It would be nice if we could agree on a definition of terrorism

If I were to ask ten people chosen at random what ‘terrorism’ means, I’d likely get some combinations of the following:

  • it involves killing or trying to kill civilians;
  • it is inspired by an idea – religious, political, ideological or something along that line;
  • it is usually carried out by non-state actors;
  • terrorists want to leave a message;
  • terrorists want to cause fear; and
  • terrorists want governments to cave to their demands and change something (a law, a policy, an occupation, etc.)

What I think is less probable is that I would receive an answer such as “a rise in the price of vegetables”.

Well, that is exactly what Turkish President Recep Erdogan recently said: ”
“They’ve (NB speaking of wholesalers whom he accused of hoarding) made aubergine, tomato, potato and cucumber prices increase. They are spreading terror.”

Forsooth! Vegetables as perpetrators of terrorism (ok, ok, more accurately vegetable wholesalers as perpetrators of terrorism)! Whoda thunk? Is this perhaps not one of the stupidest things you have heard come out of a politician’s mouth – if you discount just about everything US boy president Donald Trump has ever said?

Here is the problem when a leader says something along these lines. It cheapens the true meaning of the word terrorism and insults those who have suffered its consequences (unless shoppers who can no longer afford cucumbers are to be treated the same as Yazidi girls raped by Islamic State terrorists). And it allows governments to label anything as terrorism, which allows them to get away with a lot.

Sticking with Turkey, several governments have called their Kurdish minority terrorists, thus justifying a whole slew of human rights violations. Turkey’s Kurds have long been denied their basic rights, even to include their ethnicity (for years many Turkish politicians called the Kurds ‘mountain Turks’). Yes, there are Kurdish terrorist groups and yes they have carried out heinous acts of violence but no, not all Kurds are terrorists. Many have been campaigning for an independent homeland for decades – which would problematically cover a third of Turkey and large swathes of Syria, Iraq and Iran, all of which makes its likelihood very unlikely – and not all advocate violence to gain that status.

Similarly, when we refer to some acts by far right extremists such as yelling at minorities or spitting at them or trying to yank off hijabs or yarmulkes or spraypainting swastikas on synagogues and mosques using the word terrorism we are doing ourselves a disservice. I am not dismissing or minimising the trauma that these acts cause to those subjected to them. They are certainly hateful and disgusting – but they are not terrorism.

Terrorism is complicated, driven by a multitude of push and pull factors and varying from place to place, cause to cause. Despite this complexity, however, we need to agree on some fundamental principles. Here I humbly suggest two (there may be more and I’d love to hear from you on this – which I am sure I will!):

  • it has to be a serious act of violence with the intent to kill or severely maim, and;
  • it has to be motivated primarily by an ideology, as woolly as some may be.

Neither you nor I will stop politicians saying stupid things for reasons only they know. We can, however, try to be consistent as commentators, op-ed contributors and even ex-spies on how we use the words we do. After all if those of us who have spent decades trying to understand terrorism cannot agree on basic parametres, who can?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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