyzing the Arab revolutions of 2011, Bishara has also published three key volumes: The Glorious Tunisian Revolution (2011); Syria's Via Dolorosa to Freedom: An Attempt at Contemporary History (2013) and The Great Egyptian Revolution (in two volumes) (2014). Each book deals with the revolution’s background, path, and different stages. In their narration and detail of the revolutions’ daily events, these volumes constitute a key reference in what is known as contemporary history along with an analytical component that interlinks the social, economic and political contexts of each 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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