For Americans, What’s A Terrorist?

Will Americans ever eliminate the commonly held view that Palestinians (or Arabs or Muslims) are terrorists?

I had dinner the other night with a Palestinian friend of mine and, as we often do, joked – slightly inappropriately – about my friend being a terrorist.  Jokes ranged from placing bombs in the coffee to the arguileh to whether he was going to school for terrorist training.  Interestingly, it is rather easy to joke with Palestinians about the mis-characterization of Palestinians as terrorists.  Certainly, there are some Palestinians who can be categorized as terrorists, just as there are American, Israeli, British and Chinese terrorists; however it seems as though many Americans look at all Palestinians as terrorists.  From the Palestinian perspective, many recognize this fundamental misrepresentation in the minds of Americans.  In the words of my friend, “I am only a reformed terrorist to Americans.”

Perhaps is sounds slightly far-fetched.  There are many Americans who realize that not all Palestinians are terrorists, but consider the following anecdote.  The same Palestinian friend of mine spent a year in Hawaii as an exchange student in a program dedicated to cross-cultural understanding.  As part of the program, he was asked to make a presentation about Palestine to his school.  Understanding the sensitivity of the situation, he purposefully made the presentation completely cultural, leaving aside all politics.  The first question following the presentation was from the one of the school’s social studies teachers:

“Have you ever met a suicide bomber?”

The second question, by another teacher:

“Have you ever met Osama bin Laden?”

While Palestine was perhaps being conflated with Palestine during the second question (which perhaps questions to quality of the US educational system), it is clear that even the teachers at the teachers in charge of teaching about politics, geography and the Middle East had some preconceived notions that my friend had completely grown up in a society dedicated to terrorism.

The Palestinian rap group DAM questions the definition of ‘terrorist’ in their video Miin el Erhabi? (Who’s the terrorist?)

Even for the Americans who know enough about the occupation, the region and the culture to be aware of the every-Palestinian-is-a-terrorist folly, there is severe disagreement about what actually makes a terrorist.  In other words, what is the difference between a terrorist and a resistance movement?  For many Americans, the Muhajahdeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Contra movement in Nicaragua were freedom fighters who required extensive military aid.  Hamas and Hezbollah, on the other hand, are terrorist groups.

[tweetmeme] Reece Erlich recently wrote a new book – “Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence, and Empire” – that tries to tackle this question of what ‘terrorist’ means.  While I have not yet read the book (it has not reached Ramallah yet), there was a very interesting interview of Reece on Pulse Media yesterday in which Christian Avard questions Reece on several tough topics.  According to Reece, a terrorist is simply someone who uses violence to achieve a political goal that differs from ours.  More specifically, terrorism is trying to achieve different political goals by using violence against civilians.

Unsurprisingly, the interview details how the west should define Hamas and Hezbollah, two self-styled resistance movements that are deemed to be terrorist organizations by the west:

What is the difference between resistance and terrorism? How and why do these terms get confused?

The U.S. government vilifies anybody who takes up arms against the U.S. or its allies Everybody automatically becomes a terrorist. Some groups really are attacking civilians, like al Qaida. Others may have used terrorist tactics, but they are seen in their countries as legitimate national liberation groups, such as Columbian Marxist guerrillas (FARC), Hamas, Hezbollah, and the PLO for that matter. All of them have taken up arms and the U.S. condemns them as terrorists.

I have very sharp differences with Hezbollah and Hamas. They are, at the core, right-wing fundamentalist Muslim groups that want to come to power in their respective countries. I would never vote for them. But they are not mainly trying to kill civilians in order to seize power. They have certainly used violence and killed Israeli civilians and engaged in terrorist tactics, but they are viewed by their own people as national liberation groups.

In the case of Hezbollah, they are seen as the only group that is capable of militarily defending Lebanon against continued Israeli attacks. They have a lot of support among Lebanese Sunni Muslims, Christians and Druze.

Hamas won the 2006 elections fair and square in the Palestinian Authority, a little detail the U.S. and Israel likes to forget about. So it does no good to simply vilify them as terrorists. You have to deal with them politically. What do they stand for? Why not sit down and negotiate with them?

Avard, the interviewer, specifically asks about Hamas – a particularly relevant issue considering the current round of peace talks from which Hamas has been completely shut out.  According to Reece, Hamas must review its tactics or targeting all Israeli settlers, though the settlers armed to the teeth by Israel should be considered fair game:

This is where I disagree with Hamas. They see all of these things as acts of resistance. I don’t. I think there is a distinction between waging a guerrilla war against soldiers and political leaders and simply killing people because they are Israelis. Sometimes Hamas makes that distinction and sometimes it doesn’t…

I’ve been in Hebron. Some of these folks are armed occupiers and are no different from the military. I think that is true. I think if you went to other places like Ariel or other settlements, basically you have secular people who are looking for cheap housing and the Israeli government provides cheap mortgages for expanding suburbs. So I think Hamas should make that distinction.

Interestingly, Reece thinks that eventually Hamas will be seen as a legitimate negotiating partner by Israel.  He compares the current classification of Hamas to how Yasser Arafat was treated in the early 1990’s:

The U.S. and Israel at that time [when Hamas won the democratic elections in 2006] should have acknowleged the changes in Hamas. It wasn’t the Hamas of 20 years ago. There could have been some major breakthroughs.

All you have to do is look at the history of the PLO. I remember when Yasser Arafat was the “chief terrorist,” when Israeli leaders called him another “Hitler.” The PLO began advocating a two-state solution in the early 1980s. But the U.S. and Israeli refused to negotiate the the PLO “terrorists.” Then boom, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin comes into power and is willing to negotiate. Suddenly, they acknowledge what the PLO had been saying for 10 years. They sat down and negotiated the Oslo Accords. The same thing eventually is going to happen with Hamas.

Suddenly some Israeli politician is going to make a 180-degree turn and realize that Hamas isn’t the horrible group they have been vilifying, and Hamas is willing to negotiate a two-state solution. Meshal made that clear to me, to former president Jimmy Carter, and numerous other people — contrary to all the propaganda in the United States. Under certain circumstances Hamas would accept a two-state solution and agree to a long-term ceasefire with Israel.

While I suppose it is possible that the US and Israel will recognize the changes in Hamas over the past 20 years, I cannot imagine Americans easily dropping the view of Hamas as a terrorist organization.  Even today, many Americans consider Arafat to be a terrorist – further demonstrating the fickle understanding of the idea of terrorism.  Perhaps most damaging about the misunderstanding that surrounds terrorism is that the term is easily and often used as a way to gather quick and strong political support against a certain group.  Because the resistance and terrorism are so difficult to define, no politician wants to side with what could be termed terrorism.

To Palestinians, it is unlikely that the belief that Palestinians are trained from youth to be suicide bombers might never be completely eradicated in the United States.  As long as those who resist the occupation of their countries are deemed to be terrorists (and, to be sure, sometimes they are), there is a belief here that the definition of terrorism to Americans will always encompass Arabs.  At least it provides ammunition for some politically sensitive jokes…

Photo from Soda Head

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