Merely six weeks after the deadly attacks of September 11, 2001, the US Congress passed an appalling law, the USA Patriot Act, which gave the US government under President George W. Bush a sweeping mandate to curtail civil liberties and carry out surveillance programmes against the American public.
This was done in the name of America’s “war on terror”. Still reeling from the aftershock of an attack that claimed the lives of thousands, Americans, willingly or unwittingly, consented to the new draconian measures.
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But it didn’t end there. That law was later updated, forming what became known as Patriot Act II, described by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as “another chilling grab of authorities and further diminution of constitutional checks and balances of law enforcement”.
With time and endless media propaganda, laws purported to fight terrorism have been accepted by US citizens as a necessary evil, where personal freedom has to be bartered for national security.
Not only did the attacks of September 11 fail to ignite a national debate about America’s foreign policy, the resultant global “war on terror” actually exasperated both US military adventures, and, unsurprisingly, the violent backlash to these interventions.
For “terrorism” to be useful as a political asset, it was turned from a rational phenomenon deserving to be studied and confronted through a wholesome, sensible manner, into a brand, to be unleashed whenever there is the need to justify self-serving policies and to promote war agendas.
Manipulating the term terrorism soon passed through the confines of American political and media discourses to afflict other political contexts, in Europe, in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Practically, terrorism is no longer defined as “the use of violence or threat of violence especially against civilians in the pursuit of political aims, religious, or ideological change”. It has morphed to mean something else entirely.
It is whatever the US, Israel, France, Britain, Egypt and other authoritarian Arab governments wish it to be in order to justify their wars and large-scale oppression of their nations. They often practise it directly or indirectly through funding or tolerating violence that serves their purposes.
The discourse on terrorism has itself been narrowed down so much that there is little or no space in mainstream media for any other ideas on how to combat it. Those who challenge the mainstream definition are outcast as terrorist-sympathisers and anti-American.
This attitude prevails, even though we now have ample proof that wars, foreign interventions and military occupation have served as major instigations of violence.
Research conducted at the University of Chicago by Robert Pape, founder of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, examined every suicide bombing from 1980 to 2003. His conclusion was most revealing: religion has little to do with it.
So, what does?
The discourse on terrorism has itself been narrowed down so much that there is little or no space in mainstream media for any other ideas on how to combat it
According to Pape:
“What 95 percent of all suicide attacks have in common, since 1980, is not religion, but a specific strategic motivation to respond to a military intervention, often specifically a military occupation, of territory that the terrorists view as their homeland or prize greatly. From Lebanon and the West Bank in the 80s and 90s, to Iraq and Afghanistan, and up through the Paris suicide attacks we’ve just experienced in the last days, military intervention – and specifically when the military intervention is occupying territory – that’s what prompts suicide terrorism more than anything else.”
Such findings – based on examining 4,600 suicide attacks – had no influence on US foreign policy.
In a recent Al Jazeera article, Andrew Mitrovica reminded us of the words of Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s Labour Party. Corbyn was one of those who audaciously challenged his country’s horrific role in the war in Iraq starting in March 2003.
But a month before that war, in February 2003, Corbyn said that a war on Iraq would “set off a spiral of conflict, of hate, of misery, of desperation that will fuel the wars, the conflict, the terrorism, the depression, and the misery of future generations”.
“The way to free us from the scourge of war is to free ourselves from the scourge of injustice, of poverty, and of misery,” Corbyn, then a Labour MP, told a crowd of millions gathering in Hyde Park, London, to protest against the impending war.
Through his sinister alliance with George W. Bush, Tony Blair, British Prime Minister at the time, didn’t heed that and other calls. A mainly US-Britain alliance largely destroyed Iraq in a genocidal war that led to the death of millions and the destabilisation of the entire Middle East region until this day.
Riding on the wave of fear and insecurity that recently hit Britain following deadly attacks in Manchester and Westminster, Prime Minister Theresa May vowed to “rip up” human rights law to make it easier for the government to fight terrorism.
Anyone who doesn’t agree is automatically rendered a “terrorist lover” or something of that nature – as Corbyn was recently accused.
Alas, for now, terrorism needs to remain precisely what dominant powers need it to be to achieve their military, political and strategic objectives at home and abroad.
As if governed by economic interests, terrorism has become a brand, nonchalantly used in political and regional disputes, to outcast a leader, to isolate a country or to unleash a war. In either case, no evidence is required, no proof is necessary.
Israel had already perfected the use of the term to distract from its illegal military occupation and horrendous violence against Palestinians. Like the US, it lobbed the accusation against anyone or any entity that challenges Israel’s behaviour or violations of international law.
Now Arab countries are using the term at will. Many who applied terror against their own people, or funded terrorism elsewhere, are not hesitating to accuse others of terrorism.
Predictably, the invasion of Iraq which was coined as an effort to combat terrorism, yielded various violent phenomena, whose destructive presence is being felt largely in Syria but also in other parts of the region and the world.
Many insist on isolating these violent events so as not to see the obvious links between today’s violence and yesterday’s illegal wars.
Many who applied terror against their own people, or funded terrorism elsewhere, are not hesitating to accuse others of terrorism
Not seeing such links, however, is not only intellectually lacking but also dangerous. How is one to fix an offshoot without addressing the roots of a problem?
The Washington Post, among other mainstream news sources, spoke about the need to examine the roots of ISIL, although not necessarily as a way to accepting moral accountability.
“The public profile of the foreign jihadists frequently obscures the Islamic State’s roots in the bloody recent history of Iraq, its brutal excesses as much a symptom as a cause of the country’s woes,” wrote Liz Sly in 2015.
Other writers shared that view, but much of the discourse merely aimed at linking the brutality of ISIL and the Baath regime under Saddam Hussein.
Since then, little has resulted from that discussion by way of placing current problems in a fairly recent historical context.
But Arabs cannot wait for the moral awakening of the West. Judging from a long history dotted with colonialism, exploitation and lack of remorse, that wait could be a long one.
While the US and its Western allies must have the courage to confront their own misconduct in the region, the Arab world must reclaim a shared vision that transcends the pity tribalism of the sect, easily manipulated and misused.
That shared vision is not lacking because of the dearth of intellectuals, but because these intellectuals have been co-opted or marginalized.
The region that has given rise to the likes of Michel Aflaq, George Habash, Rached al-Ghannouchi, Edward Said and numerous others has systematically muzzled its intellectuals.
Arab visionaries have either been co-opted by the exuberant funds allocated to sectarian propaganda, been silenced by fear of retribution, or are simply unable to articulate a collective vision that transcends their sects, religions or whatever political tribe they belong to.
This void created by the absence of Arab intellectuals has been filled by extremist voices tirelessly advocating a genocidal future for everyone.
There were times in which Arab intellectuals fought to articulate a unique narrative – a combination of nationalist, socialist and Islamic ideologies that had a tremendous impact on the Arab individual and collective.
But today there is a large and growing intellectual vacuum, which has allowed the likes of ISIL, al-Qaeda and others to fill the space with their agendas.
True, their agendas are dark and horrific, yet they are rational outcomes at a time when Arab societies subsist in despair, when foreign interventions are afoot, and when no homegrown intellectual movement is available to offer Arab nations a plan towards a future free from tyranny and foreign occupation.
Even when ISIL is defeated on the ground, its ideology will not disappear; it will simply mutate, for ISIL is itself a mutation of various other extremist ideologies.
Yet only the Arabs are capable of defeating ISIL and its likes, through the formulation of a true vision that is predicated on unity and inspired by their quest for freedom.
The suppression of such a movement will leave no other alternative but more foreign intervention and extremism, feeding on one another, growing, mutating and destroying any chances for any future global peace and stability.
Dr Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His books include Searching Jenin, The Second Palestinian Intifada and his latest, My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.