Defining a Terrorist: A Critical Examination of the Discourse of Terrorism

By Kanar Talabani
2016, Vol. 8 No. 09 | pg. 2/2 |

Turkey vs. the PKK

In this section, I apply this analysis to the ongoing conflict between the Turkish government and Partia Karkarem Kurdistan or Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) since 1984 (Klein 2010: 83-84). The example of Turkey's ongoing battle with its Kurdish minority group is a highly controversial issue within ongoing Turkish domestic policy. Whilst the Turkish government uses the term 'terrorist' to label the PKK, PKK sympathisers would argue that it is battling an ongoing attempt by the Turkish government to control and oppress a Kurdish identity (Meho & Maglaughlin 2001:6).

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the Young Turk2 Nationalist movement, James Brown argues that redefining Turkish identity led to an attempt by Kemal Ataturk to create a secular and purely Turkish state in which national unity and territorial integrity were upheld, eliminating the idea for a separate Kurdish state (1995: 117). Through a clear separation in identity narratives, post-Ottoman Ethnonationalist discourse sought to restructure nationalist identities through the use of 'othering.'

Separatist movements were identified as an attack on the Turkish identity and an attempt to dismantle the modern, Western Turkish state. This began to eliminate any notions of legitimate power with separatist movements seeking self-determination following the end of World War 1. There consequently resulted the creation of a rift between the savage 'terrorist' and the 'civilised modern democratic Turkish authority,' hence defining power and disempowerment in post-war Turkey (Toros 2008: 412).

With the ongoing Europeanisation of the modern Turkish state, Ataturkites continued to define a social hierarchy of identities acceptable to the new state. In the creation of a fully homogenous state, the state championed the motto “How happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk’" (Ataturk 1933, retrieved 7/01/2016). This was an attempt by the Turkish government to manipulate the perceptions of the 'other,' and enforce a collective Turkish identity narrative. Kurdish identity was suppressed and, in a famous speech, Ataturk claimed that 'there are no Kurds here, only mountain Turks' with a misplaced sense of identity (Hassanpour 1992; Özcan 2006: 68). Once the Turkish Republic was established, social elites attempted to eliminate all traces of minority identities in favour of the vision for a secular European nationalist state (Klein 2010: 81).

The Turkish state sought to discredit the notion of a separate Kurdish identity by suppressing all mention of 'Kurds' and eliminating any connection to language and culture thereby criminalising the identity. Hassanpour argues that cutting off ties to identity resulted in the "linguistic genocide" of a the Kurdish language and the definition of a Kurd as an “uncivilised person” in the Oxford Turkish-English dictionary (1992). Banning the language as early as 1925, and 'othering' the Kurdish identity successfully demonised and suppressed identity discourse, painting the Kurds as anti-state and 'savage' (Scalbert-Yucel 2010: 118).

The concept of a 'savage' Kurdish identity was complete once the Turkish government labelled the PKK as a 'terrorist' organisation (Toros 2008: 411). This inevitably stabilised the ongoing conflict into a recognisable physical ideology that Western powers could understand. Turkey's semi-European status and its democratic values were enough incentive to aid the West in supporting turkey's cause against a 'terrorist' group. Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani stated in a speech following 9/11:

"You're either with civilization or with terrorists... We're right and they're wrong. It's as simple as that... Those who practice terrorism lose any right to have their cause understood," (1/10/2001, retrieved 17/11/2015).

Without the narrative of an oppressor/oppressed conflict, the fight against the rise in Kurdish nationalism was painted as a fight against the forces targeting democratic western values. This also consequently delegitimises any survival narratives from separatist groups, and legitimises military action by the Turkish government by preventing any further analysis of the social aspects of the conflict (Blakeley 2007: 230).

Consequently, the use of the label 'terrorist' is used deliberately as a delegitimising tool (Toros 2008: 411). Political violence is classed as terrorism against the state regardless of the social narrative of conflict. Responsibility for state retaliatory violence, therefore, is diminished and the concept of state terrorism becomes irrelevant. Instead, Kurdish terrorism is redefined as 'home grown terrorism,' - 'Turks' who are disenfranchised from their 'Turkish roots' and are categorised as 'inherently violent' as a result of a lapse in the understanding of their identity.

Turkish domestic policy has subjected minorities to forced assimilation, and the imposition of 'Turkishness,' as Article 66 of the 1982 constitution states "everyone bound to the Turkish State through the bond of citizenship is a Turk" (7/11/1982, retrieved 15/11/2015). This leaves little room for separate identity discourse and subjects all citizens to the category of a strict 'Turkish' ideology. With the use of the term 'terrorist,' the government is granted agency to control the acceptable parameters of Turkey's social make-up. This has limited understanding into the critical oppression narrative that the PKK has used to justify the use of political violence as being 'the only way' to preventing the elimination of a cultural identity. In an interview with a PKK group in Dersim Province, members have claimed that:

"We as guerrillas, under the right of self-defense for ourselves and our nation, declare democratic autonomy in Dersim... We will not recognize state institutions in this region. We hereby declared that we manage ourselves," (Rudaw News 18/8/2015, retrieved 15/11/2015).

Ultimately, the use of the term 'terrorist' by the Turkish government has been argued as being a deliberate attempt to break the social cohesion of a pluralistic society, and is set within mainstream political agendas of the Turkish government.


The term 'terrorist' has immense global power in effectively categorising and compressing identity narratives. Colonial legacies of understanding the cultural differences between 'us' and the 'other' have dominated modern day discourse over the so called static and solid character of identity. Huntington's analysis of the eight blocs of 'civilisation' embodies the Eurocentric understanding of the categorisation of different identities (Said 2001). This has fed into the ways in which Western discourse has simplified the development of the concept of the 'terrorist' and how it is used as a tool to reinforce these categorisations. In an increasingly globalised context, interaction between the West and the East have resurfaced these narratives. With 9/11 and the increase in political violence dominated by Islamic identity discourse, Eurocentricism dominates MTS.

During the course of the writing of this paper, over 130 lives were lost in Paris in what President Barack Obama has labelled a "terrorist" attack and an "attack on all of humanity," (13/11/2015, retrieved 17/11/2015). MTS has enabled the state to consequently justify air strikes in Syria by Western powers in the ongoing fight against the 'terrorist.' The use of the term 'terrorist' therefore becomes more an issue of perspective as is evident in the ongoing conflict between the Turkish government and Kurdish separatists. The danger is how the term 'terrorist' as a tool is applied and whose agenda it ultimately serves (Jackson 2007: 248).


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1.) In the days following the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush made a speech outside the White House declaring 'this war on terrorism' as a 'crusade' to 'rid the world of the evil-doers,' (Press conference, 16/09/2001). Following this, Counterpunch columnist Alexander Cockburn authored the term 'the tenth crusade' to signify the ongoing historical struggle of the West to bring civilisation and religion to the East (Counterpunch, 07/09/2002).

2.) The Young Turk movement began as a response to the perceived gradual encroachment of European powers on Ottoman sovereignty. Once the Public Debt Administration was implemented, granting Britain and France power over Ottoman finance and debt rehabilitation, the movement sought to reestablish and redefine Turkish identity. This ultimately resulted in the expulsion of the Ottoman sultan and the establishment of a Turkish state.

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