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Who gets to define terrorism?


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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. He can be reached at and

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (37) Closed

amoghavarsha.ii Jul 26, 2011 12:04pm
U need to go to school again and do it seriously this time.
Fatima Nasir Jul 26, 2011 12:08pm
So true!
Awais Khan Jul 26, 2011 12:23pm
Right wing radicals are part of every society and their unchecked rise results in chaos.
zia bugvi Jul 26, 2011 12:45pm
totally agreed.........we need more people like you to declare unequivocally wrong as wrong n expose western double standards; keep it up
KMR Overseas Jul 26, 2011 01:11pm
No need to define anything except to sitback and relax think who provoked Norway and why!!
Raj Jul 26, 2011 01:16pm
The author asks - "Salmaan Taseer in Islamabad and Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, “Is America Any Different from Pakistan?" - Yes, America is different from Pakistan. Americans didn't come out on the streets to eulogize the murderer as Pakistani's did for Taseer's murderer.
Jawed Reza Sheikh Jul 26, 2011 01:20pm
Very well written piece. Glad that you have clarified by "fight" you mean "struggle' Remember after 9/11 events the word jihad was taken as an extremist word whereas jihad means a struggle at it can be against corruption, lawlessness, terrorism, gambling etc. The Us idea was "WAR ahgainst rerror" which is a better word struggle or war. It was much later that the European countries first realised that it was a hrash word and dropped the use of it. Well written article. JRS
sharma Jul 26, 2011 01:28pm
What happened in Norway is indeed terrorism.Whether it is Muslims killing non muslims or Non Muslims killing Muslims it is terrorism. Those people in the resort were innocents. Its a shame that such a thing can happen in Europe and that too western Europe. However, this incident should also open eyes of the states who protect and shield terrorists like OBL. If such state sponsorship will happen then people of other religions are bound to react. Non Europeans are not native of Europe and thus should know when they have exceded their hospitality.
Khurram Jul 26, 2011 03:09pm
The number of Pakistanis eulogizing Salman Taseer's murderer is, statistically speaking, not significantly different from zero compared to Pakistan's total population. You must attempt to understand!
kayenn Jul 26, 2011 04:05pm
One of the point he has written in his statement is that he doesn't "Pakistization of Europe".....What does it mean... Let some friends from Pakistan comment on this statement
Noman Jul 26, 2011 04:33pm
Tell it to the Indians living abroad. They think they own everything.
jawaid Jul 26, 2011 05:10pm
will ever truth prevail over lies,peace over war,tranquality over terror,perhaps not in my life time but we must not lose hope ,keep day these may prevail.
G.A. Jul 26, 2011 05:25pm
The Western media is still not calling this Norway massacre 'terrorism'. It is deliberate. When you use two words together frequently enough, one automatically becomes synonymous with the other. Hence, when one you say Islam, for an average Joe in the West, the word 'terrorism' springs up in his or her mind. I learnt this in a Psychology class in the U.S.
Moaz Jul 26, 2011 06:24pm
very well written, the point to be taken here above all is that whats wrong here has to be stopped, be it Muslims or non Muslims. For the people arguing over points above, to everyone i will say, just deep down, ask yourself, a man killing everyone for no reason is not right, regardless of everything. We as Muslims are told not to kill anyone, Muslim or non Muslim, and the terrorist attacks going on right now killing innocent people, i don't even think those people are Muslims at all, because if they are they wont do it. Our i s a religion of peace, and the perception out there is all false propaganda. And lets face it everyone, Pakistan is suffering the most at the hands of this war on terror, as claimed by people that we harbour terrorist, then we wont be senseless enough to harbour them to destroy our own country.
Muhammad Saqib Ilyas Jul 26, 2011 06:33pm
Do I need to give you a recent example of a US celebration of a murder? Everyone's enemy is someone's hero. This is how people react everywhere, isn't it?
Muhammad Saqib Ilyas Jul 26, 2011 06:34pm
Afaq Jul 26, 2011 06:38pm
After 9/11 if we look deep on polices and the action of Bush Administration which give strangeness to so called conservative ( Right wing radicals Christian in the west to come out openly)They have commonness as any other radicals in world. One other thing in common among them is that they believe that other with different believe and thinking is wrong and deserve too be eliminated.
Ariba K Jul 26, 2011 06:46pm
Well said. agree with your comments!
Muhammad Akram Jul 26, 2011 08:07pm
A very well written piece indeed. Just a piece of advice for my fellow Pakistanis and that is never get emotional whenever something is said about our country. We the literate populace should just sit back and think for a while what is wrong with us. Don't we all agree that praising Salman Taseer's killer is really shameful for us all? But what is equally shameful is the fact that the voices against such scary scenes or those condemning the murder have been inaudible. As a society we have to revisit our entire approach towards the future dimensions our dear country is heading.
sami Jul 26, 2011 10:40pm
when white person do some thing extremely crazy,its call mentally disturb for every one else,its their religion,race & color issue.
Tahir ali Jul 26, 2011 11:19pm
Ethan u have well pleaded the case of muslims especially pakistanis.Those who equals the name of pakistan with terrorism must accept the fact that pakistanis have become prey to this curse more than anybody on this planet.i salute to the courage of pakistanis and pashtuns in particular.
Muhammad Iftikhar Jul 26, 2011 11:44pm
Brilliant; You are perfectly right about Muslim political movement. The terrorism has so vigorously been attached to Muslims that they have become sheepish and apologetic about it. They need to come out and tell the world that an act of terrorism can be committed by any one. They need to tell the world that their religion preaches"the murder of an innocent human being is the murder of whole humanity". Islam is about love-and not about hatred.
Coco Jul 27, 2011 12:00am
It was interesting to see how before the identity of the suspect was confirmed, the television coverage(in Britain) was on its high horse prattling on muslims and terrorism. It was almost a relief to find out that the attacks weren't somehow linked to muslims. The Western media unashamedly buys into the idea that terrorism is an islamic or third world phenomena- to put it more crudely, it is carried out by dark skinned people against white skinned people. It's apparently not terrorism when white skinned people massacre coloured people. The case in point being the drone attacks carried out by the US..nobody refers to them as a form of terrorism..
Qasim Jul 27, 2011 04:06am
Dear all, This is not fair that if any incident takes place in the world. Either, the incident any nature or true or fake. The media does not show the reality and home base of this incident. this is incredible for all of us to judge that dead person is Muslims Or non- Muslims, my sign is to move the Norway and OSLO and Otyo island. AT this time we did not even know what happend there?
allasia Jul 27, 2011 06:47am
According to a survey, nearly 70% of Pakistanis supported the killer of Governor Taseer and if you think that is zero, I wont comment!
Pradeep Jul 27, 2011 09:33am
Mr.Khurram... no lawyer was ready to appear for the prosecution of Qadri. Not a statistical minority of laywers...
Adeel Jul 27, 2011 11:42am
As being a Pakistani, this was a surprising statement. There haven't been a culture yet which can be identified as 'the Pakistani culture", of course we are heading towards it. Pakistan is extremely multicultural country. There are around 72 languages being spoken as counted by UNESCO so far. The interaction and friction of these many cultures may lead to an identifiable Pakistani culture by next thirty to fifty years. Perhaps Pakistani insist on their national identity which shared religious symbolism and practices. As a result they get integerated in different societies yet preserve their unique identity, which is not yet very precise. One of my friend who describe himself as a cultural marxist, call himself 'cultural muslim' is the sense that he does care for the people living in Pakistan, and has immense admiration for our folk cultures. In any case, it is interesting phrase.
abhi Jul 27, 2011 04:23pm
that is the point dude. Who is your Hero tells a lot about you.
Sharma Jul 27, 2011 04:57pm
To Moaz : You say " ours is a religion of peace and the perception out there is all false propaganda". Then why Muslims are killing their fellow Muslim brothers in Iraq and Pakistan regularly?
Insomniac Jul 27, 2011 05:22pm
@abhi - good one.
Mian Jul 27, 2011 06:36pm
The blogger is nefariously trying to create an issue where none exists. All the foreign media I have searched on the internet is calling it an Act of Terrorism: (USA), (Canada), (England)…. Creating a following by stirring up hatred is not a sustainable model. This is Dawn, a serous and respected newspaper in and outside Pakistan. Consider Twitter or Facebook. You have huge Fan Following on the latter: 15 Fans. My nine year old daughter has paltry 310 Fans.
abrar Jul 28, 2011 04:35pm
dear,i want to make it clear to every one that there is diffrence in islam and muslim "islam is not what muslim do but what muslim suppose to do"
Hariharmani Jul 28, 2011 07:37pm
Today a column appeared in"dawn',are we innocent' by I.A. Rehman,which persuade some balanced fair minded,who have some stake in brinnging sanity in Pakistan,and look for cover to rationalize their conduct for behavior,by pointing out this act of terroism is in norway thus washing,and white washing all acts of killing in Pakistan,and thus clearing their conscience,thus equating acts of OBL,mumbaai messacre,london sub-way mahem,and even saying the receny shooting of congress woman with late Governor Taseer,We all know,the behavior and garlanding,for pete sake he was his body guard,does ethic means anything?Body guard breaking his solemn oath and killing one he is supposed to protect,it is real shame,we in our wisdom defend the indefensive act,unless we develop clarity in our in our both thinking and behavior,there is no future,struggle,jihads ,peaceful are mere words,so is 'terrorism'a word,no use if it is right,center or left origin.
Shakeel.Quddus Jul 29, 2011 09:37am
What occurred in Oslo is no different than what occurred in Oklahoma in 1995. Like in Norway where the gunman Anders Berevik felt the Europeans have sold their soul to the Muslims for oil, Timothy McVeigh felt that American Government is robbing in day light the most cherished ideal called liberty. Is the gunman in Oslo wiser than the rest of his countrymen in detecting first the threat? Obviously since he had taken the task of waking them up from their deep slumbers. Just like Timothy McVeigh who had the wisdom to see what almost all Americans missed out to observe how the liberty had been rounded off by the Government. Why bother explain the paranoia of the men of margin acting out through their jagged emotions? Their parnanoia is as obvious as their own marginal position in their own sociiety. What is incredible is how rare these occassions are in the West.
Khan Wali Jul 29, 2011 10:44am
'Perfectly explained'
Tariq Jul 29, 2011 10:00pm
Every religion and cast of people do killing each other one way or the others. World War or cold war is a clear example. It cannot only label to Muslims or Islam.
Entero Jul 30, 2011 03:02pm
@Pradeep: this time i agree with you and that too without argument!