Who is a terrorist? Stop for a moment and think about this, seriously. When I write, “terrorist,” what images come to your mind? A dark-skinned, most likely Brown man of Middle Eastern descent? A Muslim? Do images of thwabs and hijabs come to mind? Do you see angry men screaming violently, “Allah Akbar!”, perhaps burning flags of Western nations? If you see any of these things, it’s not entirely your fault. That’s what we have been trained to think. The media, the fourth branch of government as it is called, has trained and taught us to think of a terrorist in this way. Terrorists in the global imagination of Western constructions are this simple, this identifiable, this obvious.
But is that really true?
I come from a country, Nigeria, that is half-Muslim and half-Christian. I was always taught to think of this as a good thing. Even growing up outside of Nigeria for the most part, my parents instilled an appreciation of diversity in our home. Looking back, because Nigeria is no stranger to religious tensions that result in violence, I think my parents did a decent thing in our Christian home. Not a special thing by any means, but a thing that maybe people don’t do too often. And to me, Muslims were some of my dad’s closest friends; they were my family-friends, they were my teachers, they were my friends. All of these things are still true.
But September 11th happened, and the narrative that I grew up with in the confines of my home was not the one I grew up with in the narrative of media and government. Even thousands of miles away from the United States at the time, the narrative of Muslims and Islam infiltrated us all. Narratives told by people who do not understand the religion, and sometimes rarely know people who practice it. Narratives that till this day cannot mention Islam without mentioning the t word – terrorist. And so the terrorist came to be represented in a particular body with particular identities in our modern understanding. You see him in your head every time you hear, “terrorist.” But you are wrong.
I said to my colleague James Barnes last week that in the ultimate anti-terrorism fantasy, Boko Haram, ISIS, and all other terrorist groups would participate in a Hunger Games-like scenario in a remote island, perhaps even on a different planet. I did say it was a fantasy. But then I wondered who else I would include. Who else is a terrorist? Because to me, the commodification of the bodies of people of color, often Brown, sometimes Black, and always Muslim, has dominated the socio-political conversation while White and sometimes Christian terrorists have been ignored.
Specific to American culture, it is often lost in the imagination of this country that for centuries Black people in particular, and all other People of Color, were terrorized by White Americans. Before slavery, after slavery, at the height of the civil rights movement; dogs chasing, churches burned, men in hoods, lynchings occurring, and a general state of living in fear, was the plight of Black Americans. Centuries of terrorism that some argue are still left over in the institutional racism experienced today.
Away from domestic American constructs, there are entire nations that live in this sort of fear at the hands of sometimes national, and sometimes foreign governments and powers – under the construction of “war.” But witness the details of displacement and uncertainty and the acts that take place, and more importantly, the unending threat of fear, in many instances terrorism and war become indistinguishable. Rhetoric attempts to make the two distinct in many of these cases. But it is often the rhetoric of the most privileged and most powerful – telling us which bodies are perpetrators and which bodies are victims; telling us which bodies “matter.” But the thinking person is left uneasy.
I do not for a moment think, as some do that, “One’s man terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” I think that is an overly simplistic view to take on a complex subject. Furthermore, having to pay attention to the terrorists in my own country, I know that Boko Haram has no interest in freedom. They are only interested in acts of violence in order to instill fear. As are most terrorists.
But I also know that if history is supposed to teach us anything, it is to be watchful of not only the story that is told in a narrative, but who is telling the story. Western nations for example, like to hail Nelson Mandela now as a great African leader, and indeed he was. But they forget – and we don’t – that their leaders, notably Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, once referred to this man as a terrorist, when he was indeed interestingly enough, fighting for his people’s freedom.
When the German wings disaster came to pass last week, I thought it peculiar how the narrative became a pilot suicide of a depressed man. And I questioned this narrative for two main reasons. In the first place, that narrative stigmatizes people with mental illness, most of whom are not dangerous. And in the second place, there is a tendency to protect Whiteness firstly, and non-Muslim faiths secondly, from being perceived as terrorists. Now I do not know for sure that this man was a terrorist or not, and I certainly don’t know if his illness was the cause for this tragedy; perhaps you and I will never know. But it is worth asking: Would the common narrative have even entertained the possibility of anything other than terrorism had this man been Brown and Muslim? Even those who do not like to contemplate hypotheticals are left wondering.
There is no cohesive or unanimous definition of terrorism. The label, like most, is in conversation, debate, and dialogue. You and I participate in it every day. According to the Oxford dictionary, the most basic definition is, “The use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” It seems to me that commodifying any one people to that identity is a rhetorical crime against that people. And it seems to me, that terrorists for a lot of us, are a lot closer to home than we think. Even despite that, I still believe that terrorists win only when we buy into their narratives of fear, regardless of how they look like.
Who is a terrorist? It seems to me this person or people come in many colours, and faiths, and in different forms. This person or people use violence or the threat of violence to instill fear directed at a particular people in order to obtain power or a sense of power. And yet ironically, the terrorists’ most important identity for all of us to remember is that they are a coward.