What is terrorism, who is a terrorist and can we ever shape the language to serve our needs? Language can be a dangerous thing especially when used by states in order to legitimise violence against individuals.

The Oxford Dictionary defines terrorism as “the unofficial or unauthorised use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims”, while its lengthy definition in British law covers actions that endangers, disrupts or causes violence to people or property in a way that is “made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause”.

“Terrorism” and “terrorist” have become normal day-to-day words that for us can seem disconnected from the weight of the legal and political system – but it is worth considering what the implications of the term really are. We know how the term terrorist is racialised at present and how counter-terrorism policies still over-impact Muslim people, but that isn't where the problem lies – the issue is less in the matter of it being misapplied to a certain group, but more in the fact of what its very application means.

“Terrorism”, especially in this political climate, is not just another lay term, it is directly connected to an architecture of surveillance, securitisation and policing. Once someone is even suspected of being affiliated with terrorism - let alone being granted any judicial process to prove it - they can become targets to an array of state-sanctioned punishments, attacks, torture, even murder.

In 2010, Theresa May revoked the citizenship of 16 individuals all of whom were alleged to have had links to militant or terrorist groups abroad. Bilal al-Berjawi, a British-Lebanese citizen had his citizenship revoked, and was later killed by a US drone strike in Somalia - all because he was alleged to have been involved with a terrorist group.

In 2011 Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-Yemeni imam became the first American citizen to be killed by a US drone strike, again without the rights of due process being afforded. His 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was killed in a U.S. drone strike two weeks later.

On January 29, 2017, al-Awlaki's 8-year-old daughter, Nawar Al-Awlaki, bled to death from a wound inflicted in a U.S. commando attack ordered by President Donald Trump.

States murdering children, even their own citizens, has been legitimised in the supposed aim of combatting “terrorism” – without a hint of irony.

At the same time that the charge of “terrorism” opens someone up to such violence, it snuffs out any traces of humanity an individual might have; pulling them into a black hole of legality and ethics, and flipping ‘innocent until proven guilty’ on its head.

There is no public outcry over mass human rights abuses committed against you or your family if you are labelled a “terrorist”, instead it is now well within the realm of morality, while nuance and understanding are rendered suspect.

In the case of Shamima Begum, it became perfectly fine to take away the citizenship of a 19-year-old girl, it became acceptable for her children to die, it becomes acceptable for her to die. However, it is unacceptable to feel any empathy for her, it is unacceptable to try and understand why she did what she did, it is unacceptable to support her coming back home and it is definitely unacceptable to give her a second chance.

Recently there have been calls to also adopt the word “terrorist” for white people who commit crimes for political and racial motivations - but what would this ultimately do for the communities most impacted by counter-terrorism laws? Is it ever possible to create greater safety for us by expanding terms and concepts which by design generate un-safety for us in the first place?

Terrorism has become such a profound word in the last few decades, and an intensely emotive one, that we can lose sight of how violent this term is in practice for those individuals labelled with it. Extending this term onto white people and/or non-Muslims only strengthens these foundations of power, rather than undermine them.
While the constant smearing of Muslims as “terrorist” is deeply unfair, spreading that to other communities would only compound injustice.

The facts and figures show that despite what the media and politicians say, “terrorism” is not the biggest threat to society. In the UK, you are 275 times more likely to die in a traffic accident than you are to be killed in a terrorist attack – yet we are hammered with news about “terrorism” daily. According to the charity Rape Crisis 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped each year in England and Wales - yet we give vastly more political attention to “terrorism”, a crime that is far more uncommon. Why, then, is terrorism treated, unlike any other crime?

This underlines the fact that the battle against “terrorism” is nothing but political – and that when we buy into the language or lobby to expand the meaning of “terrorism”, this is nothing if not serving a political end.

An increasing number of countries in the world, whether majority Muslim or not, claim to have a “terrorism” or an “extremist” problem, and in all these cases we can see is how states use these terms to in order to authorise violence against communities and opponents, without any accountability.

At root, the function of the label ‘terrorism’ is to externalise issues and legitimise further violence.
Its function is to externalise the problem of violence onto others to avoid shining a light on the violence enacted by governments in our names.

It is to place perpetrators outside the realm of morality, justice and understanding and lay the groundwork for extreme violence to be visited upon them without due process.
It is to take urgent and necessary questions about the state of society today and push them out into the paranoid world of ‘counter-terrorism’ which can only answer in the language of surveillance and security.

It is for this reason that we should collectively stop using, or trying to expand, the terminology of “terrorism”; it is a term of power, not of ours.

We the public should reject using such words and attributing people to specific crimes, and should instead seek to understand acts of “terrorism” for what they are, politically motivated violence, and analyse them at this level. We should challenge the grave human rights abuses perpetrated under the banner of countering extremism because the policies practised on the ‘exceptional’ cases very soon become the norm.

More Counter-Terrorism Articles

Get Newsletter

Urgent Appeal

Support Rohingya Genocide Survivors