Who gets to define terrorism?

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By Ethan Casey

July 26th 2011

My column last week on drone attacks so clearly struck a nerve that I intended to write a follow-up this week, addressing some of the many comments and responses. I did publish an interim statement on my own website, where I invite you to continue that conversation. And the subject is not going away, so I’m sure I’ll be writing about it here again all too soon.

In the meantime, the terrorist attack in Norway brings home once again a very, very important question of our time: Who gets to define terrorism? I’m not sure whether the pen really is mightier than the sword, although I hope it is. What I do know is that a big part of every struggle for power or primacy in human society hinges on the issue of who defines the terms, and that all writing is an attempt to define terms. This means that writing is inherently a political act, and an ability to deploy or control language is essential to human freedom, because language is the repository of meaning.

I don’t want power or primacy, but like anyone I do need to be respected, and I refuse to be bullied. Political bullies use language as a blunt weapon, and the word “terrorism” is an instance of this. I daresay that over the past decade we’ve all been bludgeoned by the word even more than by the fact of terrorism. And the bullies of the American right wing — who control the American conversation, thanks to the fecklessness of our spineless president — would allow the word to be used only in conjunction with the words “Muslim” or “Islamic” or (that pernicious neologism) “Islamist.” If, for example, anyone dares to ask, as I asked in January after the attacks on Salmaan Taseer in Islamabad and Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, “Is America Any Different from Pakistan?”, he or she will be dismissed thus:

“Yawn yet another typical leftie more than willing to jump on the bandwagon of blaming the right, America, and any other group he/she opposes for the actions of a mentally insane person. Jared Loughner [the would-be assassin of Giffords] appears to have been a psychotic, I suspect a schizophrenic. Please wait for the facts instead [of] falling into your own biases.”

This is a very representative presumption among the bullies of the American right wing: that American extremists like Loughner and Timothy McVeigh are lone crazies, whereas Muslim or Pakistani extremists somehow represent their entire society or religion. And it reinforces my belief that how we speak and write is extremely important, and that not only must we resist letting the bullies define the terms, we must seize the initiative by defining them ourselves. Hence I made a point of referring above to the terrorist attack in Norway, because that’s what it was. The terrorist in this case is a right-wing Christian fundamentalist who apparently wants to ignite a holy war against Muslims, and a terrorist is absolutely what he is. If anyone deserves to languish for years without trial at Guantanamo Bay, he does. (Nobody does, but that’s another column.)

Last year I argued that an assertive political movement by Muslims in America might be timely and helpful. I quoted two historians of the Roman Catholic experience in America, R. Scott Appleby and John T. McGreevy, who had published a helpful article in the New York Review of Books in the context of the cooked-up and damaging “Ground Zero mosque” controversy. “Must Muslims unequivocally reject all forms of terrorism —especially those Muslims who wish to promote full Muslim participation in American society?” they wrote. “Of course. But if the Catholic experience in the United States holds any lesson it is that becoming American also means asserting one’s constitutional rights, fully and forcefully, even if that assertion is occasionally taken to be insulting.”

I keep returning to the thought that, like other minorities before them, Muslims in the West will do themselves, Muslims worldwide, and Western societies all a great favor by becoming visibly and audibly more active in politics, at both the electoral and the street level. Well-meaning “interfaith” get-togethers with liberal churches are well and good, even important. But ultimately it’s not about religion at all, but about politics, which is about requiring to be respected by our fellow citizens.

In America, Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement showed how to be political in ways that are at once nonviolent, assertive, and effective. For my part, as an American and a human being in these dangerous times, I’m willing to fight for the America and the world that I want to live in. I emphasize that by fight, I mean struggle politically, not with violence. But it is a fight that we have on our hands, because there are loud and aggressive elements in the West that quite wrongly and unfairly identify terrorism and danger exclusively with Muslims, just as there are equivalent hate-mongering elements in Pakistan and other Muslim societies. To push back against these is not without risk, but the alternative is to keep our heads below the parapet and allow the bullies to define the terms by default.

As a writer, I can be helpful first by using language accurately — by, for example, calling the act committed in Oslo by Anders Behring Breivik what it is: terrorism.

Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip.

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