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

By Kanar Talabani
2016, Vol. 8 No. 09 | pg. 1/2 |

Understanding the term 'terrorist' is a complex and controversial issue within both academic scholarship and mainstream literature. By adopting a post-structuralist approach to the study of 'terrorism,' we are able to dissect the terms and understand how and why they have become dominant in recent years. This involves an in depth critical analysis of the knowledge and understanding of the use of the term. This essay applies post-colonial theory in understanding the evolution of identity discourse and its application within the study of 'terrorism.' I focus on the Eurocentric approaches to defining identities historically and its continued imposition in modern day discourse following the shaping of the 'state.'

I examine the process in which the term 'terrorist' has been manipulated to reflect western bias of the savage 'other.' This focuses on the consequent dichotomy between what is perceived as acceptable and civilised by the West in comparison to the racial categorisation of a 'terrorist' as being southern/eastern. I analyse the ways in which Mainstream Terrorist Studies encourages this simplified racial categorisation of a 'terrorist' and seeks to apply it within state identity discourse. In particular, this has erupted in the redefinition of nationalist values within Western society often in ways that distance nationalist values from the racial characteristics of a 'terrorist.' I examine the attempt by Mainstream Terrorism Studies to ultimately simplify and target 'terrorists' in efforts to 'solve' terrorism. In particular, this analysis is applied to the creation of the modern Turkish state and the continued conflict with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). I argue that the term 'terrorist' has been shaped by colonial ideologies surrounding the 'other' and has been adopted as a political tool to define and restructure national identity discourse within the state.

Othering a 'Terrorist'

The term 'Terrorist' and its application within mainstream policy research can arguably be categorised as a manifestation of racial discourse. Mainstream Terrorism Studies (MTS), as the theoretical embodiment of this research, is the study by liberal Northern/Western democracies into solving the war instigated by non-liberal Southern/Eastern 'failed states' (Blakeley 2007: 228). It is heavily reliant on realist assumptions of the perception and representation of warfare between East and West categorised by Samuel Huntington in his work 'the Clash of Civilisations.'

Huntington argues that the world will witness an inevitable climax in which progressive liberal Western culture will come under attack by anarchist Eastern culture to determine the future of global politics in ultimate battle for dominance between the two opposites (1993). This civilisation versus barbarism narrative readily fuels colonial imagery of the East and is a reflection of how the West places itself in relation to its perception of the 'other.' In Mainstream Terrorism Studies, the West becomes the civiliser and racial superior further dichotomising the differences between the 'familiar' and the 'other' (Blakeley 2007: 229). This becomes a tool to 'othering,' creating a stark rift between savage and civilised, and power and disempowerment (Jackson 2007: 401).

Early Post-colonial theorists, such as Frantz Fanon, in the 1960s argued that the West's attempts to export its own agenda under the pretence of progress in 'backward' societies, was painted as a justification of its 'duty' to civilise (1963). This is a big feature in MTS in which research focuses on attempting to 'solve' the social and political issues of Eastern societies. This is an attempt to protect the 'progressive values' of the West against the dispersion of Eastern political violence. Edward Said and his work 'Orientalism' outlines the placement of identity within this discourse. Said enforces the idea that the West's image of itself is a manifestation of the comparison that it makes to its perceptions of the 'orient' (1979). This is reflective of the idea that the West can and should 'liberate' the other of its 'backwards' tendencies of producing acts of terror and terrorism. Historic understanding has consequently always presented the 'other' as a non-subject; this is expressing as well as constructing the 'other' as a not fully human, child-like, or 'feminised' devaluation of societies within the East (Spivak 1988).

MTS and the use of the term 'terrorist' is consequently a continuation of colonial legacies and is driven by the devaluation of an identity that is separate to that of the West. Edward Said, in retaliation to Huntington's thesis, penned a piece The Clash of Ignorance in which he states:

"The basic paradigm of West versus the rest (the cold war opposition reformulated) remained untouched, and this is what has persisted, often insidiously and implicitly, in discussion since the terrible events of September 11...have used Huntington’s ideas to rant on about the West’s superiority, how "we" have Mozart and Michelangelo and they don’t...fortified [the] boundary not only between "West" and "Islam" but also between past and present, us and them, to say nothing of the very concepts of identity and nationality about which there is unending disagreement and debate.' (2001: no pagination).

This has led to the creation of a social hierarchy in the categorisation of identities within modern day discourse. Post-colonial Feminist theory resolves to understand and deconstruct the psychological imposition of a hierarchical system that integrates itself into the ways in which identity is created and enacted within everyday discourse (Jackson 1998:106-7). The creation of a history by the West, in which the West is the saviour of the East, encourages understanding into what it means to be a certain identity and how this is relatively shaped by the space that you occupy.

By adopting a contemporary post-colonial approach, understanding the diversity in identity aids the understanding into how territory and identity are closely connected. MTS is an attempt by Eurocentric powers to shape identities that are 'other' to their own in an attempt to manipulate identity discourse in its battle with the Eastern 'terrorist.'

Utilising the Term 'Terrorist'

MTS defines the acts of a 'terrorist' as an attempt to destabilise the liberal democratic state and the global status quo of world power dynamics (Abrahms 2007: 224). Neo-realist/ liberal understanding argues that liberal democracies are less likely to attack liberal democracies and, as a result, centres the use of political violence as a primarily Eastern/ Southern phenomenon (Kant et al 2007). This is a continuation of East/ West discourse that has transplanted itself into foreign policy.

The Bush administration was quick to adopt the justification that 'democracy mitigates terrorism,' thereby forcing the categorisation of all acts of terror or political violence on to the 'other,' which Western societies must protect against. In Dale Eickelman's work 'Bin Laden, the Arab "Street," and the Middle East's Democracy Deficit,' Bin Laden, as the West's icon for terrorism, propagates the 'deep and widespread resentment of the West' (2002: 36). The title alone insinuates that the Middle East (the other) has a 'deficit' of the one mitigating factor (democracy) that can defeat 'terrorism.'

Similarly, Max Abrahms piece 'Why democracies make superior counter terrorists,' also falls into the MTS category of understanding the actions of non-liberal states which lack democracy as being breeding grounds for violence and terrorism (2007). Jackson argues that this is an Eurocentric and mysoganistic justification for the intervention by Western 'liberal' democracies to intercede in the affairs of political states and groups elsewhere across the global South/ East (2007: 246; Chomsky 1987).

In an attempt to 'bring democracy to the East,' combating terrorism becomes a Western crusade1 in which it is their necessary duty to commit to war within countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. By placing the causes of 'terrorism' in a distinctly separate geographical region to the West, MTS convinces us that the West is entirely separate to 'terrorism.' It is the removal of 'terrorism' from Western identities and values in the ongoing creation of a Western identity in relation to the 'other.' This is an element of the rationalist and realist fear of the 'other' within the anarchic system defined through racial terms (Jackson 2011: 70).


Redefining Nationalist Values

MTS is the manifestation of a racist analysis of the perception of the violent 'other,' which has erupted as a political movement categorising groups who do not comply with the status quo. It is used as a tool to demonise an identity that doesn't reflect the parameters of the Western image (Jackson 2005: 59). This has led to a greater mainstream social and political discussion into identity discourse within society. In an attempt to reconstruct 'what it means to be British,' the British government and bigger political actors have attempted to control national identity and discourse surrounding 'British values' (Maylor 2007: 37). Sold as the fight against 'threats to national security,' Home Secretary Theresa May, (one of many) voices the MTS narrative in its practical application within domestic and foreign policy. She states:

"They [terrorists] utterly reject British and Western values, including democracy, the rule of law, and equality...We have to stand up for our values as a nation... There is, undoubtedly, a thread that binds the kind of extremism that promotes intolerance, hatred and a sense of superiority over others to the actions of those who want to impose their values on us through violence...Because, in the end, as they have done before, those values, our British values, will win the day, and we will prevail." (Conservative Party Conference 2-5/10/2015, retrieved 10/11/2015). 

Emphasis is placed on British values as civilising factors coming under attack by 'violent others' seeking to promote anti-Western ideology. This has, ultimately, led to the deliberate targeting of identities that are perceived as the 'other,' the greatest example of which is Islamaphobia and the rise in Islamaphobic attacks within everyday society (Allen 2010).

This is a result of the continued categorisation of the 'terrorist other' as being 'oriental' and unfamiliar to Western values. As an example, the discourse over the use of the Burqa and Niqab are dominant in Western societies. France's most notable ban of the Burqa and Niqab, and growing discourse over other forms of Muslim dress, is quoted as being a 'determined effort to define and protect French values' as Huffington Post columnist Angela Doland states (Posted 07/13/2010, retrieved 11/11/2015).

This has led to an attempt to break the cohesion of multi-tiered society through the categorisation of separate Eastern identities. This encourages the notion that terrorism and acts of terror cannot be a Western trait, that rather it is the attack of an Eastern identity on Western values. Fox and Friends' Brian Kilmeade in response to the View's Bill O'Reilly's statement of 'Muslims killed us' remark on 9/11 stated:

"there was a reason there was a certain group of people that attacked us on 9/11. It wasn’t just one person, it was one religion. Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims." (Somanader, 15/10/2010, retrieved 13/11/2015).

The concept of 'home grown terrorism' has also become a topical issue for debate with MTS (Precht 2007). The concept adheres to the idea that a Western national can no longer be identified as such once they commit an act of terror. British magazine The Week caused controversy when, in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Bombings, a caricature of the Tsarnaev brothers was recreated with distinctly darker and more pronounced 'racialised' facial features (Posted 05/02/2013, retrieved 11/11/2015).

The caricature can be seen as an attempt to redefine the racial boundaries of 'terrorist' traits when there is not a clear physical distinction. This becomes a deliberate attempt to remove any Western links to Terrorism and encourages the umbrella use of anti-extremist law and policy. It, therefore, provides an Eurocentric portrayal of the 'other' which is often tailored to fit into recognisable portrayals of what a 'terrorist' looks like and the identity traits that they carry.

Problem-Solving Terrorism

Moreover, the study of MTS has developed the problem solving theory suggesting that MTS provides a label and check list of 'terrorist' attributes, therefore stabilising the concept of 'terrorism' into a physical embodiment. This assures the ability to target terrorism in order to provide quantifiable solutions evident in dominant discourse following 9/11. Boaz Ganor states that the dominant narrative is "what looks like a terrorist, sounds like a terrorist, and behaves like a terrorist is a terrorist" (2002: 287).

The term 'terrorist' has ensured a simplified and swift reaction by Western powers in tackling 'extremism and terrorism.' In this instance, the term was adopted to justify a retaliatory response to an otherwise complex multi-faceted issue. By taking the Prevent strategy in Britain as an example, MTS has idealised a check-list of the attributes and provided a 'solution' to solving the rise in extremism within early society (06/2011, retrieved 25/11/2015). 'Terrorism' becomes a target, and with it comes a list of attributes associated with race, religion, ethnicity, culture, and gender. A great example of this is Bernard Lewis' work 'the Roots of Muslim Rage' which encapsulates the eurocentralised attempt to 'explain' racial and religious differences of the 'Muslim other' (1990). Consequently, by creating a static image of the 'terrorist,' MTS resolves to target the violent and extremist 'other' in its 'war on terror.' This then becomes a justification for all other action in the name of combating 'terrorism' (Chomsky, 1987).

Consequently, the use of the term 'terrorist' becomes a public relations stunt (Jackson, 2007: 248). As an abstract concept 'terrorism' does not exist, rather Critical Terrorism Studies argues that it is a social construct of MTS and defined according to existing perceptions of the 'other' which has been advertised as a global issue. In other words, the ongoing discourse of 'Terrorism' does not exist outside of mainstream political agendas and is manipulated and advocated through MTS (Jackson, 2007: 247-248). Ultimately, it is impossible to be impartial or neutral in the study of 'terrorism' as all study is politically motivated. Rather, MTS has become a subtle attempt to reevaluate and manage the social make-up of a society and nation, giving the state the power to determine identity discourse. MTS enforces the parameters over who has the legitimacy to define a state's identity thus readjusting a state's social hierarchy.

This social hierarchy determines which identities and their characteristics are acceptable within a Western liberal democracy. For instance, the famous saying "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," highlights the subjectivity of the use of the term 'terrorist' and determines the way in which a state can use this to alter perceptions (Laqueur 1987: 7). It becomes fully enforced whenever 'home grown terrorism' is used by governmental elites to colour any 'terrorist' as 'anti-(western)state' when they break the socially acceptable parameters of the state's identity. This, therefore, enforces the Eurocentric civiliser as the identity entrepreneur who is granted the authority to manipulate acceptable identity discourse.

In understanding the justifications for this, the government ultimately becomes legitimate in its attempts to actively 'combat terrorism.' It is able to paint any form of political violence as 'terrorism' and delegitimise it as an attack on nationalist values. All political violence becomes attributed to 'terrorism' and is seen as a deliberate attack on the acceptable social-make up of a society as defined and controlled by the state. Barry Hindess states in his work Terrortory:

"'Terrorism is what they do, our response is something else.'.. The reference to "our response" suggests that our use of terror comes after theirs: The others started it, and we had no choice but to follow. This, too, fosters the illusion that states and the use of terror are normally opposed," (2006: 245).

This helps to ignore the possibility of state terrorism, and sometimes even defines it as an impossibility especially amongst liberal northern democracies. Weber's institutional legitimacy approach argues that the state governs under the legitimate mandate over the use of force, and that this monopoly over violence justifies all action against 'anti-state' violence (Warner, 1991).

The legitimacy approach to state-building is adamant on the ability for a state to govern through the body of society granting it authority. This is further developed when Western societies use this legitimacy to enforce policy in direct reflection of the 'war on terror.' This includes the granted right to redefine social identities and boundaries. For instance, through an Eurocentric lense of analysis, it becomes a given that liberal democracies have never used acts of terror, or rather that terror cannot have a 'western' identity (Chomsky 1987: 172-3). This lack of discourse over 'white terrorism' is purposeful in limiting the identity of 'terrorists' to solely being the trait of the 'other.' Consequently, the label 'terrorist' is used as a political tool to manage and shape national identity discourse within the state.

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