When Dictatorships Are in Doubt They Call Their Citizens ‘Terrorists’

In today’s world governments resort to slapping the ‘terrorism’ label on all kinds of things and people that have nothing to do with terrorism.

This piece first appeared in the Epoch Times on July 13, 2023.

Ah, the ‘T’ word—terrorism. We have certainly been obsessed with it of late, probably since the awful events of 9/11.

The phenomenon of terrorism did not of course make its appearance on the world stage two decades ago—most scholars date the beginning of this form of ideological violence to the middle of the 19th century—but it receives a lot more attention than it once did. Ironically, the very medium in which you are reading this piece, the media, is largely responsible for this growth in exposure.

Alas, we cannot agree with what the word even means. Most of us would accept, I would imagine, that this particular manifestation of violence differs from “garden-variety” types in that it is motivated by ideas, be they political, religious, or otherwise. In contrast, a run-of-the-mill stabbing on a train usually stems from an argument gone wrong or as a consequence of a mentally disturbed individual.

Criminal codes can help draw out the distinctions. In Canada, for instance, for a terrorism charge to be laid there must be an established link to religion, ideology, or politics (section 83.01 of the Criminal Code). Here again, however, these terms are not defined (just what is an “ideology”?) and different jurisdictions have different definitions (some 200 and counting according to one academic). Nor is it often straightforward to establish the relationship between ideas and extreme action. This is not helpful.

Making matters worse, some governments elect to play the terrorism card to label just about anything—or anybody—they see as unwanted. In Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina, who was portrayed in a film as a life-saving hero during the Rwandan genocide, was sentenced to 25 years for terrorism by a court in 2021. On July 11, 2023, an Australian-Vietnamese national returned home to Sydney after being released from prison in Vietnam, where he was serving 12 years on terrorism charges for being a member of a banned pro-democracy group.

In other words, in some parts of the globe, authorities use the terrorism hammer to label those they see as opponents, or those advocating changes not in the current government’s favour. Perhaps these officials believe that the horror of seeing planes flown into office towers in 2001 is still resonant with most, and as a result, they can get away with playing the terrorism card (who, after all, wants to be seen as supporting terrorism?).

To the list of governments guilty of this tactic we have to add the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—quelle surprise! In December of last year, Kamile Wayit, a 19-year-old preschool education major at the Shangqiu Institute of Technology in Henan Province, was detained by officials in Xinjiang for sharing on social media a video on the “white paper” protests (in which ordinary citizens held up blank sheets of paper to complain about COVID-19 restrictions and the lack of free speech) that had swept across China a month earlier. She was later sentenced to three years in prison for “advocating extremism” (i.e., terrorism).

How does sharing a video related to public protest constitute “terrorism”?

It is not a state secret that there is no real room for dissent or opposition to government positions or actions in China. Under communist regime rule, the country is not a democracy where such activities are not only allowed but encouraged (as long as they do not advocate or use violence). It is thus easy for the state to decide who is a terrorist and who is not. Interestingly, U.S. President George Bush proclaimed scarcely a week after 9/11 that “you are either with us or with the terrorists.” (He got away with it given the enormity of loss of life to al-Qaeda terrorists).

This overhanded use of terrorism legislation to suppress dissent of any kind is of course unacceptable (not that China gives a whit about what the rest of the world thinks, however). Ironically, there has historically been actual terrorism in Xinjiang, carried out by Islamist extremists—a topic I cover at some length in my 2017 book “The Lesser Jihadsbut China has elected to paint just about anyone who does not toe the line in that part of the nation as a terrorist.

Given the imprecise nature of what constitutes terrorism, we would perhaps be better without it in our courts. After all, few nations had terrorism-specific legislation prior to 9/11 (Canada did not, for instance) and there are other ways to prosecute this form of killing and maiming. Still, that day is likely very far off as nations do see an advantage in slapping the ‘T’ word on whomever they please.

Just ask the Chinese regime.

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.