Misogyny is horrible but it is not ‘terrorism’

The abuse of women in society is a crime that must be condemned: we can do so without conflating it with terrorism.

This contribution was published on The Hill Times on May 14, 2020

OTTAWA, CANADA — In this so-called ‘post 9/11 world’ many seek to both understand and explain terrorism. Many theories have been put forward that cause X or cause Y is responsible and I have frankly lost count of how many papers I have perused about ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. I am not that sure, speaking as a former counter terrorism practitioner, that we are that much further ahead in getting to the root of the problem.

If we consider terrorism as a social ill, one other one that is now getting more attention and condemnation is that of domestic abuse, or more accurately the physical and mental torment of women. It is a problem that is undoubtedly one as ancient as human society as well as one that was dismissed or underappreciated. For far too long a man was allowed to engage in wife abuse, for instance, with little to no intervention by the state. Times are thankfully changing.

This is not to say, however, that it is a lesser problem today. In fact there is some reporting that the current COVID-19 pandemic, what with its social isolation and stay-at-home orders, has led to a spike in this particular form of violence.

Inaccurate juxtaposition between misogyny, terrorism and mass shootings

Still, this form of abuse is not at the root of all forms of violence including terrorism, as some have been maintaining. In the wake of the tragic Nova Scotia shootings there were those who pointed to the killer’s beating of his girlfriend the evening of the first shootings as some kind of cause for the later murders. This is said in the absence of any proof that I have seen or any definitive cause and effect relationship in the mind and actions of this particular assassin.

To this we have to add an unfortunate and, to my mind, inaccurate juxtaposition between misogyny writ large and terrorism and mass shootings. A recent paper in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence is entitled “Sex and Terror: Is the Subordination of Women Associated with the Use of Terror?”. Finally, in one Globe and Mail piece, four Canadian scholars boldly stated that:

Perpetrators of mass killings are predominantly men with misogynist attitudes who believe everyone else is responsible for their problems.

While I do not distrust the academics’ research, which goes back 30 years, I am having a hard time teasing out the difference between correlation and causation.

People become terrorists for all kinds of reasons

When it comes to the ’causes’ of terrorism it has been long known that there is no such facile list. Terrorism, and I would imagine mass shootings although I confess I am no expert on this phenomenon, is as individual as it gets. People become terrorists for all kinds of reasons and they hail from all kinds of backgrounds: we at CSIS demonstrated this based on hundreds of investigations in Canada over a decade ago. Furthermore, why Canadians join terrorist groups differs a lot from why Somalis or Belgians do.

Are lots of terrorists hateful misogynists? Absolutely and you have to look no further than ISIS for examples (rapes of Yazidi slaves, forced marriages, etc.). Are all terrorists misogynists? Of course not. Once you pose factor X as a determinate cause for terrorism you run into the awkward problem that actual data gives you a tonne of false positives (i.e. misogynists who eschew terrorism) and false negatives (i.e. non-misogynists who embrace it).

There is also the added complication that what happened in Nova Scotia and what happens with far too much frequency in Canadian homes is simply NOT terrorism. It is hate and the two terms are not synonymous. All terrorism is hate but the opposite is not at all true.

Are lots of terrorists hateful misogynists? Absolutely and you have to look no further than ISIS for examples (rapes of Yazidi slaves, forced marriages…). Are all terrorists misogynists? Of course not.

In my experience at CSIS there was no question that some men who were clearly interested in terrorism and terrorist movements were also domestic abusers. I cannot say, however, that a majority were. Given some of the state-granted intrusive powers that investigating agencies such as CSIS deploy you would think that characteristics such as these would rise to the fore: they simply did not with any regularity.

Fringe movements

Yes, as already noted many terrorist ideologies do contain misogynist elements: this certainly applies both to Islamist extremism and the far right variety. Yet all those who gravitated to such fringe movements did not themselves manifest these beliefs and behaviours.

We need to take misogyny seriously and crack down on this form of abuse. It is not acceptable that some members of half of our population are subjected at times to violence perpetrated by some members of the other half. It must be punished in ways that get the message across that we as Canadians reject this behaviour.

And yet it helps none of us to conflate misogyny with terrorism or to suggest that it leads men to become violent extremists. The data do not suggest that: we can condemn this horrid act without exaggerating its link to another set of horrid acts. I repeat: sometimes hate is just hate – it does not constitute terrorism. It is my conviction that misogyny and the abuse of women is very much the former and not the latter.

Phil Gurski
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