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Terrorism is a global problem, not a Muslim one

Contrary to popular perceptions, the problem of terrorism is far greater than a Muslim one and touches every nation and age

Today, countries across the world are being terrorised and ravaged by extremism; both territory and minds conquered by a militant and ideological crusade. Right or wrong, the mere mention of the word “terrorism” conjures up images of bearded Muslim men - kalashnikovs in hand - intent on eradicating any thought, person or object which runs contrary to their narrow fundamentalist ideology.

Yet, despite the extensive legal and political debates, spanning decades, the question still remains: ''What is terrorism?'' With no common international legal definition, on what grounds do countries establish and pursue a terrorist entity? And could this void in definition provide a smokescreen for governments to orchestrate state sponsored terrorism by clamping down on legitimate political movements - both domestic and foreign?

“It is not only individual agencies within the same governmental apparatus that cannot agree on a single definition of terrorism. Experts and other long-established scholars in the field are equally incapable of reaching a consensus,” concludes Professor Bruce Hoffman, Director of the Centre for Security Studies at Georgetown University. 

Anecdotally, there is no doubt in the minds of many as to the nature and the perpetrators of terrorism. Following the tragic murder of nearly 3,000 people on US soil in 2001, the then US President, George Bush, declared the infamous ‘war on terror’ to a joint session of Congress and to the American people. ''Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated,'' Bush announced. 

Emile Lahoud, the then President of Lebanon, rightly pointed out that, ''It is not enough to declare war on what one deems terrorism without giving a precise and exact definition''. Lahoud perhaps missed that Bush was quite explicit in his synonymous use of the terms ‘terrorism’ and ‘Muslim terrorists’.
And let us be frank about this, many will look back at Bush’s speech as simply an acknowledgement of the truth; Muslim extremism is the problem. Even today we find his sentiments echoed across the global media, perpetuated by images of savages beheading kind-hearted western aid workers and journalists in Syria and in Iraq. 

(Yesterday: Congress points at Qatar as sponsor of terrorism. Today: Qatar expels Muslim brotherhood leaders. Conclusion: MB is terrorist.)

While terrorism is a broad and complex topic, modern discussions are almost exclusively limited to insurgency terrorism - where ideological groups, such as Al-Qaeda, take up arms and rise against various domestic and foreign political actors. However, little mainstream discussion surrounds state sponsored terrorism, which refers to states or regimes that coerce, rather than to protect, the masses through force and fear. The general lack of popular interest in this area is odd given that it is the oldest and most costly form of terrorism.

The impact of state sponsored terrorism is unparalleled. In their book “Global Terrorism”, James Lutz and Brenda Lutz list the following examples of state sponsored terrorism:

East Timor (1975 - 1993), over 200,000 people killed

Guatemala (1965 - 1995), 200,000 people killed

El Salvador (1979 - 1992), 70,000 people killed

Iraq (1980 - 1990), 200,000 people killed

Algeria (1992 - until present), 100,000 people killed

(Former) Yugoslavia (1991 - 1995), 110,000 people killed

Chechnya (1994 - 2004), 100,000 people killed

Chile (1973 - 1985), 20,000 people killed

Argentina (1976 - 1982), 11,000 people killed

The University of Maryland hosts the online “Global Terrorism Database.” The website, said to be the “most comprehensive unclassified data base on terrorist events in the world,” keeps an in-depth record of global incidents of terrorism spanning the past 43 years (1970-2013). The database has registered a staggering 125,000 incidents of terrorism. Some of the top-line statistics for the past four decades include records of 58,000 bombings, 15,000 assassinations and 6,000 kidnappings. The majority of these crimes appear to have been state sponsored rather than the independent actions of insurgent groups.

Another prominent myth is that terrorism is a third-world problem. However, there are various recent examples of terrorism in western countries that tell a very different story. For example, a recent report found that on US soil, from 1990 to 2013 some 368 US citizens were killed by far-right groups on ideological grounds. This figure includes the murder of fifty law enforcement officers. To place that into context, it is just over half the number of British soldiers killed in both Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

The Troubles in Ireland claimed the lives of 3,600 people, a few hundred less than the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq. In Spain, during one of Europe’s longest violent conflicts, the Basque separatist group Eta claimed the lives of an estimated 829 people.

James and Brenda Lutz aptly sum up the universal problem posed to the world by terrorism:

“Terrorism did not begin with the attacks of September 11th, 2001 in New York City and Washington DC, or in April 1995 with the bombing in Oklahoma City, or with the hostage taking at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Nor did terrorism begin with the Cold War or the establishment of the Soviet Union after World War I. Nor has terrorism been restricted to activities by groups from the Middle East or those parts of the world with large Muslim populations. Terrorism has been a nearly universal phenomenon.”

And it is this phenomenon that needs to be more widely acknowledged and discussed. Modern conversations too often reduce terrorism to a Muslim problem. The concern with this has to be that such attitudes draw our attention away from broader, global terrorism and the role played by states, both in the developed and undeveloped worlds. It also prevents us from taking a step back and looking for more empirical answers to a cyclical problem that has touched every age, people and religion.

For example, serious questions need to be answered about the interplay between the West, underdeveloped states and insurgents in fanning the flames of terrorism. And do we find patterns of similar relationships in other regions of the world? Commenting specifically on the spread of terrorism and extremism in the Middle East, Owen Jones aptly describes the current dilemma: 
'One element has been missing, and that is the west’s relationship with Middle Eastern dictatorships that have played a pernicious role in the rise of Islamist fundamentalist terrorism. And no wonder: the west is militarily, economically and diplomatically allied with these often brutal regimes, and our media all too often reflects the foreign policy objectives of our governments.'
There is no doubt that extremist Muslims are a driving force behind terrorism in the Middle East and South Asia, but the problem is clearly a much wider one. Ignoring this fact is to jeopardise our ability to comprehensively tackle the scourge that is terrorism. A good starting point would be for the international community to agree on a common definition of terrorism, which does not ignore the deadly phenomenon of state sponsored terrorism.

Adam Walker has published works on various issues related to the history, law and social affairs of the MENA region. He is also co-editor of the first western encyclopaedia on the Prophet Muhammad.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo credit: George W. Bush (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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