The western world is not the only victim of terror, nor is it the main. The citizens of Europe have tasted first-hand the devastation wreaked by terrorist atrocities and have been forced to come to terms with new methods of intimidation. Yet undeniably worse is the fate of those victims who not only suffer the evils of terror, but are forced to face the stigma of belonging to the same race or creed as the perpetrators themselves.
In the atrocities of the 7th of July in London, the bombers expressed a callous disregard of any notion of morality in their attacks. The bombs were not aimed at peoples of specific religious or racial backgrounds; rather they were aimed at innocent civilians who shared between themselves nothing more than proximity. The terror felt on that day was indiscriminate; the English father in Hackney, the Arab mother in Ealing or the Jewish daughter in Finchley all faced the same horror as they tried frantically to contact their loved ones. All felt the same tear-jerking surge of relief upon hearing the voices of those whom they feared would never be heard from again.
Terror, terrorism, terrorist; rarely have words within such brief periods of time taken on such weight and magnitude. Originating in Latin, the word "terrere" signified the verb to frighten; now terrorism encompasses a phenomenon whose acts are intrinsically vicious, whose targets are in their majority civilian and whose motives are haphazardly linked to political or religious ideals. The words have no positive connotation. When the image of terrorism is raised, thoughts spring immediately to mind of crashing airliners, innocents leaping off buildings and the wails of those searching for family and friends.
Amidst the fear of further violence, Londoners have rallied together to forge their paths in life once more. However, the darkest irony is that the communities the terrorists claim to represent, the Arabs and the Muslims, now have more cause than any other to feel truly ‘terrorized’. For now not only must they share with the rest of the populace the fear of men in backpacks ripping buses apart, they alone must face the terrors of discrimination and guilt by association. For just as philosopher can naturally flow after having said Greek, the words Arab and terrorist follow one another like conjoined twins. Yet the association between Arabs and terrorism is not only unjust and undeserved, but a contributor to the ‘clash of civilizations’ eagerly prophesied by extremists in both the Orient and the Occident.
Why has terrorism been so closely identified with Arabs and Muslims over the past few decades? If we look at the historical growth of terrorism as a political tool we find surprising realities.
In terms of methodology, much of the methods and practises of modern ‘terrorist’ organizations find their roots in the political developments of 19th century Europe. A cursory glance of anarchist doctrines in the late 19th century will find a clear introduction into political activism the notions of ‘propaganda by the deed’. Expounded upon most notably by the Russian anarchist Peter Kroptkin, ‘propaganda of the deed’ introduced into political activism the idea that dramatic and exceptional acts were the most efficient methods of propaganda. In Kroptkin’s own words, “A single deed is better propaganda than a thousand pamphlets”.
The use of the ‘single-deeds’ as tools of propaganda became firmly adapted and adopted by varying groups and organizations through Europe and North America. In the heyday of the anarchist movements in the early 20th century, the deeds of action took the form of assassinations and bombings, most markedly the assassinations of the Russian Tzar Alexander II and that of the US president William McKinley in 1901.
Many movements throughout the western world adopted these notions of propaganda by action. Using modern western definitions of ‘terrorism’, the activities of 19th century secret societies such as the Russian ‘People’s Will’ or the Macedonian nationalists would undoubtedly be labelled as ‘terrorist’. In the 20th century, incidents such as the Wall Street Bombing of 1920 or the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem would also fall in the same category. As time progressed, hundreds if not thousands of factions implemented such methodologies as methods of achieving their goals. The IRA, the Tamil Tigers, the Front de Libération du Québec, the Japanese Red Army and the Ku Klux Klan are just random names drawn up from a vast host of factions and groups whose activities, albeit very contentiously, could be classified as ‘terrorist’.
Yet in the 21st century, why have Arabs and Muslims been so closely identified with a phenomenon whose methodologies and notions of morality are just as alien to themselves as they were to the Europeans? An undoubted cause of this association was the proliferation of mass-media into the homes of Europeans and American’s in later half of the 20th century. As television gradually replaced printed media as the main provider of information, the agenda of news broadcasters became vital in the shaping of conceptions and prejudgments in the minds of their viewers. Though journalists and broadcasters claimed to maintain their objective integrity, they themselves would not deny their own attitudes as by-products of their socio-political environment. Resultantly, their output was skewered toward portraying their own political alliances in the most positive light.
The nature of broadcasting itself led to an emphasis to focus on the dramatic and it was ill-fated that this very period coincided with the rise to prominence of Arab nationalist movements. Incidents such as the coordinated airplane hijackings of the 1970’s by the PFLP fed the desire of western news broadcasters for theatrical and spectacular incidents to feed onto their news channels.
The extraordinary visual-images provided by the explosion of the TWA and Swissair planes parked on Dawson’s Field in 1972 were relayed instantly across the globe and consumed eagerly by an awe-struck audience. As the decade progressed, the continued hijackings, kidnappings and attacks and their skewered portrayal in the European and American media did much to cement within the minds of their audiences the association between Arabs, Muslims and terrorism.
None but the Nazi’s spoke of French terrorists when referring to the resistance movements against Vichy France during the Second World War. Indeed, to be an armed rebel, or Maquisard, became a term of honour and admiration. Arabs and Muslims must put forth to themselves and to the rest of the world a clear separation between legitimate resistance and terrorism. It must not be forgotten that in labeling a group as ‘terrorist’ there is an intrinsic condemnation of those involved, and as such any labeling is subject to political or religious bias. The notion that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ still rings true. Western governments are responsible for alienating many supporters of freedom and liberalism by casting too wide a net in classifying terrorists. Nevertheless, once the notion of purity of arms is firmly emphasized the path to establishing the distinction between resistance and terrorism will be cleared.
In order to break this association, much soul-searching is required from all parties. It is vital that both Arabs and Muslims realise that, as one commentator has labelled, a ‘mission-creep’ has occurred in methodology. What began in the 70’s with hijackings and isolated attacks has been transformed into the atrocities we saw in New York and London just recently. A red line must be marked, a purity of arms must be emphasised. The Machiavellian notion of ends justifying means has never been part of either Arab or Muslim morality. With the attacks of July 7th and the subsequent statement by the Al-Qaeda leadership, Arabs and Muslims must view the suicide bombings as much attacks on themselves as they were allegedly on Europeans. The centuries old Arab and Islamic notions of morality, ethics and honour have been questioned and only with the most vocal and vociferous condemnation of such atrocities can these notions truly be defended. If these condemnations are not heard, then the voices must be raised. Why was it left to George W. Bush to answer Al-Zawahiri’s statement?