Can we please not overuse the term ‘terrorism’?

There is no question that there is a lot of terrorism about. Even a cursory glance at the news on a daily basis will uncover stories like an attack on a school by the Taliban in Afghanistan, an Al Shabaab strike on a Mogadishu hotel, yet another Boko Haram use of young girls as suicide bombers in Nigeria and many, many more. Terrorism has been with us a long time but we appear to be paying more attention to it in this post 9/11 world. Perhaps that is why it seems to be on the increase.

In light of this all too frequent scourge it is unfortunate that some actors elect to use the term ‘terrorism’ to refer to individuals and groups that are nothing of the sort. Not that this is a new tactic: as I am reading in Anne Applebaum’s excellent book on the Stalin-manufactured famine in Ukraine in the 1930s, Red Famine, the Soviets labelled anyone who was against its disastrous agricultural collectivisation policy as ‘counter revolutionaries’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘kulaks’ (supposedly rich peasants who wanted to hold on to evil capitalist practices). More recently of course there is no shortage of governments that dehumanise alleged enemies of the state (calling them cockroaches, rats or vermin) to incite supporters to rise up and eliminate them.

China is the latest example of a state that has started referring to protesters as ‘terrorists’. In the ongoing uprisings in Hong Kong as the demonstrations get larger the government-controlled media and some communist party officials have labelled the protest movement as something approaching “terrorism” that poses an “existential threat” to citizens. Hong Kong’s citizens cannot claim a monopoly on this epithet: China has used similar language for nonviolent movements opposing government policies in minority regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang.

This move is of course deliberate. By saying that it is having to deal with ‘terrorists’ the government can justify all kinds of actions, ranging from the suspension of civil rights to violent counter moves. After all, don’t ‘terrorists’ only understand the language of violence?

What I find disingenuous is that, at least in the case of Xinjiang and the Uyghurs, there has been real terrorism in China. Uyghur Islamist extremists have carried out terrorist attacks (I summarise some of these in my third book, The Lesser Jihads) and the state has every right to crack down on real terrorism. Instead, the central government has called all Uyghurs extremists and has built massive concentration camps – called ‘re-education centres’ – in an effort to eliminate the whole ethnic group.

I think that in part this tendency to call everything ‘terrorism’ worsened after 9/11. When US President Bush unwisely called for a ‘war on terrorism’ in the wake of the AQ attacks in Washington and New York a lot of unsavoury states saw their opportunity to sign up and at the same time rid themselves of their own ‘terrorists’, i.e. pesky opponents. When the war on terrorism is seen as all-consuming and urgent a lot of stuff that is peripheral at best, and devious at worse, gets lumped in. This is my take on what is happening in Hong Kong and China’s response to it.

In the end if some residents in Hong Kong resort to violence then by all means treat them as criminals (I am not sure that their actions can be construed as terrorist in nature, however). Otherwise, China must respect the ‘one nation two systems’ promise it made when it regained the island in 1997. And stop calling those who disagree with it as ‘terrorists’.