As the United States gears up its campaign against terrorism, the need to determine exactly what terrorism is still lingers. There are many definitions for terrorism. Political usage of the term has opened the door for almost anyone who ever spoke angrily against a government in protest, or any movement that threatens the stability of the status quo to be deemed terrorist, even though the term describes a criminal act and not necessarily a political one.
Exactly what is “terrorism”? The American College Dictionary gives three interesting definitions: 1. ” The use of terrorizing methods; ” 2. ” State of fear and submission so produced; ” 3. ” A method of resisting a government or governing.” We might all agree on definitions one and two, yet may not all agree with number three, since it suggests that terrorism can be a method used to govern, as well as a method of resistance. To govern means ” to rule by right of authority as a sovereign does.” It also means, “to exercise directing influence.”
Many people, Muslims included, have suggested that terrorism is caused by poverty, injustice and other political and economic offenses against human sentiment. This is wrong in my view, since human experience with these phenomena indicates that these conditions usually result in reform movements, or perhaps populists’ revolutions, none of which are criminal. By contrast “terrorism” is a criminal act, which is resorted to when an entity seeks to impose its will, or its ideals outside of any legitimizing claim to authority, or right to govern. In other words, people have been led to revolt, or to opposition and resistance by different forms of injustice, without crossing the line of resistance into the criminal act of terrorism. Yet governments often resort to terrorism against its nationals in an attempt to stave off opposition, or to squash resistance and impose unpopular laws, norms, or authority. This distinction is important, since the potential exploitation of the term “terrorist” will be the greatest threat to the campaign to eliminate terrorism as a modern day method of either governing, or resistance.
Among the many grievances listed against the United States by activists and others who seek to explain the growing isolation of the United States internationally, and its increasing loss of credibility in the Muslim and Arab world include:
The question is, can these grievances cause Muslim activists to resort to terror to advance their cause? The answer is no. There is no reason to assume or to suspect that Islamists would resort to criminal activity seeking to advance just causes. Perhaps those who cannot, or do not see the wisdom in distinguishing Islamic activism from nationalists’ activism make this mistake. Those who know Qur’anic or Islamic positions on militarism, aggression, the killing of women and children and also civilians, understand the importance of the distinction, since this distinction limits possibilities, and prevents Islamists or legitimate Islamic movements from being wrongfully casts as “terrorists” movements.
Muslim Organizations in the West
There is almost no Western country that does not have a presence of Islamic organizations or activists that have the respect of the Islamic movements in the Middle East. These people can coordinate between the east and west and help reinforce the language of anti-terrorism and anti-violence in the east. Some sort of dialogue should be initiated on the issue of confronting terrorism. A chance should be given to create a new atmosphere of cooperation between Islam and the West, to reinforce the status of religious values and bridge the gap in the current perceptions of relations between Islam and the West.
In the United States alone, there are now almost 8 million Muslims. They now see that the future of their presence here depends on their ability to reaffirm their sense of belonging and loyalty to this country. They also have a major responsibility in pressing for economic and political reforms in their countries of origin. Now they must also start dealing with the Islamic movements in the Middle East to end all aspects of extremism and terrorism. The Muslims in the West are the link between the east and the west. Through their leaders and organizations, they can bridge the current gap between Islam and the West. The future of Islam in the West hangs on the ability to put an end to terrorism, move religion away from armed violence and present Islam as the tolerant and peace-loving religion that it is.
Dr. Ahmed Yousef is Director of United Association for Studies and Research (UASR) and Editor-in-Chief, Middle East Affairs Journal.