To fight the Empire is to be infected by its derangement. This is a paradox; whoever defeats a segment of the Empire becomes the Empire; it proliferates like a virus, imposing its form on its enemies. Thereby it becomes its enemies. – Philip K. Dick, American science fiction writer.
I have had many heated conversations with family and friends over the past two years on the events in Syria, Egypt, and Bahrain.
People I held dear to me, people whose values and opinions I trust and respect, casually brushed aside the use of cluster bombs, indiscriminate shelling, and torture, asserting that all this and other forms of severe repression were a necessary evil in order to stop “terrorism”.
“It is naive to think there are laws in war,” an old Arab leftist said when discussing the indiscriminate shelling of certain neighborhoods in Homs.
“We have to cleanse the country from this filth,” an Egyptian wrote in support of the military’s coup and massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in August 2013.
From Kuwait to Tunisia, the statements I have heard in different situations from various leftists have held an implicit message: “They are not us.”
In the wake of this emerging discourse, I cannot help but be reminded of the similar us vs. them mentality that arose in the Western world after 9/11.
The attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Centre on September 11th, 2001, provided an excuse for political and military elites in the United States to initiate the so-called ‘Global War on Terror’.
In the service of this cause, a destructive and brutal war was unleashed across a number of Muslim-majority countries, with horrific consequences.
Foreign troops stormed into Afghanistan and Iraq, and covert kill squads parachuted into Somalia and the Philippines. Torture, water boarding, secret prisons, and the erosion of civil, political, and legal rights followed suit, while drones unleashed terror in Pakistan and Yemen.
In the midst of this devastation, the hegemonic ideology of the ‘War on Terror’ was constructed, continuously re-defined, and re-negotiated.
Underlying this ideology was a normative judgment that fell like a death sentence upon those who stood on the wrong side of the fence.
At its core, and no matter how much one may argue otherwise, “terrorism” is a politically loaded, mercurial word.
Born out of the Reign of Terror in France that came on the heels of the French Revolution, the word “terrorism” has been contorted over time and often used to discredit and dehumanize its targets.
Since9/11, the American “War on Terror” has allowed the media, intellectuals, and political elites in Western political centers to cement and narrow the concept of “terrorism” to a certain type of people – namely, Muslim who does not agree with U.S./Western interests.
This process has been strengthened by countless works of literature, academic research projects, news reports, ‘expert’ analysis, pop-culture entertainment and more, all aimed at ‘examining’ and ‘understanding’ Islam and its followers.
It has been a profitable industry for the creators of the “War on Terror”, and has been hypnotically effective in sowing fear and misconceptions.
In the years since 9/11, it has continued to grow and remain directed toward the same group of people, even if others who committed similar acts has their own “fanatical” tendencies.
As the American journalist and critic, Glenn Greenwald, noted in an article for Salon magazine about the U.S. media’s reluctance to call Joseph Stack – a white American who flew a plane into a building housing the IRS offices in Houston — a terrorist:
Terrorism is simultaneously the single most meaningless and most manipulated word in the American political lexicon. The term now has virtually nothing to do with the act itself and everything to do with the identity of the actor, especially his or her religious identity. It has really come to mean: “a Muslim who fights against or even expresses hostility towards the United States, Israel and their allies.
Over the course of the past decade, regimes in West Asia and North Africa, as well as their political, economic, and social allies, gleefully jumped at the opportunity the “War on Terror” presented to use this discourse as a tool of self-preservation, a high priority for virtually all the region’s regimes and monarchies.
Through the “War on Terrorism”, these governments were able to label and prosecute any dissenter, no matter his or her political or ideological leanings, as a terrorist.
Legal and political restrictions were repackaged under the shiny new mantra of anti-terrorism policies. Civil and political rights were heavily curbed. Money was poured into advertisements and PR campaigns that spoke of the horrors of terrorism.
Many intellectuals, commentators, elites and laypeople in the region did not support the terrorism discourse mainly because, under the American definition of the term, they could be categorized as “terrorists” or as sympathizing with “terrorist” causes.
Detractors stressed the nuanced nature of various Islamic organizations, and pointed to Western and Israeli violence as grander forms of “terrorism”.
Some went as far as to argue that Al-Qaeda did not exist and was simply a paper tiger for nefarious conspiracies intended to entrench neo-colonialism and Western control over the region.
Yet, the American definition of terrorism has not withered and died with the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011. In fact, since the revolts began, it seems clear this discourse has firmly sunk into the West Asian and North African consciousness.
Today, most Arab governments continue to rely on “terrorism” as a cover for authoritarianism.
We see this in Bahrain, where opposition figures and activists who challenge the al-Khalifa monarchy are charged as terrorists.
It is currently on display in Egypt, where the military junta has presented the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood as a struggle against terrorism and has been cheered on by the Egyptian people while killing hundreds of Brotherhood supporters.
In Syria, the most contentious of all these examples, the “War on Terrorism” is at its zenith. There, state media and government officials have painted all dissenters as terrorists. No distinction is made between the numerous opposition groups, whether they be violent or non-violent, and no remorse is expressed by authorities about ‘collateral damage’ and the widespread destruction of neighborhoods, which are supposedly being saved and protected from the “terrorists.”
But what makes the terrorism discourse in the region so vastly different from the pre-2011 period is that many of those who once mocked or criticized these forms of repression are vanishing.
Even worse, many have transformed into unpleasant and vehement supporters of the various ‘War(s) on Terrorism.’
Liberals, right-wingers, fascists, leftists, anti-imperialists, pro-westerners, progressives, secularists, the middle and upper classes, all have become the strangest of bedfellows united against the perceived “terrorist” threat.
The kind of justification provided to support this renewed War on Terrorism has become so sophisticated and credible that the most atrocious acts of regional governments have become immune from criticism.
Among the starkest examples of this is the lack of outrage in Egypt over the massacre of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in mid-August, the overbearing fear of ‘takfiris’ in Syria, the persistent silence regarding escalating repression in the Gulf countries, and the hyper fetishism toward the military in Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq.
What is also noticeable, especially when it comes to raging debates about Syria, is how regional elites have mirrored general Western attitudes toward “terrorism.”.
During the wars and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab intelligentsia argued that complexities and contexts should be examined in discussing the armed resistance against Western occupation.
Many Arab political activists, commentators, intellectuals and others heavily criticized the modes of violence used by Western occupiers, referencing international law, human rights conventions, and basic morality and ethics.
Yet today, the use of indiscriminate shelling, drones, and cluster bombs (to name but a few ‘civilized’ weapons) by Arab armies against ‘terrorists’ is unquestionably accepted. Armed groups are described in generalized, conflated ways, often looked down upon as barbaric, irrational beasts deserving of no rights or protection.
As the Lebanese writer and journalist Khalid Saghieh once grimly noted on conflicting positions over the threat of an American strike on Syria recently:
In the name of resistance to the military strike [against Syria], the Bush discourse thus flutters between lines spoken by leftists who fought the Iraqi invasion tooth and nail. Perhaps the neoconservatives’ spirit has finally possessed them.
Why Has the American Definition of Terrorism Been Appropriated?
At the beginning, the 2011 Arab uprisings allowed long repressed discontent against decades of political, social, and economic marginalization and repression to burst out.
There was a glimmer of hope in which the public felt empowered and confident. Alliances across ideological boundaries were formed against a common enemy (ruling regimes).
It felt as though anything and everything was possible.
Soon after, however, counter-revolutions, Western intervention, divisions between assorted opposition groups, a lack of ready-available alternatives to the old guard, the disintegration of Syria and Libya, and other factors quickly dampened much of the initial euphoria.
In particular, experiences with newly empowered Islamic groups in Egypt and Tunisia re-emphasized old fears. This gave the old tyrannical guard leeway to play on these anxieties and reassert the control they almost lost in early 2011.
The desire for stability and ‘uprising fatigue’ were also key factors that bolstered the current Arab “War on Terrorism”.
Elites in particular became terrified when change brought with it unknown and uncontrollable results. They found themselves incapable, or perhaps bankrupt, in providing successful alternatives.
It was convenient and comforting to slide back into the status quo, with its old, reliable benefactors: the regimes and monarchies, the military and security apparatuses, and their (external) patrons.
Additionally, after a decade of oft-repeated American propaganda and discourse on terrorism, this philosophy was bound to penetrate the Arab world.
It was a stunning victory for cultural imperialism and has created a set of terminologies and beliefs in the Arab world that are eerily similar to the U.S. “War on Terror.”
Like its American forbearer, the regional image of terrorism is inherently Orientalist and grounded in Islamophobia. In today’s Arab world, the crude caricature of the terrorist is the bearded bogeyman that frightens us all.
Of course, it is true that religious fundamentalism exists. It would be folly to deny otherwise.
And indeed, it can express itself in horrific, destructive ways that target innocent civilians. Equally so, many of the (political and social) doctrines articulated by religious fundamentalism are sexist, sectarian, offensive, racist, discriminatory, and, at times, plainly frightening.
But they are only one of many barriers — secular and non-secular, internal and external — to ‘progress’ in the region.
Without distinguishing between the various shades of religious political thought and the goals of different religious/political movements, without drawing lines between armed and unarmed Islamic groups, without understanding why such groups exist and are sustained, and relying solely on ‘civilized violence’ to eradicate them, the farcical war on terror and the fundamentalism it produces will no doubt continue in the Arab world.
Other than civilians, the tragic victims caught in the cross fire are those who still are struggling to change ruling systems.
Not only are they persecuted as terrorists abroad as well as by their own governments, they also have to withstand challenges from within their own ranks.
To criticize, offer caution, call for other tactics, or oppose the “War against Terrorism” is to be marked as a supporter of religious fundamentalism (i.e. Al-Qaeda) and an enemy of liberalism, modernity, feminism and secularism (among other ‘isms’).
Paradoxically, in some cases, to criticize or offer a counter-narrative is to be painted a supporter of imperialism, Zionism, and empire.
It is a complicated bind placed on those still hoping to challenge the status quo. It will make the next struggle for substantial political, economic, and social change significantly harder than ever before.
Countering the Derangement
Like a virus, the mentality and beliefs ingrained within the ‘War on Terror’ have spread and apparently infected those who once opposed it.
But, its victims – the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and the repressed – will always remain the same and will never be spared the horrors that come with it.
‘We’ might have a chance, however slight, to contain this malaise. The War on Terrorism is ultimately a discourse of simplification, and what is necessary today is a discourse of complexity.
War demands absolutism, forcing individuals to choose opposing sides. This is unacceptable if we are to survive this next phase.
The idioms of “freedom isn’t free,” “security or liberty,” and other justifications made during the American “War on Terrorism” cannot and must not be blindly accepted. If they do become conventional, torture, arbitrary detentions, endless collateral damage, stricter surveillance, and more will all persist in the Arab world.
An immediate and serious public debate must occur on what “terrorism” really is, what it means, and how to deal with it without returning power to the old regimes and their authoritarian structures.
‘We’ need to carve out our own discourse on “terrorism”, one that is not born out of the American experience.
‘We’, with our historical struggle against foreign repression who have commonly been painted as ‘terrorists’ can potentially offer a more elaborate wrinkle to the age-old debate.
But, until that public debate happens, we will fall farther and farther into the abyss of the Arab War on Terrorism. It is a surreal place, in which Hassan Nasrallah echoes George Bush.
As Bush declared on November 30, 2005:
Many are foreigners who are coming to fight freedom’s progress in Iraq. This group includes terrorists from Saudi Arabia and Syria and Iran and Egypt and Sudan and Yemen and Libya and other countries. Our commanders believe they’re responsible for most of the suicide bombings and the beheadings and the other atrocities we see on our television…
This is an enemy without conscience, and they cannot be appeased. If we’re not fighting and destroying this enemy in Iraq, they would not be idle. They would be plotting and killing Americans across the world and within our own borders. By fighting these terrorists in Iraq, Americans in uniform are defeating a direct threat to the American people. Against this adversary there is only one effective response: We will never back down, we will never give in, and we will never accept anything less than complete victory…
And so Nasrallah followed on May 25, 2013:
I do not want to frighten anyone. This is the truth. Thus you saw that from the very beginning people from the Syrian opposition used to say that the regime would be brought down in two months or three. The regime would be toppled and we will come to you in Lebanon. They said so…Brothers and sisters!
These are those who stab chests, behead, disentomb, and destroy the past which is 1400 years old. In the past, the followers of the various religions had often lived peacefully, and mosques, churches, and shrines remained intact under governments which were mainly Sunni. However, these today are destroying the past, the present, and the future. They refuse any political solution and insist on fighting….
At the end of the ceremony of the Resistance and Liberation Day, I tell you what I told you on the first days of July War 2006: O honorable people! O fighters! O heroes! As I used to promise you of victory always, I promise you victory again.