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24 March 2016updated 02 Sep 2021 4:40pm

What we talk about when we talk about terrorism

Our policy responses - and our narratives about terror - are all too often about us versus them. 

By Maria Norris

As horrifying as Tuesday’s terrorist attack in Brussels were, there was a strong sense of déjà vu. As human beings, we understand the world through stories and in the aftermath of yesterday’s terrorist attack in Brussels, it seems we are telling each other the same stories. The Islamic State is evil and it must be stopped. Security must be increased. Refugees must be stopped. Walls must be erected. We must protect ourselves from terrorists who hate us, who are motivated by an evil ideology.

When stories are given official status, they are considered to be policy narratives. Policy narratives rely on a process of exclusion and inclusion in order to define a problem, attribute blame and propose a solution. This Sunday, Patrick Cockburn wrote in the Independent that Western states have ducked the blame for the rise of ISIS because governments deliberately separate Western action in the Middle East from the War on Terror.  He is correct.  This is a result of the terrorism policy narrative constructed through successive counter-terrorism strategy papers, a narrative which has systematically removed the UK in particular, and the West in general, from the official story of terrorism in the UK.

For example, the 2009 Contest strategy, which contains the government’s most comprehensive explanation of the terrorist threat, starts by outlining out a neat lineage of terror. The 1968 PLO hijacking of an Israeli flight from Rome is framed as the first incident of international terrorism. Contest then lists a series of disparate terrorist events ranging from the 1987 intifadah to, to the 2002 Bali Nightclub Bombings, and 9/11. These events are presented without any reference to the historical or geopolitical context. Instead, Islamic extremism acts as the connecting thread.  As such, the 1987 intifadah is presented as an example of the rise in popularity of Islamic extremism, with no mention of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The conflict in Chechnya is framed as being motivated solely by Islamic extremism, with no mention of the country’s history with Russia. Even the Algerian Civil War is included as an example of the rise of radical Islam:

In 1992, Afghan Arab veterans created the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria, which again sought to overthrow the Government and establish what they regarded as an Islamic state; over the next six years the GIA killed many civilians and members of the security forces. Over 100,000 people died in the Algerian civil war.

(HM Government 2009, 24, paragraph 1.10, emphasis added)

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Significantly, the war in Iraq is never discussed in Contest. Instead, the strategy paper laments that extremists have used Iraq as a base since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. No explanation is given for the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Further, any mention of Western action playing a role in extremism is framed as a conditional:

Many Muslims as well as non-Muslims believe that the West (notably the US and the UK) has either caused conflict, failure and suffering in the Islamic world or done too little to resolve them. Military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan (and consequent civilian casualties), perceived western inaction in Palestine and alleged support for authoritarian Islamic governments have all created controversy and anger. The treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay (and previously in Abu Ghraib) is widely felt to demonstrate an unacceptable inconsistency in the commitment of the West to human rights and the rule of law. In recent polling across four Islamic states a significant majority judged that it was the aim of the US to ‘weaken and divide the Islamic world’; a significant minority thought the purpose of the ‘war on terror’ was to achieve US political and military domination ‘to control Middle East resources’.

(HM Government 2009, 43, paragraph 5.20, emphasis added)

Mentioning the torture in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib as treatment widely felt to demonstrate Western inconsistency towards human rights grossly minimizes some of the most egregious human rights violations in recent history. The documented torture that happened in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay are presented as conditionals, and quickly dismissed from the story of terrorism. 

This is the process of defining the problem and attributing blame. In the case of British counter-terrorism policy, the problem is thus defined as a global terrorist threat, with the blame lying squarely with radical Islamism. And whilst a radical ideology is part of any act of political violence, it is never the only causal explanation. That is because political violence of any kind, be it war or terrorism, has complex causes. In order to fully understand it, one must look at the combined role of structure, agency and ideology. The official narrative of terrorism in the UK excludes the role of structure completely, focusing only on the agents (Al Qaeda, ISIS), and ideology. When the context is removed, fighting terrorism reduces the world into simplistic dichotomies of enemy and victim, us and them, Muslims and non-Muslims, the West, and the rest.

The official UK counter-terrorism strategy thus effectively removes the UK and Western states from the official British story of terrorism, allowing the government, the media and the general public to reduce the terrorism threat to the Islamic ideology. Terrorism is thus constructed as a foreign problem, completely separate from the actions of Western states. This is what allows them to duck the blame for terrorist events, to continue talking about extremism as if the West is blameless. And as Deborah Orr argues, this makes radicals of us all.

What is needed, urgently, is a change in the narrative. And it must begin with empathy. In this week’s Hidden Brain podcast, Shankar Vedantam speaks of the importance of empathy when dealing with intractable social conflicts. But in order to have empathy, we need to break down simplistic dichotomies and acknowledge the complexities of terrorism. And the first step in acknowledging these complexities is examining the role the UK has played and continues to play in the War on Terror. Only then will paradigms begin to shift, and a new story will begin to be told. 

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